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.

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Bob Whitby