The Utah Court of Appeals gave the man convicted of being the "Santa Claus" child molester a merry Christmas this year: It overturned his conviction for the sodomy of a 4-year-old handicapped child and sent him back to district court for a new trial.

Eugene C. Reiners, a former cabdriver who police say persuaded children to engage in sex acts with him by telling them he was Santa Claus, won his appeal two years after being convicted by a jury on two counts of sodomy upon a child and two counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a child.In a Dec. 23 ruling only recently made public, the appeals court ruled that 3rd District Judge Homer F. Wilkinson erred during Reiners trial by improperly admitting as evidence out-of-court statements the victim made to a police detective and a social worker.

That mistake was critical to Reiners' conviction, the court ruled. The jury probably would not have believed the victim's testimony without bolstering from the detective's and social worker's testimony about what the boy told them in four interviews, the appeals court concluded.

But Appeals judges Regnal W. Garff and Norman H. Jackson and Robert L. Newey, senior juvenile judge, ruled that Judge Wilkinson did not properly evaluate the validity the testimony of the social worker and the police officer before admitting the testimony.

At the time the crimes occurred, the victim, J.K., was a 4-year-old attending school for the deaf and visually impaired. Reiners drove J.K. and other handicapped children to school every day during the 1986-87 school year.

In Reiners' March 1989 trial, J.K. testified that Reiners forced him to perform sex acts, play sex games and pose for nude photographs. He said Reiners threatened to hurt him if he told his mother. J.K. said Reiners also terrorized him by putting him a closet, placing him in a plastic bag until he couldn't breathe, threatening to kill him and killing two cats and a dog in the boy's presence.

Though legally blind, J.K. could see people at short distances. During the trial, he identified Reiner at the witness table as "Santa Claus." Reiners, 68 at the time, wore a long white beard.

But the appeals court concluded that J.K., by himself, was not a strong witness. "The trial court noted that J.K.'s mind would wander, that some words could be put in his mouth, and that he was susceptible to being led," the appeals court wrote.

J.K.'s story that "Santa" would take him to the "North Pole" where "Santa" and three other adults would engage him in sex games could not be substantiated by any evidence, the court wrote.

"The record is devoid of any physical or psychological evidence of abuse regarding the people, places, things and events the child said he observed while being abused, except his mother's statement that his bottom was red.

"No other children or adult participants were ever located, although the child described them as being there on more than on occasion. He described the exterior and interior of the lonely house where the events took place, but no house was ever located. Reiners lived in a busy apartment complex with his wife, the exterior and interior of which have no resemblance to the child's description."

Reiners was first charged with four felonies relating to the abuse of J.K. in April, 1988. He pleaded not guilty to the four charges. In September, 1988, Reiners changed his plea to "no contest" to a reduced charge of attempted sexual abuse of a child. In exchange for the plea, prosecutors dropped the four first-degree felony charges.

Reiner later withdrew his plea, choosing to stand trial on the four original counts.