Frederick Toto was a Newark native who joined the city’s police department in 1962. Detective Toto lived at 56 Smith Street with his wife, Ethel, and their three children.
The morning of Friday, July 14th, Toto returned home to his family around 8:00 A.M., after having completed a 24-hour shift the previous day and night. As violent conflict continued in Newark for the second evening following the arrest and beating of taxi driver John Smith that Wednesday evening, Newark police officers were assigned extended shifts to try to curb the unrest.
After having finished this 24-hour shift, friends of Toto urged him to go home and rest. ‘I told his wife (Ethel) not to let anyone get to him,’ Toto’s friend Ernest Orgo told the Newark Evening News. ‘We had coffee together at 8 a.m. and he was so tired he didn’t even wait to have it served but went home. Somebody called him and he went out again.’
Later that day, while Newark policemen responded to “extensive breaking, entering and larceny” on Springfield Avenue, a crowd gathered outside the Scudder Homes project near the corner of Broome and Mercer Streets. While this group was peacefully watching the excitement down the street on Springfield, three police cars turned onto the block and opened fire on the crowd, leaving Isaac Harrison and Robert Lee Martin dead.
The presentment of the Essex County Grand Jury, which heard testimony on the killings during the rebellion, asserted that “Newark police responded to a radio call, checked the location, and upon return to their car they were met by sniper fire apparently coming from the Project. The police retaliated by firing upon the Project…”
Although “sniper fire” was widely reported by police and National Guardsmen, very little evidence was found to support the 258 reports of “sniper incidents” claimed by city and state police. Furthermore, reporting “sniper fire” was used as a justification for the indiscriminate shooting of innocent civilians, as in the case of Isaac Harrison.
Given the lack of radio communication between law enforcement agencies during the rebellion, it is likely that the reported “sniper activity” was actually the multiple shots fired at 22-year-old Robert Lee Martin by police around the corner on Mercer Street just moments before.
Whatever the source was, as this gunfire erupted outside the Scudder Homes, National Guardsmen and police, including Detective Toto, flocked to the corner of Broome and Mercer Streets and took cover behind their cars across the street. As the police, troopers, and Guardsmen opened fire on the Scudder Homes, some reports claim that people from inside the apartment building returned fire at the police in retaliation for the killings of Harrison and Martin.
Detective Toto and Patrolmen Paul Buttross were positioned across the street from the project when, according to Buttross, ‘we heard some shots from an apartment house across the street. We all ducked low but Fred stood up. I heard a shot, got some flying glass in my face and when I turned around Fred was down.’ Toto had been shot in the chest and was taken to St. Michael’s Hospital.
Although Buttross did not see who shot Detective Toto or where the shot came from, officers immediately assumed that Toto had been shot by a sniper and opened fire on the project where the sniper was believed to be hiding. ‘Guardsmen and policemen, wearing bullet-proof vests and advancing behind armored cars, including an eleven-ton personal carrier, opened fire on the top floors,’ the New York Times reported. ‘When they finally secured the building…all the snipers were gone, but some of the hallways were splattered with blood.’
Furthermore, as officers not on the scene got word of Toto’s shooting, some sought retribution for their colleague’s death by opening fire on civilians, such as Oscar Hill, Cornelius Murray, and Rufus Council, just moments after Toto was shot.
About an hour after he was shot, Detective Frederick Toto was pronounced dead at St. Michael’s Hospital at the age of 34. Toto’s death, according to Tom Hayden, “stirred shock and anger in the white community. Both Newark papers carried their photographs and background stories of praise for their contribution: no [black] victims were given such newspaper treatment.”
The Essex County Grand Jury found “no cause for indictment” of any alleged sniper involved.
Tom Hayden, Rebellion in Newark: Official Violence and Ghetto Response
Ronald Porambo, No Cause for Indictment: An Autopsy of Newark
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