Edward Toefield, Jr. A hero’s death remembered

Last week, I recounted the last hours of Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff’s Deputy R. A. Kent, III. His son, Rusty, called me when the papers hit the street, asking, “Why would you bring up such painful memories after all these years?”

Ed Toefield, Jr.

My answer to him was a simple one: “Because your father died serving us. He died a hero’s death, and we should remember that day at every opportunity.”

We can say the same of Sheriff’s Deputy Edward Toefield, Jr. He died serving the people on February 2, 1984.

Gone are the days when police walked a beat—the days when “we, the people” knew our neighborhood patrol officer. Today, budgets stretch officers too thin. An officer patrolling Kentwood today may be assisting south of Ponchatoula tomorrow, but—just like those beat cops of old—he or she risk their lives for you and me all the same.

It does not matter whether the officer is a dedicated rising star in the department, or a seasoned detective, or a doughnut-eating cliché barely keeping gas in a squad car. If that officer awakes every day and pins a badge to his or her chest, that officer is painting a target on their back that says, “Shoot me first.”

Like the soldier abroad, those officers have volunteered to take a bullet for you or me. That makes them superheroes in my book, and Officer Toefield’s case is an excellent example of this. The call he answered was routine. When he left for work that day, his family had no idea they would never speak to him again.

According to court testimony, witnesses saw 34-year-old Thomas Sparks, Jr. shoot Ed Toefield, 41, in front of a Hi-Ho restaurant on Highway 51 outside Amite. Toefield had just put handcuffs on Spark’s left wrist when Sparks pulled a pistol from the front of his trousers and shot his arresting officer.

Two witnesses saw Sparks shoot Toefield once in the chest, and then twice more near his face as the deputy fell. Pathologist Dr. Richard Tracy testified that the shots actually hit his head, neck, and chest.

The assailant fled the scene, but the Sheriff’s Office caught up with him 24 hours later in the woods near Natalbany. Thomas Sparks surrendered after one of his pursuers shot him in the shoulder.

He confessed to the murder the next day.

Two years later, Sparks stood trial in a Livingston Parish court, and a jury of 12 found him guilty of first-degree murder. Judge Kenneth Fogg had Clerk of Court Lucius Patterson confirm the verdict before handing it to a deputy to read aloud.

Twelve officers then led Sparks away, shackled hand and foot. The trial helped his family and fellow officers get some closure, but truly, the case was only a formality. Another judge in another courtroom had sentenced Sparks to 99 years for bank robbery. A warrant related to that case is what brought Sparks and Toefield together in 1984.

District Attorney Duncan Kemp and Assistant District Attorney Billy Quin prosecuted the case. Kemp told the jury that Louisiana allowed capital punishment only when “aggravated circumstances” are present in the commission of the crime.

One of those aggravated circumstances, he said, was the killing of a police officer in the commission of his duties.

“We need to send a clear message that a police officer’s life must be protected, both by law and by society. If we cannot impose the death penalty here, today, then we can impose it nowhere.”

 “What do you say when you’re begging for a man’s life?” Defense Attorney Wayne Stewart asked. “I don’t know what to say. My client acted out of haste, fear, perhaps stupidity, but he did not plan this act. It was not premeditated.”

In his closing arguments, Billy Quin handed the jury a portrait of Officer Ed Toefield in uniform, and then he presented them with a photograph of the officer’s bullet-riddled body after the autopsy.

“This is what is left of him,” Quin told the jury. “If you get in a merciful mood when you’re back there in that jury room, remember these photos, and give to Sparks what he gave to Ed Toefield.”

The jury’s verdict gave Sparks the death penalty, a fitting prize for murdering one of our heroes.

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