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Prosecutor: Hillsborough teacher mentioned ex-student during search for hit man

TAMPA — The Georgia hit man was not James Pepe's first choice for the job.

Pepe, a Bloomingdale High School social studies teacher, initially wanted his longtime friend in Georgia to do the deed, Assistant State Attorney Shannon Green said. Pepe offered him $5,000 to kill a colleague, Robert Meredith, according to Green.

When the friend refused, Pepe asked him for help finding someone who would do it.

"What do you want done with Bob Meredith?" the friend asked Pepe during a phone call recorded by Plant City police and played during a court hearing Saturday.

Pepe's response: "I want him killed."

Pepe already had other hit men in mind, including one of his former students, Green said.

"He would hook us up with every f- - - - - - murderer we need," Pepe said.

Pepe had labeled the former student "as a criminal and as someone who would do this for him," Green said. It is unclear whether Pepe ever contacted the man.

Pepe's friend, who was not clearly identified during Saturday's hearing, had another suggestion: an "ex-military dude" he met three or four years ago in a Marietta, Ga., bar.

In reality, the supposed hit man was an undercover Plant City police officer who had been working with Pepe's friend.

"He's for real," the friend said.

That doesn't mean he's capable of taking people out or has ever done it, Pepe responded.

By the end of the 11-minute phone call, Pepe agreed to let his friend pass along Pepe's number to the hit man.

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

During a second call, the officer tried to arrange a meeting. Pepe refused, police said, but still said he wanted Meredith killed.

Pepe, 55, of Brandon was arrested Thursday afternoon just as classes were ending at Bloomingdale. On Saturday, Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Jack Espinosa Jr. denied bail.

During the hearing, Green played the recording and told the judge Pepe could be a harm to Meredith or society if allowed bail.

Pepe indicated to detectives that he would have been willing to commit the murder himself, Green said, and would even consider doing it at a school event.

Pepe, dressed in a red jumpsuit, watched the proceedings on a closed-circuit television from jail. He made no comments.

Despite making his intentions clear, Pepe did not say on the tape played Saturday why he wanted Meredith killed. But when his Georgia friend complained of hacked emails and problems with a debit card, Pepe blamed it on Meredith.

"That's definitely him," Pepe said. "That's his style."

The two teachers worked together at Strawberry Crest High School in Dover before Pepe moved to Bloomingdale High School in Valrico last year. Meredith's attorney, Jim Guarnieri, said the two were never friends.

Pepe is now suspended with pay, pending action by the School Board.

During the recording played Saturday, Pepe also told his friend about problems with other people.

"But it seems his main target was Meredith," Green said.

Pepe's personnel file from his years teaching at Hillsborough County schools revealed a man with a history of aggression.

Pepe started with the school district in 1984. His evaluations showed mostly perfect ratings until 2001. Then he blew up at a training session. A disciplinary letter described him as hostile and aggressive.

After that, his behavior was erratic.

Pepe eventually moved to Strawberry Crest High School in Dover, where he got a perfect review in his first year. But in his second evaluation, under the new Empowering Effective Teachers system, he scored 49 points out of a possible 100.

He told the Sheriff's Office in April that a former co-worker might have stolen videotapes of a school project from his apartment. "He then stated the apartment's maintenance men always give him strange looks and act suspicious around him when he goes into the office to pay his rent," the report states.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Shelley Rossetter can be reached at srossetter@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2442.

Prosecutor: Hillsborough teacher mentioned ex-student during search for hit man 09/29/12 [Last modified: Sunday, September 30, 2012 4:46pm]
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