On July 8, 1994, my dad, Thomas Toney, was kidnapped and murdered in Ashland. His killer climbed in my dad’s van and forced him at gunpoint to drive to an abandoned industrial park, where he was tied to a tree. His killer told dad to begin yelling after he left, and someone would hear him and release him.
As the killer tried to drive away in the van, it got stuck in mud. Then he had a meltdown. He began tormenting dad by firing gunshots near his legs. Eventually, he shot dad in the leg. Then he walked up behind dad and shot him in the back of the head. He then fled.
Later that night, Williamstown police officer Brent Caldwell spotted the killer. During a high-speed chase, dad’s killer wrecked the van and fled on foot while firing shots at officer Caldwell. Eleven days later, he was captured at his sister’s house in Michigan, hiding under a bed.
It was another three weeks before he confessed to murdering my dad and told investigators where to find dad’s body. He confessed and provided a location in order to avoid the death penalty and ensure he’d have an opportunity for parole. But my dad laid out in the elements, tied to a tree, eaten by bugs and animals for 33 days because this slice of evil wouldn’t help us unless he could spare his own life and preserve a chance for parole.
During early autumn 2020 I was informed that a parole hearing was scheduled for the killer. Friends and family joined me gathering signatures for a petition demanding dad’s killer stay in prison. During a Nov. 9 hearing with the Kentucky Parole Board, joined by commonwealth’s attorney Rhonda Copley, Melissa Lambert, and two law enforcement officers, we presented our petition.
During that hearing, my family heard details about the day dad’s body was found. There was little left of his body. It was removed in pieces. These are words you can’t unhear, words that will haunt you forever.
There was relief, however, when the Board denied parole for the killer and declared he would be required to serve out his sentence with no further consideration for parole.
But three months ago (five months after the parole hearing), Parole Board chair Leila VanHoose signed a directive prohibiting inmates serving life sentences from receiving such “serve outs” the first time they appear before the Board. And the directive was retroactive, meaning dozens of Kentucky’s most notorious killers — including my dad’s killer — would receive new parole hearings.
It was horrific, revolting news.
I spoke up and got to work. I created an online petition. I contacted all of Kentucky’s commonwealth’s attorneys, Attorney General Daniel Cameron, the governor’s office, other elected officials and media.
I was one of hundreds — maybe thousands — who got to work. Members of law enforcement, prosecutors, other survivors of violent crime, crime victim advocacy organizations, and Kentuckians at-large spoke out. It paid off.
Attorney General Cameron and two commonwealth’s attorneys filed lawsuits to stop the directive, resulting in a judge placing a temporary injunction on it. Gov. Andy Beshear appointed a new chair of the Parole Board, and the Board rescinded the directive. As Attorney General Cameron noted in his lawsuit, the Board’s issuing of the directive deprived crime victims of due process and dignity under Section 26A of the Kentucky Constitution (Marsy’s Law), which was overwhelmingly approved by Kentucky voters last November.
So, what has transpired during the last few weeks has been an example of how things can and should work when individual citizens and their elected officials pull together for common good.
Despite these positive steps, the directive’s ultimate fate has not been established. It’s important to remember the legal injunction is only temporary.
I believe most Kentuckians, upon comprehending the pain involved in testifying during additional parole hearings brought on by the directive — not to mention the prospect of people like my dad’s killer receiving parole — would agree the directive was a serious mistake.
If the directive is revived, speak up. As we have seen during the last few weeks, loud, passionate and informed voices can make a difference. But we may have more work to do.
DAVID TONEY is a former resident of Ashland. His father, Tom, was murdered in 1994.