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.
"I have a family to protect," said Shuster, 39. "My original e-mail was to inform people."
Sex offender registries are designed to alert the public about possible threats in the neighborhood. Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) recently signed into law more stringent restrictions on punishing and monitoring sex offenders, and several other legislatures, including Maryland's, considered similar measures.
But the registries also have led to cases of mistaken identity and abuses since President Bill Clinton signed the 1996 law requiring states to keep tabs on sex offenders. Last month, two convicted sex offenders in Maine were tracked through the state's registry and shot to death.
Haskett's case of mistaken identity began in late March when he went to see his girlfriend in Summerfield, a housing development in New Market. The neighborhood was on edge from reports a month earlier about a strange car lurking in the cul-de-sacs.
Haskett was supposed to meet his girlfriend, Ali Huenger, 20, for dinner but arrived early. He said he knew her mother was home, but he was so tired that he worried he would fall asleep the moment he sat down. So he napped in his car down the street.
A few days later, Shuster sent her e-mail to neighbors: "Many of you have probably heard over the past month of an older gray box-style car that has been hanging out at odd times in Summerfield. He was seen again between Cairo and Emmaline last week around 4:30-5:00 p.m."
The e-mail said the license plate number was given to police and traced to Haskett. The e-mail also noted that the Maryland Sex Offender Registry showed Haskett living at the same Liberty Road address as Sanders, the convicted sex offender.
"He [Sanders] is most likely living with and borrowing this car from Haskett," the e-mail said. "Please pass on this e-mail to as many people as you know in this neighborhood."
Sanders was convicted of having sex with a 14-year-old boy in Mount Airy nearly six years ago and sentenced to five years' probation, Carroll County Circuit Court documents say.
"I moved because I was sick of being a moving target," Sanders, 41, said in an interview.
Law enforcement officials said he did not update his address until April 7, but there is no evidence that he borrowed Haskett's car or prowled the neighborhood.
Meanwhile, word of a possible child molester spread in Summerfield. Members of the community handed out fliers at Deer Crossing Elementary School. The local PTSA president was alerted.
"Don't [mess] with suburbia, because we will chew you up and spit you out," said Summerfield resident Scottie C. Burdette, 45, a mother of five, including Haskett's girlfriend. "Believe me, I got that e-mail about 20 times, so you can imagine how this exploded."
Then Burdette realized that her daughter's new boyfriend, Haskett, was named in the e-mail.
"I was a junkyard dog, instantly," Burdette said. "I told Ali, 'Eric's got some questions to answer for me.' "
Her gut feeling was that Haskett was not a sex offender. But Burdette said she worried that he might be hanging around with one.
"Those people don't get rehabilitated," Burdette said. "That's part of the reason I handled this the way I did."
She said she feels sorry for Haskett -- but only a little. Vigilance is necessary, she said. She also thinks Haskett should examine the conduct that started the incident.
"Certainly, he could check out a book from the library on dinnertime etiquette," Burdette said. "He's not a pimply-faced teenager. He could have come to the door that night like a grown-up."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.