PLANT CITY — A squabble that started in a high school social studies department escalated to the point that one of the teachers looked for a hit man to kill the other, police said Thursday.
The teachers, James J. Pepe of Brandon and Robert Meredith of Plant City, were once friendly. But while working together at Strawberry Crest High School in Dover, the seething started.
Authorities would not say who or what initiated the feud, but said that by last year, Pepe apparently had enough and transferred to Bloomingdale High School in Valrico. Meredith, an economics teacher, stayed at Strawberry Crest.
"This relationship got to a point where Pepe felt that any negative thing that happened to him at work, he thought Meredith was behind it," said Officer Tray Towles, a spokesman for the Plant City Police Department.
The breaking point came, Towles said, when Pepe suspected Meredith was spreading rumors about him.
"Meredith was allegedly telling everybody (Pepe) was a child molester," Towles said.
As classes were about to end Thursday, police arrested Pepe, 55, outside Bloomingdale High, where he teaches history. He faces a charge of solicitation of first-degree murder, and was being held without bail at the Hillsborough County jail.
"They arrested him behind the school without incident. It all went pretty smoothly," school district spokesman Stephen Hegarty said.
The investigation had started with a phone call in August to Plant City police from a friend of Pepe's.
The man from Georgia, whose name was not disclosed, said his friend since childhood tried to hire him to kill Meredith.
Police brought in the FBI.
The two agencies set up a sting operation, with a Plant City undercover officer playing the role of a hit man working with Pepe's friend, police said.
During a Sept. 13 call, police said, Pepe told the undercover officer that he "had an issue he might need taken care of" and that he could pay $2,000.
During a second call, the officer tried to arrange a meeting. Pepe refused, police said, but still said he wanted Meredith killed.
Attempts to reach Meredith for comment Thursday evening were not successful.
Pepe started working for the Hillsborough County School District 28 years ago. Before stints at Bloomingdale High and Strawberry Crest High, he taught history at Durant High near Plant City.
Meredith, 49, taught at Plant City High before moving to Strawberry Crest.
Records show Pepe was arrested once before in Florida.
In 1995, he was charged with disorderly conduct, a second-degree misdemeanor. He attended a pretrial intervention program as part of a plea deal, records show. Details of that case were not available Thursday evening.
One former student, Dee Dee Cardenas, 22, of Dover, who was in Pepe's government class at Durant High in 2007, was stunned to hear her former teacher was behind bars.
He was known by students as Dr. Pepe — a play on the soda, but also a reference to Pepe's doctoral degree in education, awarded from the University of Southern Mississippi in 2001.
"Oh no," Cardenas said. "I just remember him being really good teacher. It is a little disturbing to hear this."
Researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2454.