Who really hired the bungling hit man who confessed to the murder of beautiful Sara Tokars? Riveted by the mystery, Atlanta discovers things aren’t what they seem.
ERIC HARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER | March 01, 1993
ATLANTA — For a contract hit, the killing of Sara Tokars could hardly have been more bungled.
The first time the killers came calling, sneaking into the house through an unlocked sliding glass door, a barking spaniel sent them scurrying. Scrambling back out into the night, the intruders glimpsed a light flick on somewhere in the house–somebody was getting up.
The second time the killers came calling, nobody was home. Nosing around, the one called Yankee got jumpy when he saw the number “22″ lit up on the home’s burglar alarm panel. A rail-thin cocaine addict, in over his head, he thought it meant they had 22 seconds to scoot before the police arrived.
He and his companion fled down the street and waited until Yankee calmed down enough to go back inside. There was other craziness, too–more signs of inexperience and ineptitude. But in the end it made little difference.
Sara Tokars came home that night last year–it was Nov. 29th, end of the Thanksgiving weekend–and found a stranger waiting in her kitchen. Waving a sawed-off shotgun, Yankee forced her back into the car with her two children. They were going for a little drive.
Who knows why some crimes catch the public’s imagination, sucking a community into their pathos, pulling a city into their mysteries like a pulp novel come to life?
The death of Sara Tokars immediately became the focus of intense local public interest. This was so in part, perhaps, because she was blonde and beautiful, the 39-year-old wife of a well-known attorney, and was brutally slain in front of her 4- and 6-year-old sons, in a “safe” suburb, no less.
But the murder was made more unsettling by the inability of anyone to decipher why it happened or what it meant. A crime so chilling should have a moral. But the people of Atlanta were at a loss to figure out what it was.
Lawyers here–leading the stampede to acquire alarm systems and firearms–theorized at first that she was slain in revenge, “Cape Fear” style, either by one of her husband’s former clients or someone he sent to jail in the days when he had been an assistant district attorney.
The police in the beginning investigated the more mundane possibilities that it had been a botched kidnapping or that the victim had interrupted a burglary.
But then Sara Tokars herself reached back from the grave to provide a possible clue, and it hinted at more complex and sinister motives.
A private detective presented the police with documents Tokars had given him before she died. He said they secretly had been taken from her husband’s safe and that she believed they implicated Fredric Tokars in drug trafficking and money laundering.
For quite some time, said the private detective, Sara had been deathly afraid of her husband, who she said had been leading a double life.
‘Take This to Police’
“If anything happens to me,” she told the detective, “take this to the police.”
Now here was a scenario people could latch on to. After all, hadn’t they seen it already at the movies?
Suddenly Fred Tokars became a suspect. The police publicly said so, even though they made no move to arrest him. The FBI began investigating his business dealings and associates, who, it turned out, included convicted drug traffickers and one man who was killed last summer in what police believed was a professional hit. Television news crews began to follow Fred around.
How does a city comprehend such a mystery if not through the language of crime shows and detective thrillers? This story played itself out on television, in news reports sandwiched between episodes of “Hard Copy” and the “Movie of the Week.” Everyone, it seemed, had a theory.
It was, in the public mind, almost like an episode of “Columbo,” in which you see the suave bad guy kill his wife in the opening segment and then stay tuned to watch him slowly disintegrate under pressure. Only this was real. Fred Tokars’ life was being publicly destroyed, and he had not been charged with any crime. The only people who knew–really knew –who ordered the killing of Sara Tokars weren’t talking.
Very soon a strange and troubling portrait of Fred began to emerge.
Here was a respected member of the community, a seeming straight-arrow whose friends included movers and shakers in the political and legal worlds–a state Supreme Court justice rushed to Fred’s house to console him the day after Sara’s murder–yet someone who also moved with seeming ease through the city’s underside. Drug dealers, exotic dancers, the fast-living owners of some of the city’s hottest nightclubs–these were Fred’s friends.
This world was completely at odds with what was known of his background.
Fred Tokars and Sara Ambrusko, both the children of doctors, had known each other in high school in Amherst, N.Y., a Buffalo suburb. They became reacquainted in Atlanta, more than a decade later, in the mid-1980s, by pure chance.
Fred had come to the city after graduating from the University of Miami. He began working as an assistant Fulton County district attorney after getting a law degree here.
One day Sara, who had moved to Atlanta with her first husband, turned on the television and there was Fred, that guy from high school, on the news discussing a case. Divorced now, she called him up.
Liked His Ambition
“I think the things she really liked about him was the common family background–being from Buffalo, the big family, both fathers were doctors and all that stuff,” said Krissy Ambrusko, one of Sara’s six sisters who by that time had also moved to Atlanta and become her roommate.
Another thing she and other family members liked about Fred was his ambition, said her father, John Ambrusko, now retired in Florida.
When Fred left the district attorney’s office to open his own defense practice, Sara reportedly was concerned about the shady characters he dealt with. Driven to make money, to be successful, he soon expanded the practice to include tax matters. His advertisements could be seen around town on billboards and in magazines, and in time, he began to attract prominent clients. One was the estranged wife of Evander Holyfield, whom he represented in her divorce of the former heavyweight boxing champion.
The shady characters, though, did not go away. And soon other serious problems developed within the marriage.
Looking back now, after all that has happened and all that’s been in the papers, John Ambrusko marvels at how little he knew about his daughter’s life.
The family knew Sara as a devoted mom, a former high school cheerleading captain so attached to her sons that she volunteered at kindergarten and put her youngest child in preschool so she could be near them both all day, just about everyday.
Of the seven daughters, Sara was the one most like their mother, say her sisters–selfless, home-loving, unfailingly generous, a small woman with a big heart and a movie-star smile. “She was like George Bailey,” said one sister, Joni Ambrusko-Crain, comparing her to the character Jimmy Stewart played in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” “Her whole life was devoted to everybody else.”
The Ambruskos had a loving, close-knit family, and John Ambrusko had been especially close to Sara, the middle child. But her last years, apparently, were hellish–and it saddens him that he had no hint of it. It was from news reports, for example, that he learned Sara had hired a private detective.
Fred recently publicly admitted having had an affair. But it ended long ago, he said, and he and Sara had patched things up. Ralph F. Perdomo, the private eye who was hired by Sara to follow Fred, said that is a lie.
Didn’t File for Divorce
Fed up with the marriage and wanting out, Sara had met several times with a divorce attorney but never actually filed for divorce. “She was scared to death of (Fred),” said Perdomo, who said fear kept her in the marriage. “He had her intimidated.
“Sara knew she was going to die,” he continued. “She knew it for a long time, and nobody would believe her–including me.”
For a woman with such problems, Sara had seemed happy the last time her father saw her. She’d come down to Sarasota, Fla., with the kids to spend Thanksgiving. They left right after brunch on Sunday, Nov. 29th. It had been a farewell meal at the nearby country club–the last meal for Sara, it turned out.
This usually was when the crying started. But this time Sara and the boys were joyous, looking forward to coming back at Christmastime. As she drove off–unaware of what awaited her in Atlanta–Rick and Mike started singing: “We’ll be home for Christmas!”
Looking back now, there was much that was unusual about that last visit, not that anyone paid attention at the time. There was Fred, for instance, playing with the kids, acting more carefree and happy and attentive than anyone had ever seen him. He flew down on his own for the holiday and then had left a day early–the day before his wife’s death–to attend to business. Of course, no one but Sara knew the type of people he did business with.
After her murder, the family learned that one of Fred’s associates–an executive in an entertainment company Fred had incorporated–had been killed last summer in Detroit in what authorities believed was a possible contract hit. Two other business associates are in prison, convicted of distributing large quantities of cocaine, allegedly part of an international drug trafficking network with operations in Detroit, Houston and other cities.
The men, along with Fred, were all involved in what police call a “tangled web” of local businesses, mainly nightclubs. It is Fred’s links to these men that the FBI is investigating for evidence of money laundering.
A lawyer who formerly shared an office with Fred recently told a television station that records relating to these men and their companies had been mysteriously erased from her office computers. She also said she has been getting anonymous death threats since Sara’s death.
One of Fred’s closest business associates was Eddie Lawrence, with whom he owned a construction and real estate company. Lawrence had been to the Tokars home, had met Sara. Who would have expected that he soon would be sitting in prison, accused of hiring the man who killed her and of personally bringing him into her home to do the deed?
Yankee told her to drive.
Sara was scared, not sure what to do. The madman sat behind her, the shotgun to her head.
Sara didn’t know where she was going. She was following orders, driving.
Rick, 6 years old, was in the front seat with his mother. Four-year-old Mike was on the back seat the whole time, close beside the sharp-featured gunman with the Dick Tracy nose.
Sara feared that he would harm the children. But Yankee–scared, too, and frustrated, and in need of another fix–maintains now that all he wanted was to get out of the suburbs and back to the city. He was afraid Lawrence had abandoned him, after taking him to the house.
Alone now, Yankee waited for his victim. He’d been promised $5,000 to commit the murder and make it look like a burglary, he later told police. He hadn’t been paid–he said Lawrence told him he’d have to get the money later, from a lawyer named Fred.
After Sara had left the maze of lanes around her Cobb County subdivision and reached open road, Yankee caught sight of Lawrence’s white pickup truck, parked in a cul-de-sac of half-built houses less than a mile from the Tokars’ home. He ordered Sara to turn in. She refused, pulling over onto the shoulder instead.
That was where it happened, although the exact circumstances are in dispute. Yankee told friends later that little Rick had been so much trouble that night that he’d almost shot him. The boy was noncompliant and observant enough to notice Yankee’s chapped lips and the taped handle of his sawed-off shotgun. He told police that when his mother refused to turn, the gunman cursed her and shot her in the head, right before Rick’s eyes.
Yankee maintains, in an account disputed by the police, that Eddie Lawrence approached the stopped vehicle and that the gun went off while the two men struggled over it. When the blast took off the back of Sara’s head, the car lurched, knocking Lawrence to the ground, Yankee told police. The car rolled across the road and stopped.
Snatching up Sara’s red purse, Yankee jumped out, and the two men ran to the pickup truck and sped away.
Rick grabbed his little brother and fled for help to a building he spotted across an open field.
Yankee was under the bed when the SWAT team knocked down his door.
“Hiding,” said the police.
“Zonked out on drugs,” said Yankee’s attorney.
Either way, before the day was through–and without even consulting an attorney–the small-time hustler confessed to his role in the plot, if not to the actual killing.
Inquired About Guns
For someone as on-the-ball as Eddie Lawrence supposedly was, he had been incredibly stupid when it came to hiring a hit man, if the police version of events is true. Official documents say he had gone to a number of people inquiring about guns and murderers. Some of those people later told what they knew to the police.
One of them was Edderick Wheeler, a business associate of Lawrence who said he was offered the job and refused it. In early November, Lawrence had taken Wheeler to a shopping center in Cobb County, where the Tokars’ home is located, to discuss the killing, Wheeler told police. As the two men sat in his truck, Wheeler said, Lawrence pulled out a pistol. The gun went off, striking Lawrence in the foot.
He still walked with a limp when police arrested him in mid-December.
Lawrence even supposedly approached Toozdae Rower, who for a short time had worked for him as a receptionist. She introduced him to her boyfriend, who said he also turned him down, and to her brother, Curtis, a 22-year-old ninth-grade dropout and convicted car thief known on the street as Yankee.
Person of Substance
In nearly every way, the 27-year-old Eddie Lawrence was Curtis (Yankee) Rower’s opposite. He appeared to be a man of substance, a comer in Atlanta’s large black business community, a self-described “self-made man” who had started his real estate business with empty pockets seven years earlier. Fred Tokars became the money man behind his enterprises.
“It’s my belief that Lawrence was a very well-known, very well-respected black businessman in the city and had worked for a couple of Fred’s clients,” said Jerome J. Froelich, Tokars’ attorney, explaining how the two men met and became business partners.
Originally arrested Dec. 12, 1992, on a two-year-old charge of writing bad checks, Lawrence on Dec. 23 was charged along with Rower with Sara Tokars’ murder. Since his arrest, it has emerged that this “well-respected businessman” saw fit to occasionally use an alias, had at least two different social security numbers and had given three separate birth dates on court documents over the years.
It also has been learned that Fred Tokars loaned him more than $70,000 in several installments last year. Peculiarly, Tokars sued Lawrence twice to recover the money even while still making loans. Tokars’ lawyer said the loans were for Lawrence to pay rent for office space to avoid being evicted.
And as for those supposedly incriminating papers taken from Fred’s safe, Froelich points out that Fred is a criminal attorney with many unsavory clients. Who knows what documents related to them he might have taken home to work on?
Since the murder, Fred’s lawyers have complained that he’s been crucified in the press. “His clients have remained loyal to him,” said Froelich. Nevertheless, he said, Tokars couldn’t work. “Emotionally and mentally, I wouldn’t let him go into a courtroom.”
Fred Tokars reached his nadir on Christmas Eve. In Sarasota, Fla., to visit his sons, who have been staying with Sara’s parents, Fred tried to kill himself. The day after detectives phoned him there to tell of the arrests, he skipped out on a family outing, supposedly to work. He locked himself in his hotel room, propped a chair against the door and took an overdose of tranquilizers, washing it down with cans of beer.
He was saved by Sara’s father. John Ambrusko feared that the 39-year-old lawyer, who had complained lately of chest pains, had suffered a heart attack when he didn’t answer phone calls. Ambrusko went to the hotel with two of his daughters and got police to force open the door. They found Fred unconscious on the bed.
The lanky, bespectacled Tokars held a tearful press conference after he got out of the hospital at which he pleaded with the press to leave him and his children alone and emphatically denied involvement in his wife’s murder. He took the pills, he said, because he was overwhelmed with grief.
“I began to think of Sara and my two sons, Rick and Mike, and became extremely depressed,” he said, choking back tears. “I started to think of the lifestyle I was losing; not only my wife, but my lifestyle.”
But Ambrusko and the rest of the family already had become distrustful of Fred, even though they tried to take him at his word.
“I tortured myself every second when they arrested those two guys,” recalled Ambrusko-Crain, Sara’s sister. “I was just screaming at Fred: ‘This was your business partner and God-damn, God-damn, how could this be? What happened? Tell it to me!’ ”
She said his response was, ” ‘I don’t know anything. I’m too upset to talk.’ ”
“I have asked him pretty point-blank if he had anything to do with it,” John Ambrusko said of Sara’s murder. “If anybody had pointed a finger at me with these innuendoes, I’d lead the charge down there” to the police station, he said. “I’d be down there pounding the desk and saying I want this cleared up. I said, ‘Why the hell aren’t you doing that?’ ”
Fred responded that he’d hired private detectives to conduct a parallel investigation. He assured Ambrusko that their findings would be turned over to the police.
When the facts are all out, he promised, a lot of people would owe him an apology.
But with so much uncertainty, the strains within the family were growing. And with Fred’s strange behavior and all of the stories in the press–including reports that he’d taken out a $2-million insurance policy on his wife–how could the Ambruskos not be suspicious?
Told of Confession
On the day before the suicide attempt, a Cobb County police detective had called for Tokars at the Ambrusko home. He informed Fred of the arrests and of Yankee’s confession.
Afterward, Fred calmly handed the phone to his father-in-law. The detective repeated the news to Ambrusko and then asked what Fred’s reaction had been.
“Nothing,” the older man said, starkly. “No reaction at all.”
In recent weeks, the police, while still insisting that Fred Tokars is a suspect, have stood by and watched as he has put his house up for sale, dissolved his law firm, relinquished his downtown office, applied to renew his passport, cashed in his retirement savings accounts and made plans to leave the country.
Fred wants to take his widowed mother on a vacation to London before moving permanently to Florida, said his attorney.
He is moving, Froelich said, because his life here has been shattered and because he wants to be nearer his two traumatized sons.
Because Fred hasn’t been indicted–”and he is their father”–John Ambrusko can’t keep him from visiting them. But he has been decidedly less than warm, putting limits on when Fred can see his sons. It was mid-February before he allowed Fred to take them out alone, and then, fearing that he would abscond with them, he secured a promise from Fred to check in by phone every two hours.
Living in Fear
Since Sara’s death the children have become afraid of the dark, Ambrusko said, and can’t stand to be alone. For a time after the murder, they feared returning to their grandparents’ house after going out–maybe a strange man would be waiting inside when they returned.
Also, Ambrusko noticed that Rick, the oldest child, is cool toward Fred now. “The little one seems to be very happy to see him,” he said. “Sometimes the older one isn’t. . . . ”
In early February, a special federal grand jury was convened to investigate Fred’s business dealings, reportedly including allegations that he had laundered money and kept offshore bank accounts. This new development would seem to throw his travel plans in doubt.
But if it is true that Fred is involved with organized crime, as it is alleged, couldn’t he hire professional hit men? Why would he choose such amateurs to kill his wife?
Perdomo, the private eye, is not troubled by the seeming contradiction. He thinks it is in character. “Money is his God,” he said of Fred Tokars, who lived frugally in a $140,000 house–modest for the neighborhood–and reportedly was loathe to make repairs. “This is his only goal in life–the possession of money. He doesn’t like to spend it.”
Matter of Associations
At this point, with Fred not officially accused of any crime, the worst that can be said of him is that he associated with very bad men. And whether or not he is ever charged with murder, whether or not he had anything to do with it, those associations in some fashion seem to have led to his wife’s death.
The how and why of it remain a mystery; the public fascination continues and the police seem fixated. The two lead detectives on the case have virtually turned their lives over to it; to keep themselves focused, they keep color photographs of Sara and her two sons on their desks.
Given the police department’s stance toward him, Tokars’ strategy is to prepare for the worst. For that reason, he has already assembled his defense team. Perhaps befitting a case closely watched by the public as if it were a particularly riveting TV crime show, he recently retained celebrated Georgia defense lawyer Bobby Lee Cook, the real-life prototype of television’s “Matlock.”
And as for the information uncovered by Fred’s private investigators, he has refused to turn it over to the police, even fighting successfully to quash the district attorney’s subpoenas.
“Any trial lawyer who doesn’t expect the worst and prepare for the worst is crazy,” said Froelich, explaining why his client seems to be operating under the assumption that he is going to be charged.
Yankee Is Indicted
Last Wednesday, a grand jury indicted Curtis (Yankee) Rower and Eddie Lawrence for murder, kidnaping and robbery. District Atty. Thomas J. Charron left open the possibility of more indictments since the investigation, he said, is continuing. In the meantime, the Ambrusko family is doing what it can to keep the case before the public eye and hold up under the strain.
“It’s been a horrible tragedy for all of our family,” said John Ambrusko. “It’s just about destroyed our family. . . . There’s so much uncertainty.”
Joni Ambrusko-Crain said she still can hardly believe the way her sister died. “This stuff happens to, like, the girl who’s involved with the guy who’s in the underworld or the girl who’s in between boyfriends so she’s out at bars every Friday night–this doesn’t happen to Sara,” she said. “She’s the mom and the kindergarten teacher. That’s all she did, night and day.”
“We’ll never understand it,” said Gretchen Schaeffer, another sister, a Los Angeles nurse. “There are so many questions that need to be answered. . . . I lay awake at night and I think to myself, ‘Sara, please help us and tell us why this happened.’ Because she knows everything now.”
Times researcher Edith Stanley contributed to this story.