Mix-up offers a cautionary tale to those who hit 'send' in haste
EAST MANATEE - Thomas Carpenter's job as a tae kwon do instructor for children requires a high level of trust from parents.
In one lesson, Carpenter plays the role of a creep who grabs the children's shoulders; to get away, the elementary school-age students thrust up their arms to push off Carpenter's hands before giving him a hard shove so they can run away.
The parents chat casually among themselves as they watch through a glass window at Carpenter's studio on State Road 70, just east of Interstate 75.
"I'm 100 percent comfortable with what happens here in class," said parent John Schultz.
But Carpenter's reputation took an unfair beating recently when someone sent an anonymous and erroneous e-mail alleging that Carpenter was a state-registered sex offender.
"I am writing to inform you that the owner and chief instructor of this facility is a registered sex offender," said the April 18 e-mail, sent to several businesses in the plaza shared by Carpenter's Family Taekwondo. "Obviously, this person should not be dealing with children. I urge you to ... make local parents aware of the potential danger they could be putting their children in."
The e-mail was incorrect. Carpenter is not a sex offender, and now the sender, if he or she can be identified, could face criminal charges and a civil suit as a result.
For Carpenter's lawyer, the situation is a cautionary tale of how in a world of instantaneous communication -- and in a society that places a virtual scarlet letter on sex offenders -- people had better have their facts straight before sending out warnings about strangers.
"This is the downside to the easy public access to information about sex offenders," said attorney Kevin Bruning of Sarasota. "Even the average person has to understand the impact of what they're saying because if you're wrong, it could be devastating for that person."
No one is sure how far the e-mail spread, but a few days later, a neighboring business owner told Carpenter about the e-mail and its contents.
Carpenter was stunned, because not only is he not a registered sex offender, he is also a former sheriff's deputy who has passed numerous background checks and has made a living protecting the public and now children.
"My first reaction was shock, absolute shock," Carpenter, 50, said. "And then, 'Oh my God, what am I going to do? How far did this go? Who did it go to? And how can I stop this?'"
It turns out the e-mail's sender was correct that there is a Thomas Carpenter who is a registered sex offender in Manatee County. That other Thomas Carpenter was convicted in 1993 of lewd and lascivious battery on a child under 16 in Sarasota County, according to court records.
But even though the two men look somewhat alike, there are several distinct differences in their appearance.
Carpenter, the karate instructor, lives in Lakewood Ranch, and is 10 years younger and much taller than the other Thomas Carpenter, who did not want to comment for this story.
Clearing his name
The person who sent the untrue e-mail could face repercussions.
An obscure bit of language in the Florida sexual offender statute makes it a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by a year in jail to misuse information contained in the state sex offender database.
The state makes it easy to track and identify sex offenders and predators via a search system linked to all sheriff's office Web sites and on numerous other law enforcement sites.
But the law basically states that before any of that information is shared or published, people must be certain they have identified the right person.
It is a crime, the law states, if anyone "knowingly distributes or publishes false information relating to such a predator or offender which the person misrepresents as being public records information."
Beyond that, Carpenter's lawyer said his client has a solid civil case on grounds of defamation. Civil defamation law does not require Carpenter to prove that he suffered any financial or emotional loss to win damages from the sender of the e-mail.
"It is automatically damaging," Bruning said. "In this world, for a person whose entire job is working with children, it's devastating to his job, just devastating."
Carpenter said he doubts that the parents of the 130 children he works with now would believe he could be a sex offender, and no one has dropped out of his class yet.
Still, he worries what the perception of impropriety can do to a "word-of-mouth" business when it comes to prospective clients.
"In my business, it'd be a 100-percent loss," Carpenter said. "I'd just put up a sign immediately -- business closed."
Parent Kimberly Delrosario of River Club said she trusts and respects Carpenter as an instructor. But she said that even incorrect allegations could cloud a parent's decision on where to send their child for instruction.
"If I were shopping for a place, and I heard that, I would go 'Oh, I don't want my child going there,'" said Delrosario, whose 5-year-old son is in Carpenter's class.
After the accusatory e-mail, sent from a gmail.com account, was forwarded to Carpenter, he replied several times and asked the person to correct the record and to give him a call or drop by to talk about what happened. Carpenter said that as a former sheriff's deputy he wanted the sender to know that contacting the local sheriff's office would have been the right way to deal with their concerns.
But the sender, who did apologize and promised to send another e-mail clearing up the error, said the e-mail was simply an honest mistake and did not appreciate Carpenter's requests for more information.
"I will not provide you with any personal information of mine, nor will I disclose the name of the business I work with," the person replied. "I would rather try working with you, but not if you're going to harass and threaten me."
When Carpenter received that terse e-mail, he got angry and decided to contact the Sheriff's Office. A detective is working to determine the identity of the e-mail's author, sheriff's spokesman Dave Bristow said.
Detectives work with the e-mail service providers and can subpoena them to release the identity of people who use their service, Bristow said. He said he has never heard of this situation arising before in Southwest Florida.
Carpenter continues to run the studio he has operated for seven years in East Manatee with his two teen-age children and wife, Patti. He decided to talk openly about the allegations in an effort to publicly clear his name.
He and his family are still dealing with the stress of having been falsely accused.
"My wife was a total wreck about it," Carpenter said. "For two weeks, we've been holding our breaths to see how far this has gone." ..News Source.. by Bart Pfankuch