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Sheriff: Officer Whose Gun Fired In School Cafeteria Fired For Mishandling Pistol

A sheriff’s corporal whose gun accidentally fired in a busy middle school cafeteria nearly six months ago caused the accident himself by “fidgeting” with his gun and has been fired after an investigation, authorities announced Wednesday.

Pasco County Sheriff’s Cpl. Jon Cross, a 14-year veteran of the department, acknowledged to investigators that he had unholstered his service pistol when it fired, Sheriff Chris Nocco said. The incident happened April 30 at Thomas E. Weightman Middle School in Wesley Chapel, Florida, just north of Tampa. No one was hurt.

“He admitted he had a bad habit and he fidgets, he was playing with his gun,” the sheriff said. He added that a student also told investigators he had seen Cross toying with the gun in the past. The officer had worked at the school for two years.

The investigation solved the mystery of the school shooting, which had drawn national attention. The incident was especially significant because it occurred as Florida moves toward allowing teachers to carry handguns in public schools as a defense against the modern plague of mass shooters. Critics have raised concerns that a lack of adequate weapons training among teachers might endanger students. In the Pasco County incident, the corporal was a veteran of the department and a trained law enforcement officer since at least 2002.

Authorities referred Cross to state prosecutors on charges of culpable negligence, a second-degree misdemeanor, the sheriff said. Prosecutors declined to file criminal charges, and the sheriff fired him instead for mishandling his weapon and for conduct unbecoming of a law enforcement officer.

Cross did not immediately respond to a message sent to his LinkedIn social media account, but hours later he updated that account to reflect that he was “self employed.” The sheriff’s office declined to pass a message to Cross or his lawyer requesting an interview.

The sheriff said surveillance video that investigators reviewed showed the officer moving his holstered pistol up and down, in violation of his training. It wasn’t clear whether the officer’s finger or another item, such as keys, may have nudged the trigger, the sheriff said, but “if you leave the gun in a holster, it’s not going to go off.”

The sheriff said the pistol was examined by his agency’s armorer and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which found no mechanical problems with the gun.

The sheriff said the investigation took so long to finish because “we don't want to rush into something.”

Wednesday’s sudden announcement about the investigation came weeks after the Fresh Take Florida news service had requested under Florida's public records law copies of emails between the sheriff's office and the resource officer, the officer's personnel file and communications with the gun's manufacturer, Sig Sauer.

The sheriff's office denied the request in its entirety, citing a provision of state law that protects the identities of police officers and documents turned over during such investigations.

Fresh Take Florida also requested weeks ago under state law a copy of the investigative report from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which acknowledged it was finished examining the pistol. The FDLE initially said it couldn’t find the report, then said it would cost more than $100 to produce. A reporter was still waiting Wednesday for FDLE to say how much it would charge a reporter for a copy.

Also last week, as part of its investigation, Fresh Take Florida had contacted every teacher and school employee at the middle school asking about the incident, parents' reactions or inside details about the administrators' response to the shooting.

“Our integrity’s on the line, the trust of the community is on the line,” the sheriff said. “You don’t want to rush into something and have to go back and back and back.”

The pistol was a 9mm Sig Sauer P320, which has been the subject of numerous complaints and lawsuits nationwide that it can misfire. The gunmaker launched a voluntary upgrade program in August 2017 to make the guns less prone to misfires, and acknowledged that in some rare circumstances they can fire unexpectedly.

Valerie Stewart’s son, Gabriel, was in the cafeteria when the gun went off. She said her son’s ears were ringing after the gun went off. He told his mother that other children in the room thought the sound was a bag of chips popping.

Stewart and her husband carry guns, and her family is knowledgeable about firearms and how they work.

“We know the sheriff’s office carries Sig Sauer P320 firearms, which is extremely concerning,” Stewart said.

The sheriff’s office upgraded its P320 pistols in October 2018 before the incident occurred at the middle school, spokeswoman Amanda Hunter said. Sheriff’s deputies use the same guns now, including current school resource officers.

Stewart, the parent, said she wasn’t satisfied even after hearing the sheriff’s conclusions.

“Even if the officer was manipulating his holster or fidgeting with it as they said, you can not make a well working firearm discharge a round by doing this,” she said. “This is a faulty firearm and something needs to be done about it.”

Sig Sauer has said its guns are safe, even as it settled a federal lawsuit in Virginia recently with a confidential settlement. A sheriff’s deputy in that case shot herself as she said she was removing her holster.

This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.

Molly is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.