Eight years ago, an aunt of Mike Tokars contacted me to see how he might be able to break into the world of journalism.
I trotted out my stock answer to those considering going into this business — that it’s a rough place to make a living, what with solid jobs drying up (it has hastened since). But if he were truly interested, send him my way.
Within a month, he was writing a first-person piece for the AJC about the journey that he and his older brother, Ricky, had taken from the nightmarish evening of Nov. 29, 1992.
For those of us living in Atlanta at the time, the Tokars boys, then aged 6 and 4, are forever etched in a scene of horror.
Their mother, Sara, had just been killed by a sawed-off shotgun blast to the head after they were kidnapped upon arriving at their Cobb County home. Sara had been forced to drive to a secluded area and was shot, splattering her young sons in gore.
The mysterious gunman fled and Ricky, responsible at age 6, turned off the vehicle and then took the younger Mike by the hand. The boys saw a light in the distance, hoped it was a home, and scurried across a dark field seeking refuge.
Ricky told the stunned homeowner a bad man shot his mom.
It turned out the boys' father, Fred Tokars, a lawyer with all sorts of shady connections, had his wife murdered to avoid going through a messy divorce. He was convicted and has been put away forever, as has the gunman and a business associate involved in the plot.
The article that Mike wrote for the AJC came on the 20th anniversary of that awful night. It was the first time he had spoken publicly about the murder.
Getting the story ready for publication was a classic case of trying to bring some focus and structure to the work of young, unbridled talent.
“I may have read too much (Jack) Kerouac this year,” he joked as I helped edit his piece.
He started it by writing about the “heavy and personal nature of this assignment” and how he was “pacing and chain-smoking” as he pondered talking to his brother about their mom.
Mike told me he still hated his father. But the story he wrote turned out to be a warm and loving embrace of his grandfather and Sara’s six surviving sisters who helped raise him and Ricky to become fine young men. It was headlined, “We survived, thanks to six amazing aunts.”
I knew the aunts from having covered that story intensely for several months. They were a formidable lineup. The six blond Ambrusko sisters were part of a strong, tight-knit family who did well to pull the boys up from terror and despair while raising them in Bradenton, Florida.
Ricky went on to become an emergency medical technician, and Mike got a scholarship to prestigious Columbia University in New York and earned a master’s degree in journalism.
Robin McDonald, a former AJC colleague, wrote a recommendation to Columbia, saying: “He knows how life — whether it is politics, or sickness, or circumstance — can impact lives and what it may take to survive. That gives him an empathy and an insight into others that I think is invaluable. And Mike wants to tell those stories.”
A few years ago, I saw Mike was writing for Christian Science Monitor. It seemed a happy end to his passage.
But late last year, I got an odd, yet polite, request from Mike to take down from the Internet the “six amazing aunts” story because it had “caused a considerable amount of grief” for him and his family. Yet it was once a story that brought him immense pride.
It turns out his was not to be a happy ending. Although he wrote a couple of books and bounced around the industry, he struggled to break into the world of writing enough to earn a living. He had worked in New York and some in Los Angeles.
Last month, on a crazy whim, he took a shot at driving from Florida out to California to reinvent himself. He brought his yellow Lab, Frank, with him.
It was not a good idea. The world was shutting down because of the new coronavirus, and he was having a hard time getting a motel, much less the prospect of a job. An aunt told me the crushing frustration of trying unsuccessfully to find a niche, coupled with some mental health issues, caused him to sometimes make badly thought-out decisions.
The four-day drive did a number on his 6-foot-4 body. Mike had gained weight in recent years and started feeling weak upon arrival on the West Coast. An aunt living there was worried and came to look in on him. He had not stayed with her because she had dealt with cancer and was in quarantine. He was in his car, listless. He was taken to a hospital, where they discovered blood clots had developed behind his knees.
Mike seemed like he was improving, then a clot broke loose and moved to his lung. He died Friday of a pulmonary embolism. He was 31.
“In recent years, he kind of lost his way,” said Brendan Flanagan, an Atlanta area lawyer who grew up with Mike in Florida and was best buds with him through high school and college.
In 2012, the two of them camped out overnight to get to watch the U.S. Supreme Court hearings on Obamacare. Mike loved to hurl himself into experiences like that and write about them. He immersed himself into the Black Lives Matter movement for the experience, wrote about poverty, politics, and even drones following whales. Anything.
He loved gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson and the hard-living Charles Bukowski. He was also a musician who played in a punk rock band.
“He was unwilling to submit to the hard realities of life,” Flanagan said. “He had a nostalgic view of making it as a writer and a musician.”
I spoke with his aunts Joni and Krissy, who basically raised the Tokars boys in Florida. They said the boys, even when playing T-ball, seemed sadder, more sedate than other kids. Mike used to sleep with a photo of his mom under his pillow.
They grew up to be popular, handsome and athletic. Still, Krissy said, there was something always lurking there with Mike.
“He struggled his whole life; he was diagnosed with PTSD and depression,” said Krissy. “He was searching to find happiness through music and writing. I think Fred stole that happiness from him.”
Another victim of that long-ago night.
A GoFundMe account has been set up to get his body back to Florida and help the family.