Randall Belcher, the longtime principal of Woodland Elementary School and a well-known member of the community, is under criminal investigation after a female teacher said he fondled her in his office.
The criminal investigation began in earnest last month after the alleged victim confronted Belcher wearing a hidden recording device, said the woman's attorney, Jim Souza. Belcher, according to Souza, made several incriminating statements during the conversation, prompting police to open an investigation.
The woman already has notified officials that she intends to file a sexual harassment lawsuit against the school district and Belcher.
Zephyrhills police Chief Robert Howell would not confirm that officers wired the woman with the recording device, but he did not rule out the possibility.
"That is one way we gather information sometimes, especially if there's no physical evidence and it's one person's word against another's," Howell said Wednesday.
"I hate it," Howell said of the allegations against Belcher. "He's a popular, long-term principal. That's one thing that makes this job in small town tough _ you know everybody."
Howell told the Times that the ongoing investigation already has shown that "there may be probable cause that (Belcher) improperly touched this person in an area she objected to." Police, who are working with the Pasco-Pinellas State Attorney's Office, also are investigating the possibility that Belcher improperly touched at least one other female school employee.
At this point, police said the allegations point to a charge of simple battery, a misdemeanor, against Belcher.
Ruth Wentworth, Belcher's secretary for 22 years, says she doesn't believe the allegations.
"He is a caring, honest man, and I would stand up and say that in a court of law or anywhere else," said Wentworth, who retired last year. "I have never known him to say or do anything to offend anyone."
Belcher, 57, did not return a call seeking comment. He has been the principal at Woodland Elementary since 1985 and has worked for the Pasco school district for 35 years. Before taking the job at Woodland, Belcher was the principal at Lacoochee Elementary School for 13 years.
He makes $71,734 a year.
Belcher is a frequent guest preacher at local churches. Records show he was divorced in 1990.
Belcher has been on vacation for about a week and a half. Jim Davis, the district's director of employee relations, said Belcher was given a choice: face suspension while the investigation is ongoing or make use of his accrued vacation.
"He thought it was a good time to use those days," Davis said.
Superintendent John Long said he is waiting for prosecutors to wrap up their investigation before the school district begins an inquiry. "The State Attorney gave us specific instructions not to investigate" until prosecutors finish their inquiry, Long said.
Prosecutors could not be reached for comment.
"I hope and pray this is a misunderstanding, but if it isn't we'll do the right thing," Long said. "I was absolutely shocked when I heard it. . . . Anybody you meet in that community, Mr. Belcher has either taught them or been their principal. At no time in my 26 years here has anyone ever come to me with any kind of complaint or allegation" about Belcher.
Souza, the alleged victim's attorney, notified the school district on Wednesday that the woman intends to file a sexual harassment lawsuit. Florida law requires potential plaintiffs to give 180 days notice before filing suit against a governmental agency.
The Times is withholding the woman's name because of the nature of the case.
In a letter to the district, Souza alleged that Belcher repeatedly kissed, grabbed, squeezed, poked and rubbed the woman against her will. Additionally, Souza wrote, Belcher promised the woman "special treatment" in exchange for "dates and social interaction."
The alleged incidents took place in Belcher's office, behind closed doors, Souza told the Times.
The groping and other forms of harassment began in 1998, Souza said. Last month, the woman related the allegations to the school resource officer at Woodland Elementary, Souza said. The officer took the woman to the police station, Souza said, where she was wired with the recording device.
Sgt. Randy Belasic, the detective in charge of the case, said that during his investigation another school employee stepped forward to accuse Belcher of sexual harassment. Those alleged incidents took place "a couple of years ago," Belasic said.
Belasic said he has interviewed about eight people in the case. He has another eight or nine people to interview before his investigation is complete, he said. The people he has interviewed are not necessarily victims, Belasic said, but they might have knowledge of the alleged incidents.
On March 11, Superintendent Long went to Woodland to talk with the faculty. He said he "ordered" staff members to contact police if they had personal knowledge of any type of harassment at the school. He said many faculty members were crying during the meeting.
"Randall is a good man, and I hope it's not true," Long said of the allegations. "If it is, we'll do the right thing."
_ Staff writer Sharon Tubbs contributed to this report. Brady Dennis covers law enforcement in east Pasco and the community of Zephyrhills. He can be reached in Dade City at (352) 521-5757, ext. 23, or toll free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6108.