By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 26, 2009
The way Eric Williamson tells it, he might have been making coffee or flipping eggs or taking a picture down from the wall when a woman and her 7-year-old son walked by his Springfield house and saw him, through the window, naked.
He says he never saw them and never knew they'd seen him -- until the police showed up.
In a case that gained international attention last week, hitting a nerve for anyone who has ever dashed from the bedroom to the laundry room in the buff, Williamson was charged with indecent exposure.
There are conflicting accounts of what happened Monday morning, but everyone agrees on this: The 29-year-old was naked and home alone, and he could face up to a year in jail.
"I looked straight at the cops and said, 'You're telling me that none of you guys have ever walked across your kitchen or run to the laundry room to get some pants?' " said Williamson, who was handcuffed and taken before a magistrate. "I was treated like an animal. If there was something offensive, would not a knock on the door and heads-up suffice?"
From Williamson's Fairfax County neighborhood to Web sites around the world that picked up the story, the arrest fueled jokes, anger and more than a few there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I confessions.
But the two versions of what happened that morning reveal the complexity of cases in which the line between public and private space can be as thin as a windowpane.
Fairfax police say Williamson wanted to be noticed, positioning himself so that the mother and child would see him not once, but twice.
As officers tell it, the 45-year-old woman, the wife of a Fairfax police officer, was walking her son to school about 8:40 a.m. along a well-traveled path between public tennis courts and the house where Williamson had been living for three months when a noise drew her attention to a side door.
That's when she first noticed Williamson standing nude in the doorway, she said. When she and her son got to the sidewalk in front of the house on Arley Drive, they saw him again -- this time, through a large window that appeared to have no drapes.
Police spokeswoman Mary Ann Jennings described Williamson's version of what happened as "a gross exaggeration that was fueled by the media. . . . We don't arrest people for being nude in their house."The element of intent
Washington area lawyers say the case, like others before it, will probably boil down to a crucial question: Did Williamson intend to be seen? Virginia law defines indecent exposure as the intentionally obscene display of private parts in a public place or "any place where others are present."
"It has to be more egregious than he just showed his private parts," said Atchuthan Sriskandarajah, a Fairfax lawyer who has handled hundreds of sex crime cases. What about the bathrobe-clad man who picks up his newspaper in the morning and is exposed by the wind? "It's not the exposure itself that makes it indecent," he said. "There has to be some kind of obscene intent."
Sriskandarajah's firm recently handled the case of a Fairfax man who was caught doing more than exposing himself in his garage. The door was open and he was seen by a neighbor whom he had a history of calling out to, the lawyer said. The case was resolved, and the man was required to do 25 hours of community service and get treatment.
Then there is the case of Byron Stiftar, who was convicted in Fairfax Circuit Court of indecent exposure after a neighbor working in her yard heard a rattling sound and looked over to see Stiftar standing at a second-floor window of his townhouse, according to court documents.
His face was covered by blinds, but the lower portion of his nude body was visible. Stiftar testified that the windows were in his bedroom, where he slept nude. He said he didn't mean for neighbors to see him and didn't know they had until police contacted him.
Virginia's Court of Appeals dismissed Stiftar's conviction in 1988, ruling that the state had failed to prove the exposure was intentional.'A home is a sacred place'
Dickson J. Young, a Fairfax lawyer who represents Williamson, said the circumstances surrounding his client's arrest "fall well below the Stiftar case. He's not doing anything but standing in his house and having a cup of coffee."
Williamson, reached by phone, said that his roommates had left for work by 5:30 that morning and that he was happy to have the house to himself. He made coffee and eggs and started packing up his belongings. He is a commercial diver and had lost his job a few days earlier, and he was planning to move to his mother's house near Virginia Beach.
He said that by 9 a.m. he had gotten dressed to walk out to his car and that by 10 a.m., he was napping in his room. Police arrived about an hour later, he said.
"All of a sudden, I get woken up by police officers, and this guy has a Taser gun in my face," he said. "I'm freaking out. Is this a movie? A horrible dream?"
One of the five officers who went into his house called him a pervert, he said, and others looked through his belongings. They left but returned a short time later to take him to the magistrate. After he was released, he said, he grew angrier and decided to call Fox News.
"A home is a sacred place," said Williamson, who has a 5-year-old daughter who doesn't live with him. "When that just gets shattered and destroyed over an accusation, that's something I don't believe can be tolerated."
Jennings, the police spokeswoman, would not comment on Williamson's claim that officers entered his room without a warrant; she said details would come out in court. Williamson said he has a court date Nov. 6.
On Wednesday, after Williamson had left for his mother's house, police handed out fliers in the neighborhood asking people to report anything about the incident or others like it. One of Williamson's roommates, who declined to give his name, said that he and the four other men living in the house felt less sympathy than anger now that they are left to make peace with neighbors and answer reporters' questions.
As for what really happened, the roommate said, "anything's possible." All he knows is that the kitchen curtains, which he said were Williamson's, were not installed when he left for work Monday morning but that they were up when he got home.