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Jury acquits police officer of tipping off murder suspect

Jurors acquitted Thursday Riviera Beach police officer John Edward Toombs of tipping off a murder suspect that police were coming for him.

The courtroom, filled with Riviera Beach officers and supporters of Toombs, erupted in applause after the verdict was announced. Some officers wiped away tears as they hugged him.

"It was a rush to judgment," said Toombs' primary defense attorney, Steve Sessa, of the charges filed against him by the State Attorney's Office. "If they had talked to my client he would have told them the same thing he told jurors today."

Toombs, 34, declined to comment after the verdict.

He was acquitted of two felonies: unlawful disclosure of confidential information and official misconduct.

The case was high stakes. Arrests Toombs had made during his career would have been jeopardized if he had been convicted.

Toombs testified in his own defense, telling jurors that as a vice agent he tried to help detectives by telling them of a tip he got that Arnell Walker was involved in a homicide they were investigating. He also told them where to find Walker, and even what Walker was wearing the night officers swooped in to arrest him.

Toombs flatly denied the account of his chief accuser, former Riviera Beach Detective Shawn Vance, who has since been hired by the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office.

"Did you ever tell Detective Vance that you had to play both sides of the fence as a vice agent?" Sessa asked Toombs.

"No, I did not," Toombs testified, his voice rising.

The case largely turned on the accounts of Toombs and Vance.

Vance testified Toombs acted very oddly after Walker's arrest, and asked to speak to Walker in private. Toombs also was concerned about what portions of his talk with Walker may have been recorded.

"I can't have anything I said come up in transcripts down at the State Attorney's Office," Vance recounted Toombs saying.

Three Riviera Beach officers testified about how difficult it was to accuse a fellow officer, with retaliation and ostracizing sure to follow.

"Did you have concerns about how the department would treat this matter?" Assistant State Attorney Paul Zacks, who has experience prosecuting police, asked Detective Joseph Passaro.

"Yes," Passaro said.

Zacks and fellow prosecutor Danielle Croke keyed on a text message Toombs sent Vance the night of Walker's 2009 arrest at a Palm Beach Lakes High School basketball game, reporting Walker was "haulin' ass" out of the gymnasium. That message was delayed, they argued, to allow Walker the chance to flee.

"You delayed it eight to 10 minutes. Just long enough for [Walker] to get away?" Zacks asked Toombs.

"No," Toombs said.

Sessa rhetorically asked why Toombs would lead police to Walker then have a change of heart. "All of a sudden, buyer's remorse? Come on!" Sessa said in closing statements to jurors.

Jurors reached their verdict after 50 minutes of deliberations.

Toombs is still employed by Riviera Beach Police but has been on light duty, Sessa said. He was also defended by attorney Donnie Murrell.

His father, John Edward Toombs II, said after the verdict that his son still wants to be a law enforcement officer.

"Believe it or not, he got in it to help keep young children from having to go through the system," Toombs II said. "He's always wanted to be in it."

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