The May issue of D Magazine features a story by Jamie Thompson about the murder of Ira Tobolowsky. A year ago, the prominent lawyer was burned alive on a Friday morning in his North Dallas garage. Police still don’t know who did it. But the Tobolowsky family thinks they know who the killer is. The story is now online.
I asked Jamie about her reporting process and what she had to leave out of the story that she wished we’d had the space to include.
I followed the news about Ira’s death when it happened. I live about 10 minutes from his house, and it is rare for someone to be murdered in this part of North Dallas. Rarer still that it would be a respected attorney, killed in such a violent way, as he’s about to climb into his Lexus and head to his law office. I thought I might want to write something about it. After about six months—when no one had been charged with the murder—I decided to look into the case.
I reached out to Jonathan Tobolowsky, the eldest brother, toward the end of last year, told him I’d like to meet with him and his two brothers. They weren’t sure they wanted to do a story, but agreed to get together and talk about it. We met for lunch at Mi Cocina in West Village. I didn’t take any notes or record. We just chatted and got to know each other. Jonathan seemed the most hesitant. He had to get up and leave the table at one point, because talking about his dad’s death upset him so much. He looked me in the eye at one point and said something like: We don’t want to be a crazy story. If we do this, you will write this story, then move on. We will still be here, without our dad. This isn’t just a story to us. Someone stole our father from us. We want that person to be caught and to pay for what they’ve done.
I started out thinking the story would be part biography and part murder investigation. I interviewed several dozen people about Ira—the man, the father, the friend, the lawyer—and have several hundred pages of notes of interesting stories and interviews about him, and zero of that made it into the story. Of all the people I’ve written about over the years, it’s rare that I encounter a person who was as beloved as Ira. People often talk about lost loved ones in adoring terms, but this man was LOVED. Nearly everyone I spoke to said the same things: Ira dropped everything and focused on whoever was in front of him in the moment. Ira was a loyal, faithful friend. I laughed my ass off and cried more than a few times, hearing Ira’s relatives and friends talk about their times with him. He loved the law, loved his family and friends, loved living. Although he was often in excruciating pain due to his spine deformity, whenever anyone asked how he was doing, he’d say, “I’m terrific.” It is my one regret that more of Ira didn’t make it into the story.
But as the reporting unfolded, I began spending more and more time with Michael, Jonathan’s brother, keeping up with the investigation. The story began to turn in that direction. In March, I talked to Michael at least once a day—sometimes multiple times a day—as I followed along. I was at his office at least once a week, sitting across from him as he sat in his father’s chair, at his father’s desk, trying to find justice for his dad.
Ira’s death shook—probably forever—how his family and friends and acquaintances feel about their own safety. Michael sleeps with a gun in his nightstand. After learning so much about Ira’s death, I, too, got a little paranoid, making sure my keys were in my hand when I walked out of my house into the garage toward my car, making sure no one was out there. That’s part of what’s so unsettling about this crime. If a lawyer like Ira could get murdered in daylight in a safe neighborhood, it starts to strip away everyone else’s feelings of safety.
I have no doubt that this family will not rest until they discover, for certain, who killed Ira. They believe that if the tables had been turned, and one of them had been murdered, Ira would have done the same, probably to an even greater extent than what they are doing.