Recommended For YouPowered by SailThru

Presumed Guilty

There's a photo on Tom Tornatore's desk of him and his two kids at Disney World. In the photo Tom is on the left, Katie, age 12, is in the middle, and Tommy Jr., 16, is on the right. They're standing in front of Cinderella's Castle, which is decorated in pink and white for the park's 25th anniversary.

There's nothing special about the picture -- hand the camera to a stranger, stand in front of a landmark, look straight into the lens, and say "cheese." Something like it adorns virtually every mantle or refrigerator in America.

What makes the photo significant is when it was snapped -- April 1997. It was one of the last times Tornatore saw his children.

Just two months later, Tornatore became infamous as Palm Beach Gardens' "friendly fire marshal" accused of molesting boys, and since then his life has fallen apart. He's been arrested three times and charged with a total of 29 counts of sexual misconduct with minors. He lost his job, has been snubbed by friends, and became a pariah in this well-to-do city in north Palm Beach County. Television news crews drooled over the case, never missing an opportunity to shove a microphone in Tornatore's face while he was being led in and out of jail, handcuffed and head down. WPBF-TV (Channel 25) labeled Tornatore "one of the most shocking cases of the year." He was perceived as such a menace to the safety and well-being of Palm Beach Gardens that the city council sent a letter to his judge asking that he not be released on bond in their fair city.

His wife, Sandy Tornatore, took the couple's kids and ran -- first to New York and then to California. Tornatore doesn't know what city they live in and hasn't seen or heard from his children in almost two years. He's lost a lot of things, but not being able to see his kids hurts the most. "I love my children to death," he says. "There is no part of this harder for me than not being able to see my kids."

Gut instinct says anyone facing 29 counts of anything probably did something wrong. Doubly so if the charges allege gay pedophilia -- such an accusation isn't made lightly. And if police and prosecutors believe it, and the media reports it, and city officials and neighbors express concern about it, it's almost irrelevant what the courts have to say. Tornatore hasn't yet been convicted of anything, but he's already lost almost everything, including his freedom. He's guilty until proven innocent, and even if acquitted he's still been accused, repeatedly, of pedophilia. To many people that means he must have done something terribly wrong.

Inherent in the willingness to believe the accusation is the idea that police did their job, that they know things about Tornatore the public doesn't. They must have investigated him thoroughly, tracked down every lead, talked to every witness, carefully pieced together a case. To think otherwise is flirting with the idea that the justice system failed when it was needed the most.

But the investigation is full of holes big enough to drive a fire truck through. Police have lost evidence, overlooked leads, failed to talk to key witnesses, and botched reports. Instead of throwing the case back like an undersize fish, prosecutors have pressed on. Even the former lead prosecutor admits the case is troublesome. "It will be a miracle if I can pull this off," state's attorney Scott Cupp said in March after learning an alleged victim wanted no part in the proceedings.

Consider the ramifications: Sloppy police work could put an innocent man in prison for up to 30 years; it could also put a guilty man back on the streets.

Tornatore strongly and repeatedly denies all the accusations, which is not to say he hasn't made some big mistakes. If he's guilty of anything, he says, it's the naive belief that a gay man can befriend kids at all.

"I fucked up," he says in a moment of penitence. "There's no question about it, these things don't look good. But it's not a crime to be gay. Because I talk to somebody doesn't mean I had sex with them."

Tornatore, age 39, has been active in firefighting in one capacity or another since he joined an explorer's club in his hometown of Fayetteville, New York, at age 14. He was drawn to the fire service to fill a vacuum in his own life. "I was a 14-year-old, and a 14-year-old kid needs a father, someone to give you an 'Atta-boy.' I didn't have that."

Tornatore characterizes his father as distant and cold, a man who didn't attend his son's football games and disapproved of Tom's having anything to do with the fire department. As a teenager struggling with the realization that he might be gay, he had no one to talk to.

In the late '70s, before he turned 18, Tornatore had a sexual relationship with another minor who turned out to be the son of the editor of the local newspaper. It was a small town and word got out. About 18 months later, Tornatore was questioned by police, and he admitted the sex. He was 19 by then, and police charged him with sodomy. Tornatore's future wife, Sandra Hall, knew about the incident but wrote it off as a teenager's search for himself.

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.

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.

Not to be outdone, the Palm Beach Post took up its position as the unofficial stenographer for prosecutor Scott Cupp. Post writer Scott Gold wrote this after the ruling that Tornatore had not violated his bond in Fort Lauderdale: "...[F]labbergasted prosecutors watched as a judge, facing a remarkable series of coincidences and nuances in Florida law, agreed to free Thomas Tornatore from jail -- again -- while he awaits trial."

The Palm Beach County trial has been postponed six times -- the state has had trouble producing witnesses, people on both sides have been reluctant to be deposed, a new judge took over in midstream, et cetera. The last delay occurred in March when the state asked for, and got, a stay after the trial had already begun.

At the trial Tornatore looked nervous and worn. In the hallway beforehand he huddled with his attorneys -- twin brothers Sid and Jack Fleischman -- planning strategy in hushed tones and looking out the tenth-floor windows toward Palm Beach. Waiting for his case to be called in the courtroom, he sat in the back with his parents, keeping up a running, whispered commentary on the failures of the justice system.

As always he reserved his most venomous comments for the media. Before his case came up, a line of the accused paraded before the judge; a man charged with beating his pregnant wife, an armed robber, six or seven thieves, and assorted drug dealers were summarily adjudicated. Two TV news cameramen cooled their heels in the back, recording none of it. "Not newsworthy," Tornatore hissed. "If Charles Manson came through here, they'd ignore him and focus on me."

Rule No. 3 in the Palm Beach Gardens Police Department's policy and procedure manual reads, "During early stages of the investigation, the detective(s)/investigator(s)/agents(s) will, based on individual case circumstances, thoroughly interview all victims, witnesses, neighbors, reporting parties, and possible suspects. It may become necessary to reinterview certain persons during the course of the investigation to clarify information or seek additional details."

Commonsense advice for cops. Unfortunately Palm Beach Gardens police didn't follow it. If they had Tornatore might never have been arrested in their town.

The questionable sleuthing, however, began before Palm Beach Gardens ever got its hands on the case. It began right from the start in Marion County when officer Jeff Gold got on the phone with Tornatore and did nothing to disguise his voice. In depositions Gold admits Tornatore did not believe he was talking to a 14-year-old boy. That's problematic because the statute Tornatore is charged under specifies that to be guilty of soliciting sex from a minor, you have to believe the person is, in fact, a minor.

There were actually two Jeremy Treks: Gold on the Internet and phone line, and Brian King, the person Tornatore met face-to-face at the Dairy Queen June 6, 1997. King is the 14-year-old son of Art King, a Marion County sheriff's deputy working with Gold on the sting. Brian King had no experience in police work and was given no training before his father wired him with a radio transmitter and set him out in the parking lot to meet Tornatore. That lack of training is in addition to the questionable tactic of using your son as a decoy to meet a man who, in this case, turned out to be armed.

The confusion and foul-ups continued. Marion County deputies attempted to record the conversation between Brian King and Tornatore, but their equipment failed. Gold took a taped statement from Tornatore in the police car but somehow lost the audiotape. After the arrest deputies took a taped statement from Brian King regarding his interaction with Tornatore and lost that tape too. They even misplaced Tornatore's wallet, which was later found in the room reserved for press conferences.

Nearly two years after the arrest, the Marion County case is still pending, awaiting the outcome of the trial in Palm Beach County.

Bad as it was, the police work in Marion County is textbook compared to the way Sergeant Artola of the Palm Beach Gardens police handled his investigation.

When he was working on the case, Artola was Palm Beach Gardens' lead detective on sex crimes, having worked that beat for almost ten years. He's since been promoted and now heads the department's professional standards division. He continues to lecture on the topic at schools and community centers around the city, to teach interviewing techniques at Home Safe, and to help train detectives from other police departments.

Artola had his suspicions about Tornatore ever since the 1995 complaint. When Tornatore was arrested in Marion County, Artola put two and two together. "Three years later this pops up," he says. "When it happened I was not shocked at all. I kind of suspected something was going to happen."

And there were little things, like Tornatore giving rides to juveniles in his city car, even the physical appearance of his wife. "You look at her, and she looks like an 18-year-old boy," says Artola. Throw in the notebook and a healthy dose of cop's intuition, and you've got what Artola believes is the m.o. of a pedophile.

The Marion County arrest prompted Artola's investigation. After narrowing the field of 41 potential victims to 12, he turned over the task of taking statements to Home Safe for two reasons: consistency and convenience. He wanted all the interviews to be videotaped and in the same surroundings, and having Home Safe do the interviews was just easier than doing them himself. "There were so many," he says. "I expected to interview 20 to 30 kids."

During the interviews Artola sat in an adjacent room and watched on a monitor. All the interviewees were sworn in by a police officer, though the tapes indicate some didn't seem to understand that while talking face-to-face with a social worker, they were really giving a statement to police.

The videotapes are key to the prosecution of Tornatore, because they form almost the entire body of evidence against him. They also, upon viewing, illustrate how shaky the case really is.

Questions posed by the social workers are often leading and seem focused on establishing Tornatore's homosexuality if they can't establish his guilt. Interviewing Tornatore's son Tommy, social worker Pam Klinger asks repeatedly if he was sexually abused by his father. Tommy answers "no" every time. The questions shift to Tornatore's sexuality: Did his father hang around with homosexuals, keep gay porn, talk about gay sex? Tommy Tornatore answers "no" time and again. (An interesting aside: In his written report based on Tommy Tornatore's interview, Artola states the boy slept with a butcher knife under his pillow, ostensibly because he was afraid of his father. But Tommy Tornatore never mentions a butcher knife in his taped interview. "I remember the statement, I just don't remember if he said it to the Home Safe staff," Artola says.)

In another interview Klinger asks a subject at least a dozen times if he had sex with Tornatore before promising that the videotape will be kept "confidential" and stating, "We need information because other people have been victimized and we don't want that to happen." (No charge had yet been filed against Tornatore in Palm Beach Gardens.) The boy, after repeated denials, changes his story and says he had sex with Tornatore twice.

Asked about this interview later in depositions, Artola says "... I don't think that anybody should be led or provided with leading questions." Artola helped train Klinger.

Artola did little to corroborate what's said on the tapes. He didn't reinterview the people who accused Tornatore. He didn't take statements from parents. He didn't verify times or dates. He didn't accurately report what was on the tapes. He did almost nothing to check out the veracity of the stories or the characters of the people telling them.

He also failed to talk to key witnesses not interviewed at Home Safe. Had he done so, Artola would have uncovered a host of discrepancies and inconsistencies in the accusations against fire marshal Tom.

Of the 12 taped statements, three led to Tornatore's first arrest in Palm Beach Gardens. One of the three was dropped between the time Tornatore was arrested and the time he was charged, leaving two people accusing Tornatore of sexual improprieties.

One of the two, a 17-year-old identified in police reports only as "Z.C.," says Tornatore offered to get him a job at the fire department in exchange for "fooling around." The boy said he understood the fire marshal was talking about sex. He goes on to say he wants to sue the city and have Tornatore fired. His statement resulted in one count of attempting to commit unlawful sexual activity with a minor.

In his defense Tornatore points out that Z.C. could not come up with any specifics. "If I came out and said, 'Give me a blow job, and I'll give you a job,' he should have been able to say that, shouldn't he? He couldn't."

Z.C. has failed to show up for two subpoenas and has apparently left the state, according to Tornatore's lawyers.

It's the other accuser, Richard Gruner (who has testified in open court), on whom the state has really built its case, because he's the only one of the three who claims to have had sex with Tornatore. Charges stemming from Gruner's statement have shifted like desert sands, but at last count Tornatore faces eight counts of lewd assault alleging that he had oral and anal sex with Gruner.

Gruner's story, however, is the most inconsistent of all. He's gone on record saying he's had sex dozens of times with Tornatore, and he's gone on record saying they had sex only twice. In one version of the story, their relationship lasted a few weeks, in another version almost two years. In one deposition Gruner even says it's possible he never met with Tornatore at all during the months they were supposedly having sex.

Gruner first came to the attention of police when his mother, Mary Love, contacted them after reading a newspaper story on Tornatore's Marion County arrest. Love told police that Tornatore and her son were friends and that she had allowed the fire marshal to pick her son up at her house on occasion to do work at Tornatore's house.

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.

"It was irrelevant," he says. "When you interview a witness, 'Are you sexually active?' is not a question you ask."

That "other man" is Sylvester Woodland. Artola didn't track Woodland down, but Tornatore's defense team did. And he was willing to talk.

In 1994 Woodland was the manager of a Burger King in Juno Beach where Gruner worked. Woodland was making good money and driving a fast car, but his life was out of control. "Life carried me a long way the wrong way," he says, speaking in the rhyming cadence of the newly righteous. "The truth has set me free."

Today Woodland is in a drug-rehab program in Maryland and attends college. Even though he risks self-incrimination by talking about his relationship with Gruner, he believes it's the right thing to do. "Man can only judge me by the outside. God can judge me by the inside."

In two sworn statements and a videotaped deposition, Woodland paints a picture of Gruner as a promiscuous, manipulative young man, adept at lying and willing to do whatever it takes to get what he wants -- a different Gruner entirely from the young, innocent boy Artola saw on the Home Safe tape who referred to his penis as a "thingy."

In one statement Gary Crep, Tornatore's private investigator, asks Woodland about Gruner's habit of hitting on older men at the Burger King drive-thru. "Were they normally... were these males normally older men?" asks Crep.

"Yeah, from what I could see," answers Woodland. "I've seen like three or four of them. I caught him, and I chastised him. I said, 'Richard, come on, get away from the window.' A couple times I had to actually pull him away from the window. I seen him exchange phone numbers with gentlemen, and they were in at least their midthirties at the window."

Woodland says he had sex with Gruner between five and eight times. The first time, he crawled in Gruner's bedroom window and left the same way. (In one of his three depositions Gruner says it was Tornatore who climbed through his bedroom window.) They subsequently had sex, Woodland says, at a house they were painting, and in his car.

Woodland goes on to say that when he threatened to break off the relationship, Gruner harassed him, called his house dozens of times, and even threatened blackmail. "Richard was not a person of scruples," says Woodland.

When Artola arrested Tornatore for the second time in September 1998, it seemed the case was sealed. This time Tornatore was accused of having sex more than 200 times with a juvenile who lived with the Tornatores before they split up. Artola charged Tornatore with ten counts of sexual activity with a child while in a position of familial custody and two counts of solicitation to commit sexual activity. It seemed Artola had his man yet again.

Except for a little math error.
This time Artola personally took a statement from the victim, identified by police by his initials, "E.D." But Artola got E.D.'s birthday wrong, subtracting three years from his age. The boy, who was within weeks of his 18th birthday when he lived with the Tornatores, suddenly became 15. Artola never double-checked the birth date before filing charges.

"We didn't follow up with his date of birth," Artola admits. "It's a procedure I'm going to start doing." Prosecutors didn't catch the error either. When they discovered how old E.D. really was, they had to drop all 12 charges.

E.D. is a sensitive subject with Tornatore. "I never had sex with him when he was a minor," he says somewhat defensively, refusing to elaborate. (E.D. didn't return phone calls from New Times.)

E.D.'s case isn't the first time Artola had trouble with math. He was also in charge of the internal affairs investigation that got Tornatore fired from the city. In a memo to the police chief dated June 16, 1997, he cites Tornatore's involvement with a "14-year-old child" who was interested in riding along on fire calls as a reason to question Tornatore's fitness for duty. In a criminal report dated September 25, 1997, Artola puts the boy's age at 17. In Artola's final internal affairs investigation, presented to the city September 19, 1997, he makes 14 references to a "child" who spent time at the fire station with Tornatore. The "child" was really 18 years old and signed his own liability release waiver.

The pall of weirdness surrounding the case extends over the prosecution. In March, Scott Cupp, Palm Beach County's high-profile sex-crimes prosecutor, quit his job and left town without notice or explanation. "All we are hearing are rumors and such," says state attorney's office spokesman Mike Edmonson. The case has been handed over to a new prosecutor, Marybel Johnson, who told New Times, "You probably know more about this than I do."

A few weeks before he quit, Cupp managed to get a stay in the case after the jury had been seated and Gruner had begun testifying -- a rare feat indeed. "I would say this is the only time I've ever seen this happen," says Palm Beach County Judge Harold Cohen, who was hearing the case.

Even the circumstances surrounding the stay are strange. An appellate court granted it based on an emergency petition drafted by prosecutors stating the trial had not begun. But the trial had begun -- Sylvester Woodland had traveled from Maryland and was ready to take the stand for the defense. Prosecutors corrected their mistaken motion, but not until the appeals court had already stopped the trial. Woodland went back to Maryland without ever testifying.

The next trial date is set for August. Until then Tornatore is left to stew in Ballen Isles. He won a minor victory recently when his judge ruled that he could stay home without an adult supervisor if he wears an electronic transmitter around his ankle. But being alone presents its own problems. He can't go more than 70 feet from the transmitter or sheriff's deputies will come calling. That means he can't collect his mail, take out his trash, or shop for groceries. "If you come by," he asks a caller, "could you please bring me a quart of milk?"

He spends his time watching daytime TV (Jerry Springer, never Oprah), reading Tom Clancy novels, and firing off letters in anticipation of his August trial date. He sells himself hard -- and not unconvincingly -- as a guy genuinely interested in kids, a father figure for the wayward whose biggest mistake was caring too much. He's sure homophobia played a big part in this mess. "People don't like child molesters," he says. "People don't like homosexuals. Put them together and look out, whether it happened or not."

He's also fond of conspiracy theories involving everyone from Artola to neighbors in Ballen Isles to the city council of Palm Beach Gardens. Members of that governing body never liked him anyway. "They're a bunch of feminazis," he says, borrowing a phrase from Rush Limbaugh, whom he characterizes as "ballsy."

But in this case a conspiracy theory is a tough sell. It would require planning and execution of which most official players in this tragicomedy seem incapable. Gary Crep, Tornatore's private investigator, is probably closer to the mark. Crep believes it's come down to the ugly truth that no one wants to be responsible for letting an accused child molester off the hook. "If they ended it today, everybody's tit would be in the wringer," he says. Crep was a cop himself -- Customs and DEA -- and he knows the system is stacked in favor of police. "This whole thing pisses me off. Cops hold all the cards."

Contact Bob Whitby at his e-mail address:

Popular Stories


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >