Principal's Former Boyfriend, a Convicted Sex Offender, Allowed on School Grounds without a Background Check
Last updated 8/21/2023 at 11:36am
SPRING HILL – Another controversy is brewing in the Hernando County School District that has some parents wondering if it's safe to send their children back to a local elementary school next year.
Last month, R News began receiving complaints from several parents and teachers at Gulf Coast Elementary School who say the school's Principal allowed a convicted child molester on campus several times.
According to numerous complaints, Principal Melinda Heater was dating 43-year-old Patrick James Hurd, a convicted sex offender out of South Carolina, during the 2022-2023 school year. Heater reportedly allowed Hurd onto school grounds on multiple occasions without notifying anyone of Hurd's sex offender status. Hurd was convicted in 1999 on charges of Attempted Sodomy, Indecent Acts with a Minor, Commit Carnal Knowledge, and Indecent Acts Against a Minor. There are unconfirmed reports that Hurd, a former U.S. Marine, and three other Marines sexually abused a 15-year-old girl in the barracks for up to three days. R News has not been able to locate documents to confirm that narrative, but according to the Missouri State Police Sex Offender Registry, where Hurd resided before coming to Florida, Hurd is listed a Tier II Sex Offender. Hurd must register as a sex offender for 25 years and is supposed to check in bi-annually with local law enforcement, according to statutory requirement.
On May 30, 2023, the school's former Physical Education teacher Samantha Tollefson sent a mass email to numerous recipients, outlining dates she says Hurd was on school property.
The email reads in part, "It saddens me that I am the one to have to give you this information, instead of an apology letter from Ms. Heater, GCA middle administration, or Hernando County District safety update. This is a very serious situation, and you should be aware that Ms. Heater's (ex?) fiancé is a Level 2 sex offender and has been around your child multiple times."
Tollefson says Hurd was on school grounds during last year's Winter Fest, "conducting various activities, setting up lights, playing games, and even taking pictures." Tollefson confronted Heater about the issue and she says Heater replied, "Yes, but we are working with an attorney to have it removed." Not satisfied with that excuse, Tollefson replied, "I'm sorry but this is not okay, as of right now he is still a registered sex offender and should be nowhere near our school, let alone the freedom to walk around and play with our students." Tollefson says Heater's Administrative Assistant Christal Harris walked into the room and Heater stated, "Someone found out about Patrick." Heater and Tollefson continued debating the issue, referencing Florida and Missouri State Law.
Tollefson goes on to recall numerous times Hurd was allowed to roam freely about the school, not knowing that Hurd had never been asked to register or submit background information to the school.
Tollefson says she contacted Gulf Coast Academy Middle School (sister school) Directors Mr. Gatti and Mr. Seifert and provided them with a full report on what she discovered. Tollefson assumed they were conducting an investigation. Instead, a meeting was held to discuss the issue and Heater denied having any knowledge of Hurd's background.
Tollefson also reported the matter to the Hernando County Sheriff's Office, but she says they didn't seem too interested in looking into the matter. Tollefson writes, "When I received no answer the dispatcher felt the importance of the information and transferred me to the 'major cases- sex crimes unit' for the county. There I was connected with Detective Vargas Sr. who took my information in an already frustrated state, and he too said he would get back to me, at the latest by Monday. Well, Monday comes and goes and again I receive no information. I waited and contacted him back on Thursday assuming he was busy gathering information. I did need some kind of follow up though, as I had a meeting later that day with Mr. Gatti where we were discussing my future at GCES, and I had my concerns with how this was being handled. Detective Vargas now informed me that they 'have many cases going on in Hernando Co. at this time and they will do their best.'"
Tollefson says she also reached out to the Hernando County School District and spoke with the Director of HR Ray Pinder. After providing the facts of the case, Pinder later advised that because Gulf Coast Elementary is a charter school, they have to conduct their own investigations.
R News reached out to Principal Heater, but she has not responded to our request for comment. We also reached out to Director Nevin Seifert, but we were told he was on vacation and could not be reached.
Heater's Administrative Assistant Christal Harris did contact R News and provided explanation for what she said transpired. Harris confirmed that Hurd was in attendance at the Winter Festival but that she and Heater were not aware of his background. Harris said Heater was already suspicious about Hurd because he could not explain to her why he would not move to Florida. That's when Heater "broke it off" with Hurd and "sent him back to MS [Missouri MO]."
Harris accuses Tollefson of being bullies and that she is lying about Heater trying to conceal Hurd's conviction. Harris states, "This woman [Tollefson] had something happen to her while she was in the military. This triggered some type of PTSD. She herself has said so. She has started arguments here with other staff. Yelling at them while students could here, us being called by parents the next day to deal with it. She has gone to the other campus to try any sway anyone she could for her agenda."
R News spoke with Harris again on Thursday to discuss how the school processes campus visitors. Harris says visitors must sign in with Safe Visitors, a program that collects visitor data and can flag potential sex offenders within 15 seconds of scanning their identification. I asked Harris if Hurd ever gained access during school hours and why security measures didn't work if he did. Harris replied in a Facebook message, "Honestly, he came twice early before school started. Like for breakfast. Left before students came. And once at lunchtime. He brought lunch for most of the staff. But no, now that I think of it. He didn't check in. Not in the early morning because we didn't think about it I guess. And I can't tell you why it was missed at lunchtime." Harris states, "Thinking about it now, I can see why he slid in. Maybe, the excitement of lunches and flowers. He always brought flowers. I can't believe we didn't check him. Goodness, I should have caught that."
Sources say a School Resource Officer (SRO) is provided by the Hernando County Sheriff's Office but officials did not respond to our requests for comment regarding the investigation or security measures at the school.
School District Officials confirmed it is the school that handles their investigation but had no further comment on the matter.