TARPON SPRINGS — The night before Halloween two years ago, a man walked out of a haunted house and straight into child abuse and battery charges.
He was accused of groping and assaulting teens playing characters in the haunted house, set up in several downtown buildings.
Now the man and the attraction's operator have to answer to a lawsuit filed last month in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court.
A 16-year-old girl and her parents sued Richard Shore Carter of Palm Harbor and the company that runs the annual ScareCo haunted house in Tarpon Springs.
The family says the haunted house operator violated child labor laws and didn't provide sufficient security. That led to a sexual battery that has traumatized the teenager, the lawsuit said.
The teenager is not named in the lawsuit. To protect her identity, neither are her parents.
"As far as the family's concerned, they got very little satisfaction out of that criminal case," said John D. Fernandez, an attorney representing the 16-year-old. He declined to discuss the lawsuit in detail, to respect the teen's privacy.
On Oct. 30, 2010, police said, Carter appeared to be drunk when he fondled three girls, forced a kiss on one of them, shook another person's head and struck a teen in the stomach at the haunted house.
In May 2011, Carter pleaded guilty to three felony counts of child abuse and two misdemeanor battery charges. He got five years' probation and mandatory alcohol counseling after his attorney blamed alcohol abuse for fueling the incident.
Carter could not be reached for comment on this story.
ScareCo president R.J. Latherow dismissed some of the lawsuit's allegations. The family complained that the teenager, then 15, worked more than 15 hours a week during the school year. On school nights, she worked past 7 p.m. The state's child labor laws prohibit that.
But according to Latherow, ScareCo doesn't collect a profit and uses volunteers who audition for the frightening role-play.
Adults patrol the haunted house with walkie-talkies, Latherow said, covering the entrance and exit as well.
Immediately after the groping incident, volunteers stopped Carter before he left the site.
"In a lot of ways, things worked security-wise," Latherow said.
ScareCo reviewed its policies with volunteers the day after the assaults and implemented more formal training this year, he said.
Latherow thinks what happened in 2010 was an isolated incident.
"It's unfortunate," Latherow said. "But in the end, I feel that we took adequate care and certainly responded beautifully."
ScareCo returned to downtown Tarpon Springs in 2011. The girl now suing, Latherow said, came back to try out for it.
He plans to reopen the haunted house this year at a new, yet-to-be-determined location.
Stephanie Wang can be reached at (727) 445-4155 or [email protected]