Presumed Guilty

Shoddy police work. A hyperbolic press corps. Overzealous prosecutors. All part of the ruined life of accused pedophile Tom Tornatore.

A few years later Tornatore got the charges expunged and his record sealed, but the 20-year-old misdemeanor -- which isn't even technically supposed to exist -- found new life in Palm Beach County after Tornatore's arrests in Florida.

He worked his way up the firefighting ranks, serving as a code inspector, investigator, and chief of the volunteer fire department in Mahopac, New York, before moving to Florida in 1993. A broken back repaired with steel pins and screws left him unable to tolerate cold weather, so he moved in with his parents in Palm Beach Gardens to recuperate. His wife and two kids joined him a few months later. In October 1993 he got a job with the Palm Beach Gardens fire department as a fire inspector.

Though ostensibly a straight family man, Tornatore still struggled with his sexuality. He was leading a double life, and the pressure was getting to him. He separated from his wife in 1997.

After the breakup Tornatore occasionally visited gay nightclubs and hung out in gay chat rooms on the Internet. He claims he wasn't out to meet young men, necessarily. (In fact, since he split with his wife, Tornatore has dated men ranging in age from their twenties to almost 50.) He got in the habit of jotting down screen names and telephone numbers he came across online in a small, wire-bound notebook, and that would come back to haunt him.

In early June 1997, Tornatore met Jeremy Trek in the Orlando M4M (Male For Male) chat room on AOL. Tornatore was planning to travel to Orlando for a job interview and was on the Internet trying to find someone to accompany him to Universal Studios while in the area.

Another person in the chat room at the time introduced Tornatore and Trek and mentioned that Trek liked to pretend to be a young boy. The chat room was supposedly for adult men, but on the Internet lots of people pretend to be someone they're not. Tornatore thought nothing of it.

He went by the screen name "TreatUrite." He and Trek hit it off immediately, chatting in computer shorthand about going to Universal. He described himself to Trek: "I am 5 11, 180, brown hair & eyes, tan, good build, tan, very str8 acting & looking, and a 32 yo cop here." Technically he wasn't a cop, but he had completed the police academy and had planned to be sworn in as a police officer so he could do his own criminal fire investigations.

"Kewl," Trek typed back.
The session bounced back and forth in banal computer small talk until Trek typed, "Will hand job hurt?"

"No," Tornatore answered.
"Wat abouts blow job wat do i need to do?"
"We can talk later," Tornatore responded.

Tornatore asked Trek his age. Trek typed "14." Tornatore didn't acknowledge the response one way or another. "In retrospect," he now says, "I believed what the person told me in the chat room, that this guy (Trek) pretended to be a kid. I'm naive, I'm stupid, I'd only had the computer for two months."

They arranged to talk on the phone.
Tornatore never actually talked to Jeremy Trek, because there is no Jeremy Trek. He talked to officer Jeff Gold of the Marion County Sheriff's Department. Gold and another deputy were working an Internet sting, posing as a 14-year-old boy to catch men soliciting sex. They were convincing enough on the Net -- just misspell a few words here and there and throw in a few kewls and anybody can be a virtual 14. But Gold wasn't as convincing on the phone. And Tornatore was suspicious, asking Gold/Trek his age several times. Gold continued to say he was 14, and Tornatore continued not to believe him.

They decided to meet in the parking lot of a Dairy Queen in Silver Springs. "Trek" was standing in the lot with his back to the street when Tornatore arrived. He turned as Tornatore approached. It was immediately evident Trek was not the adult he sounded like on the phone; he looked like a young teenager, says Tornatore. "I said, 'You're not Jeremy, are you?'" says Tornatore. "He said, 'What time will I be home?' I looked at my watch and said, 'You'll be home in about ten minutes. I was expecting someone a lot older, I'm sorry.'"

Tornatore turned to leave and was arrested. Deputies searched his car and found the spiral-bound notebook filled with Internet contacts like "jpstud77," "nysuperboy" "houtxjason" and "kingbee" (no indication of age anywhere) scribbled next to phone numbers.

The fire marshal of Palm Beach Gardens was charged with soliciting sex from a minor, using a computer to solicit a child for sex, and carrying a concealed weapon while committing a felony (Tornatore holds a concealed weapons permit and had a .38 tucked under his shirt). He was released that night on $6000 bond but not before the sheriff's office held a news conference and paraded him in front of waiting television cameras.

Upon his return to Palm Beach County, Tornatore was suspended with pay from his $40,000-a-year job, then fired a few weeks later. The official causes of his dismissal were conduct unbecoming a city employee and improper use of city equipment. Police sealed his office at the fire station with crime-scene tape and searched his computer for porn. They found nothing. Investigators also searched an office mate's computer on the theory Tornatore was too smart to use his own machine, and again came up empty-handed.

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