ATLANTA — Ignoring allegations that greed and Hollywood overzealousness had corrupted the legal process, a federal jury Friday convicted an Atlanta attorney of racketeering in connection with drug charges and the murder of his wife.
Fredric W. Tokars, a former Fulton County prosecutor and part-time municipal judge, was found guilty on eight counts, including racketeering, money laundering, kidnaping and using a telephone to arrange a murder. Four of the counts carried mandatory life sentences.
"I'm still in shock," said Jerome Froelich, Tokars' attorney, as he left the courthouse in Birmingham, Ala., where the trial was held. He said that he would file an appeal based on trial errors, including the judge's allowance of what Froelich termed inadmissible evidence.
Tokars, who has yet to stand trial on state murder charges, sat stoically while the verdicts were read. Afterward, he turned toward his mother and briefly smiled.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Wilmer Parker had portrayed Tokars as a seemingly strait-laced pillar of society--a "wolf in sheep's clothing"--who had his wife killed to keep her from disclosing his criminal activities.
Tokars and co-defendant James Mason, a former nightclub owner, were accused of participating in a major cocaine ring that laundered its proceeds in offshore bank accounts and nightclubs and used kidnaping, torture and murder to protect its operations.
Mason was convicted of nine counts and faces life in prison.
The five-week trial was dominated by talk of movie deals. The two leading investigators of Sara Tokars' murder, Cobb County police detectives Ron Hunton and Pat Banks, were fired Monday after it was learned that they had signed a movie contract two months after the murder--and eight months before Tokars was arrested. They were paid $4,500 each and would have received $200,000 if the case were made into a four-hour movie.
Defense attorneys alleged that the police, members of the media and Sara Tokars' family had worked tirelessly to convict her husband because they lusted after movie money and fame.
"The camera can be as seductive as any drug," Froelich said in closing arguments last week. "Justice is not supposed to start out by saying, 'I want this person and how do we get him?' "
The case, which has held much of Atlanta transfixed since Sara Tokars was shot down in front of her two young sons just after Thanksgiving in 1992, sparked intense Hollywood interest.
While the officers' firings came after the jury had begun its deliberations, one of the policemen admitted on the stand that he had lied to his supervisor about the movie deal. And there was testimony that Sara Tokars' sisters and parents had agreed to participate in a made-for-television movie deal.
Donald W. Chasey, executive producer for Patchett Kaufman Entertainment, contradicted one sister who testified that the family had backed out of a movie deal. Chasey said that in January the sister, Therese Ambrusko, a San Francisco lawyer, told him she was concerned because she might be a witness in the trial and subpoenas might delve into the movie deal. "She wanted to send me a letter saying we didn't have a deal, but that she didn't really mean it and in fact we really had a deal," Chasey testified.
On Friday, Froelich repeated his allegation that Ambrusko committed "flat-out perjury" and said the family "drove" the prosecution.
In yet another example of the way Hollywood affected the case, an Atlanta television reporter and anchorman was fired last year after it was disclosed that he had entered into a partnership with sources--including a lawyer and private investigator who had worked for Sara Tokars--to peddle a movie in which a character patterned after himself uncovered evidence proving that Fred Tokars was behind the murder.
But none of this raised enough questions in the minds of the jury to discredit the evidence.
"I'm very relieved," Parker said after the verdicts. "I've been involved in other major prosecutions that had more significant impact upon the United States society as a whole, but obviously this case had gripped the community of Atlanta and appropriately so. I think people yearned to see justice done, and I believe justice has been done."
Froelich said he thought the jury had been overwhelmed by testimony of high-level drug dealing and graphic accounts of violence.