Joel Carmona's Last Ride

A confused custom car show, and a dispute over money, mar the memory of a beloved community activist

Joel came to consider Hargrave a close friend. And it was that friendship that led the Carmonas and Hargrave to plunge ahead with the partnership after Joel died.

For Helen, there was another incentive as well: during the months her husband was working on the TCP car show, they'd fallen behind on their bills, even letting their house insurance lapse. Then, late on the 14th of February, something inside the Carmonas' house caught fire. Joel managed to hurry Helen and the two daughters who were at home to safety, but when he returned to rescue his son, he was trapped. When firemen reached them, they were dead of smoke inhalation. The house had been completely destroyed.

On the day of Joel's death, Richard Carmona, still covered with dirt and soot from the fire, went to visit Hargrave. Helen Carmona, who was in the hospital, had told her brother-in-law that she wanted to go through with the contract. Richard Carmona and Hargrave agree that Richard said he could carry out the last stage of Joel's job, which was overseeing the show itself. After all, he had assisted Joel for more than a decade.

At the time, the Carmonas' relationship with Hargrave seemed almost family-like. Hargrave recalls giving the Carmonas money to help with funeral expenses(though, say the Carmonas, that check bounced). And a few days after Joel's death, Helen was touched to hear on the radio that Hargrave had renamed the car show after Joel. A portion of the show's proceeds, the radio announcer said, would go to the family.

So after the funeral, Helen Carmona and Hargrave signed a new contract identical to the one in Joel's name. Neatly typed in outline form, its terms looked clear: the Carmonas were to be paid $1 for every adult ticket sold and 50 cents for each child's ticket, with a minimum guarantee of $20,000. They were also to get a cut of any corporate sponsorships and show booths they sold.

Under services to be performed, the first item is simple: "Space City Promotions will coordinate the Texas Cultural Pavilion's Super Custom Car Show and Concert on March 16, 1996 from start to finish." But that, says Hargrave, is where things got complicated.

In the weeks since her husband's death, Helen Carmona has left most business dealings to Richard. Acquaintances say the stress on the family has been considerable. But Helen and Richard both insist they fulfilled all their contractual obligations to Hargrave. Any complaints that surfaced about the car show, they say, are inevitable at such large events.

Hargrave, however, claims the list of the ways the Carmonas botched the show is so long that it cannot be recounted in a single phone conversation. That's why, he says, the Carmonas weren't paid. "The family came and asked if they could do the show part," Hargrave says. "I told them they could if they could do a good job. I hate to talk negatively, but they didn't do a good job. They did an atrociously horrible job."

At 3 a.m. on the day of the show, Hargrave says, dozens of cars swarmed in for registration, and there was no one around to attend to them. Further, he says, entire classes of cars weren't judged. Because of this and other problems, he claims, contestants were so angry that they formed a "lynch mob" that went looking for Richard Carmona. There's also a dispute over prize money. Hargrave says he provided $10,000 in cash to be handed out in prizes, and suspects that the Carmonas are "sitting on a big pot" of it.

The Carmonas deny each of Hargrave's allegations. If registrants swarmed the show at dawn before it started, they say, it was Hargrave's responsibility to provide security to keep them out. And all the cars were judged, even if some of the judging took place late at night -- which is, the Carmonas insist, how things were scheduled. Further, says Helen, everybody who won a prize was paid at once, except for two people who left early. Richard Carmona says $8,400 in prize money was handed out, and the remainder left with the car show's accountant. Most important, says Helen Carmona, the vast majority of their contractual obligation had been done, and done well, by Joel Carmona before his death. "This [money owed by Hargrave] was Joel's paycheck," she says. "He had been working for months, organizing this car show."

Not surprisingly, participants in the TCP show remember its falling somewhere in between Hargrave's and the Carmonas' descriptions. "It went well, but it was not what we had been promised," one sponsor, who asked not to be identified, says. In the sponsor's view, though, the fault wasn't the Carmonas': "The problem, between you and me, is that Norman is not a promoter. He's an amateur."

But Hargrave argues that even if the Carmonas had done a perfect job, it wouldn't have mattered: there was no money left after all the other participants had been paid. When you're running a charity, he says, the bills have to be paid first. But charity, according to Helen Carmona, isn't the issue. "Let's just put it this way," she says. "He paid everybody else. He paid the band coordinator and the booth coordinator. So why didn't he pay the show coordinator?"

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