Bazarsky got hit  with felony charges, while authorities did nothing about mounds of debris dumped near his business.
Bazarsky got hit with felony charges, while authorities did nothing about mounds of debris dumped near his business.
Deron Neblett

Dumped On

Late last year, Pam Bazarsky woke up in a different house with her husband of 37 years.

Walter had suffered a major stroke 11 days earlier. The family moved the partially paralyzed 60-year-old man from Methodist Hospital to his daughter's one-story house. Unlike the couple's Fountain View town house, it could handle his wheelchair.

On this October morning, Pam got up early to prepare his breakfast, feed him and administer various medications. A phone call interrupted her. It was the office manager of the salvage yard that Walter and the family had run for almost four decades. The stroke had muted Walter's voice, but she tried to reassure him about the call.

"Oh, it's nothing," Pam said. "One of the trucks broke down. I'll go and check on it."

Guilt continues to cut through Pam's words about that morning, because she hated having to hide anything from her husband. She explains -- half apologizes -- that there was no way of knowing what the truth might have done to Walter in his fragile state.

Pam kissed him good-bye and rushed to B&B Iron and Metal Company on the outskirts of downtown's northeast side. She looked briefly at the line of police squad cars outside, tried to lock in her composure and got out of the car.

When she told a cop she worked there, a policewoman ushered her through the tiny office and into a cramped bathroom. The 56-year-old grandmother complied with the search commands: Open the blouse. Lift the bra. Pull down the underwear.

Meanwhile, on adjacent Conti Street, a big top had blossomed over a temporary command center of tables and chairs. "It looked like a party tent," Pam recalls. "They seemed to be enjoying themselves." Police, some initially armed with shotguns, poked through salvage bins and began stripping the office of meticulously amassed records dating back years.

Pam showed her anger even as she hid a deeper rage. Five years earlier, this raid -- technically it was the execution of a search warrant -- would have shocked the Bazarskys. By now, only the timing was a surprise.

Since 1996, the small business had been hit in an on-again, off-again siege by a new city offensive against pollution and illegal dumping. There was plenty to be found here, right on the company's doorstep. Nearby lanes in this deteriorated section of the Fifth Ward sprouted with mounds of debris. But these law enforcement agents, like the city workers before them, ignored it.

Instead, police and prosecutors had battered B&B and Walter Bazarsky in disputes over perhaps a bathtub-full of oily residue. In earlier times, that would have been the stuff of municipal citations or minor misdemeanors.

Now those allegations ranged upward into felonies. They carried fines of up to six figures and years in prison. The Bazarskys fought them, and they had ultimately won.

But to this raiding party, those victories for B&B didn't seem to mean anything. Or they may have meant everything.

The Bazarskys and their business make for unlikely figures on anybody's most wanted list. They prefer it that way. Their lives are remarkable only because they are so unremarkable.

Walter Bazarsky was a year or so out of the University of Texas in 1963. The young salvage yard rep went on a weekend ride with his father, who serviced candy and gum machines. Bazarsky checked in on a client, who needed his scrap picked up immediately.

He and his father rented a truck, hauled the junk away, turned a profit and never looked back.

A week after founding their own salvage business, Bazarsky discovered his only other love in life -- a woman named Pam Levine -- on a blind date. They married exactly a year later.

Business and marriage both blossomed. Bazarsky went from renting trucks to building up a small fleet. A simple man, he preferred a simple philosophy. He doesn't deal with drive-up trade or salvage from off the street. Hazardous materials and liquid wastes are taboo, he says.

His customers include established foundries, fabricating shops and industries -- even the Anheuser-Busch brewery -- which discard metal waste and junked parts. B&B is the middleman, dropping off bins, returning the full containers to the "bone yard" of the business where various metals are sorted for the trip to smelters. Their profits, sometimes their losses, come from the difference between what they pay their clients and what they get from the smelters.

The Bazarskys set up their yard in a plot of leased land on Jensen Drive, near what is now the nook of Interstate 10 and the Eastex Freeway. The once-thriving mix of small frame homes and big industry edged downward with the flight to the suburbs. Today it is little more than vacant lots and mostly abandoned houses, some no more than charred hulls.

In the late '60s, Bazarsky moved the yard down the street to land he purchased at 1115 Jensen, the site of a junk yard in the '30s and then the defunct Lincoln drive-in cafe.

His salvage yard is a textbook mom-and-pop business. What the salvage giants save in economy of scale, Bazarsky makes up for in first-class service and extensive experience. "There's no part of the salvage business that I haven't been personally involved in over the years," he says matter-of-factly. "I've done it all."

Bazarsky, who oversees about 20 workers, comes in six days a week and doesn't go out for lunch. "I'm in the service business," he explains. "I feel like if somebody calls me, they want to talk to me now -- not three hours later or when I'm back from lunch."

He hasn't had a real vacation in years. But he hasn't let the business orphan his family -- Pam fills in as bookkeeper, and the kids, now the grandkids, have worked and played there. He managed to send his daughter and son through college, with son Bobby now a B&B assistant.

"We lead a very boring life," Pam says. "I'm not complaining -- I think it is to our credit."

Visitors see twisted piles of pipe, clutter and barrels of pig-tailed metal shavings, but Walter Bazarsky looks at them as objects of beauty. "This is my life. It has been my life as long as I can remember," he says. "I don't know what else to say. I love this place."

Over the decades, he'd gotten a request from a nearby church (which had also dumped some of the debris adjacent to his lot during a construction project years earlier) to improve the appearance of his business's exterior. He'd mowed his weeds, cleaned up and routinely received his yearly salvage operator license from the city. On these ramshackle few acres, Bazarsky thought he had created his own stable little world.

Nobody needed much documentation when Houston finally got around to a fresh fight against illegal dumping and pollution in the early '90s. While many area residents still resist sweeping federal edicts to clean up the air, the old notions of anything-goes with garbage and wastes have been melting away.

Officials don't talk about such debacles as the city's own Milby Bus Barn site, a large polluted plot of unusable land not far from B&B. But they have plenty of statistics to evidence the impact of dumping. They estimate that enough illegal trash -- 94 million pounds of it -- is hauled away annually to cover nearly 100 football fields three feet deep in refuse. That works out to about 55 pounds for each resident. And the costs to remove it add up to about $5 million yearly.

In response, City Council took action nine years ago to create the Neighborhood Protection Division of the Public Works and Engineering Department, as well as various offshoots. Along with pollution and dumping, it handles nuisances such as rat and fly infestations and overgrown lots. The division concentrates on what had been the targets of many of the abuses: the inner-city, lower-income neighborhoods least able to protect themselves.

The division has expanded into a bureaucracy of its own, with a budget of about $1.5 million fueled by grants. From part-time police help, it now has six full-time police officers from HPD's major offenders unit, along with six inspectors from public works and various coordinated teams from other agencies.

They emphasize public education about the environment. Those not inclined to report illegal dumping or pollution out of civic duty can do it for hard cash -- up to $200 per tip, in the ROAR, or Rat On a Rat, program. It has paid out about $28,200 and has drawn roughly 100,000 complaints. ROAR has expanded to take in the police and public works investigators.

In response to the rising enforcement, the district attorney's office added staffing to handle the increasing caseload. Roger Haseman was the lone pollution prosecutor when he took over in 1991. Grants have expanded his office into one with three assistant district attorneys, an intern and a secretary. While the outside funding has expired, the unit has been a money mill -- a grant application last year reported that the D.A. took in $2.25 million in fines and related fees. Even more penalties go to city remediation funds. The division also got verdicts of more than 200 years in jail or prison, and handled 600 prosecutions in 2001.

"I kind of got in at the ground floor," Haseman says of the expansion. New state laws vastly increased penalties and eased prosecutions, and juries seemed to join in the fervor.

"For whatever reason, the people of Harris County hate polluters," he says. Haseman explains that probation is the preference for some juries in violent crime cases, but "if you try one of these environment cases, generally somebody is probably going to jail. That was kind of a surprise to me."

Like drug agents tallying top busts at border crossings, the environmental cops and prosecutors have their own tonnage to tout, converting it to pounds for even more impact. Several big cases involved truckloads of rubbish, thousands of chemical barrels, 10,000 discarded tires and three million pounds of crushed asbestos floor tiles.

However, this new offensive began to go beyond brazen dumpers and flagrant polluters. The expanding effort started targeting ordinary businesspeople or just residents unaware of the zeal of this enforcement effort (see "Getting Wasted").

On October 7, 1996, community services inspector Arthur Hypolite went on a 2.5-mile "sweep" looking for various nuisance violations. He scored at Conti and Jensen, just outside the few acres that Walter Bazarsky had built into an iron Eden.

B&B had tired of trying to deal with the mounds of trash, yard trimmings, industrial discards and assorted other debris dumped on a weekly basis along narrow McCall and Conti streets adjacent to its business.

Hypolite, as part of the neighborhood protection unit, saw the mess and began making a report. Bazarsky met the stranger -- confronted is a more apt description -- and got notices of violations to be cleared away. There were high weeds, stagnant water and Dumpsters in the right-of-way and barrels that had toppled over the side of the fence.

Nearly a month later, on November 6, two inspectors returned. Bazarsky, who says he was in the midst of a cleanup in that period, was more irate than before. "I didn't do anything wrong," he explains. "I don't like being accused of what I haven't done." Bazarsky's anger also was fueled by their apparent disinterest in all the illegally dumped trash that he had to endure for years.

Hypolite testified that the city crew retreated to a vacant lot and "waited on reinforcements" -- the special HPD environmental police squad. They ultimately focused on fluid dripping from the end of one Dumpster and oily residue near one of the barrels. Sergeant B.R. Roberts estimated that a few gallons were involved, although he said he could not see inside the entire Dumpster.

Cooler minds seemed to prevail during Bazarsky's interview at the police station the next day. He says he told officers that he was in the process of clearing away any B&B items from around the yard's perimeter. Bazarsky says he advised them about the long-standing dumping grounds there, and that litter had often included oil-related wastes.

The police report stated that prosecutor Haseman declined "at this time to accept any charges on B&B or Walter Bazarsky." "Mr. Haseman," it explained, "stated that being that it could not be determined exactly how the debris came to be on the property, it would not be appropriate to hold Mr. Bazarsky responsible."

Bazarsky soon had all of his materials stored inside the lime-green fence of his business, and began keeping records when special disposal firms removed used oil barrels from the property. It wasn't the end, however -- only the beginning for the pollution police.

Apolonio Aguilar, a three-year B&B worker, chained a metal box about five feet square to the company's forklift, backed it out the gate and came to an abrupt halt. As he wrestled at the controls, the box fell a couple of feet to the ground. He used the forklift to drag the chained box out of the roadway.

That would seem like a typical minor mishap during an industrial workday. But on April 15, 1998, it provided the city's environmental investigative team with its big breakthrough against B&B. The box was leaking oily liquid.

Staked out not far away were Inspector Don Montgomery and an office assistant, Erica Buenrostro. They testified later that they witnessed the fall of the box as they just happened to be driving by, although the yard is not on the way to anywhere. There was no indication in court records as to how much time investigators had spent in either surveillance or drive-by inspections of the yard's exterior.

The falling box and liquid blotched on the ground brought bedlam. Montgomery rushed up. Bazarsky ran out yelling. And Aguilar and a few other workers did their best to put surrounding dirt over the small spill -- he said he even used absorbent granules. That apparent cleanup would later be alluded to as an attempted cover-up. Once again, the two city inspection workers said they had to retreat to their car from the agitated salvage operator and call in the troops.

The "crime" scene grew to more than a half-dozen police and investigators, whom Aguilar told that it was simply an accident, that the forklift had gotten stuck in rocks or a pothole. The cops called it a felony.

By the end of the day, Walter Bazarsky was in jail, accused of violating the state's used oil act. Bazarsky got out the next morning -- it would be 161 days before Aguilar regained his freedom. The Bazarskys tried to bond out their trusted employee quickly, but the police and prosecutors blocked that with an immigration hold.

"He's an illegal alien. He doesn't have a green card," a prosecutor said later in court. "He shouldn't have been hired at all, and he wasn't supposed to be in this country."

As the October trial date neared, Aguilar accepted an offer to plead guilty to a lesser violation and testify. But the state didn't get much of a star witness.

Oil or related residue that came in with the scrap would be put in drums, sealed and sent out with a firm that disposes of such waste, Aguilar told the jury. Bazarsky had told employees to be especially careful not to spill liquids "because it's against the law…It's a delicate matter of the law."

The two city staffers who witnessed the incident said it looked like Aguilar was trying to shake the box as if to drain it. Asked to estimate the amount of liquid involved, Buenrostro initially testified that it was about a gallon. After conferring with the prosecutor during the lunch break, she revised her estimate upward. The prosecution later tried to explain it to the jury: The woman doesn't do much cooking, so measurements don't come easy for her.

As the trial wore on, Bazarsky and his attorney, Dean Blumrosen, found their chief adversary to be the guy in the black robe, J.E. Blackburn.

The visiting state district judge from the Amarillo-area hamlet of Spearman seemed preoccupied with the trial's pace, explaining that there was another assignment waiting for him in another court. Blumrosen complained that the judge had reversed key pretrial rulings from an earlier jurist, had repeatedly cut off his cross-examinations and refused to allow him to develop his primary defense -- that this was a minor industrial accident, not any blatant dumping.

Acrimony mounted until Blumrosen finally got a rare "bystanders' bill" in which he had to call for spectators to testify about some of the exchanges with Blackburn.

"And I did say -- you said you wanted it on the record and I said, 'I don't give a damn.' And I'll say it again: I don't give a damn," the judge barked to Blumrosen. At another point in chambers, the judge seemed confused as he commented, "It is kind of hard to compare this to a criminal case."

Walter Bazarsky was found guilty. Blumrosen vowed to fight the outcome in appellate courts, although the validity of this verdict wouldn't get that far.

State District Judge Mark Ellis returned to his court and heard complaints about the visiting judge, from staffers as well as attorneys. But it was hard law that left him in serious doubt about the Bazarsky conviction.

Like a few other criminal laws, the used oil act has specific exceptions that the prosecution must address through evidence. One exception protects licensed salvage operators if the oil "is incident to and the unavoidable result of the mechanized shredding…of scrap, used or obsolete metals."

Prosecutors didn't offer any evidence about it, and the judge never let the jury know about the exception. So the conviction didn't meet the fundamental standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

Asked recently about that, prosecutor Haseman says he believes jurors considered the exception and rejected it. "That's a bold-faced lie," Blumrosen says. "He even argued aggressively to Blackburn that they not hear it."

On February 19, 1999, Ellis ordered a new trial. "I certainly didn't have any qualms about prosecuting the man or the company, and apparently the jury didn't either," Haseman says. "They believed our evidence…"

But prosecutors apparently had qualms about any retrial. The case was dismissed.

Ellis also told lawyers Blackburn would not preside in his court again, a stance later adopted by the rest of the local judges. Late that same year, the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct publicly reprimanded the visiting judge for discrediting the judiciary. And the D.A.'s office itself had filed a complaint about him being drunk on the bench in unrelated hearings. While assigned to a court in Corpus Christi, Blackburn failed to show up for a trial. When concerned staffers checked, they found him in his hotel room -- intoxicated or, at best, addled by medication.

Bazarsky and Blumrosen had other matters to worry with. As the last trial approached, the D.A.'s office had upped the stakes with water pollution charges. There was nothing new about the allegations; they stemmed from the seemingly forgotten November 1996 incident of the dripping barrel and Dumpster.

The charges, coming as the statute of limitations was winding down, convinced Blumrosen that a vendetta was under way.

It became obvious that police and prosecutors had done nothing more than file charges. There had been no follow-up investigation in the two years. They'd merely gotten lab results back on the fluid and done little else. One investigator hadn't even bothered to file some reports, so they had to try to re-create them 27 months later.

County Court Judge Analia Wilkerson held firm against prosecutors' efforts to expand the trial into a free-for-all against B&B by including testimony of the forklift incident and every other police allegation against the company. Jurors returned a verdict of not guilty, handing the D.A.'s office its second defeat in less than a year.

A few months later, prosecutors were back. They indicted Bazarsky and his company on new charges. Or rather, old charges in new wrappings.

He'd just been cleared of threatening water pollution by allegedly disposing of oil on November 6, 1996. Now they accused him of disposing of oil on that exact date. And this was a felony.

Blumrosen and attorney George "Mac" Secrest challenged the case, arguing that prosecutors were ignoring basic constitutional safeguards involving collateral estoppel, similar to double jeopardy -- that a defendant who is cleared of wrongdoing can't be tried again for the same alleged crime.

A First Court of Appeals panel of justices Davie Wilson, Adele Hedges and visiting Justice Jackson Smith ultimately found that prosecutors were technically within their rights. At least hypothetically, jurors in the previous case could have believed there was oil discharged, only that it could not have reached the storm sewers to pollute public waterways. But in a rare aside for appellate opinions, justices explained in a footnote that the indictment clashed with the sense of justice. While "existing legal authority" allowed for such a prosecution, the opinion said, "this panel cannot help but regard this result as unfair."

Walter and Pam Bazarsky and their family already had reached that conclusion. They were hardly alone.

Haseman waves aside any concerns about fairness in this fight. "Legally, we were within our rights to file those cases," he explains.

Police and prosecutors say it stands to reason that the scrap business will have to deal with waste oil in the junked metal, even if it doesn't handle liquid wastes as such. The entire thrust of the effort against B&B is simply to force a cleanup of the property, Haseman says.

The defense says it took him at his word less than two years ago, reaching a gentleman's agreement: B&B would pay to have the property tested by an HPD-approved firm. It would remediate if the results exceeded state standards for salvage yards. If they were in compliance, then the prosecutions would halt.

Testing crews took samples from several areas of high traffic at the salvage yard and reported it was within standards. "We were ecstatic," Blumrosen recalls. "We thought the end had finally arrived."

Instead, Haseman rejected the entire procedure. Bazarsky and his attorney accused the office of reneging. "I knew they couldn't be trusted," Bazarsky says. "I knew it." Haseman says only that the testing was inadequate and proved nothing.

The more Blumrosen found out, he says, the more he realized that there were other Walter Bazarskys and B&Bs under siege, as well as ordinary citizens.

While dumping and pollution seemed to continue unabated, enforcers were instead cleaning up in another way, raking in huge fines and penalties from established companies and residents, sometimes for contamination that had been there long before the defendants. Those who dared to demand trials found themselves facing additional charges from the same allegations and heavy-handed tactics.

Walter Bazarsky can only manage a chuckle at what he sees as the contradictions. Inspectors warned him that he would be responsible for any dumping or pollution, not just in his salvage yard but also in the heavily littered streets around B&B. The company had tried to get the city to end the illegal dumping at those locations.

"I was so naive," he says. "I believed it." His low-tech enterprise had to purchase closed-circuit surveillance cameras to monitor the exterior of the salvage yard for dumpers. Still, many mornings would reveal fresh loads of motor oil, rubbish and debris dumped almost on their doorstep. A thick file of letters to the city reflects the exasperation -- requests for the removal of wood, tires, mattresses, rusty barrels, orange construction cones, oil cans and more. All of these reports came as Bazarsky's dumping cases, new and old, wound through the courts.

In February 1999, the B&B cameras picked up the image of a large dump truck on a side street. The driver raised the back end and sent a huge mound of asphalt crashing downward, then roared off with the bed still up and the back gate swinging. When another truck appeared four days later and dumped a second load, Bazarsky and others tried to confront the driver.

There was no mistaking these illegal dumpers and the offending employer, whose emblems adorned the doors. They were clearly marked: City of Houston Public Works Department.

"We found that our driver may not have used good judgement in the manner that he disposed of the street repair materials," then-deputy public works director Thomas J. Rolen responded in a letter to Bazarsky six weeks later. "We have counseled with our driver and stressed the importance of properly repairing pot holes. We also stressed that he refrain from getting rid of patch materials in this manner and at this location."

Rolen recently resigned as director of public works, the very department overseeing the enforcement effort against B&B. And the Bazarskys learned last year in a widespread scandal what was really happening with the city trucks in their area. The crews had been driving out, dumping patch material in remote areas, then fabricating reports of pothole repairs that never happened.

At least the side streets eventually were paved, but the pressure only intensified on Walter Bazarsky -- professionally and personally.

Jack Segal, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Yeshurun, had known Walter Bazarsky as the quiet, polite man who attended worship services for some 30 years at Segal's synagogue. He was somewhat surprised when Bazarsky asked to talk with him.

"He was like a balloon," Segal says. "You have to give off some steam or you'll explode. He had kept it all deep down within himself."

During the battle for B&B, Bazarsky had taken solace in the cornerstone of his life: family. Daughter-in-law Kathy had given birth to a baby, and the grandparents had more good news when she had another child on the way. But four months into the pregnancy, health complications developed. Doctors soon determined the cause: breast cancer.

As the district attorney and police pounded away at the company and its owner, the family had to juggle court dates with accompanying Kathy to chemotherapy sessions. She gave birth to a baby boy, but she died not long afterward, on April 25, 2000.

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."

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.

"But I hadn't ruled on it, so you had no way of knowing" if it would be granted, Stricklin told him. Then Haseman said he'd been preoccupied with the "new case" involving the search warrant.

"So we're over five years old in this case," the judge said. "Now, what could any new case possibly have to do with a November of '96 case?"

"It doesn't, Judge."

Next, Haseman attempted the argument that, well, he wanted to see if a trial could be avoided by trying to work out a resolution -- apparently a plea agreement.

Blumrosen said that was nonsense and the actions were flagrant. He had records of his calls and letters that had been ignored by the prosecution, which wasn't even discussing the case. "We've been asking for discovery, begging for discovery," he said.

Stricklin stared at the lawyers in silence. He had been a veteran of the D.A.'s office -- he knew instantly when either side was putting up smoke screens.

The trial would go forward. Haseman, he ruled, could present any evidence and call any witnesses that he'd furnished to the defense by the discovery deadline. Which meant the prosecutor had no evidence or witnesses.

The next day, the case suddenly disappeared. The formal dismissal notice didn't list the reason as prosecutorial forgetfulness, vendetta, harassment or even inadequate evidence. Haseman had checked only the box marked "other," along with a noble handwritten explanation: "New Investigation Pending."

"We obtained what we believe is much better evidence," Haseman says later, when asked to explain. "Basically, in our prosecutorial discretion, we decided to hang our hat on this investigation rather than pursue the other charges."

Defendants often display exuberance after dismissals. But after five years of fighting, Walter and Pam had only momentary relief. Pam's first question to Blumrosen said it all: "Should I get a no-arrest bond for Walter? I don't want them taking him back to jail without his medication."

Walter Bazarsky, still walking slowly from the stroke, goes by the hand-painted B&B sign and into shouts of welcome from workers. They rub their hands across their shirts or trousers, removing what grime they can before shaking his hand or hugging him.

He looks bewildered at first. On this first day back, a grin gives way to a smile, then a teeth-baring laugh that the laborers share.

Inside the cramped office, Pam still works to reconstruct the business records hauled away in the raid. Son Bobby, after the death of Kathy, has remarried and is preparing for an overdue honeymoon. And Pam will soon be taking off on afternoons to shuttle the toddlers to day care.

Bazarsky is back in his special world of truck exhaust and yelling workers, all moving to the rhythm of a beeping forklift, across this stark backdrop of gray dirt, drab dustbins and semiorganized debris. Metal shards scattered along the ground light up like glitter in the sunshine.

In this setting, Bazarsky makes a convincing argument that he was an environmentalist long before it was fashionable. That tons of junked metal, otherwise headed to illegal dumps or landfills, has been reborn through his recycling business. That he was creating watertight storage containers long before any agency required them.

The optimism hides what may lie ahead. The renewal of the salvage license was delayed -- city workers said police had pulled the file. Some customers called, because investigators had been asking questions; they didn't want to be pulled into the fight.

Five years. Eight charges. Two trials. A not-guilty verdict and dismissals. Officials, defending their crusade to spare taxpayers the cleanup costs, have used more than $100,000 in public funds pursuing supposed justice for a few gallons of oily water.

The justification? Sergeant Walsh alludes to upcoming grand jury action regarding the search warrant testing. So does Haseman, as if yet another indictment were the ultimate answer against these mom-and-pop proprietors of the last four decades.

"We certainly aren't trying to get Mr. Bazarsky or his company because of anything that happened in the past," the prosecutor explains.

"Overall, citizens of Harris County can be proud of the job we are doing," Haseman concludes. As for priorities, the goal is "to prosecute every case that comes in, no matter how small it might be," he says. "Because to someone, it is a big case."

In this case, a someone named Walter Bazarsky.


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