The man on the phone with Plant City police had a strange tale to tell.
A Bloomingdale High School teacher, the man said, had tried to hire him to kill someone. He was pretty sure the teacher, a longtime friend, wasn’t joking. If police didn’t get involved, he was afraid someone would wind up dead.
And there was more. The target was another teacher.
That was on Aug. 8. On Thursday, Plant City police arrested James J. Pepe of Brandon on a charge of solicitation of first-degree murder. Pepe, who was arrested at Bloomingdale High School, is being held in the Hillsborough County Jail with no bail.
Pepe, 55, is accused of trying to hire a hitman to kill Robert Meredith of Plant City, who has been with the school district for 12 years. The two had both taught last year at Strawberry Crest High School in Dover, where Meredith is listed as a social studies teacher.
When Pepe’s acquaintance called Plant City police, he said to detectives that he had told Pepe he wouldn’t murder Meredith. Pepe, he said, asked him to find someone who would.
The man met with Plant City detectives on Sept. 10. With the assistance of the FBI, they placed two calls, which were recorded, to Pepe. The man told Pepe he had found someone willing to go through with the murder.
Pepe agreed to talk by phone to the person, who was actually an undercover officer.
The officer called Pepe three days later. According to police, Pepe told him he "had an issue he might need taken care of." Pepe offered to pay $2,000, according to the arrest affidavit.
The undercover officer called Pepe on Sept. 17 to set up a meeting, but Pepe refused. Pepe’s acquaintance told investigators Pepe didn’t feel comfortable with the undercover officer but still wanted to find someone to kill Meredith, according to the arrest affidavit.
Pepe has taught in Hillsborough County schools for 28 years, including at Strawberry Crest High, Bloomingdale High and Durant High. In 2011, his salary was $58,378, according to school district records.
Police and others who knew Pepe said in recent years the teacher had felt threatened and had become suspicious of his peers.
Pepe thought Meredith was talking behind his back and spreading rumors that he was a child molester, said Plant City police spokesman Tray Towles.
"Everything that was happening in Pepe’s life, he was blaming on the victim," Towles said.
"Kind of as revenge he was going to have him murdered.’’
Pepe met with a Tampa Tribune reporter more than a year ago to complain that the Hillsborough County School District’s peer review system was unfair and he had been graded harshly. He said he had recorded himself teaching effectively and might use the video in a lawsuit against the school district if he was fired.
He also had complaints about those he worked with. He said people at the school had tampered with air conditioning in his room. He said he had a digestive problem and often had to use the nearest restroom at school. People complained about the odor and had placed a note on the restroom door comparing him to an animal, he said.
Pepe also said he had brain surgery in the past.
One of his students at Bloomingdale High said Pepe’s personality was hot and cold.
"He would always be nice to students – a little too nice if you ask me," said Genesis Vargas, a freshman at Bloomingdale High. "And then all of the sudden he would be really upset about something.’’
"In all honesty, I wouldn’t be surprised," Vargas said. "He was that weird a teacher."
Pepe has been suspended with pay, said Steve Hegarty, a school district spokesman. The school board also could vote soon to suspend him without pay, he said.
About nine months ago, Pepe moved to an apartment in Brandon. He had lived for more than 10 years before that at 10935 N. Lantana Ave. in Tampa.
Neighbors Ella and Errol Patten said the first few years as neighbors went well. After a few years, however, the relationship became contentious, they said.
The Pattens accused Pepe of peeping into their home, then of speaking inappropriately to their teenage daughter.
When Pepe found a broken window at his home, he accused the Pattens of trying to break into his home, they said.
"I know he had a temper," said Errol Patten, 57.
Around nine months ago, they suspected prostitutes were coming to his home, the Pattens said.
Ella Patten confronted Pepe. She told him she knew he was a teacher and told him she would report him. Shortly afterward, he moved out, she said.
"I’m not surprised he got arrested," said Ella Patten, 46. "He threatened to kill me. He hated me, and I never did anything to that man."