This is about my son, dead now after hanging himself. He'd have been eighteen and graduating this year, 2001.
My son was by no means the perfect child. He didn't hurt anyone, except perhaps himself. He got decent grades, when he wanted. He struggled to fit in, and when he didn't, it was the beginning of the end.
This is also about accountability. The young people of today are held accountable for their actions. That doesn't sound bad when it works for everyone. But when the authorities…are not? From the police, to the justice system, on into our schools, adults are not accountable for their behavior. The policy books for children are immense. The same policy books are full of adult-made loopholes for poor and irresponsible behavior by those adults to find its way through.
This is the story of the biggest event in my son's life… an event not of his making, but one that affected his choices and his respect for authority. It was also the event that altered the respect I had for what I believed to be caring people and safe places, which in fact turned out to be the most dangerous. Perhaps he'd have been better off on inner city streets, knowing whom to trust and whom not to trust -- instead of in the beautiful suburb of Moorestown, NJ.
Columbine was a horrible tragedy for that Colorado town, its residents and the victims' families. No one listened to, read or watched the reports without being touched. It was talked about in schools and at dinner tables across our nation. But I never imagined it would affect our family, our town the way it did. Parents afraid to send children to school. Teachers trying to teach under a cloud of uncertainty. When the judge said, "In light of the tragedy in Colorado, I feel it best he be held in custody," our hearts stopped, and the nightmare shifted into high speed.
Day 1: Wednesday, April 28, 1999
I was just about to get into the shower. I was preparing to go to work at the library later in the day. A knock at the door interrupted me. The town’s juvenile detective, Tim Henry, was at the door. We sat down in the living room and I asked how his day had been. He said it had been very busy and then I remembered that a neighbor had called earlier in the day to ask if I'd be home. There had been a bomb scare at the high school, and since she had to go to work, she wanted to make sure I'd be here in case they called. We were listed as their emergency number. I realized when I thought of that, that yes, his day had to have been hectic, since he was the town's juvenile detective. He asked me where our son had been that morning at about quarter till, ten till eight. He said he was sorry to have to ask, but that Victor's name had come up. I assured him that Victor was at home, eating his cereal and getting ready for the school bus to pick him up. It usually comes between 7:45 and 8:00. He asked if Victor had made any calls or could have made any I didn't know about. I said no, he couldn't have, I happened to have been sitting at the table six feet from him, doing my nails while he ate his cereal. Det. Henry asked if I was sure and I said yes. In fact I was rushing him because he was going to miss the bus if he didn't hurry to brush his teeth and be ready.
He thanked me and said he was glad. He just wanted to rule Victor out before it went any further. I thanked him and asked as he left if he'd be at the Community Link meeting that night. We were both on the board for this local organization and the meeting was at 7:30. He said no, he didn't think so, he had something personal late in the afternoon and didn't think he'd make it. He was gone. I took my shower and the day proceeded. Victor arrived home at about 3 p.m. I told Victor that Det. Henry had been by and that he had also been to the home of one of Victor's friends, who had called our house. Later I called Victor from work, to see if he was all right. He was bothered that Det. Henry actually thought he would do that. We had been talking earlier about the Colorado incident and Victor had said he thought those kids were nuts, how could anybody be that crazy. He didn't like the idea of someone he knew thinking of him like that.
I came back at about 7 P.M., to get ready for my meeting. As usual I was running late. I was in the bathroom fixing my hair when I heard the sounds, and before I could distinguish what they were, a voice demanded I step out of the bathroom. I was confronted with several police officers, all dressed in bullet-proof vest and helmets, one demanding to know where Victor was. I told him upstairs; they demanded how to get there. I stared at one of the officers I knew and asked him to make sure Victor wasn't hurt. I tried to follow but the detective grabbed me and held me back, telling me I couldn't go. That I had to let the officers do their job. I couldn't believe this was happening. Tim just kept saying everything would be all right.
They came down dragging Victor faster than his feet could follow. He was bare-footed and in just his shorts as they pulled him past me. Again Tim holding me away from Victor, telling me I couldn't go to him. I went to the station and they wouldn't let me see him. Back home, I found them searching the house, a dog with them now. They asked me to remove our dogs so they could bring in theirs. I was told to wait ... I couldn't see Victor until they finished their search.
I paced in front of the house. My husband showed me the search warrant. We were both completely dumbfounded. The warrant indicated they were looking for pipe bombs. How could this be happening? It all seemed so impossible. Almost a joke ... a horrifying one. Tim told me to go ahead to the station and he'd be there soon. He finally arrived. We talked and again I told him this wasn't possible. He asked if there was any possibility Victor could have made a call. I told him the furthest Victor had been from me that morning was to let the dogs out the back door. Not by the phone, and not long enough to make a call. For that matter, not far enough away that I wouldn't have heard him talking. I was at the table, only about 10 feet from the back door. "Listen," I said, "Victor may say some stupid things sometimes and maybe even make poor choices, but I know he didn’t make that call, and certainly he would never make any bombs. Besides, Victor isn't even all that handy, let alone make a bomb. It's just ludicrous."
The next day, we received a list of the confiscated items, which included Victor's computer from upstairs, disks, and metal shavings from the basement floor. The police said the bomb-sniffing dog had made a hit under the basement stairs. They were not able to gather any actual evidence. We were told that Victor would have to be detained until the next day. He would be charged and transported to the Juvenile Detention Center in Pemberton, at the other end of the county. Victor asked why they couldn't just get a phone log of calls made. He was sure that would prove his innocence.
Meanwhile, in our presence, the detectives had already begun trying to question him. We had just had a SWAT team in our house and were completely unsure of what would happen next, so we took no chances. We told Victor and the detective that he was not to be questioned until we had a lawyer. We went home and I gathered up a bag of clothes for him. One of the officers had been kind enough to bring him some shoes but he had nothing more than what he was wearing when they dragged him from our home. He had been shivering during the brief time we were able to talk with him.
By now it was late evening. At approximately 1:15 a.m. we received a call from Victor. He had arrived at the detention center. He was obviously very upset, and when I asked what was wrong, he told me that Det. Henry and the other detective had taken him back upstairs after we were gone and yelled and screamed their questions at him. Making him cry and tell them repeatedly, even though he had been told by us not to talk to anyone, that he hadn't done anything...he didn't know anything about any bombs. The detectives then sent him back downstairs and finally, sometime after midnight, he was given his clothes to put on and taken to Pemberton.
Day 2: Thursday, April 29, 1999
The next morning I began searching the phone books, calling attorneys recommended by friends, finally reaching one in Mount Holly who agreed to be at the courthouse for the 1:30 hearing. I called Bell Atlantic and was told that records could not be obtained for our local outgoing calls. I was so disappointed. We really thought that in this day and age of technology that there wouldn't be a problem and everything would be over. We met the lawyer, who seemed hopeful for Victor's release. The judge saw it differently. Based on the current atmosphere following the Colorado incident, he said, and the prosecutor’s contention that Victor's Independent Education Plan – part of his school records -- showed he was "emotional," he decided to hold Victor for a probable cause hearing the following Monday … for us, four long days away.
Day 3: Friday, April 30, 1999>
This was the day we met the attorneys in their office. They took down information about Victor, personality, school, anything that might be helpful. We gave them the lawn mower part that the metal shavings had come from. One of the lawyers had spoken with Victor at the detention center earlier in the afternoon. The other said the dogs are definitely fallible and he didn't think that would be much of an issue. Meanwhile, I'd searched the basement. Under the stairs I'd found a small box, full of clay pots for planting. I' bought them at a yard sale last summer and brought them home in that box. The side of the box, I saw now, read "Federal (the brand name) Shot Shells." Shotgun shells: gunpowder. The box wasn't ours, it was just what the clay pots came home in. The attorney said he had confidence in Victor's innocence and even asked if he would take a lie-detector test, to which Victor whole-heartedly agreed – "Anything to get me out of here." We left, not with any promises but confident that Victor would be released on Monday. We were still hoping that calls to the phones at the school could be traced or that our own calls could be accessed.
Day 4: Saturday, May 1, 1999
On Saturday morning Victor called from the detention center. He said his friend had been brought in, arrested and charged with threatening a witness. The friend had verbally defended Victor at school when he walked into his class and overheard another student saying that he' seen bombs and knew Victor had done it. His friend's older brother was also arrested later on Friday, after a run-in with the kid who had just had the friend arrested at their grandmother's house. When his friend arrived at the detention center he told Victor that our town' juvenile detective had told him that if he was able to find out anything from Victor, things could go easier for him. Victor also told us that they had given him a roommate, a 12 –year- old who apparently had actually built a bomb. We began to worry that the authorities were actually trying to set Victor up.
Day 5: Sunday, May 2, 1999
We would finally get to see Victor today. Only 2 phone calls and 2 visiting hours are allowed per week for those kids in the level he was on. We arrived at 11 a.m. He was obviously upset but seemed okay and hoping for his release the next day at the probable cause hearing. We tried to assure him that we were doing everything possible but couldn't promise him that he would come home tomorrow. When we got home there was a message on our answering machine from the attorney's office. He wouldn' t be able to represent Victor. He said we could pick up all the materials relating to the case and the money we had paid him. Monday morning, I immediately started calling the numbers for attorneys that friends had mentioned to us. I reached someone in a Moorestown attorney's office. Only a few minutes later he called back. He agreed to take the case and told me to pick up the paperwork, evidence and the money from the Mount Holly attorney and he would meet with me late Monday morning, in time for us to get to the courthouse. My husband spoke with the original attorney later in the day. He said he felt there was a conflict, because he had a sister who taught in the Moorestown school system and her children attended Moorestown schools.
Day 6: Monday, May 3, 1999
I went to the Mount Holly attorney's office by 9 a.m. and picked everything up ... and went to my appointment with our new attorney at 11 a.m. On the way there I noticed the probable cause statement among the papers. It said, "Victor had a plan for the last day of school." How could they make a statement like this? Isn't it innocent until proven guilty? At the attorney's office, we talked about Victor and everything that had happened. I asked if he had a problem, being a part of Moorestown in any way and also representing Victor. He assured me he saw no reason to not defend Victor.
I explained that we were not wealthy and that the money he charged, we would be working for. We would work to pay his fees. We just wanted our son home. Now. I told him we now thought we knew who at least one of the accusers was. Victor in fact had had a problem with this kid. I left the lawyer's office and ran home to get Victor's IEP papers, which fully explained that the trouble Victor had in Moorestown High was academic and behavioral (cutting class) and rudeness. He had never been a problem in the way that the prosecutor on Thursday portrayed.
We met at the courthouse – my husband, me, and Victor's friend's mother, father and grandmother. The attorneys arrived. Ours told us that he was going to ask for Victor's release to our custody but cautioned us that it might be delayed if the judge again agreed with the prosecutor for the Home Detention Program. He spoke with Victor's friend's attorney and the detectives and prosecutor and then had a few minutes to talk to Victor. He asked about a lie detector test, and Victor again said he would do anything to hasten his release. The detention program could take up to a week to implement.
We were now before the judge in Family Court. The young prosecutor said that two social workers had told him Victor had been difficult. But only that morning I had spoken to the head social worker at the detention center and she had said Victor was doing great, was helpful and should, if not released, be moved to a high level. This would give him more phone time and visits. I knew that what the prosecutor was saying couldn't be true.
Victor's friend was being released. As happy as I was for him and his family, I was worried for Victor. Now we were before the judge, with the prosecutor insisting that the detectives were still looking for a bomb and needed more time. Then, just when the judge looked as though he was about to release him, the prosecutor brought up what the two social workers at the center allegedly had said. The judge then said that - again because of Colorado - Victor would have to be released on the Home Detention Program. Even though he would speed the process, that would take until Friday. He even said we had all been through enough and to move it along. Victor started crying, and so did we, as they took him to lead him out of the courtroom. They wouldn't even let us see him for a minute. We would now have to wait until Wednesday night for the next visiting hours. We went home, separately and crying. We just couldn't believe this nightmare was continuing. Victor called later that night and was able to talk to his dad. He obviously felt we'd let him down. When his dad tried to explain once again that we were doing all we could, Victor responded "Yeah, right." My husband felt horrible, I felt horrible and all this only confirmed how very helpless and angry we felt, unable to protect our son from the nightmare that had engulfed us all.
Day 7: Tuesday, May 4, 1999
Victor was able to call again. He had made the higher level because of good behavior. But best of all, he sounded better than he had on the phone the night before. I talked with the head social worker again: The only thing either of the other two social workers had said was about me giving her a hard time the first day Victor was in there.
I spoke with the attorney about requesting telephone records; he said they'd look into it. I asked about calling to get things moving, to get Victor home in the detention program, and he cautioned me not to call … Wait, being pushy may only slow things up, I shouldn't bug anyone. Helpless, overwhelmingly helpless, to aid the most important person in our lives. The legal system left us with no rights and even fewer for our son.
Day 8: Wednesday, May 5th, 1999
A friend called. She had spoken to someone who said that the phone records could in fact be found and released. I called Bell Atlantic, this time, wording my question differently. "Can, if requested by legal authorities, the records of local calls be released to those legal authorities?"
Yes, I was told this time, but they would have to be requested by an attorney or court order.
I immediately called the attorney back and told him the good news. I was thrilled, but , although interested, he didn't think it possible. But he said again that he would have it looked into. I called my husband at work. We were both elated. The attorney was on his way out to meet with Victor. He called me from the detention center and the supervisor of the home-release program on the line to discuss an appointment to set up the Home Detention. I went in later that afternoon and was able to see Victor for the first time since he left the courtroom on Monday. He looked much better and was encouraged by his visit with our attorney. The home-release supervisor said that there was no hesitation on his part to recommend Victor for the Home Detention Program, that his behavior while in the detention center had been great, "absolutely no problems."
Later that evening we were once again allowed to visit Victor for 1 hour. We told him our good news about the phone records and he was thrilled, relieved that finally they would know he hadn’t made any call to the school. Our visit went well and he seemed much better. Looking forward to coming home on Friday. He acknowledged that the attorney and even the social workers had tried to prepare him if something went wrong. Then he said, "But you know, Mom, even if it doesn't go well and I have to stay, I'll be moved up to another level and then I'll have even more privileges." This seemed so hard. But later I thought they’d done the right thing. Nothing that had happened so far showed any common sense on anyone's part. And perhaps we would be better off if we prepared ourselves as well.
Day 9: Thursday, May 6, 1999
One of the longest days. Friends must have sensed it. Calls came in off and on all day. I jumped every time the phone rang, hoping it would be Victor. I knew he wasn't allowed another call this week but still, I had to hope. My husband did the same thing all evening. No luck. But friends and parents of Victor's friends kept calling to wish us well the next day in court and offering whatever help they could. Their support was more comforting than I can express. We had felt so alone. It helped to know they were out there. But as many friends as had surrounded us with their comfort and concern, there were those so close to us who hadn't called. There were even those who called and questioned: How could the authorities do this if it wasn't so? Frightened parents, unable to get past the rumors, they were unable to even give us support.
Day 10: Friday, May 7, 1999
I ran to the store to get Victor's favorites for dinner. Straightened up the house. We prepared for court and arrived for the 1:30 hearing. The supervisor of the home detention program told us he didn't think Victor was going to be put in that program after all. We asked if that was good news or bad. We were afraid of the worst. He thought it was good, from what he could tell. Our lawyer came out from a conference. He said the senior Burlington County prosecutor would be handling things from now on, and that that would be better. He felt that at worst Victor would come home under house arrest – at best with no restrictions.
In court, neither of the Moorestown detectives was present. The judge heard the prosecutor's recommendations and made his ruling, suggesting the matter be taken care of as quickly as possible. Victor could come home! Finally! Restrictions yes, but that didn't matter. HOME was all we cared about. We were all crying and overjoyed. The officer removed the hand and leg cuffs Victor had been wearing and finally we were able to hold him. There aren't words to describe what we felt at that moment. Not being able to hold your child, to touch your child, for nine days. Watching as he suffered and was so afraid. We knew of course that the matter was far from over, but our son was coming home, and that is all that mattered at that moment.
In the weeks that followed – it would be more than six weeks until our next trip to court – the lawyer's office came back with very disappointing news. The phone records couldn't be had. It was a local call, and so no records were kept. Records for the pay phone at the school apparently were also unavailable. We had all hoped that the phone records would be the end of the nightmare. Instead, we faced rumors upon rumors, the loss of faith in truth. Friendships lost. So many ways that we as a family were affected, and our friends and family, our neighbors. Our entire lives were changed by the fear.
Finally, after almost a month, the police reports arrived at the attorney's office. As we sifted through them, disbelief grew. The police based their entire case on the statements of three kids whom my son either wasn't allowed to associate with or hadn't seen in months. One claimed Victor had called him with his alleged "plan"; a second said that he and the first kid had called Victor and discussed the "plan." The third claimed to have seen Victor at the mall … or perhaps it was a convenience store, he didn't quite remember. We had documented proof, including the sworn statement of a chaplain who advised Victor's Civil Air Patrol unit, that Victor could not have made a call at the times in question.
Why didn't the police just ask us, or our witnesses? If they just told us what they had based their case on ...we could have shown them the proof then. They didn't. They simply produced this nightmare without any investigation at all. All this based on the word of three kids. Why didn't they ask? I would have told them. I would have shown them. The proof was in our hands. But a mother standing up for her son is disregarded as useless, invalid. As Victor's mother I still want to apologize to him. I want to say, "I promised you when you were born I would take care of you, protect you. I'm sorry Victor, I'm so sorry I couldn't protect you from the police, our own township police, and the ordeal you've had to go through. They simply didn't believe me."
Looking back on it all … the SWAT team dragging him out of the house, the illegal questioning of a minor, nine days in detention, the testimony, the trial ...I believe the Moorestown Police Department wanted to be a part of the fear that was sweeping our country. They wanted to jump on that bandwagon. They brought the fear to our community ... to our family. They have in fact changed the course of our lives. All because they wanted to play with their toys. Their high-powered rifles, their bulletproof vests. It is a slap in the face of every parent whose child died in Colorado … to parents in our town … to parents, period. Columbine’s nightmare was real. Ours was manufactured by lack of thought, compounded by no investigation. No accountability.
Day 56: Wednesday, June 23, 1999
Fifty-six days since the nightmare began, and we're in court again. The preliminary to a trial. Yes, there is going to be a trial. Why can't our attorney just show them our evidence? No, the legal system is too complicated. It's not our job to prove our son's innocence. It's the prosecutor's job to prove guilt. Why can't we skip all this? Make a call ... talk it out. Finish this insanity. Stop our nightmare. No. There is no common sense in the law, not even where the well- being of a juvenile, a child, is concerned.
The preliminary is uneventful, setting a date for the trial, finding a judge who might be able to hear the case in time to allow Victor to attend his summer activities. He was enrolled in a rescue training class in Fort Knox, Ky. Now he can't participate in it or other things, until this is settled. The Civil Air Patrol has suspended his standing until we can prove he was innocent with a not-guilty finding by the courts. This horror is affecting everything.
Through it all, Victor managed to pass with As and Bs. I don't know how, but obviously we were not only proud of him but also thankful to his teacher, classmates, and the school he was attending for sticking by him.
The trial date was set for July 2, 8:45 a.m. More waiting. More worrying about how all this is affecting Victor. Affecting all of us.
Day 65: Friday, July 2, 1999
The trial begins. I testify, for what good it does. The trial continues – nine hours that day, minus an hour lunch break. Besides the testimony of the three boys who had accused Victor and of the Moorestown juvenile detective, there was also an assistant principal, the disciplinarian, from Moorestown High. He was there with a file of infractions, everything from cutting class to smoking in the boy's room. Every detention Victor ever served. They dredged up everything they could find. I guess, from our perspective, they couldn't do anything else. Their witnesses were failures. The juvenile detective had claimed at the hearings that led to Victor's detention that the dog had "made a hit." Now, before the judge, he says the dog found nothing. We're not sure if he lied at the hearings or is he lying now. I guess we'll find out later. I wonder why the detective's supervisor has never testified. He is awfully quiet. No reports from him, either – not a word. Just thinking out loud. So many unanswered questions. All they had were the instances of Victor's behavior in early high school, cutting classes, grades slipping, rudeness to teachers. On cross-examination Victor was asked about his behavior. He admitted it hadn't been ideal then. For contrast, we had the reports from his current school: Participates, a delight, very bright and capable. A different kid.
Every teen goes through difficult times. Victor, like many kids, went through a rough time of it and didn't always behave correctly. But to drag every cut class, every detention into the courtroom? To us, it was a lame attempt by adult men to destroy a teenager to save their own reputations. They couldn't allow this kid to go unscathed – and look to the general public like the fools that they are. They over-reacted in the first place. Now, it seemed clear to us, they didn't care who they hurt in the process – the town, the kids, my son. Victor was one of the people, the kids, they were sworn to protect. Instead it felt they were going after him as though he were a McCarthy defendant from the 1950s.
The prosecution finished near the end of the day. The defense was up.
Victor had been given the choice by his attorney and had chosen to testify in his own defense, after which, he was cross-examined by the prosecutor. Then the day was finally over after 9 long hours. The trial was set to continue July 12, 10 days later.
Day 75: Monday, July 12, 1999
Finally before the judge once again. Our lawyer and then the prosecution make their summations. The judge's decision is read. "The Court finds that the state's witnesses lack credibility, that much of this case had to do with hearsay. On top of hearsay, rumor mongering and conspiracy that took place around this time with regard to what was happening out in the Midwest. Accordingly, I will enter a finding of NOT GUILTY!!!" The emphasis is mine. Victor was vindicated … words can't express how we felt: relieved, angry, joyful, exhausted.
Day 75 to Day 459:
At this point, Victor really had very little respect for authority figures. And yet he'd managed to start pulling it all together, or so we thought. He'd enlisted in the Air Force and was to report after he completed high school. It says a lot about him: After all this and he still wanted to fly. Still focusing on his way out of Moorestown, his future. He had a great job that he dearly loved. He was beginning to smile again with the help of a core group of friends, a great counselor and his desire to be something.
Day 459: Sunday, November 19, 2000
Approximately 8:15 p.m. Victor said goodbye to his dad and kissed me goodbye … he was on his way up the street to a friend's house. He left in a perfectly normal way. Just before 9 P.M., Victor's girlfriend and a friend came banging on the front door … demanding to know what he was wearing, "Was it the yellow, was it?" "Yes, what's wrong?"… forcing the words through their tears. "He's hanging, oh my God, he's hanging in the tree"… those are the last words I remember, yelling to my husband to come… I was already going out the door and driving her car around the block to Memorial Field … my husband was right behind me.
As we pulled into the lot, up to the fence, the headlights shone on him. There he was, Victor was hanging from the tree in the distance… or was it him … I begged God to let it be only his shirt … it wasn't. His dad climbed up, and I held his body as high as I could, his friend helping me to get him higher so that his dad could get the rope off. Victor fell onto me and I rolled his lifeless body over. I felt no pulse, no breath, no life in my son's body.
I began doing CPR as his father ran to call 911. I continued and didn't stop until the paramedics came. They took over, trying so hard to get the signs they needed to be able to shock him. I was begging them to bring my baby back. They had to. It was so obvious that our son was dead but we still hoped all the way to the hospital. He was wheeled in, and moments later they came out to tell us they were sorry but there was nothing they could do. He was already dead when he arrived. We knew that … we knew that as he fell from the tree, but we had to hope.
Tracy A Toner
Victor F. Toner, II
03/01/83 - 11/19/00