The mother and her two sons had just returned home on Nov. 29, 1992, from spending Thanksgiving with family in Bradenton, Fla., when a man initially suspected of trying to burglarize their home in the Kings Cove subdivision in east Cobb abducted the family.
Tokars and her then 4- and 6-year-old boys were forced back into their Toyota 4-Runner by the gunman. He ordered her to drive, and when she refused to turn into a subdivision under construction, he shot her in the back of the head.
It took investigators a little over a month to figure out that Sara Tokars’ husband, Fred, an up and coming tax attorney and part-time judge in Fulton County, had paid two men with criminal backgrounds to kill his wife because she had found out about a number of illegal activities he was involved in.
Fred Tokars was found guilty of murder five years later and sentenced to life in prison.
Tom Charron, who was Cobb’s district attorney at that time and now serves as the county court administrator, said the case consumed nearly six years of his 21-year career as the local district attorney.
“To this day, I remember where I was sitting when I received the call about the shooting,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine a woman being killed in her vehicle in that area. I can’t think of a case in my tenure that had that pattern to it … right off the bat, it sent up a lot of red flags. There were so many bizarre twists and turns in this case that it really was almost a career case for me.”
It was the job of Charron’s staff, which included now-retired prosecutors Jack Mallard and Russ Parker, and retiring Cobb Magistrate Court Judge Joan Bloom, Nancy Jordan and William, Pardue and Cobb detectives to figure out who killed the east Cobb house wife.
“Nobody had a bad word to say about Sara,” Charron said. “There was no reason for her to be murdered, and she was literally murdered in front of two small children.”
Charron said the Tokars’ sons were traumatized by the murder, but 6-year-old Ricky helped police the most.
“The little boy kept talking about a black man in a ski toboggan hat with what he called a ‘pirate gun’ who shot his mother,” Charron said.
Ricky was also able to tell police the second-by-second details of what happened leading up to his mother’s death, and during Fred Tokars’ 1997 trial, Bloom read aloud the testimony the child gave in person in the shooter’s trial in 1995.
“The defense agreed to have the transcript read instead of having his son testify,” Bloom said. “It was just gut-wrenching, and I had to read that transcript at least a hundred times before I could not cry.”
Bloom said the case hit close to home.
“This horrible crime had happened in the middle of east Cobb paradise — safest place in metro Atlanta — and she was a blonde woman with two little boys, and so was I,” she said. “We lived a mile and a half from each other, and there was this killer loose. I was truly afraid. That kind of crime just did not happen in east Cobb.”
Bloom said it was tough talking to the first responders at the scene, who literally had to wipe blood, brain matter and pieces of Sara Tokars’ skull off the boys at the crime scene.
“Ricky was in the passenger seat … when (the gunman) pulled the trigger and literally blew her brains out,” she said. “She fell on him as if she was in her last minutes protecting Ricky.”
Lt. Col. Ron Hunton, who is no longer with Cobb Police but was originally assigned to the case, said police arrested Eddie Charles Lawrence, then 28, of Atlanta and Curtis Alfonzo Rower, then 22, of College Park about three weeks after the shooting.
Lawrence was a real estate developer with whom Tokars was a business associate of and shared an office with.
He initially denied any involvement in the murder, but after about seven months admitted to taking cash from Fred Tokars to kill his wife.
He pled guilty to federal charges of counterfeiting and aiding and abetting the murder. He also pled guilty to state charges of murder and agreed to serve nearly 13 years in federal custody in the Federal Witness Protection Program.
Rower, whose sister worked for Lawrence, reportedly accepted $5,000 from Lawrence to kill Sara Tokars.
He was sentenced to consecutive life sentences plus 40 years for kidnapping and armed robbery in 1995 and according to the Georgia Department of Corrections, remains in the Hancock State Prison in Sparta, Ga.
Brad McEntyre, who worked in the Cobb Police robbery and homicide division for 24 years, testified during the trial about being a first responder to the scene and executing arrest warrants for Rower and Lawrence.
“It was apparent that (Sara Tokars) had been executed, and of course, the fact that it had been done in front of her two young sons was extremely unusual also,” he said.
McEntyre remembered the investigation being very tiring for the homicide division.
“There was a lot of stress associated with it,” he said. “It was a very, very high profile case at the time. We were working extremely hard, long hours.”
He retired from Cobb in 2010 and now works as a campus police officer in the area.
Fred Tokars’ trial was held in early 1997 in Walker County in northwest Georgia.
Cobb Superior Court Judge Jim Bodiford, who presided over the trial after inheriting it from retired Judge Watson White, said it was moved due to the case’s publicity over the years.
“For me, it was one of the more memorable, one of the saddest cases I’ve ever been involved in,” he said.
It took 15 days to select a jury, and the trial lasted 44 days, Mondays through Saturdays.
“We not only had the rigors and challenges of a death penalty case, but we also had the special concerns with the jury who were away from their families, their occupations, their church for about a month and half,” he said.
Local criminal attorney Jimmy Berry, Atlanta federal criminal defense attorney Jerry Froelich, attorney Bobby Lee Cook from Summerville, who worked pro bono, and Wyoming attorney Ed Moriarity represented Tokars.
Berry said his defense focused on disproving that Fred Tokars set up the murder and that Lawrence was to blame.
“Fred had been involved in some shady things and had not been very faithful to his wife … all of these things hurt,” he said. “I don’t think I spoke to anyone during that time who had something good to say about Fred.”
One statement that Berry remembered the prosecutors beating his client up on was a comment Fred Tokars made shortly after his wife was killed and he was being bombarded by the media on the front lawn of the family home.
“He said, ‘I’ve lost my lifestyle,’” Berry said. “That was not the best thing in the world to say to the media.”
Despite the defense trying to point all fingers at Lawrence, their argument didn’t stand in court.
Berry said Fred Tokars’ involvement with prostitutes, exotic dancers, drug trafficking and offshore bank accounts led to the conviction.
“People just did not like him,” he said. “For some reason, he didn’t project a very good image, even though we tried to soften him up a little, put him in a sweater rather than a suit.”
Froelich said he believes the trial’s publicity made it difficult for the defense.
“Police officers had cut deals for a book or movie on (Sara Tokars) before the trial … a TV anchor had signed a book deal and was killing us on the air,” he said. “There was some really wild stuff going on.”
Fred Tokars was found guilty of malice murder March 8, 1997, and four days later his life was spared with a sentence of life in prison.
Bloom said she was happy the jury found him guilty but “highly disappointed” that they didn’t sentence him to death.
“We thought that surely if you found him guilty and you believed that he hired someone to kill his wife in front of his little bitty kids, surely if anyone deserves a death penalty, it’s that person,” he said.
The jury came back 10-2. In Georgia, the death penalty sentence must be unanimous.
As of today, no one seems to know where Fred Tokars is, but Berry, Charron and Froelich believe he is in federal protective custody.
The last report was in 2001, when Berry heard he was imprisoned in Colorado suffering from advanced multiple sclerosis.
However, there are the occasional updates on Sara Tokars’ two sons.
Charron said he hears from her family periodically. The last time was about a year and a half ago.
“I always like to hear and keep up on how the boys are doing,” he said. “I hear good things about both of them.”
He said the boys were raised by both of Sara Tokars’ parents, who have since died, and her sister, Joni Ambrusko in Bradenton, Fla. Sara Tokars was one of seven girls.
“One of the saving graces in this case was that the Ambrusko family was a very close-knit, wonderful family, and they very quickly created an atmosphere that could be as normal as it could for those boys,” Charron said.
Charron went on to say that both boys have done “extremely well,” and have graduated from both high school and college. Ricky should be about 26 and Mike should be 24.
In an interview with Fox 5 News, Sara Tokars’ sister, Krissy Ambrusko Pennington, told a reporter that Rick is studying to be a paramedic in California and Mike is an aspiring journalist in New York.