December 2, 2021

Florida Teen Emily Grover Was Accused of Hacking a Homecoming Queen Contest and Faces 16 Years in Jail

17 min read

On March 15, 4 police cruisers pulled as much as a modest brick home within the sleepy city of Cantonment, Florida, to arrest two accused hackers. The cops fanned out, swat team-style across the residence, stationing themselves on the entrance, again and aspect doorways. They pounded on home windows and demanded the alleged cyber crooks present their faces, in keeping with witnesses and court docket paperwork.

Out got here an unlikely pair: Laura Carroll, a petite 50-year-old elementary faculty vice principal and her 17-year-old daughter, Emily Grover, a preferred native tennis star and “A” pupil at close by Tate Excessive Faculty.

Police cuffed the ladies and, at one level, Carroll begged them to let her placed on a bra earlier than hauling her away to jail, she stated. The teenager was taken to a juvenile detention heart.

Eight months later, they each face 16 years in jail—a punishment harsher than what some high-level ransomware attackers and company information thieves obtain. However the pair stands accused of a more unusual crime: hacking into a college pc system to rig a homecoming election in Grover’s favor.

The alleged cheat for glory might have ended with a slap on the wrist if it weren’t for native mother and father’ fears, investigators’ ambitions and the pair’s personal stubbornness, in keeping with a whole bunch of pages of court docket paperwork and interviews with folks concerned. The duo has refused a no-jail plea settlement, and the case is now headed to trial as quickly as January, their lawyer stated.

In an interview, the ladies inform me they’ve develop into city pariahs who not often go away the home and are desperately making an attempt to restore their popularity — they usually haven’t any plans to again down. “We’re not pleading responsible to one thing we didn’t do,” Carroll stated. “If there was any crime dedicated, the punishment doesn’t match.”

“For us, a very powerful factor is to clear our title, and to let the entire trustworthy story come out,” she stated.

To listen to Grover’s household, mates and academics inform it, she was a beloved athlete who labored exhausting to beat consideration deficit dysfunction, solely to develop into ensnared in a tech mix-up and made right into a sacrificial lamb.

To listen to legislation enforcement and faculty officers inform it, Grover and her mom tarnished the “dignity” of the time-honored homecoming custom, “rattled” mother and father and induced a respectable pc safety menace to a whole bunch of scholars.

To win the crown, investigators say Grover bought dozens of scholars’ ID numbers and birthdates from a district-wide pc system utilizing her vice principal mother’s log-in. The pair then allegedly forged not less than 246 pretend votes for the teenager on Carroll’s cellular phone and a pc at their residence by way of Election Runner, a third-party app utilized by the college.

Emily Grover, left, and her mom, Laura Carroll.

Escambia County Jail

Caroline Grey, a pupil council trainer answerable for the homecoming vote, was first to identify one thing fishy, in keeping with court docket paperwork. On the morning of Oct. 30, 2020—the day Grover was topped at an elaborate ceremony — Grey seen the app had flagged dozens of “false” votes.

Grey, who is thought for being a devoted educator, earned the college’s Trainer of the 12 months award in 2017. Regardless of her good relationship with Grover, she was suspicious in regards to the “invalid” votes forged within the teen’s favor, in keeping with her deposition. So she referred to as not less than 4 college students, together with a boy who had supposedly forged his vote at 4 a.m., to see if their votes had been legit.

There have been some offended mothers. The runner-up was born to be homecoming queen; her mama was most likely a homecoming queen.

A few of these college students advised her they hadn’t voted. Others stated they tried however bought a message from the app saying they’d already voted, in keeping with investigators.

So Grey reported the suspicious information to then-superintendent Malcolm Thomas, who made the decision to let Grover obtain the award anyway, in keeping with court docket paperwork. The app had reported fraudulent votes on a smaller scale prior to now, and a winner needed to be named in time for the ceremony that evening. (Grey declined to remark by way of a college district spokesman.)

At round 11:50 a.m., the trainer additionally acquired an unsolicited textual content message from Grover saying she’d heard, “Somebody was like dishonest or hacked the system like early within the morning?,” in keeping with investigators.

The varsity introduced Grover queen, and shortly she was prepared for her close-up. Sporting a glittery gown and blonde hair, she flashed a smile as she clutched a bouquet of crimson roses on the homecoming ceremony, pictures from the native information website present. Her dad, Bubba Grover, escorted her throughout a college soccer discipline whereas wearing a three-piece tuxedo and bowtie as followers within the stands cheered.

Successful meant the world to Grover, who had beforehand thought-about herself an outcast on campus, she advised me. “I got here right here freshman yr as the brand new lady. Most individuals at my highschool went to the identical center faculty, and had been mates perpetually. So lots of women didn’t like me due to that,” she stated.

Lastly, by senior yr, she stated, “I used to be very favored—folks favored me.”

She wasn’t the one individual in Cantonment wrapped up within the standing, custom and pageantry of the occasion. For a lot of households within the military-centric Pensacola suburb of about 26,000 folks—the place teenage soccer gamers and cheerleaders are handled like borderline celebrities—homecoming is the city’s Oscars evening, locals advised me.

Together with incomes respect and admiration, homecoming queens garner glowing native information write-ups and take residence a glimmering crown as a trophy. However the vote has additionally been identified to irk some mother and father and inflame native politics, which tends to be break up geographically between rich north-enders and poorer people on the south aspect of city, in keeping with locals.

“It’s undoubtedly a southern factor—homecoming is large down right here,” Carroll stated, explaining the world is culturally nearer to Alabama than Florida. “It’s an enormous expense, and lots of effort for what’s mainly a popularity-beauty contest.”

That evening, not all people was happy that Grover had received. “There have been some offended mothers,” Carroll stated. “The runner-up was born to be homecoming queen; her mama was most likely a homecoming queen. She’s a cheerleader, blonde and candy and ding-y.”

An nameless tip got here into the Escambia County Faculty District’s fraud and abuse hotline the following day, which was Halloween. The thriller tipster claimed Grover had used the district’s “FOCUS” account—a pc system the place college students can see their grades, attendance, and disciplinary information—to rig the election.

The district’s chief investigator Gary Marsh shortly started probing the “scorching tip,” in keeping with court docket paperwork. He found 372 pupil information had been considered by way of Carroll’s account prior to now 14 months, 339 of which had been from Tate Excessive Faculty, in keeping with court docket papers. The teenager had logged-in to get the “names and dates of beginning of individuals used for voting,” the tipster reported, in keeping with Marsh.

When questioned in a deposition later, Marsh stated he couldn’t keep in mind if the tip had are available by way of e mail or telephone. A lawyer for the ladies, Randy Etheridge, referred to as the tip “rumour” and suspects it could have come from somebody “inside the faculty district.”

Marsh, a former inner Naval crimes investigator, has a popularity for being a bulldog, stated Carroll, who labored at Bellview Elementary Faculty, not removed from the highschool. “When he’s approaching campus, somebody is dropping a job. The top level isn’t good.”

So when he demanded solutions from Carroll, she initially clammed up and denied that she or anybody else had appeared on the accounts, Marsh stated in a deposition. Ultimately, she admitted to letting her daughter use her log-in “as a result of hers wasn’t working,” he stated. Requested why so many pupil profiles had been accessed by way of her account, she couldn’t present “any clarification in regards to the huge numbers.”

Carroll wasn’t precisely useful when questioned by Brian Johnson, the district’s pc safety supervisor, both. “It was not a nice interview,” he stated in a deposition. “My query in regards to the data safety coaching, I believe her response was… ‘I don’t take note of that bullshit.” (Marsh and Johnson declined to remark by way of a college district spokesman.)

Is it political? Perhaps. Does somebody have an ax to grind? Perhaps.

So investigators started digging round elsewhere. On Nov. 4, they interviewed not less than 9 college students—producing witness statements that learn like a cross between screenplays for Gossip Woman and Legislation and Order.

“I’ve identified that Emily Grover logs into her mothers [sic] account to entry grades and check scores since freshman yr after we turned mates,” one teenager, whose title was redacted, wrote in bubbly handwriting. “She has appeared up my pupil ID earlier than with a purpose to inform me what I bought on my FST and ACT… She appears to be like up all of our group of mates’ grades and makes feedback about how she will discover out our check scores all the time.”

Different excessive schoolers reported that Grover, “didn’t look like logging in was an enormous deal” and that she did it to seek out out “what number of days, like, somebody was absent or one thing.”

Grover’s greatest pal, whose title was additionally redacted, gave the impression to be on the defensive. “I’ve heard folks/ college students saying the rumor that ‘lots of votes’ had been voted tremendous late,” the teenager wrote. “Emily Grover was going round [leadership class] saying I rigged senior superlatives or I’m making an attempt. I’m confused about the place any of that is coming from. I undoubtedly haven’t.”

Nonetheless, none of them reported having direct data about Grover allegedly rigging the election. And one lady advised investigators Grover appeared genuinely confused about the way it might have occurred.

“Emily and I had been sitting at a desk together with her mother when all of this occurred, and Emily stated, ‘It might be my luck if somebody hacked the system and voted for me and bought me disqualified when I’ve nothing to do with it,’” stated the teenager, who did Grover’s hair and make-up earlier than the ceremony.

“Every time I bought to Emily’s home, she was having a freakout, saying she thought that possibly anyone had finished it for her,” she added later in a deposition.

By that time, rumors had begun swirling round campus—and had gotten again to Grover—after Grey referred to as college students, asking in regards to the “false” votes. However the trainer, who disagreed with the superintendent’s resolution to crown Grover homecoming queen, hadn’t spoken to the teenager straight that day, in keeping with her deposition.

As an alternative of merely turning the proof over to highschool directors, Marsh referred to as the police. He handed the case over to the Florida Division of Legislation Enforcement, whose pc crimes unit usually probes critical id theft and web fraud violations.

Particular Agent Stephanie Cassidy quickly discovered {that a} complete of 124 votes had come from the identical IP handle—Carroll’s cellular phone—between 8 p.m. and a couple of a.m. on Oct. 29 and Oct. 30, 2020, in keeping with investigators. A second IP handle, the place not less than 122 extra votes had been forged, was allegedly linked to a pc at Carroll’s residence. However by the point Cassidy confirmed up on Carroll’s doorstep, she had lawyered up. Any questions might go straight to her lawyer, she advised the cop.

In December, as the college board weighed whether or not to expel Grover, the teenager despatched a vacation reindeer trinket and a letter to the district’s new superintendent, Timothy Smith. In it, she allegedly apologized for taking a look at different pupil’s accounts—however stopped in need of admitting to rigging the homecoming election, in keeping with court docket paperwork.

Within the following weeks, a number of academics, mentors and coaches vouched for Grover to the board. One tennis coach testified that she was an all-around good child, who “is personable, likable, humorous, athletic, a group participant and trustworthy” and even tutored his baby, in keeping with faculty district paperwork from January. “He considers Emily to be one of many high 10 children of all of the totally different a whole bunch of youngsters he’s coached all through the years.”

The varsity board pushed this as absolutely the crime of the century.

The teenager’s Consideration Deficit Dysfunction additionally got here up, with one counselor expressing concern that the alleged hack could also be linked to impulsivity brought on by her incapacity. “One part of [ADD] is an lack of ability to understand the results of sure conduct,” the counselor stated.

A number of academics additionally stood up for Grover, saying she’s a “very exhausting employee” who “will get alongside effectively with others” and has by no means “acted violent or disruptive or disobedient.”

However the board in the end kicked her out of the college, writing that “Emily seems remorseful and is clearly a really vivid pupil” however she induced a “main disruption.” Her conduct was “not a manifestation of her incapacity,” the district discovered.

Carroll was later fired from her job as assistant principal. Requested in regards to the resolution,, Smith stated native mother and father’ fears about pc safety performed a job. “[The] piece that rattled lots of people was whether or not our system and all of the personal information we now have was protected, from an accessibility perspective. May anyone go do that?” Smith stated in a deposition. “And in order that was a part of what we had been speaking, is that our software program is protected; this system is tight.”

“I had some mother and father who—I had one mum or dad specifically —who wished to know if their child’s information had been seen and was involved about that,” he stated. “It was making an attempt to regulate the worry of—not management—however relaxation folks assured.”

Smith claimed college students had been upset by the alleged rigged election, too. “I believe, for one, high-school traditions, cultures and so forth [ were damaged]. I believe that had a detrimental affect on children as a result of that’s a particular time for seniors,” he stated. “I might simply say the dignity of it was broken…I believe children felt—I don’t know, dissatisfied or betrayed.”

The varsity district declined to discuss the case and the FDLE didn’t reply to questions. However Scott Augenbaum, a former FBI cyber crimes investigator, stated mother and father’ fears weren’t unfounded.

“To me, it’s a respectable concern. Id theft is likely one of the largest-growing issues within the U.S. with 11 million thefts a yr,” stated Augenbaum, who wrote the e-book The Secret to Cybersecurity: A Easy Plan to Shield Your Household and Enterprise from Cybercrime. “Somebody might have gotten entry to all of these college students’ data.”

Nonetheless, he stated, it’s uncommon {that a} small-town case like this is able to make all of it the way in which to trial. “Is it political? Perhaps.” he stated. “Does somebody have an ax to grind? Perhaps.”

Carroll and Grover’s strong-willed, reputation-focused refusal to speak to cops and take a no-jail plea settlement additionally performed a job in why issues escalated. “They anticipated us to say, ‘Yeah, we did it’—however we didn’t,” Carroll stated. “I wouldn’t allow them to discuss to my daughter. We simply didn’t reply their questions the way in which they wished us to.”

Halfway by way of the investigation, Etheridge requested Particular Agent Cassidy for the “courtesy” of notifying him if a warrant was issued within the pair’s arrest, so they might flip themselves in, in keeping with court docket paperwork.

As an alternative, the FDLE despatched a number of cop automobiles to mother and daughter’s residence inside minutes of getting the warrant, in keeping with Etheridge and court docket paperwork. “It was like killing a fly with a hammer,” Etheridge stated. “Police acted like they had been freaking Al Capone.”

Cops then put out a press launch inside hours of the arrest declaring, “FDLE arrests mom and daughter for unauthorized entry into a whole bunch of pupil accounts.” It detailed how they had been hit with three felony prices and one misdemeanor, together with prison use of personally identifiable data and illegal use of a two-way communications gadget.

The press launch sparked a firestorm of native and nationwide media protection, together with disdain for Grover and Carroll. “As a mom of a Tate graduate, one that’s an upcoming senior and one other an incoming freshman, I’m furious that [Carroll] gave her snot nosed brat of a daughter entry to MY baby’s information!” one lady fumed within the remark part of, which covered the story.“I really feel as violated as I might if she labored within the medical discipline and violated HIPAA!”

One other native advised me, “Lots of people round [Carroll] can’t stand her now. Tate Excessive is a extra rural faculty, with that small-town angle.”

Two days after the arrest, homecoming queen runner-up Ariyana Wyatt spoke to Good Morning America in regards to the scandal. “The opposite women that might have received, that wished it—that might have been one of many runner-ups—I really feel dangerous for them as a result of that was a chance that they misplaced,” she stated.

Wyatt and second runner up, Kendall Blackmon, didn’t return requests for remark. Reached by telephone, Blackmon’s sister, Kaleigh, snapped, “It’s in her previous. She doesn’t need to speak about it.”

Etheridge’s protection thus far hinges on a tech forensics knowledgeable who discovered that the 124 votes linked to Carroll’s cellular phone had been truly forged in a 20-minute time interval. “That’s not humanly potential,” he stated, including it could be an indication a pc program was used, or {that a} tech glitch occurred.

Etheridge, who took the case pro-bono as favor to Grover’s dad, calls the duo “my women” and Carroll “Mama Bear” in a silky southern accent. Although he initially inspired them to take a no-jail plea settlement, he’s skeptical as a result of “no person can level to a human at Election Runner who can confirm the ‘false’ votes,” he stated. “No one is aware of the place these yo-yos come from… There’s not one human being that may say definitively that it got here from this IP handle.”

He additionally disputes the 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. timeline laid out by investigators, partly, as a result of the app has generated studies based mostly on a number of time zones, in keeping with court docket paperwork.

Etheridge stated Carroll could have been jogging with out her cellular phone on the time of the alleged hack and that Grover was “spending the evening at a buddy’s home.” Neither he nor the ladies, nevertheless, have a concept about who could have forged the votes or how the ordeal unfolded, they advised me.

In the end, Etheridge believes officers blew the case out of proportion, contemplating it’s a non-violent crime with no named victims. “The varsity board pushed this as absolutely the crime of the century,” he stated. “They pushed it to the restrict.” There’s no proof that any college students’ grades had been modified or that private data was stolen, in keeping with court docket paperwork. (Prosecutor Tom Williams declined to remark.)

Even so, Etheridge stated he urged Grover and Carroll to take a no-jail plea settlement, the phrases of that are unclear. However Carroll continues to insist, “It wasn’t a lot of a deal.”

“They’re saying, by God, we didn’t do it,” Etheridge stated. “So we’re going to trial towards my recommendation.”

Because the arrest, Carroll stated she’s develop into the Hester Prynne of the Florida panhandle—condemned by a city rife with ethical panic. “I don’t actually even go away the home anymore,” she stated. “I can depend on one hand the quantity of people that have stood by me by way of this.”

Seeing her personal unflattering mugshot splashed throughout TV screens has been exhausting to abdomen. “It’s terrible—each time I see it, I cringe,” she stated, including everybody appears to have an opinion about her, her daughter and the case.

“So many individuals stated, ‘She’ll let the child take the rap’ or ‘The child will get off’—all people’s bought their predictions,” Carroll stated, calling it hurtful. “I don’t know why I care a lot about individuals who don’t know me. It doesn’t matter; all of them already suppose we’re responsible.”

However she added, “The reality will rise. I believe it would.”

Grover has had a harder time. After she was taken into custody in March, police arrested her once more and charged her as an grownup. She was forbidden from graduating together with her class, has misplaced greater than 20 kilos, and is seeing a psychiatrist for trauma triggered by incidents with the cops, together with different points, she stated.

Within the 2021 Tate Excessive Faculty yearbook, college students photoshopped a horse’s ass over Grover’s face—inflicting the books to be recalled in Could, in keeping with Carroll and local reports. “It was terrible. [She’s] coping with the scorn of her friends in each venue,” Carroll stated. “She went from being all people’s pal to having no mates.” Youngsters have harassed her on social media and by way of textual content, together with with a merciless group message mocking her mugshot, she stated.

In August, lower than every week earlier than Grover’s freshman yr was set to start on the College of Western Florida, she acquired a letter saying she was not welcome. The varsity alleged that Grover “didn’t disclose” that she’d been charged with against the law, in keeping with Carroll.

“She’s 18 years previous and this impacts her incomes potential and her picture,” stated Carroll, including she’s since employed a non-public investigator to dig up data earlier than trial.

“There are such a lot of layers to this case; it’s so warped and twisted.”

Grover, for her half, simply desires life to return to regular. “I would like the reality to return out, for folks to love me once more, to have the ability to go to highschool—and to only be glad,” she stated.

Greater than a yr after the alleged hack, the mother and daughter insist that even after the “false” votes had been deleted, Grover nonetheless received the bulk. (Court docket paperwork seem to again up that declare.)

And the college district by no means formally stripped Grover of the crown, she stated. “Individuals stated it bought revoked—however that by no means occurred.” The teenager nonetheless retains the gleaming headwear tucked away inside her mother’s brick home.

Final month, a brand new homecoming queen was named at Tate Excessive Faculty. Like Grover, the younger lady, Darby Phillips, had blonde hair and a smile as she clutched a bouquet of crimson roses throughout the ceremony. One thing was lacking, although.

Custom has it, final yr’s homecoming queen returns to cross off the crown to the brand new winner. However this yr, the customized was scrapped for one huge purpose, Grover stated. “They didn’t ask me again.”

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