Clock ticks on possible perjury charge for ex-city cop

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Wayne County prosecutors have until July 13 to decide whether to charge former Detroit police official James Tolbert with perjury in connection with the Davontae Sanford wrongful imprisonment case before the statute of limitations expires.

James Tolbert

Tolbert testified during a July 13, 2010, court hearing that the 14-year-old Sanford had drawn a sketch of a 2007 quadruple homicide scene in a house on Runyon on Detroit’s east side. State police say the former Flint police chief lied on the stand, and are seeking perjury charges.

But Michigan’s six-year statute of limitations for perjury is set to run out next month. If Tolbert isn’t charged by then, he can’t be prosecuted.

The crime scene sketch is among the evidence used to charge and convict Sanford with the murders. He served eight years in prison before a Michigan State Police investigation, submitted to prosecutors last month, found he wasn’t responsible for the killings. Sanford was released from prison June 8.

A crime scene drawing is central to the perjury charges against James Tolbert.

During a state probe last year into the Runyon killings, Tolbert told investigators he had drawn the crime scene sketch, contradicting his 2010 testimony, Prosecutor Kym Worthy said. That led state police to seek perjury charges, and prompted Worthy to drop the charges against Sanford, she said.

Tolbert, who declined to comment, only recently emerged publicly as a key player in Sanford’s case. But a review of court records and police reports shows the high-ranking police official was intimately involved in the investigation from the beginning, including taking Sanford on a lengthy car ride a few hours after the killings.

The 56-year-old Tolbert also figures prominently in investigations and lawsuits related to the Sanford case. Two Detroit detectives testified Tolbert interfered with their 2008 investigation into hit man Vincent Smothers, who confessed to 12 killings, including those for which Sanford was convicted.

State police say Smothers, his alleged partner, identified by Detroit News sources as Ernest Davis, and another man who hasn’t been named, committed the Runyon killings. State investigators submitted murder warrant requests for the three men.

Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Maria Miller said Friday the murder and perjury warrant requests are under review.

“The statute of limitations for the perjury warrant is up on July 13, so the clock is ticking,” she added.

Prosecutors are considering the charge against Tolbert amid questions about why a top police official would allegedly sketch a diagram of a homicide scene and testify a teenager had drawn it.

Tolbert, whose nickname “Speed” was printed on his Detroit police business cards, had a successful, although sometimes controversial career.

He ascended to the rank of deputy chief during his 27 years in Detroit that included stints in homicide; conspiracy narcotics, a unit that tackled high-level drug dealers; and “Redrum,” a squad that investigated drug-related killings.

Tolbert was a finalist for the Detroit police chief job before James Craig’s July 2013 appointment. Later that year, Flint emergency manager Darnell Earley appointed Tolbert as that city’s police chief. Tolbert resigned in February, after Mayor Karen Weaver’s civic powers were restored.

Separate from his police duties, Tolbert has served as a minister of service at St. Charles Lwanga Parish in Detroit. Bill Walton, who attended Mass with the longtime cop, said he doesn’t believe the perjury charges are true.

“He’s getting a bum rap,” said Walton, 61. “James Tolbert is the best. He may have been put into a situation that may have worked against him, but I’m not aware of him ever doing anything illegal. I’d like him on my team anytime.”

Davontae Sanford: Life on the Outside

Three months before the Sept. 17, 2007, killings on Runyon, a police report shows Tolbert, then a commander in charge of several police units, was part of the crew that responded to the scene of a “John Doe” body found on the floorboard of a torched 2007 Cadillac Escalade on the city’s northwest side. The corpse was burned so badly, police were initially unable to determine its gender.

The victim was later identified as Daeyre Alexander — Smothers’ best friend. The hit man later told police he spoke at Alexander’s funeral.

The burned-out Escalade’s Kentucky plates were registered to James Davis, cousin of Smothers’ alleged partner Ernest Davis.

After Smothers was arrested in April 2008, Violent Crimes Task Force Investigator Ira Todd was the first detective to question him. Todd claims Tolbert walked into the interview room and shut down the interrogation.

“I’ve never had that happen; you never want to stop someone when they’re in the middle of a confession because they might change their mind (about talking),” Todd said in 2008 , shortly after he filed a lawsuit against the city claiming he’d been punished because he refused to quash aspects of the Smothers case.

“(Tolbert) wanted to know what Smothers was telling me,” said Todd, whose lawsuit is pending. “He seemed like he was afraid of what Smothers was going to say to me.”

Todd claimed Tolbert said he was only allowed to ask the hit man certain questions, and not to deviate from them.

“It didn’t make any sense,” Todd said.

Fellow Violent Crimes Task Force Officer Alejandro Parra, in a Sept. 3, 2009, deposition, also accused Tolbert of interfering with the Smothers interrogation.

Parra added police were investigating James Davis’ tan Escalade as possibly being connected to the April 30, 2003, drive-by shooting of Tamara “Strawberry” Greene, the exotic dancer who was rumored to have danced at a never-proven Manoogian Mansion party for former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

“From what we understood, there was a light-colored or cream-colored SUV that did the drive-by when Strawberry was killed,” Parra said.

Greene’s homicide remains unsolved.

In a separate 2009 lawsuit, Detroit police officer Odell Godbold Sr. claimed Tolbert thwarted his investigation into the Greene killing. The city settled the case last year, said Godbold’s attorney, Charles Gottlieb. Terms of the settlement were not disclosed.

In his lawsuit, Godbold claimed Tolbert, then a lieutenant, and other police officials blocked his probe into the Greene case to protect Kilpatrick.

The suit claims Kilpatrick rewarded Tolbert for thwarting the Greene investigation by promoting him to the rank of commander. Godbold says he was demoted, which led to his decision to retire in 2006.

Todd also claims he was demoted after his investigation into the Smothers killings led him to Lexington, Kentucky, where he said the hit man and Ernest Davis would visit James Davis.

“I called (Lexington police) and they knew of James Davis right away,” Todd said. “They told me, ‘Be careful; he brags about being close friends with your mayor, and that Kilpatrick basically gave him the keys to the city.’ ”

Todd said he reported to Tolbert what Lexington police said about Kilpatrick. Todd said Tolbert and Deputy Chief Marshall Lyons demanded he turn over any reports he’d written about James Davis’ claim of ties to Kilpatrick.

Todd said he was forced to drop the Smothers investigation and go on vacation. He claims Lt. Harold Rochon told him: “This is bigger than you, this is bigger than me, this is bigger than both of us.”

Parra agreed during his deposition Todd was warned by Rochon to drop the Smothers investigation. Parra also claimed Tolbert sent out a memo ordering any detective who wanted to interrogate Smothers to check with him first.

“I’ve never seen a commander really interfere with ... a homicide investigation where you need to ask permission from a commander to interview a murder suspect,” Parra said.

After Todd took his vacation as ordered, he was transferred out of the Violent Crimes Task Force in what he said was retaliation for refusing to remove Kilpatrick’s name from his report.

James Davis was indicted in federal court in 2010 for his role in a multimillion-dollar mortgage fraud scheme. He pleaded guilty in 2011 to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and was sentenced to a year in prison. His case remains sealed. He was released in 2013 and is living in Metro Detroit. The News was unable to contact him for comment.

The crucial sketch

Years before James Tolbert allegedly admitted to state police investigators he’d sketched a diagram of the crime scene on Runyon Street, court records show he hedged twice under oath when questioned about who had done the drawing.

During a Sept. 18, 2007, pretrial hearing, Tolbert initially claimed Davontae Sanford drew it “entirely,” but conceded on cross-examination: “I don’t know” and “I can’t recall exactly” whether Sanford had drawn the entire diagram on his own.

In his July 13, 2010, testimony during a post-conviction evidentiary hearing, Tolbert said Sanford had drawn the sketch, although he admitted he could not recall whether it was drawn entirely by the teen.

“I said, ‘Well if you’re involved, if you know anything about this, if you were in that house, you know what it looks like, I need you to draw me a picture of it.’ He then proceeded to sketch the interior of the house and the positions of the bodies as I observed them the night of the homicide,” Tolbert said.

But when asked about marks that had been made on the rendering, Tolbert said he couldn’t recall who had drawn them. However, when pressed, Tolbert insisted Sanford had drawn the sketch from a blank piece of paper.

Tolbert allegedly refuted his testimony during a September 2015 interview with state police, when he said he drew the layout of the Runyon house.

“Who drew the house here?” an unidentified investigator is heard asking Tolbert, according to an audio file played by Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy at a recent press conference.

“I think I did,” Tolbert replied. “I drew the house.”

Worthy said that statement was enough to cause her to drop the case against Sanford.

“Our building block of our case was now in question,” she said.

— George Hunter