Fred Tokars is dead. He has lived for the past 28 years in federal prison. He died in prison — the past decade, he lived under the protection of the federal witness protection program. In 1997, Tokars received a life sentence for murdering his wife, Sara Tokars.
In 1992 Tokars and I shared an executive suite of offices with other attorneys on Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta, Georgia. A tall gaunt man, he often came to the office in faded blue jeans accompanied by a wrinkle tee shirt, and a pair of brown penny loafers, which he wore without socks. His mother, a non-lawyer, was his only office employee. She dressed similar to her son. I do not think I ever saw her with her hair professionally styled, or wearing a dress.
It struck me that while clients were in and out of my office, I saw very few clients visit with Tokars. One day when I went to the restroom, a familiar face walked into the room. I recognized him as Johnny Ford, Mayor of Tuskegee, Alabama, where I had attended undergraduate school.
I struck up a conversation, letting him know that I cast my first ballot for him in 1970 to become Mayor of Tuskegee. He thanked me. I was curious to know who he was there to see and was shocked when he said, “Fred Tokars.” Hardly anyone came to see him, at least, not during daylight hours. Nevertheless, Tokars appeared to prosper.
Sara Tokars received fatal gunshot wounds in front of the couple’s two sons, ages four and six after they had arrived home from sharing Thanksgiving Day with relatives in Montgomery, Alabama. Fred Tokars stayed behind in Montgomery, stating that he had to meet a client in Alabama on the following day.
The murder began to unravel quickly when the police snared a crackhead who worked for Tokars and had been recruited by Tokars to find a gunman, Curtis Rowe, to place a hit on Sara Tokars.
Sara threatened to file for divorce and expose her husband’s role in a major drug ring in the Atlanta area. She had discovered where Fred stashed his cash and records of others involved in this criminal scheme with him. Additionally, Fred had a $1.75 million insurance policy on his wife, who did not work outside the home.
Before the state convicted Tokars for murder in 1997, the feds tried him in 1994 under federal racketeering charges (RICO) for his involvement in distributing cocaine, money laundering, and for the murder of his wife. Since the feds convicted him first, Tokars was serving time in the federal penal system.
Federal inmates sought out Tokars for legal advice once they learned that he was an imprisoned lawyer. Trusting a fellow inmate is the least wise thing a prisoner can do.
This axiom proves doubly true; especially, when confiding in a lawyer who is in jail on a murder conviction and is no longer considered a lawyer. He does not have to maintain the confidence of those who confide in him. Well, technically, he does.
But what would be the effect of additional punishment by the State Bar of Georgia if a former lawyer disclosed confidences obtained while serving prison sentences that will last his natural life?
Tokars believed that if he snitched to the FBI, his cooperation would lead to an early release. Parole was a possibility because back when Tokars received his conviction for murder in a Georgia court, there was only one type of life sentence: Life with the possibility of parole. Today a person could be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
Information Tokars gathered in talks with inmates under the guise of helping them with their cases, aided the feds in the prosecution of Dustin Hoken. The AMC series, Breaking Bad, is based on the Hoken case. Honken and his girlfriend received the death penalty. This sentence was made possible by assistance the government received from Tokars.
In all, Jerry Froelich, Tokars’ lawyer, says, Tokars from his prison cell aided in solving “six murders,” which includes the murder of “three federal witnesses, a witness’ girlfriend and her 6- and 8- year-old daughters.”
Froelich used Tokars’ cooperation to seek his release from prison, alleging that federal inmates threatened to kill Tokars if he did not help them with their cases. The government did not buy Tokars’ assistance, arguing that to do so would encourage all smart inmates to think they could absolve themselves of their criminal past by helping other inmates with their cases, and then squeal on them for an early release. Beyond that, what enterprising inmate in his right mind would trust the assistance given to him by someone he had to threaten for that assistance?
The court did not buy Tokars’ plea for an early release. After the prosecution in the Hoken matter, it did not take the inmates long to learn who had ratted them out. Tokars received protective custody designation.
While serving his life sentence, Tokars developed a form of multiple sclerosis. The disease caused him to lose his ability to walk. A condition he has lived with for at least ten years. In late April 2020, he developed a fever and succumbed to his illness in early May.
Thus, justice, delayed 28 years, nevertheless — justice.
Harold Michael Harvey is the author of Freaknik Lawyer: A Memoir on the Craft of Resistance. He is a Past President of the Gate City Bar Association. He is the recipient of Gate City’s R. E. Thomas Civil Rights Award, which he received for his pro bono representation of Black college students arrested during Freaknik celebrations in the mid to late 1990s. An avid public speaker, contact him at email@example.com.