(PENSACOLA, Fla.) — A teen charged as an adult has pleaded not guilty to multiple felony counts stemming from a Florida high school homecoming queen contest that prosecutors allege she and her mother rigged by hacking into a school district computer system.
If convicted, Emily Rose Grover, 18, a student at Tate High School in Pensacola, faces a maximum sentence of 16 years in prison, officials said.
The state attorney’s office in Escambia County, Florida, confirmed to ABC News on Wednesday that Grover has been charged as an adult.
“She was 17 when the offense occurred, but shortly after they picked her up she turned 18,” a spokesperson for the state attorney’s office said.
Grover and her mother, Laura Rose Carroll, 50, an assistant principal at an Escambia County elementary school, are scheduled to be arraigned in First Judicial Circuit Court in Pensacola on May 14.
Defense attorney Randall Etheridge, who’s representing both women, told ABC News on Wednesday that he’s already filed written not-guilty pleas with the court. He said he’s also requested a jury trial.
“These are good people. They’re not crazy as some people are trying to depict them. They’re basically decent people,” said Etheridge, adding that Grover’s father and Carroll’s husband is one of his best friends and that he’s representing them pro bono.
Grover and her mother are each charged with felony offenses against users of computers, computer systems, computer networks and electronic devices, in addition to felony unlawful use of a two-way communications device, felony criminal use of personally identifiable information and misdemeanor conspiracy to commit those crimes.
Carroll, who was suspended from her job, and Grover are free on bonds of $6,000 and $2,000, respectively.
Grover and her mother were arrested in March following a roughly four-month investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement into a complaint lodged by the Escambia County School District that someone had gained unauthorized access to the computerized accounts of hundreds of students, according to an arrest warrant affidavit obtained by ABC News.
“This activity was discovered in October during Tate High School Homecoming court voting, when hundreds of votes were flagged as fraudulent,” according to the affidavit.
Investigators found that 117 of the fraudulent votes originated from the same IP address and were traced to Carroll, according to the affidavit, which also said 246 fraudulent votes were cast via Carroll’s phone and home computer.
As an assistant principal in the Escambia County School District, Carroll had access to FOCUS, the district’s computer program that records student identification numbers, dates of birth, grades, test scores, medical histories, emergency contacts and disciplinary actions. The program also allowed students access to a third-party application called Election Runner used to cast votes for homecoming queen from Oct. 28 to Oct. 30.
A day after the votes were tallied, the high school student council coordinator reported to district authorities that Grover was suspected of using her mother’s access to the FOCUS program to game the homecoming queen election, according to the affidavit.
On Oct. 31, the school district’s ethics hotline also received a tip accusing Grover of rigging the election.
“The report stated that Grover had voted for herself in other students’ names and she was able to do so because she had access to her mother’s FOCUS account,” according to the affidavit, which also included statements from students who told investigators that Grover had been using her mother’s FOCUS account to glean information on classmates since at least her freshman year.
“She looks up all of our group of friends’ grades and makes comments about how she can find our test scores all of the time,” one student told investigators, according to the affidavit.
In December, school officials moved to expel Grover for the unauthorized use of her mother’s FOCUS account. Prior to the conclusion of the disciplinary process, Grover emailed the district superintendent admitting she used her mom’s account and pleaded for leniency but did not confess to rigging the homecoming queen contest.
“‘I have never been in trouble but I was recently suspended for 10 days for unauthorized use of technology, for using my mom’s password and looking at information I should not have seen in FOCUS,'” she purportedly wrote, according to the affidavit. “‘Of everything I’ve done wrong, ignorance is hurting me most. I 100% knew it was wrong and would do anything to undo it but I had no idea this much trouble could come from this.'”
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