Joel Carmona's Last Ride

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

Late on the afternoon of February 19, after the low rider car enthusiasts, the stunned schoolboys on low rider bikes and the somber-faced friends dressed in zoot suits had all paid their respects, Joel Carmona's widow met her late husband's colleague to put her name on a contract.

The funeral had been draining, the circumstances excruciating. Carmona, founder of the Los Magnificos Car Club and president of Arizona Fleming Elementary's Head Start program in Fort Bend County, had died in a house fire four days earlier while trying unsuccessfully to save his four-year-old son Nicholas. He was 35. From the variety of the mourners crowded around his north Houston gravesite, one could see that the loss ran not only deep, but far throughout Houston.

Crying teenagers dressed in red T-shirts raised their hands in what looked like a gang gesture; it was actually a low rider car club salute. Carmona's 29-year-old brother Richard sat up front near Carmona's wife and three daughters, shaking with pain. Almost every endeavor Joel undertook had been attached to his family, people said; they remembered Helen Carmona joking that she liked Joel's passion for cars because it kept him around the house. Whenever Joel staged one of his low rider car shows, Helen and their daughters, as well as Richard and Joel's other siblings, would work it with him.

Not only Mexican-Americans hovered over the caskets of Joel and his son. There were also African-Americans and Anglos, people who knew Carmona for his activism in Four Corners, a working-class Latino enclave of Sugar Land, as well as for his involvement with low riders. Basically, everything Joel Carmona cared about -- his friends, his family, his work and his cars -- was intertwined. That's why it seemed right when Joel's sister Esther, in her eulogy, urged Joel's friends to honor him by attending an upcoming custom car show that he'd organized.

And that's why it seemed clear to Helen Carmona that her family should -- and could -- carry out the contract Joel had signed with Norman Hargrave, president and part-owner of the Texas Cultural Pavilion, where the car show was to be staged.

Norman Hargrave, a promoter in his late fifties, says he feels deeply for Joel Carmona, with whom he'd been preparing what he billed as the biggest car show in America. But mention the claim by Carmona's survivors that Hargrave owes them money for Joel's work on the show, and Hargrave, normally jolly, turns flinty. Not only does he owe the Carmonas nothing, he says, but he's going to take them to court. He won't specify on what grounds, but Hargrave wants you to know they'll be serious. "I've hired a private investigator. I've learned all kinds of things," Hargrave says. "The Carmonas have no idea what they're getting into."

Helen Carmona agrees she's in over her head. But she believes her family's mistake didn't occur when they asked Hargrave for the money she says they're owed, or even on the day of the funeral, when she renewed her late husband's contract with Hargrave. Instead, she thinks things went wrong on the first day Joel trusted Hargrave. Although Hargrave ended up naming the car show for Joel, and advertised it as a benefit, Helen Carmona says she hadn't planned on receiving any charity. What she wants is the $20,000 that Hargrave agreed to pay Joel in exchange for coordinating the show at the TCP.

Hargrave admits to signing a contract with Joel that included a $20,000 guarantee, and then transferring the contract to Helen. Before his death, Joel had completed about three months of promotions and preparations. But, Hargrave argues, the Carmonas didn't properly finish what Joel started. On top of that, he adds, the March 16 show didn't make a cent.

When Hargrave first planned what would be the Texas Cultural Pavilion's inaugural event, he wasn't thinking in terms of a benefit. Hargrave, whose family has owned a Baytown jewelry store for 70 years, had gotten into show promotion strictly for profit and, he says, "love of the entertainment industry."

Initially, it seemed the TCP car show could satisfy both of Hargrave's interests. The Texas Cultural Pavilion, a 20-acre event site on Beechnut, had been in the planning for about three years, and, says Hargrave, he wanted to open it with a fabulous first event. Joel Carmona, Hargrave believed, was the man to help him pull it off.

"Joel had been doing these car shows for 13 years, and had he lived, I think he could have done a fine job," Hargrave says. Known for his tireless boosterism of what he called "the positive image of low riding," Carmona ran the oldest car club in Houston. He was no slouch as a businessman, either. His Space City Promotions produced many lucrative car shows over the years, a large part of the proceeds from which Carmona often turned over to charity. It was his success with a car show last year, in fact, that caught Hargrave's attention: Carmona's October 1995 show at the Astrohall, reportedly one of the largest such events in the country, attracted 30,000 people.

So if Hargrave had the money to invest in a show, Carmona had the ability to organize it and deliver a huge audience. And, say people who saw them work together, there seemed to be a personal bond between the men.

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?"

The reason there was so little money, says Hargrave, is that there were only about 5,200 paying attendees, a far cry from the 20,000 to 50,000 he expected. The Carmonas dispute Hargrave's figure; they believe the number was closer to 20,000. The sponsor who asked not be named agrees with the Carmonas' attendance estimate. How many of those on hand actually paid to get in, though, is another story. Helen Carmona says she doesn't know, because Hargrave took care of all the tickets and the money.

Curiously, Norman Hargrave says that if the car show had earned any money, he would have liked the Carmonas to have it. In fact, it's a little hard to pin him down on the whole event and its aftermath. He ricochets between injured surprise, philosophical disappointment and outrage at the Carmonas for publicly complaining they haven't been paid.

"There's no question that we're going to take them to court," Hargrave says. "They have caused us a lot of grief."

"I gave them money when they didn't have a thing," he adds. "I opened my heart to those people, and for them to treat me how they did -- I'm deeply hurt."

Helen Carmona, meanwhile, is tempted to give up the whole dispute. She works as a secretary, but doesn't have enough money for a new place to live, much less a lawsuit. "If that money was not my kids' money," she says, "I think I would drop it all and say forget it."

But she won't, and neither, apparently, will others who knew Joel or attended the show. Sponsors are reportedly leery of other TCP events; at the same time, Richard Carmona says, he knows people who have said his family is just greedy. Worse, some grassroots groups that mobilized to help the Carmonas buy a new house have let their efforts drop, figuring the family got a nice nest egg out of the car show.

And then there are the people, such as Cliff Conrad, who brought his 1951 Mercury to the TCP show, who are plain baffled. Conrad found the show disorganized and infuriating, but he mainly went to help the Carmonas, he says. When it appeared as if it were going to rain, Conrad headed home -- but left his car, which he later found out won a $500 prize. Two weeks after the event, he still hasn't seen his prize money. Conrad says he doesn't know what to think.

"I wanted to go to this thing to help the family that is suffering," he says. "And Lord of Moses, it seems I am embroiled in the midst of this controversy. It was so touching the way the father tried to save the son. It reached a note deep inside me. I'm mystified by what has happened." Yet he can't keep from asking for his cash prize. After all, says Conrad, his father always told him, "Don't leave money on the table.

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