Usually, no one remembers who won the title of homecoming king and queen once you leave high school. However, no one will forget the year Emily Grover was crowned homecoming queen at Tate High School. Five months after she received the crown and sash, police cars showed up at her home to arrest Grover and her mom, Laura Carroll.
In the small town of Cantonment, Florida, Grover and Carroll were accused of hacking students’ accounts to cast votes for the homecoming queen contest. Now they face up to 16 years in prison for rigging the vote, but they say they’ve been framed. Their punishment is harsher than if they had murdered someone, so what really happened?
The Day Their Lives Changed
On March 15, 2021, police surrounded a quaint home in the small town of Cantonment, Florida, to arrest two accused cyberhackers. The cops arranged themselves like a SWAT team around the house as they banged on the windows and shouted for the criminals to come outside. Moments later, an unlikely pair showed their faces.
Laura Carroll, a 50-year-old elementary school vice principal, and her 17-year-old daughter, Emily Grover, a popular straight-A student at Tate High School, were the criminals in question. The police arrested them and took Carroll to jail and Grover to a juvenile detention center. They were as shocked and confused as everyone watching.
Two Sides to Every Story
According to Grover’s family, friends, and teachers, she was a beloved tennis star who worked hard to get good grades despite struggling with ADD, only to become entangled in a technical error and then made into an example. However, the police painted a much different picture of the high school student.
When law enforcement and school officials told the story, Grover and her mother were villains. They said the mother-daughter duo ruined the legacy of the homecoming tradition, scared parents, and caused a legitimate cyber security threat to hundreds of students. The two sides had polar opposite opinions of Grover and Carroll.
Everything started to change for Grover and Carroll on the day she was crowned homecoming queen. On October 30, 2020, Caroline Gray, a student council teacher in charge of the homecoming vote, was the first to notice something suspicious. She observed that the voting app flagged dozens of “false” votes.
Gray was a well-liked teacher at the school and had a good relationship with Grover. But she was wary about the “invalid” votes cast in Grover’s favor. To see if there was something wrong with the system, she called at least four students to ask if their votes were legitimate.
Something Wasn’t Right
When the students were asked about their votes, some said they hadn’t voted, and others said the app showed a message that they had already voted. Gray knew something wasn’t right about the situation, so she reported the data to then-superintendent Malcolm Thomas, who decided to give Grover the award anyway.
The app had reported false data on a smaller scale in the past, and a winner had to be named in time for the ceremony that evening. What made it even more bizarre was that Gray received a message from Grover that someone had cheated or “hacked the system.”
A Moment of Glory
Although Gray knew something was wrong with the votes, Grover was still announced as the homecoming queen that evening. Wearing a sparkly dress with her hair done, she smiled as she held a bouquet of roses at the homecoming ceremony. She was ready for her close-up.
Grover beamed as her dad, Bubba Grover, escorted her across the football field with cheers coming from the stands. She basked in the glory. Winning meant the world to her. She finally felt like her peers had accepted her after years of feeling like an outcast.
New Girl at School
Grover’s family moved to Cantonment when she started her freshman year. Most of the people at the high school had been in the same classes since they were children, but she was the new girl with no friends, so she felt like an outsider.
She said, “A lot of the girls didn’t like me because I was new.” Finally, by Grover’s senior year, she felt that people liked her. She had many friends and got along with everyone. Grover was an athlete and team player, but those people turned against her overnight.
The Event Was Like the Oscars
Grover wasn’t the only one who cared deeply about the status, tradition, and pageantry of the ceremony. In a town where high school football players and cheerleaders are treated like celebrities, homecoming was Cantonment’s version of the Oscars. Those who won the title got all the admiration.
Homecoming queens also got a write-up in the local newspaper and took home a pretty crown along with the title. However, the vote has been known to bother parents and cause political debates. The town splits between the wealthy north-enders and the poorer south side.
Not Happy About the Win
The costly contest was basically a popularity-beauty pageant, and not everyone was pleased with the vote results. There were many angry moms in the stands. According to Carroll, “The runner-up was born to be homecoming queen; her mama was probably homecoming queen.”
An anonymous tip came into the Escambia County School District’s fraud and abuse hotline the following day. The person said Grover used the district’s “FOCUS” account to rig the election. FOCUS was a computer system for students to view their grades, attendance, and disciplinary records.
Investigating the Anonymous Tip
Gary Marsh, the district’s chief investigator, began examining the tip. He discovered 372 student records had been viewed through Carroll’s account in the past 14 months. She worked as the vice-principal at the district’s elementary school, but 339 names were from Tate High School.
The tipster also said that Grover logged in to get the names and birth dates of people used for voting. Later, Grover and Carroll’s lawyer said the tip was “hearsay,” implying it was probably from an angry parent or student who didn’t want Grover to win.
When Marsh questioned Carroll, she clammed up and denied the allegations. Marsh had a reputation for being scary, so she said no one looked at the accounts. However, she later admitted to letting Grover use her log-in because the teen said hers wasn’t working.
Carroll couldn’t explain the large number of profiles that were accessed through her account. When questioned by Brian Johnson, the district’s computer security manager, she wasn’t very helpful either. Therefore, investigators interviewed students to get more information, but their statements were more like quotes from Gossip Girl.
Her Classmates Turned Against Her
A few of the students who gave statements said Grover would outwardly brag about using her mom’s account to check test scores and grades. She would check other students’ grades for them too. Even Grover’s best friend said she bragged about rigging the senior superlatives.
However, someone said Grover was genuinely confused when the rumors circulated that the election was rigged. Still, no one reported having direct knowledge that Grover rigged the homecoming elections, so there wasn’t much to go on. This was also making Grover’s life at school challenging.
Taking It to the Next Level
Instead of turning the evidence over to the school’s administrators, Marsh gave the case to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, whose computer crimes unit often deals with serious cases. They treated this like it was the crime of the century.
Special Agent Stephanie Cassidy soon found that 124 votes had come from the same IP address, which happened to be Carroll’s phone. About 122 more votes came from the IP address matching Carroll’s computer. But when Cassidy went to question her, she had already gotten a lawyer.
They Wanted to Expel Her
Two months after homecoming, the school board was deciding if they should expel Grover or not. She had sent a holiday gift and note to the new superintendent, Timothy Smith, and apologized for accessing students’ accounts but didn’t mention the votes.
Grover’s teachers came to her defense and vouched to the school board that she was a good kid. Her tennis coach said Grover was “likable, funny, athletic, a team player, and honest.” However, her ADD was brought up as a possible reason.
Blaming Her ADD
Grover had attention deficit disorder, which came up in the discussion to expel her. One counselor expressed concern that she might have hacked the voting system due to impulsivity caused by her ADD. They said she wouldn’t have thought about the consequences.
The same counselor said, “One component of ADD is an inability to appreciate the consequences of certain behavior.” However, teachers defended her because she always worked hard and never acted out in class. Some people believed she would never do anything like this.
Kicked Out of School
Despite her teachers’ testimonies that Grover was a hard worker who never acted violent or disruptive, the board ultimately expelled her from school. They said, “Emily appears remorseful and is clearly a very bright student, but she caused a major disruption,” and it was not because of her disability.
Carroll was also fired from her job as assistant principal. The decision was more because of pressure from other parents with fears about computer security. The town was rattled that their private data was not safe in the school’s system.
From the outside it seems that Grover and her mom were already punished by being fired and kicked out of school. However, it seemed like someone had a vendetta against them. Experts didn’t think this small-town case would make it to trial.
Unfortunately, Carroll and Grover’s refusal to speak to the cops and take a no-jail plea agreement played a role in why things escalated. They were focused on their reputation, which was ruined. Carroll said, “They expected us to say we did it, but we didn’t.”
Treating Them Like Real Criminals
Halfway through the investigation, the women’s lawyer, Randy Etheridge, asked Agent Cassidy to inform him if a warrant was being issued for the pair’s arrest so they could turn themselves in. However, the cops showed up at their home within minutes of getting the warrant.
Etheridge said, “Police acted like they were freaking Al Capone.” The women were hit with three felony charges and one misdemeanor. It was as if they had killed someone, but they were only accused of rigging a high school homecoming queen contest. People wanted them behind bars.
Few Have Sympathy for Them
Their arrest and the press release from the police sparked a firestorm of local and national media attention. Many locals had horrible things to say. One said, “I am livid that Carroll gave her snot-nosed daughter access to MY child’s records.”
People compared the women allegedly casting fake votes to giving out medical information and violating HIPPA. They were perceived as enemies in the town, and few people sympathized with them. Carroll and Grover stopped leaving their home, and the teen is now the butt of jokes.
Pleading Not Guilty
After her arrest, Grover pled “not guilty” in court to the four charges she faced. The women’s cases then went through a discovery phase so their attorney could understand what evidence the state had against them. Grover will also be charged as an adult.
Although she was a minor when the alleged hacking occurred, Grover has since turned 18. The state attorney said the juvenile court cannot do anything or supervise anyone after they are 18, so it made better sense to move her into adult court.
A Breakthrough in Their Defense
Carroll and Grover have been adamant that they are not guilty, and their lawyer had a breakthrough in the case. Etheridge brought in a tech forensics expert, who found that the 124 votes linked to Carroll’s cellphone were actually cast in 20 minutes.
He said it wouldn’t have been humanly possible for Grover or Carroll to cast that many votes in a small window of time. Etheridge added that this could be a sign that a computer program was used, or a technical glitch occurred. However, he had his doubts at first.
Their Lawyer Wanted Them to Take the Plea Deal
Etheridge, who took the case pro-bono as a favor to Grover’s dad, initially encouraged them to take the no-jail plea deal. He was skeptical because “nobody can point to a human at Election Runner who can verify the ‘false’ votes” or verify the IP address.
While Carroll and Grover refused to take the plea deal, Etheridge found that the timeline from the investigators wasn’t correct. The app generated reports based on multiple time zones, so the votes didn’t actually come in between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m. in Florida.
They Both Have Possible Alibis
Although the exact time the votes came in is unknown, Carroll might have been jogging without her cellphone at the time of the alleged hack, and Grover was spending the night at her friend’s house. However, neither has a theory about who may have cast the votes.
Unfortunately, Etheridge doesn’t have a theory of how the ordeal might have unfolded. If they could figure out the exact window when the fraudulent votes were submitted, it’s possible that the women could be exonerated from the charges.
The Effects Have Been Damaging
While this could have ended with a slap on the wrist because it’s a non-violent crime with no named victims, the school board pushed it further, and Grover is suffering because of it. Besides being expelled from school, Grover was forbidden to graduate and lost her acceptance to college.
Grover also lost a significant amount of weight due to the stress of the situation. After being taken into custody in March, police arrested her again and charged her as an adult. This could affect her for the rest of her life, and she is just a teenager.
Their Faces Were All Over the News
Carroll said she could count on one hand the people who have stood by her through this situation. Every time the case was brought up on the news, she hated seeing her unflattering mugshot. Carroll revealed that it makes her cringe every time.
Because of the publicity the case has gotten, everyone has an opinion about Carroll and her daughter. She said, “So many people said, ‘She’ll let the kid take the rap’ or ‘The kid will get off.’ Everybody’s got their predictions. I don’t know why I care so much.”
Carroll Was a Teacher for Two Decades
Before the incident, Carroll was an educator for two decades. She began teaching in Escambia County Schools in 2000 before she became an assistant principal in 2015. She had a passion for elementary education and leading educational leadership courses.
Now, she won’t be able to work in a school again because of this case. It has gained national media attention. Therefore, even if she can eventually move out of state, her record will follow her. It is unlikely that another school will hire Carroll in the future.
She Would Have Won Anyway
It has been over a year since the alleged hack, and court documents show Grover would have won the majority vote even after the ‘false’ votes were deleted. The school never stripped her of the crown, but the case is still ongoing.
In October 2021, Tate High School crowned a new homecoming queen. However, something was missing from the ceremony. Traditionally, the previous homecoming queen returns to pass off the crown to the new winner, but the tradition was scrapped, and Grover wasn’t asked back.
It Isn’t About Voting Fraud
Carroll and Grover are charged with offenses against users of computer systems, networks, and electronic devices. They are also charged with illegally using personally identifiable information and conspiracy to commit the crimes. The case has nothing to do with voter fraud and rigging the election.
ABC News chief legal analyst Dan Abrams said the women face legal charges for accessing the computer files and misusing the ability to access these systems. However, Abrams believes prosecutors are overcharging them to force them into a plea deal that they have refused to take.
The Tactics Aren’t Working
According to Abrams, the prosecutors are making a statement, which is, “We’re going to force you to admit responsibility for this, and as a result, we’re going to throw everything at you.” Those tactics haven’t worked so far. But without a plea deal, the women have to go to trial.
Carroll and Grover’s trial could start as soon as January, but their lawyers might struggle to back up the defense. Any evidence involving a digital footprint is easily traceable. The digital evidence points to them even if their story is true and they didn’t do it.
Their Body Language Is Questionable
Although they have become social outcasts in their town, Carroll and Grover have opened up to the media. They had an interview with Good Morning America, and internet users went wild analyzing their body language. A body language expert has not weighed in, but people believe they’re guilty.
People commented that Grover was smiling during the interview only to then suddenly break out in tears. They questioned why she would smile if she were charged for a crime she didn’t commit. Others claimed Grover’s tears were fake. The general public is just as against them as the town.
They Cut Her Out of the Yearbook
After the homecoming scandal, the yearbook committee was instructed in November 2020 (not even a month after the incident) to remove images of Grover from the yearbook. The students said they had few options to replace a photo of Grover and four girls.
The yearbook committee made a quick decision and put a sticker of a bucking horse over Grover’s face. Samantha Guerrier, the yearbook editor, was suspended and barred from walking in graduation for putting the horse’s rear end over Grover’s face. But people petitioned to have the decision reversed.
The Yearbook Editor Got to Graduate
Although Grover has not been proven guilty, she didn’t get the same lenience as the yearbook editor who defaced her picture in the yearbook. Guerrier’s classmates rallied around her to get the school’s decision reversed so she could walk in the graduation ceremony.
Guerrier claimed it was an accident that the sticker was placed in that position. However, with all the hate Grover has received since she was expelled from school, it seems like it was done on purpose. The yearbook was only recalled after most of them were distributed.
The Punishment Doesn’t Fit
Grover and Carroll’s trial hasn’t started yet, but they face up to 16 years in prison each. This is far more than most ransom hackers would receive. Someone who walked up to a police officer and stabbed him only got five years in prison.
Ambitious investigators have turned this minor case into something much more significant. The judge and jury must consider that there were no real victims in this crime. The two have become sacrificial lambs because of angry parents.
They Are Guilty of Something
Even if Carroll and Grover didn’t rig the election or hack the voting system, Grover still accessed student information through her mom’s account. Although she didn’t share any data, it was correct to punish her for using her mom’s log-in to see other people’s grades.
The expulsion was enough punishment for looking at student information without permission. But it seems school officials and law enforcement want to ruin Grover and Carroll’s lives. Because she was charged with three felonies, that will be on Grover’s record even if she is acquitted.
What Will Happen to Them?
They haven’t been tried yet, but reports state that Grover and Carroll’s trial could begin as soon as January 2022. Their attorney has been working hard to establish a solid defense to back up their claims that they did not rig the election.
They could still be charged for accessing student information, but they would get a more lenient sentence if found guilty. However, if the defense does not have enough evidence to prove they had nothing to do with it, they could be in prison for a decade. More updates will follow when the trial begins.