THE BAD MAN," AS 6-YEAR-OLD Ricky Tokars called him, was waiting for Sara Tokars as she drove home last Nov. 29 from a family celebration in Bradenton, Fla. At about 10:30 p.m., as she pushed open her kitchen door in suburban Atlanta with Ricky at her side, a young man stepped from the shadows with a sawed-off shotgun. He forced her back into the garage, then back into the family's Toyota 4-Runner. Her other son, Mike, then 4, was still asleep on the backseat.

Ricky sat beside her in front and the stranger slid in next to Mike. He put the gun to Sara's head and ordered her to drive. "Are you going to kill me?" Sara kept asking. "Don't hurt the kids." She traveled for less than a mile on quiet residential streets. Then Sara pulled to the side of the road, screamed in terror and pushed Ricky's head to the floor. Almost instantly, a blast from the shotgun blew Sara's head apart.

Spattered with his mother's blood, Ricky looked up as the gunman fled from the car. Then he and Mike ran to the nearest house for help.

The murder of Sara Tokars, 39, has shaken Atlanta more than any case since the notorious serial child murders more than a decade ago. Appalled at the cold-bloodedness of the killing and the horror inflicted on her children, the community grieved for them and for Sara's husband, Fredric Tokars, 40, a lawyer who was out of town on business the night of the murder. Police explored the possibility that Sara might have been slain for revenge, in a scenario reminiscent of the movie Cape Fear, either by one of her husband's former criminal defense clients or by someone he sent to jail when he had been a local prosecutor. Then the case produced its second shock: Police revealed they suspected Tokars, by outward appearances a desperately distraught widower, may have arranged his wife's murder.

In late June prosecutor Tom Charron filed a motion in Cobb County Superior Court naming Tokars as an unindicted coconspirator in a murder plot allegedly carried out by Curtis Rower, 23, the confessed triggerman, and Eddie Lawrence, 28, a business partner of Tokars's. Both Rower and Lawrence have been charged with murder, kidnapping and robbery and arc awaiting trial this winter. Though police have yet to gather enough hard evidence to charge Tokars with any crime, naming him as an unindicted coconspirator will allow Charron to introduce past statements Fred might have made to others about Rower and Lawrence. Unless Tokars is charged with a specific crime, however, he could receive $1.75 million from three insurance policies he took out on his wife. He may also retain custody of his sons, Ricky and Mike. Says his attorney, Jerry Froelich: "I am convinced Fred will never be indicted. He is innocent."

Sara Ambrusko, the fourth of seven daughters born to Dr. John Ambrusko and his wife, Phyllis, grew up in Amherst, N.Y., an affluent suburb of Buffalo. It was there, in high school in the late '60s, that she first met Fred Tokars, whose father was also a physician. In Atlanta, in 1984, the two became better acquainted. Sara, newly divorced from her first husband, a health-club owner, spotted Fred, then a local prosecutor, talking about a murder case on the local news. She phoned, and they soon began seeing each other. They were married in July 1985, after dating less than a year. "We all thought she should have waited, gotten to know him longer," says Sara's sister Gretchen Schaeffer, 43, a nurse. "But at 32, she was in a rush to start a family."

According to Gretchen, things began to sour between Sara and Fred after Tokars left his job as an assistant district attorney in 1986 and went into private practice. "When Fred was an assistant D.A., Sara admired the fact that he was going after bad guys," says Schaeffer. Then, suddenly, Fred was defending alleged drug dealers and the like. To make matters worse, he was often away from home. "They had very separate lives," says Gretchen. The two slept apart, she says, with Sara sharing the kids' bedroom. "Fred was always busy or traveling. Sara's life was the boys."

By 1989, Sara had begun to suspect Fred was cheating on her and hired a private investigator, Ralph Perdomo, to find out. "We followed Tokars and found that he was seeing a single woman on a regular basis," says Perdomo. According to Sara's youngest sister, Krissy Ambrusko, 28, Fred agreed to see a marriage counselor after being confronted with the evidence but went only once. Sara considered filing for divorce, but decided not to after an attorney told her he could not guarantee she would get full custody of the kids. "All Sara ever wanted was to lake care of the boys and make sure they were okay," says Gretchen.

In the meantime, according to Perdomo, Sara secretly duplicated documents from her husband's home safe that she believed may have indicated he was involved in questionable business dealings. "She wanted to collect everything," Perdomo says, "so that someday she could walk away and he wouldn't be able to touch her because she would have the leverage." Perdomo says that in the event anything were to happen to her, Sara asked him to go to the police and tell them of her suspicions. "She was scared lo death of him," Perdomo says. She did not reveal these fears to her family, however. Says Gretchen: "She just felt she could live like she was living, as long as she was with the boys."

Neither local or federal authorities will comment about what was in the documents, which police recovered from an unidentified source after the murder. But local investigators have confirmed that the federal government is currently probing whether Tokars helped launder money for drug traffickers. Tokars's attorney claims Tokars is a victim of guilt by association. "My client represented people with problems and incorporated businesses for them," says Froelich. "He didn't go down and say, 'Now I'm going to show up every day and find out what you're doing.' "

Just a few weeks before the murder, Tokars told his brother Andy, 37, an Atlanta accountant, that he was thinking of launching a lax-accounting franchise business and seeking out a higher-class clientele. "He told me he didn't gel paid a lot of the time and he was dealing with people who were dangerous," says Andy. "But it's mind-boggling to suggest he had anything to do with Sara's death." Alan Bell, a longtime friend and former assistant state attorney in Broward County, Fla., agrees. "I just don't think he did it," says Bell. "He's a coward—a wimpy guy in terms of violence."

After Sara was murdered, her parents and her six sisters gathered at a hotel outside Atlanta with Fred and the Tokars boys, Ricky and Mike. For the sake of the boys, the family tried to remain as calm as possible. Even under such trying circumstances, Fred's behavior seemed unusual. "He couldn't control himself," Gretchen says. "He kept crying, 'I want my mommy!' " Finally, at 4 a.m., the family contacted Fred's mother, Norma Tokars, who kept an apartment in Atlanta, and she came to the hotel. "Fred didn't quiet down until she lay down on the bed with him," Gretchen says.

Following Sara's funeral, Fred agreed that Ricky and Mike would be most comfortable temporarily with Sara's parents in Bradenton, where they had spent many family vacations. Before heading to Florida, John Ambrusko, 80, a retired surgeon, chided Tokars for his reluctance to reveal who his clients were to police. "This is looking bad," Ambrusko told Tokars. "Tell them who you were dealing with so that they can get to the bottom of this."

An inquiry into Tokars's business connections soon led police to Eddie Lawrence, a real-estate developer with whom he shared an office address and to whom he had loaned $70,000 last year. Toozdae Rower, Lawrence's secretary, told police under questioning that her boss had been looking for a gun in the weeks prior to Sara's murder and approached her brother, Curtis. The cops found him on the morning of Dec. 23, hiding under a bed at a relative's house.

Rower, a small-time criminal with a history of arrests for theft, promptly confessed to shooting Sara Tokars. He told police Lawrence had offered him $5,000 and a kilo of cocaine to "knock off" a woman he described as his ex-wife and had ordered him not to hurt "my kids." In his confession and a recent interview from jail with PEOPLE, Rower claimed he and Lawrence had entered the Tokarses' house through an unlocked sliding door the week before the actual murder with the intention of knifing Sara. But, Rower said, he and Lawrence were scared away by the barking of the family dog, Jake. On Nov. 29, according to Rower, he lay in wait for Sara while Lawrence stood by in a getaway truck. Now, months later, Rower claims that "Eddie knew exactly when Fred wouldn't be there, exactly when she'd come home and everything."

Although Lawrence vehemently denies any involvement in the murder, he was booked on murder charges the same day that Rower was arrested. "I'm innocent," Lawrence recently proclaimed in a jail-house interview with the Atlanta Constitution. "They're trying to use me to get to Fred."

Tokars was in Florida for the Christmas holidays with his sons and Sara's parents when police called with news that Rower and Lawrence had been arrested. The caller spoke with Tokars, who listened in silence, and with John Ambrusko, who was shocked to learn Lawrence was Tokars's business partner. Alter hanging up, Ambrusko shouted, "Your business partner killed Sara?"

"I don't believe it," Tokars said. "Eddie Lawrence is a good guy. Even my mother said so."

The next day Tokars was rushed to the hospital after Ambrusko went to his hotel and discovered Fred had tried to commit suicide. At a news conference in Atlanta a week later, Tokars insisted he had nothing to do with the murder but had been driven by depression to consume a potentially fatal quantity of alcohol and painkillers. "I started to think of the lifestyle I was losing," he said. "Not only my wife, but my whole lifestyle."

As for the children, Ricky and Mike Tokars are still struggling with their feelings of terror. They speak less often now of "the bad man" and their fears that he will hurt them. They no longer insist on sleeping with an adult. Sara's sisters started visiting their elderly parents on a rotating basis to help care for the boys. "In the beginning, we wanted to keep as many things the same as possible," says Gretchen. "We gave Mike warm chocolate milk, the way he likes it, got Ricky the Sega Genesis video games he had before, and kept the same Disney pillowcases on their pillows." To add to the sense of continuity, Sara's sister Joni Ambrusko Crain, 38, took a leave of absence from her public relations job in Jacksonville to be a full-time surrogate mom to the boys. "The boys really attached themselves to Joni, who looks very much like Sara," says Gretchen.

But everything changed in June, when Fred took the boys for one of his regular twice-monthly visits and failed to return them. Ricky and Mike are currently with Tokars at his summer vacation home in Ontario, Canada. Meanwhile, lawyers representing the Ambruskos and Tokars are trying to work out an agreement concerning future care of the boys. Of course, no matter how much the Ambruskos open their hearts to Ricky and Mike, they can never make up to the boys for the loss of their mother. Joni remembers listening to Mike saying his prayers a few months ago. "Mommy, I love you, I miss you," he said tearfully. "I wish you could come back down."

DAVID GROGAN
MEG GRANT and GAIL WESCOTT in Atlanta

  • Contributors:
  • Meg Grant,
  • Gail Wescott.