Police official involved in Davontae Sanford case back on the job

George Hunter
The Detroit News
James Tolbert

Highland Park — A longtime police official who was accused by Michigan State Police detectives and the Wayne County prosecutor of lying to help put 14-year-old Davontae Sanford in prison is back in uniform as a deputy police chief in Highland Park.

Former Flint police chief and Detroit police deputy chief James Tolbert had been out of law enforcement since leaving the Flint job in February 2016. He told The Detroit News he was hired in January as a deputy chief in Highland Park.

When Sanford was released from prison in June 2016, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said the decision was made because Tolbert had lied about evidence in the case. State detectives submitted a warrant request seeking perjury charges against Tolbert, but Worthy later declined to prosecute him after the statute of limitations ran out.

Although Tolbert was never charged with a crime, he told The News Tuesday the perjury allegations have dogged him as he's tried to get police jobs.

"It's come up in every interview I've had," said Tolbert, who prior to being hired in Highland Park worked as an account executive at Tennessee-based Savant Learning Systems Inc., which offers police training. "Every time anyone talks to me, that issue comes up. It came up in the interview for (the Highland Park) job.

"I just tell them the truth," he said. When asked what the truth was, he said: "The litigation is still going on, so I don't want to say too much."

A sketch of a 2007 Detroit crime scene, which then-Detroit police official James Tolbert said was drawn by 14-year-old Davontae Sanford, but which Tolbert later said he'd drawn, prompting state police to seek perjury charges, although prosecutors declined to charge Tolbert after the statute of limitations ran out.

Sanford has filed a federal lawsuit against Tolbert and the city of Detroit. The trial is scheduled to start April 23 in U.S. District Court. 

Sanford and Highland Park Mayor Hubert Yopp did not return phone calls Tuesday seeking comment. Worthy declined to comment, assistant prosecutor Maria Miller said Tuesday.

Sanford, who served nearly nine years in prison for a 2007 quadruple homicide, was freed from prison following a Michigan State Police report that alleged Tolbert had lied on the witness stand about a crime scene sketch.

Tolbert testified during a July 13, 2010, court hearing that Sanford had drawn a sketch of the homicide scene, a house on Runyon Street on Detroit’s east side — but he contradicted his testimony during a September 2015 interview with state police, when Tolbert said he drew the layout of the Runyon house.

“Who drew the house here?” an unidentified investigator is heard asking Tolbert, according to a recording of the interview.

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

At the June 2016 press conference announcing Sanford's release from prison, 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,” Worthy said.

During the state police investigation into the Runyon killings, which was initiated at Worthy's request to give the case a second look, Tolbert volunteered the information that led detectives to seek perjury charges against him, according to the state police report.

"Tolbert was asked about the sketch that Davontae Sanford had drawn,” state Detective Sgt. Patrick Roti wrote of an Oct. 2, 2015, interview with Tolbert, who was Flint police chief at the time. "Tolbert indicated he knew what we were talking about and voluntarily asked for a piece of paper to draw the sketch.”

After Tolbert drew the diagram, Roti said it and the sketch attributed to Sanford “closely resembled each other.”

“We asked Tolbert if he was the one who had actually drawn the ‘original sketch.’ Tolbert then acknowledge(d) to have drawn this ‘original sketch’ and Sanford only marked the location of the bodies within this sketch.”

Roti said he was about to wrap up the interview when “Tolbert ... grabbed the sketch he had drawn for us and crumpled the paper up and attempted to leave with it.

“Investigators had to ask Tolbert for the sketch he crumpled up, to which he asked why,” Roti wrote. “It was then explained this would be part of our case and put into evidence.”

According to Sanford and the state police report, Sanford said Tolbert pressured him into helping with the crime scene sketch.

“Tolbert came in with a piece of paper, and was like ‘Show me where the bodies was at,’” Sanford told The Detroit News shortly after his release from prison. “I’m like, ‘I don’t know where the bodies was at.’ That’s when he drew the whole diameter of the house. He was like, ‘If you show me where the bodies was at, I’ll make sure you go home.’

“They had already showed me the pictures before (of the bodies), so I’m thinking like, ‘I know from these pictures where they were at, so maybe if I do this, I’ll go home. I just want to go home at this time,'" Sanford said. "“So I did it, so once I did that and I signed it, he was like, ‘I told y’all. I told y’all.’ ”

Although prosecutors dropped charges against Sanford in June 2016, Wayne County Circuit Judge Brian Sullivan, who presided over Sanford's case, waited more than a month to formally vacate the conviction.

Sanford's attorney at the time, Valerie Newman, who now works for Worthy in the Conviction Integrity Unit that investigates possible wrongful convictions, said after Worthy declined to charge Tolbert that Sanford would have testified against him had the judge formally dropped the case.

Sullivan told The News at the time he needed to study the case before making the decision to vacate the conviction.

Because Sanford didn't testify, Worthy said at the time she couldn't move forward with a prosecution against Tolbert.

"The obvious question is why this office could move to dismiss a case where four people were killed based on James Tolbert's interview with Michigan State Police, but not charge him with perjury?" Worthy said in a July 2016 news release. "As I have stated, the building blocks of our case were severely undermined by this interview and we requested that the case be dismissed.

“In order to proceed with perjury charges, we must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Tolbert's testimony on July 13, 2010, was false," Worthy said. "There were only three witnesses to the drawing of the sketch in question. Two of them, Davontae Sanford and James T‎olbert, are unavailable to us. The third person is Sgt. Michael Russell, and his testimony does not support a perjury charge.

"The bottom line is that there is an important legal distinction between acting on evidence that undermines a conviction, and proving beyond a reasonable doubt that someone has committed perjury,” Worthy said in the release.

Last year, Sanford pleaded guilty and was sentenced to probation in Arizona after firing a gun into the desert. 

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

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

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 2016, after Mayor Karen Weaver’s civic powers were restored.

Aside from his police duties, Tolbert has served as a minister of service at St. Charles Lwanga Parish in Detroit.

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN