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Inquiry: Hillsborough sheriff's detective cleared of forging warrant

TAMPA — After a two-week investigation into one of its own, the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office announced Tuesday that a detective accused of forging a judge's initials did no such thing.

Sheriff's officials, who previously voiced their support for Detective Ronnie Cooper, say cell phone records, witness testimony and a handwriting expert clear him of wrongdoing.

They say Hillsborough Circuit Judge Chet A. Tharpe apologized for his role in the allegations.

Cooper "really followed procedure to the letter only to have his integrity and reputation called into question," Chief Deputy Jose Docobo said. "It really is a travesty."

The inquiry revolved around an old search warrant, a veteran detective in good standing and a judge with a reputation for accommodating law enforcement.

Earlier this month, defense attorney Paul S. Carr argued that drug trafficking charges against his client should be thrown out because Cooper falsified the warrant used to search a Brandon apartment for oxycodone.

Carr had a smoking gun: a sworn statement from Tharpe, who said with no hint of uncertainty that the handwritten changes to the warrant were not his.

But in an interview with sheriff's officials on May 14, the judge sounded less convinced.

"As we sit here today, I have second-guessed myself over and over and over and quite frankly, hoping I am wrong," he said.

Tharpe said he had no recollection of the events — "none whatsoever" — surrounding the search warrant. He said he held Cooper in high regard, but added that, in his 17 years as a judge, he couldn't recall a detective returning to his home to get a search warrant altered.

Cooper swears that's what happened. In his own interview May 14, he said he got permission from Tharpe on Oct. 13, 2006, to search the Brandon residence.

Before the search went down, Cooper drove by the apartment to verify the address. He realized that he put the wrong apartment number in the paperwork, he said, and his supervisor instructed him to return to Tharpe's home to get the search warrant corrected.

Another detective confirmed that he drove Cooper to the judge's home, and other deputies recalled waiting for Cooper to return so they could assist with the search, interviews show.

Cell phone records provided in a 109-page investigative report released Tuesday indicate that Cooper called Tharpe's home at 9:49 p.m. and 11:48 p.m. The search was completed by 2:32 a.m. on Oct. 14, according to records.

Cooper has been employed by the Sheriff's Office since 1993. His personnel file is full of positive evaluations and no discipline reports.

Tharpe was interviewed by Tony Peluso, the Sheriff's Office's deputy chief legal counsel.

The judge said he first checked out the alleged discrepancy in his initials at the request of Hills­borough Circuit Judge Daniel Sleet, his colleague and the judge presiding over the disputed drug case.

After receiving the documents by fax from Sleet's office, Tharpe said he "immediately" determined the initials were not his.

Soon after, at attorney Carr's request, Tharpe signed the affidavit confirming that belief.

Peluso questioned Sleet's decision to call Tharpe about the allegations and suggested that Sleet had taken an "activist role" that could pave the way for attorneys to seek his removal from the drug case.

Handwriting experts hired by Carr said the changes to the search warrant appeared to be made by someone other than Tharpe.

The Sheriff's Office hired a handwriting expert, too. Don Quinn, retired from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said the initials and altered apartment number were not written by Cooper and "very probably" belonged to Tharpe.

Quinn examined multiple examples of the men's handwriting rather than the limited sampling considered by Carr's experts, Chief Deputy Docobo said.

Tharpe did not dispute the law enforcement expert's findings and said he was sorry for any trouble he caused Cooper, according to sheriff's records.

Carr and Tharpe could not be reached late Tuesday.

Court counsel Dave Rowland said Tharpe and Sleet could not comment on the findings because the issues raised likely will be litigated in court.

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

Inquiry: Hillsborough sheriff's detective cleared of forging warrant 05/27/08 [Last modified: Thursday, May 29, 2008 1:52pm]
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