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    Tourists accuse judge of prowling

    The Pinellas-Pasco official says the Carmel, Calif., incident is all a misunderstanding.

    By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published July 12, 2001


    photo
    Cope
    The top family court judge in the Pinellas-Pasco circuit was arrested in April and charged with two misdemeanors after a mother and daughter accused him of trying to enter their hotel room in Carmel, Calif., police said.

    Judge Charles W. Cope, 52, a circuit judge since 1992, was charged with prowling and loitering and peering into the door or window of an inhabited dwelling April 5. He was visiting the Carmel area for a judicial conference.

    At about 12:30 a.m., police said, Cope tried to enter the hotel room where a 64-year-old Maryland woman and her 31-year-old daughter were staying. He had met them briefly the day before.

    He opened the door as they slept, police said, but the door's chain-lock prevented him from opening it completely.

    One of the two women inside, whom police decline to identify, looked out their window and identified Cope as the other called 911, police said.

    Police found Cope walking about a block away and detained him. He was taken to one of the two women, who then identified him, police said.

    Police immediately arrested Cope and charged him. He was released within hours after posting $1,000 bail. Four days later, Monterey County, Calif., prosecutors filed formal criminal charges.

    Cope, who was arrested on a misdemeanor DUI in 1996 in a Florida case that was later dismissed, declined to comment about the charges.

    "My thoughts are that this was and is a huge misunderstanding, which I expect to be resolved satisfactorily," he said in a brief telephone interview from his home Wednesday night. "There are huge misunderstandings and misstatements."

    His California attorney, Tom Worthington, said Cope had met the women the day before his arrest.

    Worthington said police reports indicate that on April 4 Cope saw the two women engaged in an "intense" conversation. One appeared to be crying and in distress.

    Worthington said the mother and daughter had lost their hotel keys. Cope tried to help, he said. The attorney said a police officer who happened by noted in a report that Cope and the women appeared to be inebriated.

    Worthington denied that his client was drunk.

    The next night, police said, Cope tried to enter the women's hotel room. Police did not say if Cope was drinking at the time.

    Worthington said the women may have misidentified Cope as the man who tried to get into their hotel room.

    "We're concerned that this whole thing is getting blown out of proportion," Worthington said. "We believe the women are mistaken. Carmel is a very exclusive small city, and they're very protective of their tourists. That gives police a special interest to pursue this more vigorously than they otherwise might."

    Cope is the administrative judge for the circuit's family court division. Judges in the circuit's new unified family court report to him.

    Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge David Demers, who has been chief for less than two weeks, said Cope had not informed him of the pending charge, and he did not know how this might affect Cope's job.

    "I have to figure that out myself," said Demers, who learned of the charges from a reporter. "I'm obviously very concerned. I've got to meet with Judge Cope and decide where to go from here. I need to get his side of all this."

    Neither Cope nor his attorneys would discuss whether the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission has been informed. The JQC, a judicial watchdog, has the power to suspend or remove a judge from the bench.

    JQC officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

    Cope was staying at a hotel within several blocks of the Normandy Inn in Carmel, where the women were staying. The women were not attending the judicial conference.

    "The women were convinced he tried to gain entry into their room," Carmel police Lt. Warren Poitras said. "He apparently met the women a day earlier. I'm surprised nobody's found out about this before now."

    Monterey County's district attorney's office declined comment. A pretrial hearing in the case is scheduled for July 26. No trial date is set.

    - Times researchers Kitty Bennett and Cathy Wos, and the Monterey County Herald, contributed to this report.

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