To hear Tom Bayer and his two best friends from the Father Judge wrestling team tell it, the night of March 21 was like any other.
The lives of these three seniors were set to change soon, yes, when high school graduation would give way to college and the great unknown beyond it; but on this evening, and for the few months that followed, things were supposed to stay the same as they had been, which, on weekend evenings, included hanging out with best friends and family members in the neighborhood the trio had spent so much time in.
Then, it happened. A horrific, vicious, bloody attack that forever changed the lives of Bayer and cousins Joe and Jimmy Galasso.
“We were just hanging out, like any other Friday night,” Bayer said on a mid-May evening from his Wissinoming living room. “Then, tragedy struck.”
It was the telephone call Jim and Joanne Galasso — and every other parent, for that matter — hoped they’d never receive.
“It’s a parent’s worst nightmare,” said Jim Galasso, Jimmy’s father. “You hope you never receive that phone call. But guess what? We got it.”
While walking on Rowland Avenue near Lincoln High School toward their destination of Jean’s Pizza, the two Galassos, Bayer, Jimmy’s younger brother, Anthony, and another friend engaged in a verbal clash with a larger group of similarly aged teens and young adults on the other side of the street. According to police and media reports, someone in the larger group threw a bottle that struck one of the Judge students in the head.
A physical altercation ensued. Somewhere during the brief struggle, some kids from the other group pulled out knives allegedly on their possession. In the ensuing melee, Bayer and Jimmy and Joe Galasso were stabbed a combined 20 times, including 11 wounds for Jimmy.
“I didn’t know I had been stabbed until my brother pulled me off,” said Jimmy, whose wounds have left him confined first to a wheelchair, then crutches, since that fateful night. “Then, I felt my leg, and he told me I had been stabbed. I didn’t know how many times at that point. You think if you get stabbed, it’s going to hurt so bad, but you don’t really feel it.”
Added Joe: “When they say it cuts through you like butter, they’re not lying.”
The chilling recollection came from three student-athletes-turned-survivors. Joe Galasso is a former state champion wrestler, and used his skills on the mat to earn a scholarship to Cornell University in the fall; once an elite athlete, Joe can no longer run three blocks without getting winded. Bayer, who like Jimmy Galasso played football for Judge, was wounded five times in the altercation, including a head wound that just missed his temple and another that came close to striking his aorta. He had planned on playing football at a small college like Moravian or Lycoming, but his grades have plummeted and concentration and focus in the classroom aren’t what they used to be. Bayer said he suffers from insomnia and sleep paralysis as a result.
But perhaps the most heartbreaking victim was the eldest of the three. Jimmy Galasso’s dream was — and still is — to play college football. Unlike his cousin and friend, who returned to school on the same day (April 8), Jimmy has been unable to return to school. His left leg is no longer immobilized in a large brace, the result of a stab wound that caused nerve damage, but he is still hobbled, unable to move his foot on his own. There’s a 50/50 chance he’ll never be able to move it again. His lung collapsed, but because he was so seriously wounded, it took doctors two hours to discover this.
“I was awake for the entire five hours they stitched me up,” he said. “I thought I was going to die.”
Shortly after the melee, the assailants scattered, leaving their victims to bleed to death in the street. With the help of witnesses, police found seven of them nearby and arrested the perpetrators (four were charged with three counts of aggravated assault and related offenses and await trial, while the three others have had their cases dismissed or charges withdrawn). Bayer and Joe Galasso said they vaguely knew one of the attackers from a brief time he attended Judge. Otherwise, it seemed completely random, which is perhaps what makes it so frightening.
The moments before the paramedics arrived were a blur to the boys. Ditto to their parents, who were slowly starting to receive information that their sons were in grave danger.
“You hear about someone getting stabbed once and dying,” the elder Jim Galasso said. “So the whole time I’m driving to the hospital I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to get here, and my son is going to be dead.’ ”
“We got into the car and I said, ‘Jim, he’s going to be dead when we get there, so let’s just deal with it now,’ ” Joanne Galasso said. “He’s not going to be alive. I really, really thought that.”
“It was chaos,” said Jane Bayer, Tom’s mother. “He had called me at 9:30 that night to tell me he was OK. They were all excited, getting ready to surprise their girlfriends by asking them to the prom. One hour later, I get a call that Tommy’s passed out on the ground and he’s been stabbed. You don’t know what to think, other than, ‘Oh my God, my son is dead.’ It felt like they took my son from me.”
From the time the boys were stabbed until the time they got to the hospital (the Galassos were taken to Aria-Torresdale; Bayer to St. Christopher’s), very little information was exchanged about their conditions. Bayer, despite some seriously close calls, had his five wounds stitched up and was released in two days. Joe Galasso had a punctured lung and needed emergency surgery to stop internal bleeding stemming from his four wounds, but he was able to go home after five days. Jimmy was transferred to Jefferson Hospital the next day, where he spent the next two weeks before his long, arduous recovery began at home. He recently began physical therapy three times a week for his leg.
Of course, the wounded’s thoughts immediately shifted to each other.
“I kept asking for reports on Jimmy,” Joe said of his cousin.
“I heard some horrible things,” Bayer added. “I was at a different hospital, so I’m hearing Jimmy is going to have to get his leg amputated. It was just crazy stuff.”
Thankfully, all three survived the ordeal; however, like a soldier returning home from war, the battle for recovery was just beginning.
“The physical wounds, they heal,” Bayer said. “But psychologically, I’m pretty messed up. I have nightmares all the time. I always feel like there’s someone behind me. My grades have dropped, badly. My memory and focus are so messed up. I hope it doesn’t spill over into college, because I have to move on and be successful.”
“Sleep is the worst,” Joe Galasso added. “In a big group of people now, I’m always jumpy and ready to run.”
“I don’t really have any dreams, to be honest with you,” Jimmy Galasso said. “But my body isn’t burning any energy. I’m used to working out and being active every day, so I’m always restless. I can’t do anything. I feel like I’m in prison.”
Roughly 10 weeks after the incident in question, the most frustrating, unanswered question remains:
Why were the lives of three young men so horrifically and violently altered? To hear the parents tell it, these are good, respectful boys; additional sources at Judge also expressed shock at the identity of the three victims, saying they were the last three anyone would expect to be in a violent brawl, despite the physical nature of the sports they played.
“What kills us the most is that these lawyers are trying to make it look like our kids did something wrong,” Jane Bayer said. “You know what? These are good boys, and I’m not just saying it because one is mine. They are respectful gentlemen. They open doors for ladies. They’re kind to people. They literally would take the shirt off their back to save their friend. That’s the kind of boys these are.”
“You’re glad they’re alive,” the elder Jim Galasso said. “But in a second breath you get mad. Why isn’t my son walking? Why isn’t Joey breathing right? Why can’t Tommy think right? It’s all for no reason.”
Joe Galasso, an absolute warrior on the wrestling mat, has been turned into a perpetually uneasy ball of anxiety.
“That’s the scariest part, that someone wanted to kill us for no reason,” he said. “I have eyes in the back of my head now. I know what’s going on around me at all times now, and I don’t trust anyone.”
Thankfully, the support of their families and those in the Judge community has been steadfast and unconditional. Bayer said he’d never be able to get through the ordeal without all the love and support he’s received; Joe Galasso said he woke up with over 300 text messages from well-wishers, and that he “gained so much respect for so many people I didn’t even know.”
As for what happens next, that remains to be seen. What was supposed to be their final summer in Philly will probably stay that way only for Joe, who is still bound for Cornell and is confident he will be able to hit the wrestling mat for the Big Red, unencumbered. “I know if and when I recover,” he said, “I’ll be back on top.”
Bayer has given up on the idea of playing football in college, and hopes to attend Temple instead. Whatever happens, he knows he’s going to be a special-needs student due to the fact that his brain no longer works the same following the attack.
Jimmy Galasso, however, refuses to give up that idea. He had planned to attend and play football for ASA, a junior college in Brooklyn before transferring to a four-year school down the line. Galasso said he expects the recovery to take at least a year, and there may be permanent damage to his leg and foot. He still wants to play football somewhere in college; he just doesn’t know for who or when. He was hoping to be able to walk at graduation with the rest of his classmates this morning. The trio knows that, for better or worse, this incident will link them for the rest of their lives.
“They’re my buddies and I love them,” Joe Galasso said. “I don’t know what else to say. Every time we look in the mirror now, we have something to look at, something to remind us. It kind of sucks, but I’m just happy to still be here with my buddies.”
“Now I guess you can consider us blood brothers,” Bayer added with a light-hearted laugh. “I can’t be any more thankful for being alive. All of us had a guardian angel with us that night. I’m so thankful to be here.”
The love and compassion for the victims and their parents was palpable inside the Bayer living room. The raw human emotion was so strong that it could have peeled paint off the walls. At one point during a nearly 90-minute interview, Jimmy Galasso broke down into uncontrollable sobs. His mother and Jane Bayer were quick to spring to his side, comforting him the best they could.
The scene was a painful reminder that no matter how deep they try to bury the night of March 21 in their minds, it will always be there, like a mole or birthmark that never quite faded.
“The first thing my parents told me was to not let this cripple me any more than it already has,” Jimmy said. “Don’t let it stop you. I might have to do some things differently, but I’m still always the same Jim. They won’t let me get any worse; and I could be way worse than I am right now.”
“I haven’t been truly happy or had a good day since,” Joe said. “There’s always something making me angry. Maybe that’s just me. I’m always thinking about something else, never focused. I took a physics test the other day, and … blank. I couldn’t remember anything. I guess you’ve got to just keep on keeping on, and hope for the best. Say your prayers, and hope they’re answered. My faith is stronger now.”
“What this boy has been through…” Joanne Galasso began. “He has a lot of hope and he’s not a quitter. The way I feel now, I couldn’t be prouder.”
Other parents shared similar sentiments.
“I’m definitely proud of him,” said Tom Bayer Sr., Tom’s dad. “That’s my little buddy. He surprises me every day, always looking to help others. I don’t like to see him go through something like this, because life’s hard enough as it is.”
“I know Joey, and he won’t let this define him,” said Renee Galasso, Joe’s mom. “Of course I’m angry about everything. For all of the kids.”
As far as the attackers go, there are mixed thoughts.
“One of the hardest things is going to court and being cross-examined,” the younger Bayer said. “You get vivid detail when all you want to do is forget. I don’t know how anyone can defend such a heinous crime.”
“These kids, they didn’t even enter Jimmy’s mind,” the elder Jim Galasso said of his son’s attackers. “He couldn’t care less about them. He’s not holding a grudge against them. He’s not going to let what those kids did slow him down.”
“There are consequences for your actions, and these kids need to be made aware of that,” the elder Bayer said. “Because our children could have died. They could have wrecked all our lives.”
Before they scattered away into the night, Joanne Galasso had one more thing she wanted to share. She showed a reporter the home screen of her cell phone, which carried a message she said she is forced to read to herself multiple times daily:
Dear God: Today I woke up. I am healthy. I am alive. Thank you.”
“Personally, this is what he gives me,” she said. “I worry. They were just a hair away from calamity. Whatever God’s plan for him is, and I believe he does have one. Jim knows that. We’re just waiting on the Lord. I don’t really know what else to say.” ••