Presumed Guilty

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

Tornatore claims it's his wife who did the most damage, compiling a long list of kids he had contact with, turning his personal disks and videos over to police, accusing him of molesting their own kids, even tacking up warning fliers to alert neighbors to the pedophile in their midst. "She went fucking nuts," he says.

And his troubles had only begun.
In 1995 Tornatore was the subject of a complaint filed by the parents of a Palm Beach Gardens boy alleging that he had given their son money and his beeper number. The complaint was dropped because of a lack of evidence and the parents' unwillingness to press the case, but Palm Beach Gardens police had it in their institutional memory. The complaint, along with the Marion County arrest and the confiscated notebook, were enough to trigger a full-scale investigation. Sgt. Robert Artola of Palm Beach Gardens was the lead detective.

Tornatore had access to and contact with a lot of kids in Palm Beach Gardens. He was a hockey coach, had a teenage son, and befriended kids through the fire department. For Artola that meant there were a lot of potential victims to check out. "We went on a spree," he says, and that's a good choice of words. He put together a list with 41 names on it: neighbors, friends, kids whom Tornatore coached, anybody who might have had contact with the fire marshal.

Sandy moved out of the house with the children and left for New York a few months later. The loss of his job and his family sent Tornatore into a tailspin. He became despondent, talked of suicide, and spent a month in a New Orleans hospital, being treated for depression. Sandy served him with divorce papers while he was there.

Meanwhile, Artola whittled his list of potential victims down to 12 and had the dozen interviewed on videotape at Home Safe, a state-run program in West Palm Beach specializing in taking statements from juvenile victims of sexual abuse. Nine of the 12 told the Home Safe interviewer that Tornatore had done nothing wrong. Of the other three, one teenage boy said Tornatore had offered him a job at the fire department in return for "fooling around," one said Tornatore offered to buy him a handgun if he would talk about masturbation with him, and one claimed he actually had anal and oral sex with Tornatore.

Based on the statements and little else, Artola arrested Tornatore in September 1997. In addition to the Marion County charges, he now faced 12 counts of sexual activity with a child and one count of attempted sexual activity with a minor. The third boy's testimony, the one who claimed Tornatore had offered to buy him a handgun in exchange for talking dirty, did not result in charges.

A Palm Beach County judge released Tornatore on $200,000 bail and the stipulation that he not associate with anyone under age 18. Tornatore moved to Miami and found work as a cook and, when that didn't work out, in a lumberyard. He moved to Fort Lauderdale when a friend got him a job managing an apartment complex in Lake Ridge.

Trouble has Tornatore's address, and it caught up with him again in Fort Lauderdale. An anonymous informant told Palm Beach Gardens police he had seen minors in Tornatore's Fort Lauderdale apartment. Police put Tornatore under surveillance and took him back into custody when they saw someone who looked to be underage in his apartment. A judge ruled that there had been no bond violation -- the person police had seen in Tornatore's apartment was probably a 12-year-old who did yard work and errands at the complex. Tornatore was the manager, so it's not unlikely that they would have met.

This time Tornatore worked out a deal to spend his days waiting for trial on house arrest at his parents' home in Ballen Isles, a posh, gated community in Palm Beach Gardens. Again there was a stipulation: A court-approved adult supervisor had to be at the house at all times. A male friend of Tornatore's took the first shift, staying in the house 24 hours a day, seven days a week for several months. Later, Tornatore's parents became his baby sitter.

In September 1998 Artola came up with yet another "victim": a 21-year-old man who said he had sex with Tornatore more than 200 times while still a minor. The scene was now familiar: Tornatore was arrested and charged with, in this case, ten additional counts of sexual activity with a child and two counts of solicitation to commit sexual activity with a child.

The Palm Beach County media could barely contain their delight. Tornatore led several newscasts, with cameras following his every hearing. WPBF-TV (Channel 25) aired these comments from Ballen Isles community association president Roy Davidson: "The residents, particularly the parents of the 125-plus children we have in our community plus untold numbers of grandchildren that visit on a regular basis, feel their ability to enjoy their lifestyle has been severely compromised, not only by the house arrest of Mr. Tornatore but by his residential supervisors, who are not restricted." The same station put an anonymous woman on the air who said she was afraid for the children of Palm Beach Gardens, though "this woman's son was never touched by Tornatore," the reporter said almost dejectedly.

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