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Friday, Nov 24, 2017
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Teacher: Being target of colleague's hit man plot baffling

TAMPA - Bob Meredith doesn't have a clue why another teacher wanted him dead. He and James Pepe both were from New York and were hockey fans. They met during orientation at Strawberry Crest High School when it opened its doors for the first time three years ago. But other than a little bit of small talk during orientation and a couple of other contacts at school, Meredith doesn't recall having many conversations with the man accused of trying to hire a hit man to kill him for $2,000. "Bob barely knows who this guy is," said James Guarnieri, an attorney hired by Meredith after Pepe's arrest last week. "He hasn't thought of him in a year-and-a-half."
While the two once worked as teachers at Strawberry Crest, Pepe – a 28-year veteran of the Hillsborough County School District – was working at Bloomingdale High School when he was arrested Thursday. Police say that Pepe, a 55-year-old economics teacher, wanted Meredith dead, and was willing to pay someone to carry out the killing. The Brandon resident, whose volatile behavior and bad temper have been documented in school district records, even talked about how it could be done at school. He was charged with solicitation of first-degree murder after a longtime friend told Plant City police that Pepe wanted someone dead. The FBI got involved and officials say Pepe asked an undercover officer who he thought was a hit man to kill the other teacher. Plant City police have said that Pepe suspected Meredith was talking behind his back and spreading rumors that he was a child molester. But Guarnieri said that was not the case, and that the two teachers had very limited interactions. One time, Meredith, who has worked for the district for 12 years, saw Pepe berating a substitute teacher in the Strawberry Crest cafeteria. "He had her in tears," Guarnieri said of Pepe. So Meredith, a social studies teacher, wrote a memorandum about the incident, but never heard anything from Pepe about it. Another time, the attorney said, Pepe was yelling at another faculty member in the teacher's lounge and tried to drag Meredith into the conversation. Meredith declined to get involved, Guarnieri said. And still on a different occasion, Pepe confirmed with Meredith that he liked hockey and said that the two would go to a Tampa Bay Lightning game together. He did not ask if Meredith wanted to go, the attorney said, but instead took for granted he would want to go. It was a socially awkward situation where Meredith felt odd and avoided Pepe after that. Pepe has taught at several Hillsborough County schools, including Tampa Bay Tech. That is where he was suspended without pay more than a decade ago after an angry outburst directed at the principal. He was reinstated after completing an anger management class despite other teachers saying they feared for their own safety and Pepe's as well. Guarnieri attended the bond hearing for Pepe on Saturday, where the veteran educator was ordered to remain behind bars without bond. It was early August when Meredith first learned of the would-be contract on his life, and it wasn't until the day after the arrest last week that the full impact of the case finally hit him. "Friday, it came down like a ton of bricks," Guarnieri said of Meredith. "He was not doing well over the weekend." Pepe remains suspended with pay from his $58,000 teaching job pending a board vote on whether to fire him.

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