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Pinellas sheriff fires seven recruits for cheating on training exams

LARGO — Seven deputy recruits at the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office were fired for cheating on exams and a trainer who helped them resigned, the agency announced Monday.

The investigation began last Thursday when supervisors suspected the recruits may have cheated after their answers seemed "too mechanical" during a Wednesday testing, according to Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.

By Friday, the recruits were packing their bags after a meeting with the sheriff. And although Gualtieri called the decision "heartbreaking," he said the dismissals had to be done.

"People who are cheats and liars do not have a place at the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office," Gualtieri said.

The seven recruits — Darold Cook, Julia Hopkins, Joshua Mason, Thomas McDonnell, Bruce Ramos, Diana Shoemaker and Michael Walker — were hired in November 2015 and sworn in as deputies.

Gualtieri said they would have been on the street patrolling within the next three months.

He said the episode started when field training deputy Eric Biddle gave exam copies to Cook, a former co-worker of his from the Pasco County Sheriff's Office. Biddle left the agency in February 2012. His personnel records from both agencies were not immediately available.

According to Pasco sheriff's spokesperson Eddie Daniels Jr., Cook was a corporal at the agency from August 2007 to November 2015. His Pasco personnel records also were not immediately available, and it was not clear under what terms he left the agency.

"He had been a cop for a long time and a lot of these people had not, so he was an informal leader of the group," Gualtieri said. "He was playing the big man who was distributing it to everybody, and he started passing them out like candy."

The copied exams were the same ones the recruits ultimately took. All who used the materials received a score of either 98 or 100 percent, the sheriff said, adding that normal scores are usually in the low 90s.

Gualtieri said another field training officer noticed that one of the recruits was answering questions too well not to have seen the information before.

"She knew too much. She was too on top of it in a way they had never seen before," he said. "She could see she had rehearsed it and practiced it."

The Sheriff's Office said some of the recruits lied when they were first questioned but eventually admitted using the materials as well as planning to use them for the next round of tests.

Neither Biddle, who resigned Monday, or the former recruits could be reached for comment.

Gualtieri said everything about the situation was "deceitful" and "deliberate" and "clandestine," describing how the recruits met in restaurants and garages, and participated in group emails to share the information. He said there was no doubt in his mind each of the recruits could have passed the exam — which covers statutes, agency policies, and basic elements of criminal offenses and procedures ­— without cheating.

"In the big scheme of things, it's not a difficult test," he said. "It just shows their lack of moral compass, their lack of ethics, their lack of a sense of right and wrong."

Gualtieri said he hopes this ends each of the recruits' careers in law enforcement. He said he plans to inform the Florida Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission about each of their terminations.

The sheriff said the agency is reviewing and remaking the test. He said there is nothing more important to him and the agency than the public's trust and confidence.

"In this profession, you follow the rules. That's what we do, make sure the rules are followed," he said during a Monday news conference. "You can't have people doing it that don't follow the rules."

Times researcher Caryn Baird and staff writer Josh Solomon contributed to this report. Contact Megan Reeves at mreeves@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4153. Follow @mreeves_tbt.

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