For weeks, the road signs and posters all over the Palos Verdes Peninsula had proclaimed: "Toma is coming!"
People knew his reputation. He was the real Baretta, the undercover narcotics cop portrayed by actor Robert Blake. He was the inspiration for an earlier television series, "Toma."
He was the original master of disguise who, in real life, assumed different identities, from bag lady to elderly priest, to bust up drug deals.
He took on the Mafia in New Jersey, where he still lives. In 21 years of police work, the Toma legend goes, he arrested thousands of murderers, dope peddlers, robbers, pimps, prostitutes and other assorted lawbreakers, racking up an awesome 98% conviction rate. He was shot and stabbed numerous times. But like the soft-spoken frontier sheriff once portrayed in the movies by Jimmy Stewart, he never fired his gun.
Now 54, with police work behind him, David Toma has become the man that desperate communities send for when drug problems get out of hand and nothing seems to work.
On Monday, Toma arrived on the Peninsula. He started at Miraleste High School and worked his way to the Palos Verdes and Rolling Hills campuses. Tonight he meets with parents on the Rolling Hills campus, then goes on to Rancho del Mar on Friday.
At each school, his message to teen-agers is the same: You're killing yourself with drugs. Stop before it's too late. He tells them he has not come to entertain them with the legend of David Toma.
"I'm here to talk about you ," he told Miraleste students. "I'm here to teach you something in your language. You'd better listen and learn, because tomorrow will be too late, baby."
Images of Destroyed Lives
Mixing fear with affection, he conjures up images of people he has known whose lives were destroyed by drugs, then pleads with the students to understand what he is saying. "I want you to know I love you, I care about you. Listen to me! You're poisoning yourself. How stupid can you get?"
Dressed in casual slacks, his shirt unbuttoned, a pendant swinging from his neck, he paces the stage with his microphone. At Miraleste, he held up a copy of a New York tabloid with the headline: "Suicide Pact Kills 4 Teens."
"They were into drugs, did you know that?" he shouted in a New Jersey accent. "Every week, over 100 kids kill themselves. Drugs and alcohol are the No. 1 killer of kids. Get that into your heads!"
The experts, he said, once called marijuana and cocaine harmless recreational drugs. Only now are they beginning to realize what he learned long ago in 30 years of dealing with drug addiction, Toma said.
'You're Going to Pay'
Marijuana contains chemicals that attack vital organs, including the brain and reproductive system, he said. "You guys think you're going to get married and have kids of your own someday. Are you sure your kids will be normal? Listen to me! You don't do drugs and walk away free. You want to play, you're going to pay."
The latest fad in the teen drug culture, Toma said, is to join a satanic cult. In one group of 20 girls undergoing drug treatment, he said, 19 said they talk to the devil "in tongues. They hear voices telling them to kill--kill cats, kill their babies, kill themselves!"
Midway through a nearly four-hour lecture, a youth approached the stage. Toma allowed him to speak. "Don't do drugs," the boy said, sobbing in a nearly incoherent voice. "Learn from other people. . . . "
The youth, later identified by school officials as a former Miraleste student now in a special program for dropouts, attempted a second time to speak to the students. Three administrators led him out of the auditorium.
'He's Crying for You'
"That took a lot of guts for him to come up here," Toma said to a suddenly hushed audience. "Listen to him. He's crying for you!"
Several times Toma interrupted his speech to squelch any signs of levity or inattention. "I didn't come 3,000 miles to play games with you," he said, pointing to a small group in the back bleachers. "If you aren't here to listen and learn something, then get out. I can't waste my time on you."
"Tough guys," Toma said, do not impress him. "I've met a lot of wise guys over the years. Some are doing time now. Some laughed at what I'm saying and now I hear them laughing in mental institutions. Some are dead." He warned the Miraleste students against thinking that "it will never happen to me. You think you'll never get hooked on drugs. Listen to me! If you're smoking pot now, you're hooked, baby."
Toma saved his most withering fire for campus drug dealers. "We know you're out there, scumbags," he said. "We know what you're doing. It's just a matter of time, and then you're going down."
Most Seemed to Listen
Despite poor acoustics and problems with the Miraleste gym's sound system, most of the students appeared to be listening intently throughout the marathon session. Several became agitated as Toma continued to relate stories of the horrors of drug and alcohol addition, and had to be helped out of the gym.