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Former Hillsborough teacher avoids prison in attempted murder-for-hire

TAMPA — James Pepe, a former Hills­borough County history teacher who pleaded guilty Monday to trying to hire a hit man to kill a colleague, will not serve time in prison.

In a deal reached with prosecutors, Pepe, 56, was sentenced to a year of house arrest, during which time he will wear a tracking device, and 14 years of probation. Pepe's attorneys said the unusually light sentence resulted from evidence suggesting that he was pressured to take steps he otherwise might not have taken.

Pepe was charged in September 2012 with attempting to order the murder of James Meredith, an economics teacher and former colleague at Strawberry Crest High School in Dover. What had been a friendly relationship soured, Pepe's attorneys said, after Pepe had an emotional breakdown brought on by his declining health, spiking blood sugar and stress at work.

He became paranoid, convinced that Meredith was trying to sabotage his career and had hacked into his bank account. Pepe transferred to Bloomingdale High School in Valrico, but his fears continued.

In phone calls with Fred Larson, a childhood friend in Atlanta, Pepe allegedly confided that he wanted Meredith dead. Larson tipped off the Plant City Police Department, which brought in the FBI. The agencies set up a sting operation, using a Plant City detective as the would-be hit man, and recorded Larson's calls with Pepe.

It was then, Pepe's attorneys said, that Larson began goading Pepe and warning him that if he didn't call the hit man, the murderer-for-hire might come after them.

"I'm not saying he didn't do anything wrong," defense attorney David Addelman said. "But when you fit all the pieces of the puzzle together, you see that there was active encouragement that brought this as far as it did."

A spokesman for the State Attorney's Office could not be reached for comment.

Though prosecutors said Monday that Pepe had sought to have Meredith killed, Addelman said Pepe never went so far as to call the supposed hit man. Rather, the detective posing as the hit man called him. "I don't want to do this," Pepe's attorneys said he told the detective.

During a Sept. 13 call, Pepe told the undercover detective that he "had an issue he might need taken care of" and that he could pay $2,000, police said.

Pepe, who has spent the past 18 months in jail, remains in poor health, his attorneys said. He arrived at the courthouse in a wheelchair, a drainage bag in his side, the result of complications from recent prostate surgery.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Samantha Ward said Pepe will not be released from jail until there is a plan in place for his treatment. She ordered him to stay away from schools and prohibited him from contacting either Meredith or Larson.

In the year following his release, Pepe will be allowed to leave home to do basic errands such as buying groceries. If he finds a job, he'll be allowed to work. Though he has retired after more than 30 years with the school district, state records show that Pepe still had a teaching certificate as of Sunday. A spokeswoman for the state Department of Education refused to comment on Pepe's status, citing its ongoing investigation.

Addelman said Pepe understands that what he did was "irrational." Meredith, who still works for the district, "has nothing to fear from Mr. Pepe," he said.

Anna M. Phillips can be reached at aphillips@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3354.

Former Hillsborough teacher avoids prison in attempted murder-for-hire 03/31/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 1, 2014 12:00am]
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