On Monday morning, Nov. 30, 1992, I stood in the driveway of an east Cobb County home and saw state Supreme Court Justice Leah Sears-Collins hugging a sobbing man.
I had been summoned there by an early call from the news desk about a murder. I instantly knew this was big. Sears-Collins (she long ago dropped Collins) was a historic figure, the first black woman on the Georgia Supreme Court. The man she was comforting was Fred Tokars, a former prosecutor whose law firm was known to Atlantans through billboard and TV ads.
The news was horrific and strange. Tokars’ wife, Sara, had arrived home the previous night with her two sons, aged 6 and 4; was confronted by a man with sawed-off shotgun and forced to drive away; and then was killed by a blast to the head, covering her sons in gore.
I banged out a front-page story for the afternoon Journal edition: “Lawyer’s wife slain near Cobb home. She walks in on burglary; 2 sons escape.”
For months, the story twisted and turned and the public’s thirst for this cruel murder-mystery was insatiable. The name Tokars has appeared in the AJC nearly 1,000 times since.
As the story unfolded, Fred’s business associations with murderous drug figures became apparent. Authorities said he was laundering drug money through nightclubs. The theory was that Sara, a beautiful and doting mom, was suspicious of her husband’s activities and fearful. He worried if she came forward with this information, his criminal operation and lifestyle would be upended. (I must point out that now-retired Justice Sears was merely an honest and innocent friend.)
A plot was hatched, and Tokars’ sometime business partner, Eddie Lawrence, hired a young ex-con, Curtis Rower, to do the deed. The three were all later convicted in separate trials.
According to testimony, Tokars wanted Sara killed when she and the kids returned from a Thanksgiving family trip to Florida. Lawrence mentioned the kids would witness the murder.
Lawrence said Tokars told him not to worry, his sons would “get over it. They’re young.”
Federal prosecutor Buddy Parker seized on that for closing arguments.
“They’ll never get over it,” Parker told the jurors.
» PREVIOUSLY FROM BILL TORPY: Another victim of the Tokars murder, decades later
Tokars was found guilty on federal racketeering charges in 1994 and sentenced to life without parole.
In 1997, Cobb authorities tried Tokars for murder but could not get a jury to agree to a death penalty. Sara’s family was devastated that he didn’t get the ultimate punishment.
Perhaps what he got was worse.
In prison, it circulated that Tokars was a lawyer, so inmates beat him up and threatened him, saying if he didn’t work on their appeals he was a dead man.
While in SuperMax, he confided to his college friend and lawyer, Alan Bell, that he was being threatened by Dustin Lee Honken, a large-scale meth manufacturer. Honken told Tokars of murdering witnesses.
Bell advised Tokars to tell the feds and help solve the cases. Tokars had 100 conversations with Honken, who bragged he beat an earlier meth case by eliminating witnesses. Honken even described his victims' shallow graves.
One of his crimes was the nightmarish killings of a drug-dealing partner, that man’s girlfriend and her two young daughters. Honken, a vicious psychopath, justified killing the kids, saying, “They were rats being raised by rats.”
Tokars testified in federal court in Iowa and Honken was convicted. Last year, U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr announced he wanted to resume the federal death penalty. One of the first inmates Barr wants dead? Dustin Honken.
In 2005, federal prosecutors in Iowa wrote their counterparts in Atlanta, saying Tokars brought Honken’s case to them and provided “substantial” contributions to his conviction. Also, Tokars helped stop a planned prison break in which Honken and some white supremacists hoped to escape and kill more witnesses.
In 2008, an Arizona prosecutor wrote a letter saying Tokars helped solve the case of a 19-year-old woman whose throat was slit.
The letters, Tokars’ supporters hoped, might help get time off his life sentence. However, Bell said, Tokars never cut a deal with federal prosecutors in Georgia before testifying in other states. The feds here had to be the ones to ask for leniency.
Bell said Tokars was so terrified at the time he couldn’t wait for such an OK. He needed to get out of general population.
So while Tokars was never considered for leniency, his testimony landed him in witness protection, resulting in his own jail cell, a private bathroom, cable TV and access to phone calls. But he was never able to reach or talk to his now-grown sons, as he had always wished.
Tokars became an observant Jew, grew a beard and wore a yarmulke. Still, as I said, beating the death penalty might not have been a victory. He suffered chronic pain, ravaged by a neurological disease that put him in a wheelchair. He looked anorexic, took pain meds, urinated through a catheter, wore diapers and suffered anxiety, according to Bell and court documents.
In 2016, Tokars’ Atlanta attorney Jerry Froelich learned of Tokars’ previous testimony and waged a campaign for lenience.
In 2017, he filed a request for a reduction of his sentence, saying a court should weigh his good deeds. Froelich said the prosecutors’ resistance was “arbitrary and vindictive.” He had a longtime federal defender tell the court he had never seen someone give such “substantial” cooperation and not be considered for lenience.
In 2019, a judge turned him down. Froelich then went to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
In January, that court turned him down. In February, he asked the court to reconsider. An incredulous Froelich pointed to a government argument saying it wanted to deter “lawyers and other educated professionals from believing they could secure an early release from prison by practicing as jailhouse lawyers.”
Authorities solve cases all the time by snitching, Froelich told me. Without that, the system would collapse. He even mentioned in his filings that Sammy the Bull Gravano, John Gotti’s goon who killed 19 people, got a deal.
Sometime in late March or early April, the appeals court turned Tokars down again.
In early April, Tokars’ younger son, Mike, died of blood clots after years of sadness and disappointments.
Froelich sent Tokars a copy of a column I wrote about Mike's death and news about the loss in court.
Tokars died in prison about a week ago after suffering from a fever.
“I never heard from him again,” Froelich said. “I think he gave up.”
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