Presumed Guilty

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

She agreed to have her son interviewed at Home Safe. In that interview Gruner told the social worker (and indirectly, Sergeant Artola) that he met Tornatore in a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Palm Beach Gardens. Tornatore introduced himself, according to Gruner, by saying he recognized him from a fire demonstration at Gruner's school. They spoke cordially for a few minutes, and Tornatore gave Gruner his pager, work, and home phone numbers, asking him to call later.

Gruner called a day or two later, and Tornatore offered him a job doing yard work. Gruner had permission from his parents to go, and Tornatore would indeed pick him up in a city car. The relationship soon turned sexual, Gruner says on the tape, claiming they had anal and oral sex twice. (Contacted by New Times at his place of employment, Gruner refused to comment for this story. Phone calls to his house were not returned. Phone calls to Love were also not returned.)

Tornatore does not deny meeting Gruner at Barnes & Noble. But his version of the story differs considerably. He was at the store with a friend who needed to purchase a book and went to use the bathroom while his friend shopped. While Tornatore was standing at the urinal, Gruner poked his head out from underneath an adjoining stall as if he were trying to get a better look. Tornatore confronted him and told him what he was doing was dangerous. Gruner begged him not to tell his parents. Tornatore gave the boy his pager number, and they got together to do yard work. He counts it among his many mistakes. "I probably should have said something to somebody right then, but I really didn't think anybody would believe me," he says.

Artola swore out a probable-cause affidavit charging Tornatore with sexual battery based on Gruner's Home Safe tape and one subsequent meeting with Love and Gruner at which mother, son, and police detective drove out to Tornatore's house. They sat in the car while Gruner identified the house and described the interior. On the advice of his attorneys, Tornatore never gave an official statement to police.

Gruner's story sounds plausible, but it doesn't weather scrutiny. In depositions he admits to lying at the Home Safe interview, something Artola didn't realize because he never spoke with Gruner at length again. In the Home Safe interview, for example, he says he didn't start having sex with Tornatore until a year after they met. In depositions he says they had sex the first day they met. At the Home Safe interview, Gruner says they met for sex twice; in depositions he says they met as often as three times a month for nearly a year.

And the young man has a lot of trouble with dates -- so much, in fact, that the state has had to amend its charges three times to accommodate his shifting dates of the alleged relationship. Gruner puts the beginning of the relationship as early as 1991 and as late as 1995. Prosecutors have argued that Gruner suffers from a learning disability, which is why he has trouble with dates and times.

The changing dates present some real head-scratchers. Gruner has never varied from his recollection that he met Tornatore in the Barnes & Noble bookstore. But they couldn't have met in January 1993 or earlier, because the bookstore wasn't built until late 1993. At one point Gruner says it may have been 1991 when he first met Tornatore, which is unlikely given that Tornatore didn't live in Florida until 1993.

Such discrepancies don't seem to bother Artola. "That kind of change is common," he says. "It didn't alarm me at all."

Gruner himself says Tornatore never picked him up at his mother's house -- in contrast to what his mother told Artola, which made it into Artola's probable-cause affidavit. Gruner is also unwavering in his assertion that Tornatore picked him up between 3 and 4 p.m. after school. Had Artola interviewed Gruner's adoptive father, Leon Gruner, he would have discovered that it would have been very difficult for Tornatore to pick up Gruner for sex from his father's house after school either. After he broke up with Love, Leon had primary custody of Richard and kept a tight rein on the boy, not allowing him out of the house after school or at night. When Richard went to work, a parent or relative usually dropped him off and picked him up.

But one of the biggest holes in Artola's investigation is that he didn't check out a tip from Gruner's mother that her son may have been sexually active with another adult male at the time the encounters with Tornatore were supposedly going on. Tornatore has claimed all along he never had sex with Gruner, that Gruner used him as a scapegoat to conceal a relationship with another adult. Blaming an accused sex offender makes Gruner seem the victim, Tornatore says, when Gruner was really the aggressor. "He threatened to tell people I was gay. He threatened to tell people I'd had sex with him."

True or not, the theory bears checking out, given the holes in Gruner's story. Artola didn't do it.

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