Dumped On

Houston was supposed to be cracking down on polluters. So why has it spent five years cleaning up on little guys like Walter Bazarsky?

The Bazarskys say little about the crisis. It turned back the years for Bazarsky's wife, Pam. She was again balancing duties at B&B with helping to care for two toddlers -- this time grandchildren.

Then came the Saturday late last September, when Bazarsky suffered his stroke. His condition improved during ten days in the hospital, although he still must attend rehabilitation sessions for loss of some motor functions and speech.

His old friend Rabbi Segal visited him. "He was so worried," Segal says. "It was like he had the whole world on his shoulders." Segal compares it to the biblical story of Job. "Why is all this happening to me?" he recalls Bazarsky anxiously asking. "It was one tragedy after another."

Bazarsky got hit  with felony charges, while authorities did nothing about mounds of debris dumped near his business.
Deron Neblett
Bazarsky got hit with felony charges, while authorities did nothing about mounds of debris dumped near his business.
Workers Isaro Mendoza (left) and Mario Chavez sort metal waste at B&B.
Deron Neblett
Workers Isaro Mendoza (left) and Mario Chavez sort metal waste at B&B.

Segal credits many things -- religion, an intense inner strength and family unity, especially his wife's support -- for Bazarsky's survival.

"He has great pride, and that's one of the deep things hitting him," Segal says. "He's been clobbered. He's been knocked down, knocked down, knocked down. But that's the difference between a success and a failure. Walter refuses to stay down."

Police moved in as darkness turned to light on October 2. Some of them carried shotguns, having been told of earlier confrontations at the salvage yard. According to the search warrant they were serving, Sergeant Michael Walsh drove by on a rainy day in August and noticed discolored runoff flowing from the property. That sounds like nothing more than the muddy rainwater seen after most showers in Houston, but it became probable cause. Samples of soil taken from outside the fence, that favorite site for illegal dumpers, showed elevated levels of various metals.

After securing the premises, investigators poked into every corner of the yard. Officers decline to discuss the raid, although yard employees say scores of samples were taken, some from the insides of oil barrels. Walsh even summoned a specialist from Hazmat, the hazardous materials team that deals with toxic spills.

When police couldn't get to a bin wedged in by other large bins, B&B workers offered to move it with their forklift. Instead, hours later, a city-operated lift arrived on a flatbed truck. After much struggling, the bin was opened. According to yard workers, Walsh anxiously asked the Hazmat specialist what was inside.

Junk, he replied.

What else?

Scrap metal. That's all.

Then he left, telling police they didn't need him there.

By the time they departed and took down their big top tent outside, police had carted off mounds of records dating back years, including confidential legal correspondence from Blumrosen. The enraged attorney wrote a letter directly to District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal, setting out the years-long series of events and requesting a personal meeting.

A week later, Rosenthal replied in a letter. He said he took allegations of vindictive or unethical treatment seriously and had checked into the complaints with his environmental crimes staff. The district attorney briefly touched on the accusations and the defenses of the office -- a judge who didn't hear the evidence overturned a conviction; a jury found only that water pollution hadn't occurred; the appellate court upheld the filing of new charges; and B&B's voluntary testing was suspect.

The D.A. concluded that the office "has engaged in a reasonable effort" to stop violations of pollution laws and get remediation. "Therefore," Rosenthal wrote, "I do not find nor believe that this office has treated your client unfairly in any of these matters."

But less than six weeks later, a judge would rule on that fairness.

On November 20, Pam Bazarsky guided her ailing husband into a seat in the courtroom of state District Judge Don Stricklin. Walter Bazarsky could have used the stroke to delay proceedings on the alleged 1996 offense that jurors had cleared him of a year earlier. But he wanted fiercely to take it to a jury.

It was six days until the start of the trial, and 20 days after the deadline set more than a year earlier for the prosecutors to submit the evidence and witness list, legally required discovery in criminal cases.

Instead, Haseman had handed over nothing to the defense. His unit hadn't even returned phone calls or responded to letters from attorney Blumrosen. Faced with that, Blumrosen and Secrest forced the issue. All they knew was what had been added to the court file: Long after the discovery deadline, Haseman had filed to delay the trial.

Bazarsky, clad in a faded knit shirt shrouded by an aging houndstooth jacket, sagged in the courtroom seat and stared down at the tight-knit gray carpet as the judge took a series of pleas from the bench. Assault cases, cocaine pushers and burglary defendants were processed before Stricklin summoned the attorneys to the bench.

"How is it that we're down to Friday before, or Tuesday before, a Monday trial date, and there hasn't been compliance?" he demanded of Haseman.

First, the prosecutor said he had trouble remembering the orders about discovery, but that since the case was the same as the one tried earlier, he figured the defense knew the evidence and witnesses. Besides, he pointed out, he'd filed the continuance motion.

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