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 Lutz home, in front of his pregnant wife and neighbors.
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.
Hart claims that during the arrest Hemmendinger "started screaming and yelling hysterically at me ... like a lunatic." 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 report the supposed transgression to the Sheriff's Office?
No. He says couldn't trust them to investigate.
Hart had another idea. He has his own software company, Database Engineers, as well as 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 ...
Demand to accept ONLY the truth!
One of these e-mails reached Pasco Deputy Eric Pfenninger, who alerted Hemmendinger, who reeled with disbelief. The e-mail led to two sites, Hemmendinger.net and Hemmendinger.org, at least one of which advertised an upcoming 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.
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. 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:
1. "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?' "
2. 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."