IT MUST BE difficult enough to see your wages garnished for nonpayment of child support.

But imagine having to go through that for a child who is not even yours.

That's what happened to Walter Andre Sharpe Jr., 39, a former trash hauler who lives in West Philly. Not only did he pay $12,000 in support payments for a daughter who wasn't his, but Sharpe also wound up jailed multiple times for nonpayment.

Sharpe, thankfully, is a free man these days. The bogus child-support case that has dogged him for years was dropped in 2007.

But he still hasn't been reimbursed for the thousands he shelled out, money that could have been used to support the four children he really did father.

Nor has Sharpe been financially compensated for his life being upended and being unjustly jailed.

At a time of year when fathers everywhere are preparing to play Santa for their children, Sharpe is destitute.

From the outside, at least, his saga looks like big-time bureaucratic bungling or a case of mistaken identity. Dauphin County prosecutor Edward M. Marsico Jr. told The Patriot-News of Harrisburg that he is investigating.

Meanwhile, what I want to know is: How can an innocent man's life be upended by what might have been a paperwork error?

And if mistakes were committed, why hasn't Sharpe been compensated? It's unimaginable what he went through, being jailed over and over again, despite his protestations of innocence.

Sharpe's ordeal started in 2001, when he made the mistake of signing a receipt for a certified letter ordering Andre Sharpe to attend a child-support conference in Dauphin County.

"The letter was for Andre Sharpe - not Walter Andre Sharpe," Walter Andre Sharpe told me recently. "I just assumed it was a misprint in the computer."

So, he did what a lot of people would have done under the circumstances - he ignored the letter. That turned out to be a mistake.

When neither he nor the real Andre Sharpe showed up, a judge ruled that Walter Andre Sharpe was the father, and the Dauphin County family-welfare agency began the process of having his wages garnished.

The Harrisburg paper reported last month that when Sharpe tried to correct the error, his personal information allegedly was substituted for that of Andre Sharpe's.

Walter Andre Sharpe's repeated requests for DNA testing of the girl were denied. And between 2001 and 2005 he was jailed four times for not keeping up with support payments.

Along the way, he lost his job. His relationship with the mother of the four children he'd actually fathered deteriorated. In 2005, when his son was shot and killed, Sharpe was unable to contribute financially to the boy's funeral.

"His heart cries to be with his children," said Sharon, a friend who asked that her last name not be published. "This case has haunted him for years.

"I can't imagine being locked up four separate times," added Sharon, who met Sharpe when he worked at a New Jersey gas station. "I sometimes really am amazed at his ability to withstand it all."

The last time Sharpe even saw his children was six months ago. He was too ashamed of his living conditions to let them inside his place.

Sharpe's attorney, Spero T. Lappas, has notified the Dauphin County Domestic Relations Office of his intent to sue on behalf of his client.

"The $12,000 is really a drop in the bucket," said Lappas, whose office is in Harrisburg. "This guy's life was ruined for a period of years. We think his civil rights were violated.

"This guy's life has pretty much been turned upside down. The money he paid to the support office is an infinitesimal fraction of what they owe him."

In an ironic twist in this strange saga, the 17-year-old girl whose support was contested lives in Philadelphia with her father, Andre Sharpe.

When tracked down by a Harrisburg reporter, Andre Sharpe said he had always supported the child. *

The Associated Press contributed to this report.