The Wild Legal Case at the Heart of Lawyer's Homicide Investigation
Over the past week, Dallas has been the backdrop for what is destined in short order to be made into a TV true-crime documentary.
On Friday, officials responding to a North Dallas house fire found the body of Ira Tobolowsky, an attorney from a prominent local family. The fire was soon being investigated as a homicide. WFAA reported two days later that his body had been doused in fuel and that Tobolowsky had received an email not long before his death stating "I'm going to kill you." A longtime friend went on Today this week and declared the death "a hit."
While officials were probing Tobolowsky's death on Friday, a woman posted on Facebook that Dallas County District Judge Eric Moye had pulled a gun on her while driving on the Tollway. Moye offered a slightly different version of events. He became concerned for his safety when he realized that a car had been tailgating him for several miles. When the car pulled alongside him, he removed a gun from his glove compartment and placed it on the passenger seat, at which point the other car kept its distance.
Moye seemed to have good reason to be concerned, since he was presiding over a case with suspected ties to Tobolowsky's death.
Hanging over all of this was a big unanswered question: What's this case that officials suspect has stirred up such passions that it's left one respected member of the bar dead in his garage and another flashing his gun at a random car on the Tollway?
Moye answered the question on Wednesday when he recused himself from a case in which Tobolowsky, as
plaintiff, was suing two men, Steven Aubrey and Brian Vodicka. "I think at this point with the allegations which have been made related to Mr. Aubrey and his implication in the death of Mr. Tobolowsky and related issues, I don't think that it is unreasonable for a judge other than myself to hear this case," Moye said, according to NBC 5.
Tobolowsky's suit was for defamation. Aubrey and Vodicka, according to Tobolowsky's court filings, had used "intentional lies, fraud, defamatory statements and 'dirty tricks,' all in an effort to intimidate, harass, embarrass and discredit" Tobolowsky. But the defamation suit was merely an outgrowth of a bitter and long-running dispute between Aubrey and his mother over her administration of his late father's will.
It started a dozen years ago with the death of 74-year-old Richard Aubrey, a respected Dallas orthodontist. He owned and managed several pieces of commercial real estate, which his will placed in family trusts for the benefit of his wife and three adult sons. The will named his wife as administrator.
Steven Aubrey was not happy with how the trust was being administered. "While Mrs. Aubrey had plenty of experience raising a family, at age 70, she had never had a job and never even paid a household utility bill," he wrote years later in a legal filing. "Mrs. Aubrey did not have the skills to manage simple household affairs much less a multi-million dollar trust."
The antipathy was mutual. In a court filing of her own, Aubrey's mother would describe Steven Aubrey as a "greedy son" who "has attempted to illegally and unlawfully steal assets from the Trusts by attempting to deed assets out of the Trusts to himself and to otherwise create turmoil and problems for his mother."
The family court battle seems to have begun in January of 2013, when Aubrey's brother and mother filed affidavits with a justice of the peace court in Travis County, where Aubrey resides, accusing him of issuing an "ultimatum that had tones of violence, slander and ominous threats to property," and asking the court to intervene.
The previous month, court documents say, Aubrey's mother had written him out of his will following escalating disputes over the trust. According to an email his mother filed in court, Aubrey responded with a threat:
You have 3 days to change your mind and apologize to me or else. Or else l will make it my mission to make the rest of your life miserable, as you deserve. EVERYONE you have every known will know what has happened and the poor choices you have made. It is sickening to watch you make threats with the money that dad made while you played bridge. I guess I am lucky that what I got from you is thin good looks but poor Buck got the 'lazy never had a job' part of you.
Aubrey's brother Buck had accused him of attempting to deed properties to himself and of causing the default on a $1 million loan, among other transgressions. Aubrey, meanwhile, accused his brother of stripping the trust of assets and moving them into a shell company he controlled.
The justice of the peace sided with Aubrey's mother and brother, which Aubrey felt was unjust. Two months later, he sued his brother for defamation in JP court only be informed, once the trial date came around that December, that JP courts don't hear defamation cases, at which point he sued his brother for defamation again, this time in Travis County district court.
A few months later, Aubrey sued his mother in Dallas County probate court demanding that she account for how and why the trust deeded her a squat Austin office building that it managed and why she then deeded it to his brother, who sold it to a third party on the same day.
The Austin property that sparked one of Aubrey's lawsuits against his mother.
© 2016 Google Maps
Later, Aubrey amended his petition to demand that she account for the 2007 transfer of two other properties from the trust, a pair of adjoining retail spaces on Forest Lane at Preston Road he alleged were disposed of in "sham transactions."
The Aubrey family trust's former Forest Lane properties.
Aubrey's mother hired Tobolowsky to represent her. While the probate lawsuit was proceeding, so was the defamation lawsuit he'd filed against his brother in Austin, and the court in Travis County gave Aubrey the opportunity to interrogate his mother in a deposition.
It's unclear from the snippets of testimony included in public court filings whether Aubrey got the answers he was seeking, but much of the session was consumed by disputes with Tobolowsky. For example:
Tobolowsky: Are you questioning this with regards to the lawsuit that you brought against her at—
Aubrey: No, I'm not.
Tobolowsky: Yes, you are, and I'm going to object to this entire line of questioning. This is a slander lawsuit. And if you want to ask her questions about slander, defamation, libel, she can answer it. I'm not going to let you take a deposition of this witness regarding matters of which you have brought a lawsuit in the probate court.
Aubrey: Excuse me.
Tobolowsky: This witness has not prepared or have — nor have I been advised that this is what you're seeking to depose her on. Furthermore, the — the description of the property that you say this deed portrays is false. This property — this deed does not portray or attempt to convey any property.
Aubrey : Well, then if you're so smart, you tell me what it does.
Tobolowsky: I'm not being deposed and I'm not going to.
Aubrey: Well, it sure sounds like you are. You're talking a lot over there.
Aubrey: Can you take your hand off of the witness and stop goading her to do whatever.
Tobolowsky: My hand is not on the witness.
Tobolowsky: And don't make these false statements for the record.
Aubrey: Okay. All right. Could you be quiet, please? This is my deposition, and everything I'm asking is relevant, and I appreciate you asking, and now, you know.
Tobolowsky: Everything is not relevant.
Aubrey: It is, too.
Tobolowsky: Most of this —
Aubrey: Please be quiet
Tobolowsky: — most of this has not been relevant to anything except Steven Aubrey.
And then, when Aubrey produces an email between his mother and brother:
Tobolowsky: Excuse me. How do you have an email from Betsy to Buck? I'm going to investigate —
Aubrey: Would you please stop interrupting —
Aubrey: My deposition?
Tobolowsky: No, I'm going to investigate, and if I find out that you broke into Ms. Aubrey's email system and illegally took emails, then I'm going to move to — to strike each and every one of your emails you've introduced.
Aubrey: Okay. ...That's fantastic. Your — your grandstand is — is noted. And are you done?
When Aubrey did interrogate his mother, his questions were laced with hurt feelings: "Since I got out of college, I don't remember you paying for anything of mine, but you've always paid for everything for Buck so there's — this goes way beyond inheritance and that kind of thing." he said at one point. "There was no — there's no evenness remotely. Would you agree with that?"
Aubrey didn't get to finish the deposition, not that evening. It stretched further into the evening than scheduled and Tobolowsky left, Aubrey's mother in tow.
Things degenerated from there. Aubrey filed additional lawsuits, getting a friend, Vodicka, to reactivate his law license to help him pursue the cases against his mother. And he increasingly began to direct his ire at Tobolowsky. "Clearly, Tobolowsky is an expert at legal gamesmanship," he wrote in one filing. "Tobolowsky is attempting to turn a very simple and statutory right for an accounting into a 'messy divorce' case."
That was in August 2014. The following month, according to Tobolowsky's defamation lawsuit, Aubrey and Vodicka implied they were going to sue Tobolowsky, faxing him a 100-plus page lawsuit, with him listed as a defendant, five separate times. They didn't file the suit, but they did begin making accusations that Tobolowsky was variously illegally colluding with and bribing probate judges.
According to a declaration Tobolowsky filed as part of the defamation lawsuit, the pair also:
- "... published a blog on the internet containing a picture of me with jail bars superimposed over my picture so that I appeared to be behind jail bars. Above my superimposed picture Defendants falsely stated in large print, 'Mortgage Fraudsters.' Such blog warned readers not to do business with me and/or [legal partner] Faith Burk. This blog appeared on the internet and was seen by many viewers, including my son and other of my family members."
- "... sued me, et al, falsely accusing me of violating the criminal laws of the state of Texas. Immediately after filing the lawsuit and publishing the lawsuit on the internet, Defendants nonsuited the lawsuit.
- "... publish[ed] a document on the internet falsely stating that I had become Muslim and had joined ISIS."
Tobolowsky sued last July. There's been a flurry of motions and counter-motions ever since. In March, Moye held Aubrey and Vodicka in contempt and ordered each of them to pay Tobolowsky nearly $5,000 in sanctions for failing to appear for hearings and ignoring court orders.
The following month, citing his "extreme favor and eagerness to please Tobolowsky," they filed a motion to remove Moye from the case. A judge denied the motion, at which point Aubrey and Vodicka filed a motion to have her removed from the case, given her "eagerness to 'rubber-stamp' the unpardonable actions of Judge Moye. On Wednesday, of course, they finally got the recusal they were looking for.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.