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Hillsborough judge says his initials forged on warrant

TAMPA — A Hillsborough circuit judge says someone forged his initials on an altered search warrant used to arrest a man on drug trafficking charges.

Ruskin defense attorney Paul S. Carr believes a member of the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office is responsible.

Those revelations Tuesday had sheriff's authorities suggesting it was a misunderstanding and prosecutors vowing to look into the alleged discrepancies. If true, they could jeopardize a drug bust that netted large amounts of prescription pills, plus cash, cocaine and marijuana.

Carr wants his client's case dismissed.

"You cannot commit crimes to catch criminals," he said.

On Oct. 13, 2006, Circuit Judge Chet A. Tharpe signed a search warrant allowing detectives to hunt for drugs in a Brandon apartment. Under oath, Detective Ronnie Cooper told the judge that an informer had on two occasions purchased oxycodone pills from Christopher Snipes there.

The detective believed that the residence was being used as a distribution point and supply house for oxycodone, court records show.

During an Oct. 14 search led by Cooper, deputies found drugs, a pistol, drug paraphernalia in the apartment and $5,953 in Snipes' pocket, arrest records show.

They said Snipes, 25, admitted that the drugs were his. He was arrested on multiple charges that carry a 25-year minimum mandatory prison sentence.

Snipes hired Carr in March.

By then, public defenders had failed to convince a judge to throw out the evidence against Snipes on the grounds that detectives searched the wrong apartment.

The original search warrant was for an apartment numbered 203. But someone had crossed out that number in two places and replaced it with 208. Snipes' public defenders said detectives had not provided probable cause to search 208; Circuit Judge Daniel Sleet denied their motion.

The handwritten changes, rare though not unheard of, also caught Carr's attention.

But as the attorney sat in bed one night reviewing the case, something else stuck out.

The initials "CAT" had been written in twice alongside the revised apartment numbers. Those are Tharpe's initials.

However, Carr didn't think the pair of initials matched the judge's handwriting. He took his suspicions and samples of Tharpe's penmanship to handwriting experts. Two forensic document examiners agreed that someone other than Tharpe altered the search warrant.

Carr didn't realize his client had already written Tharpe a letter in February, asking the judge to verify whether the initials by the revised numbers were his.

"The initials do not look like your handwriting compared to the actual warrant, and I believe Detective Cooper changed it on his own," Snipes wrote.

In his sworn statement May 7, Tharpe was adamant that he did not alter the search warrant.

"The handwritten alterations and initials … are not my true initials, is not my handwriting and were not placed there by me," Tharpe said.

Carr thinks the changes likely were made by Cooper or Deputy Stuart Bell, who helped supervise the case's informer.

Bell was fired after his own arrest in January, accused by internal affairs detectives of stealing prescription bottles from a suspect's house, falsifying two incident reports and doctor shopping for prescription medication.

In his motion to dismiss Snipes' case, Carr said whoever changed the search warrant should be investigated for charges including forgery, official misconduct, perjury and false arrest.

Sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter said the agency has confidence in Cooper, whom she called an exemplary employee since his 1997 hiring.

Carter said officials were looking into the allegations.

"At this point, there's a possibility of a misunderstanding," she said. "The judge signs hundreds of documents for us, and it could just be a matter of memory."

Michael Sinacore, felony bureau chief for the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office, said prosecutors would investigate the validity of the search warrant.

After a court hearing for her son Tuesday, Brenda Snipes admitted he wasn't a "total angel." Christopher Snipes already has been sentenced to 15 years in prison for a March 2006 armed drug trafficking case in Pinellas County. But "it doesn't matter," his mother said. "This is still wrong."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Hillsborough judge says his initials forged on warrant 05/13/08 [Last modified: Friday, May 16, 2008 5:19pm]
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