TAMPA — High school economics teacher Bob Meredith can't answer the strangest, most personal question of his career:
Why would a former colleague at Strawberry Crest High School, history teacher James Pepe, try to have him killed?
Pepe, 55, was arrested last week and accused of trying to hire a hit man to murder Meredith. He is being held without bail in the Hillsborough County Jail.
Plant City police said in announcing the arrest that the men had a simmering feud — that Pepe believed Meredith was spreading vicious rumors about him.
But Meredith's attorney said Monday the truth is more bizarre: that Meredith barely knew Pepe, and hadn't thought about him since last year when Pepe transferred to Bloomingdale High.
"He cannot imagine what it is," said Jim Guarnieri, the attorney hired by Meredith last week. Meredith, 49, whom Guarnieri describes as very private, declined an interview.
The two met, said Guarnieri, when Strawberry Crest opened in 2009. Their small talk revolved around two things they had in common: They're from New York and like hockey.
A few months later, Meredith and a few other teachers were eating lunch when Pepe sat down with them. Pepe then made "some strange, untoward comments," said Guarnieri.
He said his client could not be more specific because of the amount of time that had passed. But Meredith and the others decided to keep their distance.
"They thought he was weird, and they steered clear of him," said Guarnieri.
Pepe's personnel files reveal a man with a history of aggression toward colleagues. He became convinced that other teachers and administrators were trying to ruin him by loading him up with the worst students, denying him equipment and cutting off the air-conditioning in his room.
The files reveal nothing about Pepe's relationship with Meredith, leaving Meredith to now tally up any perceived slights.
Once, in the 2009-2010 school year, Pepe told Meredith he got them tickets to a Tampa Bay Lightning game. "He said, 'We can go to that game,' " said Guarnieri. "It was kind of a presumptuous thing." Meredith took a classic avoidance approach. "Bob said, 'Let me get back to you,' " but then never did, he said.
In the 2010-2011 school year, Meredith could recall two other encounters with Pepe.
Once, he saw Pepe and another teacher in a screaming match in the faculty lounge, said Guarnieri. Pepe spotted Meredith and tried to pull him into the fray.
"Bob just kind of disengaged and said, 'No, no, I have nothing to do with that,' " said Guarnieri.
Another time that year, Meredith saw Pepe screaming at a substitute teacher in the cafeteria, said Guarnieri. Rather than confront Pepe, Meredith wrote a memo to administrators, saying Pepe had been out of line.
No one in the administration followed up with Meredith, and Pepe never confronted him about it, according to Guarnieri.
The memo wasn't included in Pepe's personnel file and school district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said Monday she didn't have information on the incident.
Police informed Meredith on Aug. 9 of their investigation into Pepe's alleged murder-for-hire scheme. Tipped off by a friend of Pepe, police and the FBI were in the midst of setting up a sting.
Guarnieri said police seemed skeptical of his client's assertion that he and Pepe had no real feud. But, "When they started digging back into this guy's history," he said, "it became evident this was not a normal situation."
Meredith told Guarnieri that he had some sense of security over the last six weeks, knowing that police were monitoring Pepe. The police school resource officer at Strawberry Crest was also aware, the attorney said.
"It was one of those things were he was just extra careful about who he opened the door to," he said.
The gravity of the case didn't hit Meredith until Friday, the day after Pepe was arrested.
He went home with an upset stomach, ignoring the business cards on his door from such national television shows as Dr. Phil. He hired Guarnieri to do the talking.
"It was kind of hitting him like a ton of bricks," said Guarnieri.