Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty
On March 15, four police cruisers pulled up to a modest brick house in the sleepy town of Cantonment, Florida, to arrest two accused hackers. The cops fanned out swat team-style around the home, stationing themselves at the front, back, and side doors. They pounded on windows and demanded the alleged cybercrooks show their faces, according to witnesses and court documents.
Out came an unlikely pair: Laura Carroll, a petite 50-year-old elementary school vice principal and her 17-year-old daughter, Emily Grover, a popular local tennis star and “A” student at nearby Tate High School.
Police cuffed the women and, at one point, Carroll begged them to let her put on a bra before hauling her away to jail, she said. The teen was taken to a juvenile detention center.
Eight months later, they both face 16 years in prison—a punishment harsher than what some high-level ransomware attackers and corporate data thieves receive. But the pair stands accused of a more bizarre crime: hacking into a school computer system to rig a homecoming election in Grover’s favor.
The alleged cheat for glory could have ended with a slap on the wrist if it weren’t for local parents’ fears, investigators’ ambitions and the pair’s own stubbornness, according to hundreds of pages of court documents and interviews with people involved. The duo has refused a no-jail plea agreement, and the case is now headed to trial as soon as January, their lawyer said.
In an interview, the women tell me they’ve become town pariahs who rarely leave the house and are desperately trying to repair their reputation — and they have no plans to back down. “We’re not pleading guilty to something we didn’t do,” Carroll said. “If there was any crime committed, the punishment doesn’t fit.”
“For us, the most important thing is to clear our name, and to let the whole honest story come out,” she said.
To hear Grover’s family, friends and teachers tell it, she was a beloved athlete who worked hard to overcome attention deficit disorder, only to become ensnared in a tech mix-up and made into a sacrificial lamb.
To hear law enforcement and school officials tell it, Grover and her mother tarnished the “dignity” of the time-honored homecoming tradition, “rattled” parents and caused a legitimate computer security threat to hundreds of students.
To win the crown, investigators say Grover got dozens of students’ ID numbers and birthdates from a district-wide computer system using her vice principal mom’s log-in. The pair then allegedly cast at least 246 fake votes for the teen on Carroll’s cellphone and a computer at their home through Election Runner, a third-party app used by the school.
Emily Grover, left, and her mother, Laura Carroll.
Escambia County Jail
Caroline Gray, a student council teacher in charge of the homecoming vote, was first to spot something fishy, according to court documents. On the morning of Oct. 30, 2020—the day Grover was crowned at an elaborate ceremony—Gray noticed the app had flagged dozens of “false” votes.
Gray, who is known for being a dedicated educator, earned the school’s Teacher of the Year award in 2017. Despite her good relationship with Grover, she was suspicious about the “invalid” votes cast in the teen’s favor, according to her deposition. So she called at least four students, including a boy who had supposedly cast his vote at 4 a.m., to see if their votes were legit.
Some of those students told her they hadn’t voted. Others said they tried but got a message from the app saying they’d already voted, according to investigators.
So Gray reported the suspicious data to then-superintendent Malcolm Thomas, who made the call to let Grover receive the award anyway, according to court documents. The app had reported fraudulent votes on a smaller scale in the past, and a winner had to be named in time for the ceremony that night. (Gray declined to comment through a school district spokesman.)
At around 11:50 a.m., the teacher also received an unsolicited text message from Grover saying she’d heard, “Someone was like cheating or hacked the system like early in the morning?,” according to investigators.
The school announced Grover queen, and soon she was ready for her close-up. Sporting a glittery dress and blonde hair, she flashed a smile as she clutched a bouquet of red roses at the homecoming ceremony, photos from the local news site northescambia.com show. Her dad, Bubba Grover, escorted her across a school football field while dressed in a three-piece tuxedo and bowtie as fans in the stands cheered.
Winning meant the world to Grover, who had previously considered herself an outcast on campus, she told me. “I came here freshman year as the new girl. Most people at my high school went to the same middle school, and had been friends forever. So a lot of girls didn’t like me because of that,” she said.
Finally, by senior year, she said, “I was very liked—people liked me.”
She wasn’t the only person in Cantonment wrapped up in the status, tradition and pageantry of the event. For many families in the military-centric Pensacola suburb of about 26,000 people—where teenage football players and cheerleaders are treated like borderline celebrities—homecoming is the town’s Oscars night, locals told me.
Along with earning respect and admiration, homecoming queens garner glowing local news write-ups and take home a glimmering crown as a trophy. But the vote has also been known to irk some parents and inflame local politics, which tends to be split geographically between wealthy north-enders and poorer folks on the south side of town, according to locals.
“It’s definitely a Southern thing—homecoming is huge down here,” Carroll said, explaining the area is culturally closer to Alabama than Florida. “It’s a huge expense, and a lot of effort for what is basically a popularity-beauty contest.”
That night, not everybody was pleased that Grover had won. “There were some angry moms,” Carroll said. “The runner-up was born to be homecoming queen; her mama was probably a homecoming queen. She’s a cheerleader, blonde and sweet and ding-y.”
An anonymous tip came into the Escambia County School District’s fraud and abuse hotline the next day, which was Halloween. The mystery tipster claimed Grover had used the district’s “FOCUS” account—a computer system where students can see their grades, attendance, and disciplinary records—to rig the election.
The district’s chief investigator Gary Marsh quickly began probing the “hot tip,” according to court documents. He discovered 372 student records had been viewed through Carroll’s account in the past 14 months, 339 of which were from Tate High School, according to court papers. The teen had logged in to get the “names and dates of birth of people used for voting,” the tipster reported, according to Marsh.
When questioned in a deposition later, Marsh said he couldn’t remember if the tip had come in via email or phone. A lawyer for the women, Randy Etheridge, called the tip “hearsay” and suspects it may have come from someone “within the school district.”
Marsh, a former internal Naval crimes investigator, has a reputation for being a bulldog, said Carroll, who worked at Bellview Elementary School, not far from the high school. “When he’s coming on campus, someone is losing a job. The end point is never good.”
So when he demanded answers from Carroll, she initially clammed up and denied that she or anyone else had looked at the accounts, Marsh said in a deposition. Eventually, she admitted to letting her daughter use her log-in “because hers wasn’t working,” he said. Asked why so many student profiles had been accessed through her account, she couldn’t provide “any explanation about the vast numbers.”
Carroll wasn’t exactly helpful when questioned by Brian Johnson, the district’s computer security manager, either. “It was not a pleasant interview,” he said in a deposition. “My question about the information security training, I think her response was… ‘I don’t pay attention to that bullshit.” (Marsh and Johnson declined to comment through a school district spokesman.)
So investigators began digging around elsewhere. On Nov. 4, they interviewed at least nine students—generating witness statements that read like a cross between screenplays for Gossip Girl and Law and Order.
“I have known that Emily Grover logs into her moms [sic] account to access grades and test scores since freshman year when we became friends,” one teenager, whose name was redacted, wrote in bubbly handwriting. “She has looked up my student ID before in order to tell me what I got on my FST and ACT… She looks up all of our group of friends’ grades and makes comments about how she can find out our test scores all of the time.”
Other high schoolers reported that Grover, “did not seem like logging in was a big deal” and that she did it to find out “how many days, like, someone was absent or something.”
Grover’s best friend, whose name was also redacted, appeared to be on the defensive. “I’ve heard people/ students saying the rumor that ‘a lot of votes’ were voted super late,” the teen wrote. “Emily Grover was going around [leadership class] saying I rigged senior superlatives or I’m trying. I’m confused about where any of this is coming from. I definitely have not.”
Still, none of them reported having direct knowledge about Grover allegedly rigging the election. And one girl told investigators Grover seemed genuinely confused about how it could have happened.
“Emily and I were sitting at a table with her mom when all of this happened, and Emily said, ‘It would be my luck if someone hacked the system and voted for me and got me disqualified when I have nothing to do with it,’” said the teen, who did Grover’s hair and makeup before the ceremony.
“Whenever I got to Emily’s house, she was having a freakout, saying she thought that maybe somebody had done it for her,” she added later in a deposition.
By that point, rumors had begun swirling around campus—and had gotten back to Grover—after Gray called students, asking about the “false” votes. But the teacher, who disagreed with the superintendent’s decision to crown Grover homecoming queen, hadn’t spoken to the teen directly that day, according to her deposition.
Instead of simply turning the evidence over to school administrators, Marsh called the police. He handed the case over to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, whose computer crimes unit often probes serious identity theft and internet fraud violations.
Special Agent Stephanie Cassidy soon found that a total of 124 votes had come from the same IP address—Carroll’s cellphone—between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m. on Oct. 29 and Oct. 30, 2020, according to investigators. A second IP address, where at least 122 more votes had been cast, was allegedly linked to a computer at Carroll’s home. But by the time Cassidy showed up on Carroll’s doorstep, she had lawyered up. Any questions could go straight to her attorney, she told the cop.
In December, as the school board weighed whether to expel Grover, the teen sent a holiday reindeer trinket and a letter to the district’s new superintendent, Timothy Smith. In it, she allegedly apologized for looking at other student’s accounts—but stopped short of admitting to rigging the homecoming election, according to court documents.
In the following weeks, several teachers, mentors and coaches vouched for Grover to the board. One tennis coach testified that she was an all-around good kid, who “is personable, likable, funny, athletic, a team player and honest” and even tutored his child, according to school district documents from January. “He considers Emily to be one of the top 10 kids of all the different hundreds of kids he’s coached throughout the years.”
The teen’s attention deficit disorder also came up, with one counselor expressing concern that the alleged hack may be linked to impulsivity caused by her disability. “One component of [ADD] is an inability to appreciate the consequences of certain behavior,” the counselor said.
Several teachers also stood up for Grover, saying she’s a “very hard worker” who “gets along well with others” and has never “acted violent or disruptive or disobedient.”
But the board ultimately kicked her out of the school, writing that “Emily appears remorseful and is clearly a very bright student” but she caused a “major disruption.” Her behavior was “not a manifestation of her disability,” the district found.
Carroll was later fired from her job as assistant principal. Asked about the decision, Smith said local parents’ fears about computer security played a role. “[The] piece that rattled a lot of people was whether our system and all the private data we have was safe, from an accessibility perspective. Could anybody go do this?” Smith said in a deposition. “And so that was part of what we were communicating, is that our software is safe; the program is tight.”
“I had some parents who—I had one parent in particular —who wanted to know if their kid’s data had been seen and was concerned about that,” he said. “It was trying to control the fear of—not control—but rest people assured.”
Smith claimed students were upset by the alleged rigged election, too. “I think, for one, high-school traditions, cultures and so forth [ were damaged]. I think that had a negative impact on kids because that’s a special time for seniors,” he said. “I would just say the dignity of it was damaged… I think kids felt—I don’t know, disappointed or betrayed.”
The school district declined to speak about the case and the FDLE didn’t respond to questions. But Scott Augenbaum, a former FBI cybercrimes investigator, said parents’ fears were not unfounded.
“To me, it’s a legitimate concern. Identity theft is one of the largest-growing problems in the U.S. with 11 million thefts a year,” said Augenbaum, who wrote the book The Secret to Cybersecurity: A Simple Plan to Protect Your Family and Business from Cybercrime. “Someone could have gotten access to all of those students’ information.”
Still, he said, it’s unusual that a small-town case like this would make it all the way to trial. “Is it political? Maybe.” he said. “Does someone have an ax to grind? Maybe.”
Carroll and Grover’s strong-willed, reputation-focused refusal to talk to cops and take a no-jail plea agreement also played a role in why things escalated. “They expected us to say, ‘Yeah, we did it’—but we didn’t,” Carroll said. “I wouldn’t let them talk to my daughter. We just didn’t answer their questions the way they wanted us to.”
Midway through the investigation, Etheridge asked Special Agent Cassidy for the “courtesy” of notifying him if a warrant was issued in the pair’s arrest, so they could turn themselves in, according to court documents.
Instead, the FDLE sent multiple cop cars to mom and daughter’s home within minutes of getting the warrant, according to Etheridge and court documents. “It was like killing a fly with a hammer,” Etheridge said. “Police acted like they were freaking Al Capone.”
Cops then put out a press release within hours of the arrest declaring, “FDLE arrests mother and daughter for unauthorized access into hundreds of student accounts.” It detailed how they were hit with three felony charges and one misdemeanor, including criminal use of personally identifiable information and unlawful use of a two-way communications device.
The press release sparked a firestorm of local and national media coverage, along with disdain for Grover and Carroll. “As a mother of a Tate graduate, one that is an upcoming senior and another an incoming freshman, I’m livid that [Carroll] gave her snot nosed brat of a daughter access to MY child’s records!” one woman fumed in the comment section of northescambia.com, which covered the story.“I feel as violated as I would if she worked in the medical field and violated HIPAA!”
Another local told me, “A lot of people around [Carroll] can’t stand her now. Tate High is a more rural school, with that small-town attitude.”
Two days after the arrest, homecoming queen runner-up Ariyana Wyatt spoke to Good Morning America about the scandal. “The other girls that could have won, that wanted it—that could have been one of the runner-ups—I feel bad for them because that was an opportunity that they lost,” she said.
Wyatt and second runner up, Kendall Blackmon, didn’t return requests for comment. Reached by phone, Blackmon’s sister, Kaleigh, snapped, “It’s in her past. She doesn’t want to talk about it.”
Etheridge’s defense so far hinges on a tech forensics expert who found that the 124 votes linked to Carroll’s cellphone were actually cast in a 20-minute time period. “That’s not humanly possible,” he said, adding it may be a sign a computer 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 girls” and Carroll “Mama Bear” in a silky Southern accent. Though he initially encouraged them to take a no-jail plea agreement, he’s skeptical because “nobody can point to a human at Election Runner who can verify the ‘false’ votes,” he said. “Nobody knows where these yo-yos come from… There’s not one human being that can say definitively that it came from this IP address.”
He also disputes the 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. timeline laid out by investigators, in part, because the app has generated reports based on multiple time zones, according to court documents.
Etheridge said Carroll may have been jogging without her cellphone at the time of the alleged hack and that Grover was “spending the night at a buddy’s house.” Neither he nor the women, however, have a theory about who may have cast the votes or how the ordeal unfolded, they told me.
Ultimately, Etheridge believes officials blew the case out of proportion, considering it’s a non-violent crime with no named victims. “The school board pushed this as the absolute crime of the century,” he said. “They pushed it to the limit.” There’s no evidence that any students’ grades were changed or that personal information was stolen, according to court documents. (Prosecutor Tom Williams declined to comment.)
Even so, Etheridge said he urged Grover and Carroll to take a no-jail plea agreement, the terms of which are unclear. But Carroll continues to insist, “It wasn’t much of a deal.”
“They’re saying, by God, we didn’t do it,” Etheridge said. “So we’re going to trial against my advice.”
Since the arrest, Carroll said she’s become the Hester Prynne of the Florida panhandle—condemned by a town rife with moral panic. “I don’t really even leave the house anymore,” she said. “I can count on one hand the number of people who have stood by me through this.”
Seeing her own unflattering mugshot splashed across TV screens has been hard to stomach. “It’s awful—every time I see it, I cringe,” she said, adding everyone seems to have an opinion about her, her daughter and the case.
“So many people said, ‘She’ll let the kid take the rap’ or ‘The kid will get off’—everybody’s got their predictions,” Carroll said, calling it hurtful. “I don’t know why I care so much about people who don’t know me. It doesn’t matter; they all already think we’re guilty.”
But she added, “The truth will rise. I think it will.”
Grover has had a more difficult time. After she was taken into custody in March, police arrested her again and charged her as an adult. She was forbidden from graduating with her class, has lost more than 20 pounds, and is seeing a psychiatrist for trauma triggered by incidents with the cops, along with other issues, she said.
In the 2021 Tate High School yearbook, students photoshopped a horse’s ass over Grover’s face—causing the books to be recalled in May, according to Carroll and local reports. “It was awful. [She’s] dealing with the scorn of her peers in every venue,” Carroll said. “She went from being everybody’s friend to having no friends.” Teenagers have harassed her on social media and via text, including with a cruel group message mocking her mugshot, she said.
In August, less than a week before Grover’s freshman year was set to begin at the University of Western Florida, she received a letter saying she was no longer welcome. The school alleged that Grover “failed to disclose” that she’d been charged with a crime, according to Carroll.
“She’s 18 years old and this affects her earning potential and her image,” said Carroll, adding she’s since hired a private investigator to dig up information before trial.
“There are so many layers to this case; it’s so warped and twisted.”
Grover, for her part, just wants life to go back to normal. “I want the truth to come out, for people to like me again, to be able to go to school—and to just be happy,” she said.
More than a year after the alleged hack, the mom and daughter insist that even after the “false” votes were deleted, Grover still won the majority. (Court documents appear to back up that claim.)
And the school district never officially stripped Grover of the crown, she said. “People said it got revoked—but that never happened.” The teen still keeps the gleaming headwear tucked away inside her mom’s brick house.
Last month, a new homecoming queen was named at Tate High School. Like Grover, the young woman, Darby Phillips, had blonde hair and a smile as she clutched a bouquet of red roses during the ceremony. Something was missing, though.
Tradition has it, last year’s homecoming queen returns to pass off the crown to the new winner. But this year, the custom was scrapped for one big reason, Grover said. “They didn’t ask me back.”