Broward News

UPDATED: Agent John Toombs in Court Today; First Trial in the Riviera Beach Police Scandal

Agent John Toombs was acquitted this afternoon on all counts. Read more details after the jump.

Riviera Beach Vice Agent John Toombs will be in court this morning facing allegations that he tipped off a murder suspect to help him avoid being arrested. 

Toombs' trial is the first in the scandal that has rocked his police department and led to the indictment of two other detectives.  His case illustrates the bizarre infighting and turf wars that some blame for tainting the entire squad.

In March 2009, Detective Shawn Vance met with an FBI agent to complain that Toombs "knowingly and deliberately" tried to interfere with a homicide Vance was investigating. According to a written statement Vance gave the FBI, his concerns centered on the arrest of Arnell Walker.

Vance wanted to question Walker about the shooting death of Nathaniel "Tankpot" Miller. Toombs, who grew up in Riviera and worked drug cases, told Vance he'd heard that Walker was the "trigger man" in the homicide. Walker was already wanted for an unrelated felony, but Vance had trouble tracking him down. 

On Toombs' advice, Vance and other members of the Palm Beach County Violent Crime Task Force planned to corner Walker at a Palm Beach Lakes High Schooll basketball game. 

On Jauary 21, 2009, Toombs was at the game. He saw Walker and texted Vance to ask if he was nearby. Vance, who was suspicious of Toombs' motives, lied and said he had already left the city. It would be awhile before he could get to the game to make the arrest.

But in reality, Vance and his team were outside the gym, staking out the game. They saw Walker leaving the gym and promptly cuffed him. Toombs, who was still inside, didn't realize the sting was successful. He thought Walker had escaped. 

"He hauled ass," Toombs texted Vance.

Later, two other detectives, Andrew Borrows and Joseph Passaro, drove Walker to jail. They asked how he knew to leave the basketball game that night.

Walker sighed.

"Toombs knew. He's the one who told me. He sent my friend to tell me that you were coming," Borrows told the FBI.

Back at the police station, Toombs asked to speak to Walker alone. According to Vance, Toombs seemed very nervous. He told Vance that "being from Riviera Beach and a cop and in vice meant that you had to play both sides of the fence and 'do things.'"

Although his suspect was safely in custody, Vance was upset about the way Toombs acted. He thought a fellow detective had attempted to "obstruct" his homicide investigation and help a fugitive escape arrest. Vance complained to his supervisor, Lt. Larry Payne, who told him that "no real discipline would come to Agent Toombs and... no criminal investigation would be done into the incident," according to Vance. 

So Vance called a prosecutor in the Palm Beach State Attorney's Office and eventually met with the FBI agent. Toombs was arrested in December 2009, charged with revealing confidential criminal info and official misconduct.

UPDATE: On the witness stand today, Toombs denied all the allegations against him. He said he never made a comment about having to "play both sides of the fence," as Vance alleged.

Speaking with a slight lisp and wearing a suit, Toombs, 34, never lost his composure on the stand. He explained that he was trying to help a fellow officer when he texted Vance that Walker was at the game. Then he saw Walker leave and wanted Vance to know the suspect was escaping.

There were no phone records indicating that Toombs called Walker the night of January 21. Walker testified that a stranger -- not Toombs -- came up and told him to leave the gym. But with around 1,200 people at the game that night, prosecutors struggled to prove that Toombs was the person who told the stranger to tip off Walker.

Meanwhile, it was unclear why Toombs would help the suspect escape after he had told Vance to come arrest him.

After a long day of testimony, watching an uncomfortable parade of Riviera Beach cops take the stand to testify about their peers, the jury took around only 40 minutes to decide that Toombs was not guilty.

As the judge read the verdict, a crowd of Toombs' supporters erupted in cheers. Two other Riviera cops -- Sgt. Michael Dodson and Detective Lee Ann Schneider -- had been in the courtroom for most of the day watching the case closely, because they are both under indictment for separate, unrelated crimes.

Toombs' case was the first of the three cases to go trial. His victory appeared to give Dodson and Schneider comfort. When they heard "not guilty," they wiped tears from their eyes.

Toombs got a round of hugs from friends and left the courtroom pushing his grandmother in her wheelchair.

"I think it's a vindication," said his lawyer, Steve Sessa. "It was a moral victory for the City of Riviera Beach."

Read more about Riviera Beach Police Department here.

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Lisa Rab
Contact: Lisa Rab