Trouble in Galveston's Version of Paradise

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Bobby Wasylik didn't think he'd ever seen the guy before. Cue-ball bald, standing at 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighing 225 pounds, the man towered over 68-year-old Wasylik in the front yard of his Galveston home. "Are you Bobby?" the man asked.

Like most assault cases, exactly what happened next depends on whom you ask. This much, however, is clear: The attack from James Ruby, 42, fractured Wasylik's right shoulder. The blows to Wasylik's neck and chest landed so hard they dislodged plaque from his arteries, triggering multiple strokes, according to medical records and the doctor who treated Wasylik. When police arrived at the home, the right side of Wasylik's face had already begun to droop. Ruby, meanwhile, had taken off on a bicycle unscathed.

The March 14, 2014 attack didn't rouse Wasylik's friends, neighbors, and other Galveston residents because it was unusually brutal or heinous - after about a week in the hospital and time in physical therapy, Wasylik has for the most part bounced back, though he says he still suffers from nagging shoulder pain and "equilibrium" problems. What's made them write letters to the editor and pen lengthy complaints to Galveston police and prosecutors, however, is this: Galveston is apparently the kind of place where someone can beat a stroke into you -- in your front yard, in broad daylight, in front of a witness -- and skate by a grand jury without consequence.

The assault that landed Wasylik in the hospital started over something mind-numbingly trivial: a parking spot. A week before the assault, Wasylik visited his girlfriend who lives next door to Ruby, parking the golf cart he uses to zip around the island in front of Ruby's house. Ruby's wife later told police Wasylik was sloppy drunk, threw a fit, and told her things like "Oh, you're the bitch of the neighborhood," and "you need to get your ass kicked." Wasylik and his girlfriend say that's bull, insisting he was irritated but sober, and moved the cart without incident - although Wasylik does concede, "I think I muttered 'What a bitch' as I was moving it. I guess she heard me, huh?"

Later that week, Wasylik's neighbor was driving his own golf cart outside his house when Ruby pulled up in a truck, asking, "Hey, are you Bobby?" West told him no and pointed next door to Wasylik's house.

Two days later, Ruby was in Wasylik's lawn asking the same question. If you believe Ruby -- and, judging by the outcome, the grand jury did -- he and Wasylik were just exchanging heated words until Wasylik raised his hand like he was about smack him. Ruby told police he gingerly "placed him (Wasylik) on the ground." Later, when told by a detective that Wasylik had, in fact, ended up hospitalized, Ruby admitted, "I slapped him, ma'am."

Wasylik, however, says that as soon as he identified himself to Ruby, he felt a punch land on the right side of his face. Things get hazy after that, but Wasylik remembers he was on the ground, Ruby on top of him, punching his chest and screaming, "Bobby can you hear me? Bobby can you see me?"

"I thought the guy was gonna kill me," Wasylik said.

The commotion drew out Wasylik's friend and neighbor Nelson Leissner, who, upon seeing a much younger and bigger Ruby on top of a much older and smaller Wasylik, pleaded with Ruby to stop. Leissner claims Ruby took a swing at him but missed before taking off down the street on a bicycle.

Responding officers took routine statements from Wasylik and his neighbors. Cops noted that both Ruby's work and personal trucks were outside his house. No one came to the door when they knocked. As Wasylik was being loaded into the ambulance, a Galveston police officer asked if he wanted to press charges; he said "yes." It seemed like an open-and-shut assault case.

Galveston police officer Michelle Sollenberger, a detective with the department's major case division handling homicides and robberies, took the case three days after the assault. She interviewed Wasylik and his girlfriend while he was still in the hospital. She didn't contact Wasylik's neighbor, who saw the attack, nor did she talk to Wasylik's other neighbor, who had seen Ruby trolling around asking, "Are you Bobby?" days before the assault.

The Galveston Police Department rebuffed requests for records from the investigation into the assault from Wasylik's friends, the Houston Press, and from local attorney Joe Jaworski, the son of famed Watergate prosecutor Leon Jaworski and former Galveston mayor who agreed to help Wasylik. (Jaworski would not comment on the record, but provided some correspondence he had with the Galveston County District Attorney's Office.)

However, once the case was closed, with Ruby unindicted, Galveston County DA Jack Roady turned over some records to former KTRK investigative reporter-turned consultant Wayne Dolcefino, whom Wasylik hired to look into the case.

Wayslik and Dolcefino both insist the Galveston Police Department did a half-assed job on a simple assault investigation, and think detective Sollenberger's initial phone chat with Ruby is particularly telling. On the call, Sollenberger can most generously be described as accommodating.

While Wasylik was still in the hospital recovering from multiple strokes, Sollenberger repeatedly tells Ruby "I wanted to get your side of the story," saying she already knew that Wasylik and Ruby's wife had argued the week before. "I kinda knew what the groundwork was, or the foundation for this incident, and that's why I kind of assumed that there was probably gonna be some explanation for it," the detective tells Ruby. She doesn't challenge Ruby when he tells her he only "slapped" Wasylik and "grabbed his shirt."

"Whatever foundation for this evolving into what it did is beneficial ... for you," Sollenberger tells Ruby. Ruby tells her he has no prior record, that he's a "church boy," and Sollenberger offers advice on how to get an attorney, make arrangements to turn himself in once charges are filed, and post bond "so that you're in and out, essentially."

Ruby tells the detective he's often out of state for work. Don't worry, she says. "I'm not gonna get the SWAT team to come and kick in your door. Don't stress that. And as far as any type of urgency, I understand that you work out of town. ... No surprises. I have no intentions of any type of scary police action happening."

Sollenberger says she knew Ruby was out of town when they spoke over the phone, and that she was trying to keep him comfortable and cooperating with the police. "My concern at that point was if he would come back," she says.

The next week, an active warrant for aggravated assault with serious bodily injury, a second-degree felony, went out for Ruby. He was again out of town. Ruby, who by that point had retained former Galveston County DA Mike Guarino as his defense attorney, turned himself in five days later, posted bond, and was in and out. Just like the detective had promised.

Sollenberger presented the case to a Galveston County grand jury, which no-billed the case on April 22. Wasylik showed up and sat outside the hearing, but he wasn't called in to testify.

Soon after the grand jury dismissed the case, Jaworski sent Galveston County DA Roady a letter asking him to re-present it, saying the grand jury didn't get the full story because of a less-than-thorough investigation. Among the things the grand jury didn't hear, he said, was that Wasylik's neighbor, Tracy West, encountered Ruby asking for "Bobby" days before the assault - indication the attack was premeditated. While responding officers took down a boilerplate statement from the other neighbor who witnessed the assault and says he dodged a swing from Ruby, the detective never interviewed him to determine what he did or didn't see - which would have refuted Ruby's claim that he simply "slapped" Wasylik. Jaworski also worried that the grand jury wasn't given the full medical reports from Wasylik's hospitalization following the attack.

Yet, for some reason, Sollenberger had time to interview Ruby's wife, who didn't see the attack, in detail about the golf cart argument the week before the assault.

Roady, the Galveston DA, obliged and asked Sollenberger to take another crack at the case. He sent Jaworski a letter on August 15 saying, "Please know that after careful consideration, we will not re-present this case to a grand jury."

Apparently part of that "re-investigation" was a background check on Wasylik. Roady pointed to a fight Wasylik got into at a restaurant six years ago with a local off-duty cop as "information that actually militates against re-presentment." Records from the 2008 fight show Wasylik punched the guy in a parking lot after the guy called him a "douchebag," and Wasylik and one of his friends eventually pleaded a misdemeanor assault charge down to disorderly conduct.

To be clear, Wasylik's no boy scout. Along with that fight, records show Wasylik got popped for drunk driving in Galveston in 2004. But what does any of that have to do with whether Rudy should have been indicted for an assault, in Wasylik's front yard, that landed the senior citizen in the hospital?

When reached on his cell phone, Rudy declined to comment. Wasylik's prior misdemeanor conviction "certainly didn't help portray him in a better light," Galveston DA Roady told the Press, defending his decision not to bring the case before another grand jury. "I believe the case was fully and fairly presented." You can't just re-present a case when you don't like the outcome unless there's new evidence, he explained. Otherwise you're just grand jury shopping.

As for Wasylik's medical records not being presented to the grand jury, Sollenberger says she had an "extensive conversation" with Wasylik's doctor, and knew the full extent of his injuries before she went to the grand jury.

And here's what Dr. Stephen Busby, a neurologist with UTMB Galveston who treated Wasylik after the assault, told us in an email (Wasylik provided the Press his full medical reports and signed a waiver permitting Busby to discuss his hospitalization with us):

"Bobby suffered significant blows to the chest and neck." That type of injury can dislodge plaque from the walls of major arteries, allowing that plaque to then flow downstream into the brain until they reach a vessel that's too small, causing a blockage that cuts off oxygen to parts of the brain -- a so-called embolic stroke. "There seems to be a belief harbored by some that this hapless individual suffered several strokes in his back yard from alternative explanations merely coincident to his assault," Busby wrote in his email. "I find it unacceptable to claim that Bobby suffered multiple strokes in his brain coincidental to the exact time that he is getting the crap beaten out of him and his shoulder broken by his assailant, and not causal to the assault."

Assuming the case was "fully and fairly presented" to the grand jury raises an even more troubling question, Dolcefino says: why would an argument with the guy's wife a week before justify a beating that landed Wasylik in the hospital? "[A]ssault cases are usually rubber stamped," he wrote in a letter to Roady complaining about the outcome and again asking Roady to consider re-presenting it to a grand jury.

"It's certainly not our position as prosecutors that it justifies the assault," Roady told the Press. "But that's why we have grand juries, and you present the case to them. Ultimately it's their call."

Detective Sollenberger, even after all the heat she's taken from Wasylik's friends and neighbors, says she was surprised by the grand jury's decision not to indict. "I expected an indictment," she says. She blamed the outcome on the uncertainty of the criminal justice system. "It's a roll of the dice. That's all part of our system."

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