It was early morning when emergency sirens started to wail throughout a tree-lined neighborhood in North Dallas. Smoke spilled out from Ira Tobolowsky’s home and fire crews worked hurriedly to beat the blaze.
Tobolowsky, a prominent attorney who friends and family say was embroiled in a contentious case, was inside, according to reports.
Unnamed individuals told ABC affiliate WFAA that the 68-year-old was discovered dead in his garage late last week – bathed in gasoline and burned.
Over the past week, the gruesome scene has prompted questions from those closest to Tobolowsky – namely, whether the fire was an accident, or whether it may have been used to cover up his murder.
“This was a hit – there’s no question in my mind this was a hit,” Robert Hinton, a friend of Tobolowsky’s, told the “Today” show on Wednesday. “It just had to be criminal. It was disguised as a fire to cover a hit.”
Following Tobolowsky’s death, arson investigators and police homicide detectives have been trying to determine what happened to the man described as a “lawyer who loved the law.”
“He was an unbelievable brother, husband, father, friend; he was a lawyer’s lawyer,” Tobolowsky’s brother-in-law, Stuart Prescott, told The Washington Post on Thursday. “Everybody loved Ira.
“Before this happened, we didn’t think he had an enemy in the world.”
Tobolowsky was a longtime litigator who was a partner at a Dallas law firm that handled a variety of civil and commercial cases.
Associates told local reporters that Tobolowsky had been entangled in an emotional civil case that had spiraled into a defamation lawsuit. Days before his death, according to reports, the lawyer’s life was threatened.
An unnamed individual told WFAA that Tobolowsky had received an email that read: “I’m going to kill you.”
Authorities have not confirmed any reports about Tobolowsky’s recent legal battle, nor have they said whether such a case could be related to his death.
The Dallas Medical Examiner’s Office “has not ruled how Tobolowsky has died, and said a final determination could take weeks,” according to NBC affiliate KXAS.
WFAA reported that court records show Tobolowsky was hired to represent a woman who had been sued by her son over a family trust. The man had called the fight against his family “jihad,” according to the Dallas Morning News.
Tobolowsky successfully represented her and, as the lawsuit bounced back and forth and finally came to an emotional end, the man allegedly became angry and attempted to ruin Tobolowsky’s reputation, according to NBC News.
NBC News reported that Tobolowsky eventually sued the man for defamation.
Tobolowsky was still caught up in the case when he died, according to reports.
“I’ve handled defamation cases before,” Steve Schoettmer, who was representing Tobolowsky in the defamation lawsuit, told The Post. The defendant, Schoettmer said, showed “tremendous ill will” toward Tobolowsky.
Authorities have not said whether the man in that case is a suspect in Tobolowsky’s death.
News of the attorney’s death has prompted security concerns.
Dallas County Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Melinda Urbina told The Post that deputies “provided extra protection” over the weekend for Judge Eric V. Moye, who was presiding over the defamation case.
Urbina said she could not comment further or speak about security plans, in order to ensure the judge’s safety.
Moye told “Today” in a statement that he was “made aware of this horrific crime and warned of a possible connection between it and litigation that has been handled by his Court.”
The judge – who has a firearm license – told WFAA in a statement that police instructed him to carry a gun for protection. At one point late last week, he told the news station, he was tailgated on a Dallas tollway.
He said he pulled his gun and put it in his passenger seat – then the driver drove away, according to the news station.
On Wednesday, Moye recused himself from the case.
“I think at this point with the allegations which have been made related to [the defendant] 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,” he said, according to the NBC affiliate.
Tobolowsky’s death shook the community.
“It’s a sad day for the neighborhood,” neighbor Tony Militello told WFAA. “It’s a terrible loss for a wonderful family.”
Another neighbor, David Rockwell, told the station: “I don’t know a lot of the details or how this affects it, but I’m sure it’s going to be difficult.”
Prescott, Tobolowsky’s brother-in-law, said the family is devastated but “strong” – and the “emotional moments are getting a little further and further apart.”
Still, Schoettmer, who represented Tobolowsky in the defamation case, told KXAS: “There are three young men that have lost their father, it’s just a horrific situation.”
And a major family event is looming: Tobolowsky’s eldest son, Jonathan, has a wedding scheduled in Dallas on May 29.
His younger brothers, Michael (also an attorney) and Zachary (a law student), are set to serve as best men.
The wedding will go on, Tobolowsky’s brother-in-law, Prescott, told KXAS.
“In Judaism, you don’t cancel an event like that,” he said. “We may look at changes to the reception. Maybe there is no reception at all, maybe there is no dancing.
“But I don’t think there’s any thought whatsoever about not going forward with a beautiful event like a wedding,” he told the NBC station, adding that it’s “what Ira would have wanted, too.”