Group protests Highland Park's hiring of police official

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Highland Park — A handful of protesters gathered Thursday in front of the city's municipal building to denounce the hiring of a police official who was accused, but not convicted, of perjury in connection with the Davontae Sanford murder case.

James Tolbert, a longtime commander in the Detroit police department before serving as Flint's police chief from 2013-16, was hired in January as a Highland Park deputy chief.

Sanford was 14 years old in 2007 when he was arrested for a quadruple homicide in a drug house on Detroit's east side. He was released from prison in June 2016, after serving nearly nine years for the murders he claims he didn't commit. 

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said the decision to drop the charges was made because Tolbert had lied during court testimony about who had drawn a map of the crime scene. 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.

Protesters march outside Highland Park's municipal building to decry the city hiring James Tolbert as a police deputy chief

On Thursday, 10 members of a group called Moratorium Now! protested outside Highland Park's municipal building on Woodward, chanting, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, James Tolbert has got to go," and "no justice, no peace, no lying, corrupt police."

"James Tolbert has no business wearing the uniform," Farmington Hills resident Debra Simmons said. "He framed a 14-year-old kid; he should not be a police officer."

During the protest, Highland Park mayor Hubert Yopp exited the municipal building and defended hiring Tolbert.

"I vet every employee I hire," Yopp said. "There's been no conviction of Mr. Tolbert. In our country, you have to go before a jury of your peers, and there has to be a conviction."

Yopp gestured toward the protesters. "Them? They're not the law," he said. "They're not the jury. Why should I listen to street justice? I've been in law enforcement almost all my life and I try to be fair. Show me proof (Tolbert committed a crime); otherwise, if it's not a legal, court-accepted truth, I don't want to hear it."

Protester Abayomi Azikiwe of Detroit said his issues with Highland Park police go beyond Tolbert. 

"I'm concerned about the character of this police department in Highland Park, not just with James Tolbert, but with other incidents," he said. "For instance, there was a rape recently which wasn't properly investigated."

Simmons said she also protested when Highland Park hired William Melendez, a former Detroit and Inkster police officer who was known as "Robocop." While on Inkster's police force, Melendez in 2016 was sentenced to 13 months in prison for the beating of motorist Floyd Dent.

"Highland Park needs to do a better job about who they let wear the uniform," Simmons said. She added that Tolbert has a history of problems. "It's not just the Davontae case," she said. "He impeded the investigation into the (Tamara Greene) case."

Tolbert was accused in a Wayne Circuit Court lawsuit of interfering with the investigation into Greene's April 2003 drive-by murder. Greene, an exotic dancer, is rumored to have attended a reported party thrown by former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick at the Manoogian Mansion.

It was never proven any such party took place, and the lawsuit, which was put on hold during Detroit's bankruptcy, was dismissed in 2015, according to court records.

Sanford has filed a federal lawsuit against Tolbert and the city of Detroit. The trial was scheduled to start April 23 in U.S. District Court, but was postponed to allow attorneys more time to gather discovery. 

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

Sanford was freed from prison following a Michigan State Police report that alleged Tolbert had lied on the witness stand about the 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.

At a June 2016 press conference announcing Sanford's release from prison, Worthy said that statement was enough to cause her to drop the case against him.

“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.’ ”

On Thursday, protester Molly Leebove said: "What other job could you have where you could do this nonsense and still get hired? A 14-year-old spent nine years in prison because of Tolbert's misconduct."

In 2016, Worthy said she couldn't move forward with prosecuting Tolbert because Sanford would not testify against him.

"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.

Sanford and his attorneys told The News he would have testified if the case had been formally dropped, although Wayne Circuit Judge Brian Sullivan waited more than a month to dismiss the charges because he said he needed more time to study the case.
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