Mistress of Marion County undersheriff reveals details of affair
Published: Thursday, October 4, 2012 at 11:47 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, October 4, 2012 at 11:47 a.m.
The woman at the center of a sex scandal that threatens to topple the career and political candidacy of Undersheriff Dan Kuhn spoke out Wednesday, publicly recounting her 18-month relationship with Kuhn because she believes he is unfit to serve as Marion County's next sheriff.
Melissa Cook, the 39-year-old headmistress at Hale Academy, a private, non-denominational Christian school in Ocala, acknowledged that airing the details of her extramarital affair with Kuhn risked hurting her family and her own job.
But Cook said those consequences were worth exposing Kuhn, the Republican nominee for sheriff, whom Cook described as a wanton abuser of public trust and resources.
"He can't be trusted," Cook said Wednesday during an 85-minute interview with the Star-Banner.
"I want the nearly 350,000 citizens of this county to have the opportunity to make an informed decision before they report to the polls."
"People just deserve to know the truth, and this man has not at this point demonstrated that he is capable of telling the truth about himself, or a whole lot else for that matter. Whatever happens happens at this point. But people deserve to know the truth."
In a brief interview Wednesday, Kuhn said, "I've already admitted that I had an affair, and with an independent investigation going on, it would be inappropriate for me to comment at this time."
Kuhn also declined to comment about whether he would continue in the campaign for sheriff.
Kuhn publicly admitted to an extramarital affair on Monday after Cook's attorney, Charles Holloman, presented Kuhn's boss, Sheriff Ed Dean, with what he said was concrete evidence of the relationship. Kuhn also volunteered to take unpaid leave until a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation requested by Dean could be finished. The FDLE investigation, according to Dean, will look at whether Kuhn broke any laws during the course of the affair,
The probe widened on Wednesday after Dean announced that the Sheriff's Office's Internal Affairs unit would conduct its own investigation into whether department policies were violated.
In admitting to the relationship Monday, Kuhn said the relationship had been over for well over a year and characterized it as a private affair.
But Cook and Holloman say the documents provided to Dean, the FDLE and the Star-Banner in an inch-thick binder this week show that Sheriff's Office property, cars and staff were involved in the trysts.
The documents include sworn statements attesting to the affair by Cook and her husband, copies of cellphone records and email correspondence and references to internal Sheriff's Office policies that Kuhn allegedly violated during the relationship.
Cook — who remains married to her husband, Wayne, and is a mother of four children between 9 and 21, said she first met Kuhn in 2010 while they were working on the local United Way campaign.
Initially perceiving him as a mentor, Cook said Kuhn would call and email her about United Way business.
As time went on, she recalled, Kuhn became "more aggressive" about seeing her. He would make excuses to contact her, or at times drop by her job unannounced, attributing it all to the United Way.
One day, the couple went to lunch, Cook said. Kuhn reportedly told her he was having a "very difficult time" in his marriage.
Cook said she felt that remark was inappropriate, and he later apologized for the comment. The conversation ended. Then, she said, he began emailing her, innocently at first.
His interest became more intense, she noted. Over the initial months of their relationship, Kuhn sent her more than 2,500 text messages and called her more than 365 times, Cook said.
"He just cranked it up real fast," she said.
Cook admitted that she was complicit in the affair.
She noted that her own marriage was rocky at the time and suggested that made her vulnerable. She added that at one point she considered leaving her husband and marrying Kuhn.
"I made a terrible decision," Cook said. "I'm not blaming just one person for my actions because I'm responsible for what I did."
Over the next three months, until January 2011, Kuhn and Cook engaged in numerous sexual encounters.
Kuhn, Cook said, gave her the code numbers for the front security gate at the Sheriff's Office headquarters so the two could meet up in Kuhn's office.
Four times in a six-week span in fall 2010, they had sex at Kuhn's home. Two of those times occurred while he was on duty. And he twice drove her there for those encounters in a Sheriff's Office patrol vehicle.
They also borrowed a fellow deputy's home for sex and in November 2010, Kuhn drove a sheriff's vehicle to the Hyatt Regency in Jacksonville, where Cook was attending a work-related conference.
She said on one occasion, in January 2011, they met at the College of Central Florida where a political meeting was taking place. Kuhn, she said, had invited her to attend. After she arrived, they left the session and went into a nearby room where they "engaged in intimate contact" while he was in uniform.
Many of the incidents occurred on Sundays, when Wayne Cook, a satellite communications technician, was at work.
Wayne Cook recalled that his wife often attributed her absences from home on those days to trips to Toys R Us, the mall or running errands.
He said he became suspicious after Kuhn and his wife, who taught under Cook at Hale Academy, showed up at O'Malley's Alley in downtown Ocala. The Cooks had gone there to hear a family friend play in a band following the 2010 Florida-Georgia game.
Wayne Cook said she repeatedly denied having an affair when confronted, but his suspicions wouldn't go away.
Wayne Cook eventually hired a private detective. The investigator videotaped their meetings, but despite collecting $1,500 for the evidence, refused to give the tapes to Cook.
Wayne Cook said that's because the investigator was later employed by Kuhn. The Cooks' lawyer, Holloman, said they intend to fight for the tapes.
The relationship more or less ended one day when Melissa Cook stepped outside the Sheriff's Office headquarters and found her tire had been intentionally flattened. Wayne Cook was the culprit.
Kuhn reportedly told her to drive out onto U.S. 27 until she had to stop because of the tire. Kuhn then met her there and changed the tire.
Melissa Cook recalled that she shared her concern with Kuhn that the affair would be exposed after he announced his candidacy in March 2011. Kuhn, however, told her not to worry.
That's because the videotapes had been "taken care of," she recalled Kuhn saying at the time.
"As long as you don't say anything, and I don't say anything, nothing can be proven," he told her.
Cook said she was upset that Kuhn has given the impression that things ended in January 2011.
"We really let things die off" after that point, Cook said, but the relationship was far from over.
In fact, it continued through text messages and emails until April 2012. Along the way, it included one final fling in a Jacksonville hotel in January 2012, she said.
Six months ago, Wayne Cook borrowed his wife's iPhone and found Kuhn's private number under the roster of recent calls. Wayne Cook said he again confronted his wife.
"I told her you've got to make a choice: it's either him or me," Wayne Cook said. "She had to make a choice: 100 percent for Dan Kuhn or myself."
Melissa Cook chose her husband, and as he looked on, she sent Kuhn a text message ending the relationship for good.
Wayne Cook said he felt "terrible" about the discovery but was willing to forgive.
"It's been a long hard road. We've worked real hard to repair. And now I think we're as strong as ever. I do believe her now. I do trust her," he said. "People deserve second chances. That's what I believe."
What effect the affair has on the upcoming election for sheriff is yet to be determined.
Kuhn faces Constitution Party candidate Bernie DeCastro on Nov. 6. Kuhn defeated Chris Blair, the former head of the Sheriff's Office major crimes unit, in the GOP primary in August.
Melissa Cook maintained repeatedly during the interview that her decision to come forward now was not politically motivated. She insists she is not openly promoting either DeCastro or Blair, who could become the nominee if Kuhn exits the race.
"It's not about the affair. It's not about another candidate. It's about people knowing the facts," Cook said.
Holloman, according to campaign finance reports, contributed $1,050 to Blair's campaign. But he said he is calling attention to Kuhn's indiscretion only to expose "governmental corruption."
On more than one occasion during the interview Holloman referred to Kuhn as a "liar" for denying how long his relationship with Cook had gone on and for touting his ethics and integrity as a political candidate.
Holloman understood that critics would claim he was motivated to upend Kuhn because of his support for Blair, but he insisted that he is not a "political hit man" for whoever might want Kuhn out of the race.
At issue, he said, was that Kuhn had betrayed the public trust, the people who voted for him as well as public officials who had been "duped" into endorsing him.
"He has no damn business being in a position of public trust. None at all," he said.
Cook said she tried at least three times to get Kuhn to drop out of the race but that he refused.
Cook's own job at Hale Academy may be teetering.
She maintains that leaders of the school have kept her on but did not renew her contract after learning of the affair and have ordered her to remain quiet about the relationship in order to benefit Kuhn.
Cook and Holloman both also indicated that there were implied "threats" against her if she spoke out. They did not detail what the threats were.
Blair, whom Kuhn defeated in the primary, said, "I feel sorry for what is taking place and I will keep his family in my prayers."
Blair added that Kuhn's future is left up to Sheriff Dean.
DeCastro, his November opponent, said he wants to stay "above the fray."
"I'm going to run a clean and ethical campaign. I'm praying for his family," DeCastro said.
Noting his own criminal past, DeCastro added, "I have a checkered past. We should wait and see what happens first before we comment."
But DeCastro said he was troubled that Dean put his own Internal Affairs Division on Kuhn's trail.
"The fox is watching the hen house, especially since the person investigating it is a financial supporter of Kuhn," said DeCastro, referring to Leo Smith, a retired sheriff's inspector and owner of Leo Smith Investigations.
Campaign records show Smith gave $680 in cash and in-kind contributions to Kuhn's campaign and that the campaign paid Smith $1,259 for drinks for a campaign event last year.
Dean said the inquiry by the agency's Internal Affairs unit would "parallel" the FDLE investigation.
"I'm extremely disappointed with the nature of the allegation. I know my feelings I have for any person have to be superseded by my commitment to the public and to our core values," said Dean, who had endorsed Kuhn in the GOP primary.
Dean said he has suspended his endorsement of Kuhn pending the outcome of the investigations.
While the sheriff could not predict when the investigation will be concluded, he said FDLE has acknowledged his request for a speedy-yet-thorough probe.
Dean declined to comment on whether Kuhn's job as second in command of the agency is in jeopardy. That, he added, would wait until the investigations were complete.
Yet Dean, who has fired deputies in the past for similar allegations, added, "I believe my record in 14 years of dealing with issues such as this has been crystal clear. The same rules apply to everybody."
Contact Austin Miller at 867-4118, or at austin.miller @starbanner.com, or Bill Thompson at 867-4117 or at firstname.lastname@example.org