An arrest, then online warfare against officer
In e-mails, the deputy who jailed a Pasco man is described as a gay pedophile.
By THOMAS LAKE
Published February 19, 2007
Gregory Steven Hart would not show proof of his claims.
LUTZ - Gregory Steven Hart lives behind black metal gates in a house full of fast computers, elegant sculptures and expensive liquor that he never drinks.
In the mirror he sees a man of sharp wit and thick biceps, of old money and new technology, of hard morals and soft heart: in short, the prototypical Good Hardworking Successful American Family Man.
Three days after Christmas, Deputy Sheriff Russell Hemmendinger hauled Hart to jail. The charges were driving with a suspended license and resisting arrest. The deputy took him down in the driveway of his $367,000 home, in front of his pregnant wife and neighbors, and the American Family Man burned with shame.
Hart posted bail and went home and got to work.
Within 24 hours, the first concerned citizen e-mailed the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.
From: tom and ray
Subject: Is Officer R. Hemmendinger Gay?
Has Officer R. Hemmendinger ever had sex with a boy that's under the age of 16?
- - -
Hart is 43, a database developer for a massive health care corporation called Baxter International. He has a clean record, aside from nearly two dozen traffic tickets - mostly for speeding and running red lights - in the past decade. These led to the license suspension, which led Hemmendinger to his doorstep.
Hemmendinger is 31, married, a Pasco deputy for three years. His record is spotless. Citizens have written the agency to commend him for good work.
Nevertheless, Hart sees himself as an unerring judge of character, and when during the arrest Hemmendinger "started screaming and yelling hysterically at me ... like a lunatic," Hart says he sensed deep flaws.
He returned from jail and began digging. He says his research convinced him that Hemmendinger was a homosexual pedophile.
A reporter pressed him for evidence.
"I can't go into detail," he said.
Did he call the Florida Abuse Hotline?
Did he report the supposed transgression to the Sheriff's Office?
No. He says couldn't trust them to investigate.
Did he report it to other authorities?
Hart had another idea. He has his own software company, Database Engineers, a computer armed with a program called Atomic Mail Sender, and a list of addresses known to accept spam.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands of e-mails screamed into cyberspace:
Who is Pasco Sherriff Officer R. Hemmendinger?
How is he a suspect as a child molester?
Is he homosexual?
Does he have sex with boys under the age of 16? Regularly?
Contact the Pasco County Public Information Director Kevin Doll, who can be reached at email@example.com or by phone at 727 844-7759.
Demand to accept ONLY the truth!
It's your right to know!
- - -
One of these e-mails reached Pasco Deputy Eric Pfenninger, who alerted Hemmendinger, who reeled with disbelief.
The e-mail led to two Web sites, Hemmendinger.net and Hemmendinger.org, at least one of which advertised a forthcoming gay dating service called Hemmendinger Homosexual Haven.
Hemmendinger plugged the name into an online service that lists the owners of Web domains. The answer came back: Database Engineers Inc. The sole officer was Gregory Hart.
Hemmendinger notified his superiors and denied the allegations. Meanwhile, the Public Information Office took more than a dozen phone calls and nearly 70 e-mails from citizens.
No cover up please.
I hope this is a sick joke!
If this is true, fire him.
The public-information officers told the citizens it appeared to be the work of a malcontent bent on vengeance.
The agency did not conduct an internal-affairs investigation. Public Information Director Kevin Doll said there was no evidence with which to start one.
On Jan. 3, Hart called Doll, claiming to have relatives in Congress and on the U.S. Supreme Court, claiming Sheriff Bob White had covered up evidence against U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, who resigned after sending inappropriate messages to male pages. Hart demanded all charges against him be dropped.
Doll told him he was acting irrationally and hung up the phone.
- - -
Police officers are magnets for hatred. They are kicked, punched, bitten and sprayed with saliva. But Craig Laporte, a former Pasco deputy who is now Hemmendinger's lawyer, said, "I've never seen anything as vile as this."
On Jan. 12, Hemmendinger filed a lawsuit accusing Hart of defaming his good name. The suit is pending in Circuit Court. Libel experts say Hemmendinger may have a strong case.
Here are two of Hart's defenses: -"I haven't made a statement. I asked a question."
Jurors may see through that, said Dale Herbeck, who teaches communication law at Boston College. "This is kind of like asking, 'When did you stop beating your wife?' " -He didn't personally send the e-mails - his corporation did.
Nonsense, said Clark Furlow, who teaches corporation law at Stetson University College of Law.
"If I'm driving a car and I run you down in the street, I'm liable. The fact that I'm driving for a company doesn't change anything."
Hemmendinger wants to build a career in law enforcement. He knows that if he ever applies to another agency, he'll be asked if he's ever been involved in a lawsuit, and he'll have to say yes, and then his prospective employer will find this mess.
He wishes he could go to everyone who read Hart's e-mail and tell them it isn't true. He is afraid his reputation has been permanently stained.
For his part, Hart says the lingering embarrassment over his arrest may force him to move out of the Cambridge Cove subdivision. He says the first e-mail was not an attempt to shame the man who shamed him.
"It was a legitimate campaign to glean the truth," he said.
Hart won't back down from the allegations, but he says he is a godly man. He is willing to crank up Atomic Mail Sender and send a new message, like a squirt of liquid Tide through cyberspace, saying the authorities found no evidence that Deputy Hemmendinger did anything wrong.
-- Times staff writer Colleen Jenkins and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Thomas Lake can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-800-333-7505, ext. 7505.
About this story
The story of Hemmendinger vs. Hart is based on court records, internal documents from the Pasco County Sheriff's Office and interviews with both sides. Hemmendinger declined to be interviewed directly, so his recollections were provided through his attorney.
[Last modified February 19, 2007, 06:20:40]
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