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Family wants peace before appeal

On Sept. 16, 1994, the wife and sons of Thomas Thornton watched him meekly and silently surrender his belt, his tie, his wallet.

If possible, those small actions were more devastating that the guilty verdict just delivered in Thornton's criminal trial.

Thornton's younger son Bob reddened with emotion and whispered, "I feel just like I've been hit by a baseball bat." His older son Thomas Edward flushed with rage _ at the court, the prosecutor, everyone, everything.

And Thornton's wife Barbara slammed into reality.

"I realized, "They're not going to let him go. They're going to keep him,' " she said.

For the next five weeks, she would reassure her children, visit her husband in the Pasco County Jail, hunt for a new lawyer to plead her husband's cause and cling to her article of faith: "I believe in the system."

Friday, her deeds and beliefs were rewarded: Her husband was released from jail on bail.

Barbara Thornton wept with relief.

She and her sons talked about Thornton and the turmoil of the past 18 months.

The catastrophe that changed their lives came disguised as a misunderstanding, Mrs. Thornton said Friday.

On March 18, 1993, in the evening, the telephone rang in the Thorntons' St. Petersburg home. It was Thornton's supervisor, saying that several children had complained about Thornton's conduct when he took their school pictures that day.

"I didn't know what the complaint was," Mrs. Thornton said. "When somebody has taken thousands and thousands of pictures at hundreds of schools, it wouldn't surprise me to get some complaint about something."

But several days later, Thornton was told by his supervisor that the children said he had touched their breasts and buttocks.

"When I heard that, I couldn't believe it," Mrs. Thornton said. "This is a man I've know since I was 19. I married him at 20 and I'm 51 years old. I've known him my entire life. I work with children. I'm a child advocate. If I had ever seen any indication of behavior like that, I would have known it. I would have seen it. I would have been alarmed by it."

The Thorntons spoke to the lawyer who handled a relative's estate. He referred them to Tampa lawyer David Rankin.

Rankin reinforced their belief that the complaints would be resolved, the family said. In July 1993, Thornton was arrested. Still, the couple believed it was impossible for the criminal case to go forward.

For a year, the Thorntons kept the news of the crisis from their sons, who live nearby and visit their parents regularly.

"My parents thought it would all go away," Bob Thornton, 28, said. "We didn't suspect anything was going on because they had no anxiety about it. They never once thought anything would ever come out of it."

The sons learned in May, four months before Thornton's trial.

But over the next four months, they _ like their parents _ felt confident their father would be vindicated.

He had spent his life focused on them. They cherish him.

"We'd get home from school and he'd be home soon after," said Bob Thornton of his father.

"He never worked after 5 p.m. He'd cook dinner. He would talk with us. He helped us with our homework. We were in band. He made us practice our instruments. He practically took over scouting. He was scoutmaster of Pack 55 (in Tampa), which was Cub Scouts."

He took the Scouts on outings. The pack went camping.

"I was there on every occurence," Bob Thornton said. "Nothing ever happened" between his father and the children.

When the young men switched from scouting to sports, so did their father. He was a coach. He was a referee.

This was the man accused of molesting children.

The Thorntons went into the courtroom, confident that Thomas Thornton would be found innocent.

But the jury said, "Guilty." Seven times.

"I felt rage," said Thornton's son Thomas Edward, 30. "I felt it toward (prosecutor Robert) Attridge. But I also knew he did a good job. If anyone committed a crime against my family, I'd want him to prosecute it. He did a terrific job.

"And you can't blame the children either. So I didn't know who to direct my anger at. I wanted to hit someone, but there was no one to hit.

"And I blamed myself for thinking we could just breeze by this."

That day, the day of the verdict, the wife and sons said goodbye to Thomas Thornton and drove to Thornton's home in St. Petersburg. There, Mrs. Thornton, her sons and their wives spent the night, huddled in grief and anger and resolve.

They talked through most of the night.

Finally, they went to bed. Mrs. Thornton didn't sleep. She couldn't shut off her thoughts.

"There isn't anything else to think about," she said. "We felt helpless. We felt helpless. What to do? Where to go?"

Now, with the new lawyer, with Thornton released to his family, the family will focus on Thornton's appeal. But not this weekend.

"We are going to go home and live a very quiet life this weekend," Mrs. Thornton said. "My husband also believes in the system. He believes that it is all going to work out in the end.

"But, right now, he's a very humble man."

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