Caught in a Neighborhood Web

Eric Haskett took a nap in his car and found himself answering questions from the FBI.
Eric Haskett took a nap in his car and found himself answering questions from the FBI. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 13, 2006

It all seemed darkly funny at first.

Eric Haskett was merely taking a nap in a car when he roused suspicion in a rural Frederick County neighborhood. A neighbor traced Haskett's license plate to an address once used by a registered sex offender.

Then his girlfriend's parents told him to scram; law enforcement officials, including three FBI agents, began investigating; and Haskett began fearing that the suspicions could cost him his job at a gag shop that sells such kid-friendly items as whoopie cushions.

"It blew me away that a federal agent was sticking a badge in my face. Three agents, dog -- like I'm the ringleader!" said Haskett, 28, of Mount Airy.

After allaying the concerns of several law enforcement officials over the past few weeks, Haskett also asked them what he could do to clear his name.

"They said the best bet is to leave the area," Haskett said.

Haskett has no criminal record and has not been accused of wrongdoing, according to public court records and law enforcement officials. The confusion arose after he rented a room in a house on Liberty Road where convicted sex offender Donald M. Sanders had also rented a room; the sex offender registry listed only the house address, not room numbers.

Sanders moved out about the time Haskett moved in, and the two men had no other connection, according to interviews with them, their landlord and law enforcement officials.

Special Agent Michelle Crnkovich, a spokeswoman for the FBI's Baltimore office, said agents interviewed Haskett and determined that the incident was a mix-up. Cpl. Jennifer Bailey of the Frederick County Sheriff's Office said her agency also looked into the matter. And so did Sgt. Palmer Grotte of the Maryland State Police, who said he received an e-mail that started the incident. It is not clear how neighbors obtained information about Haskett from his car's license plates -- information that is protected by privacy laws.

Barry Leahy, who rented the rooms to Sanders and Haskett, said the incident points out the potential abuses of sex offender registries.

"I see that convicted sexual offenders should be available on a police list. I can't see that people should have access to that list and hold that against him," Leahy, 54, said. "There's too much of this throwing stuff around on the Internet."

Stefani Shuster, who acknowledged in a telephone interview that she wrote the e-mail that put the events in motion, said she had the best intentions.

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