ST. PETERSBURG — Jesse C. Almond is a 75-year-old Tierra Verde retiree who used to consider himself very good friends with a 40-year-old woman who dances at local bars.
But the relationship has deteriorated to the point where he has been arrested four times, accused of violating an injunction ordering him to stay away from her.
It doesn't sound all that unusual, except for one thing: The judge actually had denied the request for an injunction against Almond. But through some kind of court mixup, Almond ended up getting arrested four times for violating an injunction that shouldn't officially exist.
The mixup began at a December 2009 hearing, when Sandra Bogden asked for the court order to keep Almond away. Pinellas Judge Lorraine M. Kelly clearly stated, "I'm denying the request for an injunction." But somehow, an order signed by her was entered into the court file saying it was granted.
And then, Almond started getting arrested.
Four times in nine months, police said he violated the injunction — by driving past her home, by calling her cell phone, by approaching her at work.
By his fourth arrest in August, Almond was in serious trouble — facing a felony charge of aggravated stalking and a possible two-year prison sentence.
But then his attorney, Lucas Fleming, obtained a transcript of the original hearing, and discovered what the judge had ruled.
"I went through a year of hell," Almond said. "I was going to leave the state and go up north."
After a reporter contacted Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett, he said the aggravated stalking charge would be dropped, now that it's clear the injunction is not valid.
"Something extraordinary happened in this case," Kelly said. Asked exactly how it happened, she said "I'm flummoxed. I have no idea."
In the four-page injunction order, a case number has been handwritten on the top of each page. But on two of those pages, including the one signed by Kelly, the wrong case number was entered — suggesting different court orders might have gotten mixed together during the hearings, which typically are busy affairs involving as many as a couple of dozen cases.
Chief Pinellas-Pasco Judge Thomas McGrady wants to look into the circumstances surrounding the case, to see if it points to any procedures that need to be revised, court spokesman Ron Stuart said.
During these hearings, Kelly sits alongside an employee of the Pinellas County Clerk's Office and one from the office of the Courts Administrator. She signs a form granting an injunction, or a different form denying an injunction, depending on her ruling. Generally speaking, the Courts Administrator employee fills out details of the judge's ruling, and the clerk's employee assembles the different pages of the order and obtains signatures from the parties in the courtroom.
Kelly said she does not routinely read all the orders at the end of the day. She said that's something that could be done, although even that step might not catch one error contained in dozens of files.
Courts administrator Gay Inskeep said she wanted to review all the circumstances surrounding the incident and "do everything we can to make sure it never happens again."
"I am taking it very seriously," she added.
County Clerk Ken Burke said his office also intended to study the matter.
Inskeep said she has not heard of any similar mistakes, and Kelly said she had not heard of one in the more than two years that she has been handling such cases.
As to the two people involved in the dispute, Almond denies that he tried to contact Bogden as much as she claimed. He says in one case, he misdialed her telephone number, and she didn't pick up anyway (and prosecutors eventually dropped the charge). Almond denies driving by her house.
The two appear to have a stormy relationship — at one point Bogden was arrested and accused of grand theft against Almond, but that charge was dropped, too.
Bogden was in the court hearing when the judge denied the injunction. But she said it still seemed justified that Almond was later arrested. She had repeatedly contacted police to try to get him to stop contacting her, she said in her injunction request. Bogden says police kept urging her to get an injunction, so she tried.
Almond was also in the courtroom for Kelly's ruling.
But, he said, "I couldn't hear the judge. She was way up in front."
He realizes now that he should have piped up. But he didn't.
"I thought she granted the injunction."
Curtis Krueger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8232.