When a suburban Atlanta homeowner answered the knock at his door one chilly night after Thanksgiving in 1992, he was met by two little boys, spattered with blood.
"A bad man shot my mom," the older boy said, his words choked with terror. The homeowner asked the boy again what happened, and who shot his mother. "A bad black man," the boy said, "with a pirate gun."
The homeowner and a friend went to where the boys pointed to a van across the field and made a horrifying discovery. When they opened the door, the body of a young woman, her head almost completely blown apart, fell out.
Det. Pat Banks of the Cobb County Sheriff's Office was sickened with rage after arriving on the scene and seeing the two blood-streaked little boys shivering with fear and shock under a blanket in the back of an ambulance. Banks and other Cobb County detectives were soon swept up in one of the Atlanta area's most high-profile murders.
Frederic Tokars, Sara's husband, was a well-known local attorney and a former prosecutor. So the discovery of her body was a big news story; the media was all over the Cobb County S.O. and anybody who knew the victim.
Theories of the Crime
The detectives working the Tokars case soon discovered that the victim was not the kind of person who was likely to end up dead in a parked vehicle. She had no bad habits, no enemies, no affairs, she wasn't known to use drugs, and she had no ties to anyone questionable. Except, perhaps, her husband Frederic Tokars.
Could this have been some type of retaliation from an enraged client? Or was it a random robbery of Sara, an attempted sexual crime perhaps, with her refusing the assailant and paying for it with her life?
The crime scene also didn't offer much. These were the days before widespread use of DNA evidence, so all Banks and the other Cobb County S.O. investigators had to go on were fingerprints. There was no empty casing, no discarded items, just blood...lots of blood, and fragments of Sara Tokars' skull and brain.
When they started interviewing the boys, the detectives realized that Sara Tokars had been accosted as she entered her house, just after she and her sons had arrived home from a vacation trip to Florida. So a burglary maybe, and she surprised the bad guy. But that didn't make sense. Why would a surprised burglar kidnap a woman and her children and then shoot the woman?
The story got more peculiar when Banks inspected the Tokars home and found that the sliding glass door in the rear had been left unlocked. Stranger still was the inside door leading from the garage to the inside of the house. The knob had been reversed, making it impossible to lock the door from the inside. Why would anyone do that?
The family flew in, mostly Sara's family, the Ambruskos, from Florida and even Scotland. Sara's grief-shattered father and sisters offered important insight into Sara's life.
Sara, it seems, had not been a happy bride. In fact, she had spoken of divorce more than once, telling tales of loneliness and abandonment because her husband was rarely home. Her solace was the time she spent with her young sons. She was a great mom. She had to be: There was, essentially, no dad.
Most of the details from the Ambrusko family would come later. First, the detectives wanted a chance to get Frederic Tokars' perspective on how this could have happened and, as soon as possible, get a walk-through inside the house with him so he could shed light on what, if anything, was different or missing.
Tokars presented himself to Det. Banks and Det. Brad McIntyre as a babbling, sobbing mess. That was certainly understandable. What wasn't understandable was his lack of cooperation. Why would a man whose wife was just murdered not want to walk through the house with the investigators? Also, one of Tokars' first calls was to his own defense attorney.
Red flag number two was not long in coming. Banks and McIntyre smelled beer on Fred Tokars' breath. Howard Weintraub, the attorney who accompanied Tokars, tried to explain, saying he gave his client a couple of beers to calm him from his near-hysterical state.[PAGEBREAK]
Everybody handles grief differently. You tell someone that a loved one has been murdered, and there can be disbelief, there can be anger, confusion. But having a beer or two in the morning is a reaction few detectives have probably encountered. It would also be a less than intelligent choice of beverage on Weintraub's part. He had to know that Tokars was about to be asked many serious and important questions about the house, about Sara, about times and places.
The walk-through of the house was just as disconcerting; Tokars claimed not to remember a lot about how the house was secured. He "may have" put the security bar on the sliding glass door, but he "wasn't sure." He wasn't sure if Sara's jewelry was disturbed. He could not even explain why the safe was open and empty and thought he "might" have had $1,500 within.
It was odd that an attorney would be so unsure of these details about his own home. Then again, Tokars didn't spend much time in his own home, so this might be excusable. He was, however, certain that his guitar had been moved. Of all things to be certain of—not the safe, not the jewelry...his guitar.
Banks and McIntrye continued with Fred Tokars, going through the house, the family schedule, but in the end met with frustration. He just didn't remember much.
Sara's father and sisters, however, remembered plenty. They remembered what Sara had told them about Fred's gradual abandonment of his family, about the sleazy clients he was representing, and about how Sara would confide in them that Fred was an extremely moody, paranoid, and oppressive man, who distrusted her so intensely that she was not allowed access to any money for the household unless it was through him. Even then, she had to make an appointment with her husband to plead for funds to take care of the most basic things.
After leaving the prosecutor's office, Tokars quickly succumbed to the ridiculously easy money often dangled before many a big city lawyer by the underworld. One shady referral led to another, and soon Tokars was laundering money for some of Atlanta's most prolific narcotics suppliers.
Tokars also helped establish trendy black nightclubs, like Diamonds and Pearls and Deion's Club 21 (owned in part by former Atlanta Falcons and Braves star Deion Sanders). He had found a niche in helping the gold-draped night club owners minimize or completely evade taxes. It didn't take long for word to spread among the small community of black nightclub owners that Tokars was the "go-to guy," the guy who could not only minimize your tax liabilities, he could make them go away.
Before the detectives fully understood Tokars' network of drug and nightclub clients, his personal life came into focus. Simply put, Tokars didn't have one. He had been a dismal failure as a husband and father. Clearly, his life revolved around Atlanta's underworld night life, and the riches he raked in as a result.[PAGEBREAK]
An Unexpected Break
Banks and the other detectives were starting to see a suspicious picture form around Frederic Tokars. But the calls they were getting from the low-income black neighborhoods pulled them in another direction: Eddie Lawrence.
It didn't take the investigators long to find out that Eddie Lawrence was a notorious flim-flam artist, and a slumlord who had made a small fortune using drug money to buy ramshackle properties, fix them up, and then rent them. He would then default on his mortgage payments, but still collect from the poor tenants.
Seeking legal help when he got in a jam, Lawrence found Tokars. The attorney not only represented Lawrence, he went into business with him, creating a new network of real estate businesses whereby they both could realize multiple profits from single clients.
Like everything else Lawrence got involved in, his relationship with Tokars began to crumble. He was reckless with his money and as deceptive as ever with his tenants and business associates. He was soon in the hole to Tokars for some 70 grand.
Sara's sisters and father had told Banks and McIntyre about the horrid marriage, the secrecy, and even threats that Tokars had made to Sara. According to them he had told his wife that he "knew people who could do what has to be done" if she talked about the details of his practice or even his drug use.
The detectives sat again with Tokars and put Eddie Lawrence's picture in front of him. When he quietly made the ID, they confronted him with his first tangible lie. "You never told us about him."
That was all Tokars needed to assert his Fifth Amendment privilege. His talking days with the Cobb County investigators were over.
His silence didn't matter. The leads were pouring in now, including one from the Tokars' neighbor, Sara Suttler.
Suttler and Sara Tokars had talked, and she knew Tokars was a woman desperate to get out of her miserable marriage, but only if her boys could go with her. She had told Suttler that she feared that she could never win a custody battle with her powerful husband. She needed a weapon and she had found it, in the form of secret bank accounts and illicit business deals in the basement. "I've got the goods on Fred," she had told Suttler.
Sara Tokars had also hired a private investigator to follow her husband. He came forward and gave Banks and McIntyre more damning information: An affair with a stripper, who just happened to also be one of Eddie Lawrence's part-time employees. She remembered that during one of their trysts, he told her that he was sick of Sara and that he was going to get her out of the way.
Banks and McIntyre quickly developed a theory of the crime. Sara must have confronted Fred with her findings in order to get a speedy, quiet divorce. Instead, Fred went to Eddie Lawrence who by arranging the murder could not only clear his debt to Tokars but save himself because as Fred went down, so would Eddie. Tokars, the detectives found through interviews with Lawrence, even sweetened the pot. He had bought almost $2 million dollars worth of life insurance on his doomed bride, and he would invest half of it into Lawrence's failing businesses.[PAGEBREAK]
But Lawrence, for all the criminal he was, had balked, and tried to talk Tokars out of it. He had met Sara, he had even been to their house a couple of times. The last time he was there, Lawrence recalled, Tokars made a puzzling request. He wanted Lawrence, who claimed to have some musical talent, to play his guitar.
Tokars continued his solicitations, and offered Eddie 25 grand up front. Lawrence agreed, but he hired someone else to do the dirty work.
Lawrence went to the most desperate crack addict he knew, Curtis Rower, and offered him $5,000 to do the murder. After some arguing and a drive-by or two at the Tokars' house, Rower agreed to kill Sara Tokars.
The Pirate Gun
After the murder, Rower went on a crack binge and blabbed carelessly to several people that he had killed Sara. A parade of hookers, drug addicts, and other losers were brought in for questioning. Brick by brick the Cobb County detectives were building a wall of testimony that was pushed over onto Rower.
Rower confessed quickly. Among other things, he said he went into the house, which had been left unlocked, and waited for Sara to come home. When she did, he confronted her with a sawed-off .410 shotgun that looked every bit a pirate gun to Sara's frightened sons.
Rower then forced Sara to drive him to where Lawrence was parked; the theory is that Sara saw Lawrence and quickly put everything together. She knew she was a dead woman, and she attempted to run over Lawrence and somehow escape so that at least her boys could run to safety. Sometime during the resulting chaos, the trigger on Rower's "pirate gun" was pulled, and two little boys in the back of the van watched their mother's head disintegrate right in front of them.
Rower escaped the death penalty only because his lawyer argued that Lawrence was in the car and could have possibly pulled the trigger. Ricky Tokars, however, never wavered in his hours of heart-wrenching testimony. He had only seen one man, before, during, and after his mother's murder, in or around the van.
Guilty as Sin
Rower's first trial ended in a mistrial. Lawrence secured a plea for which he served a meager 12 years for his testimony against the mastermind, Tokars, and the triggerman, Rower.
Eventually, new trials were pushed onto the dockets by the insistence of the Ambrusko family and by parallel investigations into money laundering by federal authorities. Rower was convicted and got life without parole. Frederic Tokars was convicted of his wife's murder, but was given life, rather than the death penalty the family had sought. He was also convicted in federal court of racketeering and money laundering charges, and was sentenced to life in federal prison without parole.
The Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal.
Ricky and Mike Tokars have, with the love and care of Sara's family, grown into healthy, responsible young men.
Editor's Note: Another look at this case comes in R.R. Mcdonald's book, "Secrets Never Lie: The Death of Sara Tokars—A Southern Tragedy of Money, Murder, and Innocence Betrayed."
KEYS TO THE CASE
The 1992 murder of Sara Tokars was one of the most infamous cases in the history of Cobb County, Ga. Here are some of the lessons that you can learn from this investigation.
Connect Early with the Family
This case exemplifies how much crucial information the family can give you.
Follow Up On Every Lead
It was crucial in this case that the investigators heard every story. You want to meet the potential defense witnesses before the defense does.
Get into the Neighborhood and Stay There
Canvassing Lawrence and Rower's neighborhoods paid off. Cobb County detectives found people who had heard incriminating remarks before and after the murder.
Background Witnesses in Detail
Finding out about Lawrence and Tokars' relationship early was crucial to this investigation. You have to dig and then dig even deeper.
Ramesh Nyberg is a Contributing Editor to POLICE and a retired Miami-Dade County Homicide detective. He is a certified law enforcement instructor and has taught Homicide Investigation and Interview/Interrogation.