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Charges against director dropped

The Brown Schools' past director is off the hook since shifting stories from witnesses left the state attorney's office lacking evidence.

By CARRIE JOHNSON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 7, 2002

INVERNESS -- Criminal charges against the Brown Schools' former Lecanto director were dropped Thursday because several of the prosecution's key witnesses backed away from their original stories, the state attorney's office said.

Matt Leary, 33, had been charged with evidence tampering and failure to report a child abuse allegation.

Assistant State Attorney Lisa Herndon said the decision to stop pursuing charges against Leary was made after reviewing depositions of many of the state's witnesses, including the case's "whistle-blower," Jeffrey Cooper.

"Their testimony had receded from their original statements to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement," Herndon said. "Either their memories weren't as good or they didn't want to be involved in getting somebody in trouble. . . . We couldn't meet our burden of proof."

Leary's attorney, Charles Vaughn, said he wasn't surprised by the state's decision.

"It became apparent their case was not quite the same case they thought it was a year ago," he said. "There was absolutely no evidence Matt had done anything wrong."

The charges against Leary stem from a February 2001 incident at Brown, according to court documents.

On Feb. 4, a 12-year-old boy told Brown staffers another resident had sexually assaulted him.

Leary, based on his knowledge of the reported victim, did not report anything to the state's child abuse hot line or law enforcement because the boys appeared to have engaged in horseplay. Leary did not pass along a copy of the original report to any agency, records showed.

Cooper, a former Brown employee, took a copy of the original report and gave it to people from Black Diamond, an upscale development adjacent to Brown, who were Brown critics.

The report eventually wound up with FDLE. Investigators forwarded the information to the state attorney's office, where prosecutors reviewed it and decided to bring charges.

Because he was in a caregiving position at the time, Leary was considered a person legally obligated to report known or suspected child abuse. Failure for such a person to report a child abuse allegation is a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Evidence tampering is a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

The Department of Children and Families investigated the incident and determined no abuse had occurred, Vaughn said.

According to his deposition, Cooper was fired by the Brown Schools shortly before he leaked the report. Asked by Vaughn if he was disgruntled by his dismissal, Cooper said: "I mean, I don't have any problem with telling you. . . . I felt that I was out of the picture, that perhaps I was going to be a scapegoat for all this, and that it was a matter of self-protection as well."

Vaughn also grilled Cooper, a former state trooper, as to why he didn't immediately report the incident to law enforcement officials.

"I guess that same question could be posed to every member that was in that room, and it comes down to a value statement," Cooper said. "Do you want to lose your job or do you want to follow up particular protocol that you believe in."

Cooper, who now lives in Iowa, also insisted on being granted immunity by the State Attorney's Office.

Kirk Zeppi, the chief executive officer for the Brown Schools of Florida, said he felt it was the proper ending for the case against Leary.

"I've always known that Matt had the children's best interests at heart," he said.

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