When you can't trust your partners, you're likely to get burned

Sure, Joe Wright was paranoid. By the summer of 1998, he'd been on crystal meth for years, and speed has a way of doing that to a man. But the fact is, Wright had every reason to be afraid.

In 1991, while flush with cash from his car-audio business, he'd entered a nebulous deal with Brad Barker, a ne'er-do-well with dark good looks, a mercurial temper and a history of violence. Barker allegedly claimed to have pirated the engineering secrets behind the rocket belt, a jet-propelled backpack that, like something out of a James Bond movie, could carry its wearer aloft for about 30 seconds.

Barker said he had an engineer friend who was helping him make a copy, and that once their belt was operational, they'd hire it out for big-time promotional gigs -- football halftimes, amusement park spectacles, the Fourth of July. They'd get rich. But first, Barker said, they needed a little money to get the thing built.

Over the next seven and a half years, Wright reportedly plowed thousands into Barker's scheme and saw little, if any, return on his investment. By one estimate, Wright lost as much as $50,000.

And, possibly, his life.

As far as anyone knows, only a handful of rocket belts have ever existed. The contraption was designed in 1961, in Buffalo, New York, by the late Wendell Moore of Bell Aircraft. Bell made only one copy.

After Bell's patent lapsed, Nelson Tyler, a Californian who designs aerial-photograph cameras for the movie industry, managed to duplicate the belt and hired Bell's pilot, Buffalo resident Bill Suitor, to fly it.

Tyler's flying machine was eventually acquired by Kinnie Gibson, a daredevil who'd dabbled in skydiving and ballooning, and who was anxious to be the second man ever to fly that belt. In the late 1980s, Gibson made a living flying the contraption at parties and special events, including a 38-show gig with Michael Jackson. During the singer's 1990 European tour, at the end of each performance Jackson would surreptitiously switch places with Gibson. To the audience, it appeared that Jackson blasted off the stage.

The rocket belt wasn't Gibson's only business interest. He'd once run a hot-air balloon business with Larry Stanley, an aeronautics buff he'd met while sky-diving at the League City airport. After the balloon business went bust, Stanley returned to his family's small oil field near Missouri City.

According to Stanley, in 1990 Gibson agreed to invest $30,000 in the oil field in return for 50 percent of its profits. (Gibson, now Chuck Norris's stunt double for Walker, Texas Ranger, didn't return the Press's phone calls.) After Gibson and Stanley had a falling out, Gibson dispatched his old friend, Brad Barker, and three other men to retrieve drilling equipment from the Stanley family oil lease. Barker, apparently, was looking for more than machinery.

Richard A. Breitbarth, one of the Stanley family's hired hands, later described the day's events in a statement for Stanley's lawyer. "I was working on [the] oil lease that day when a car with four men drove up," Breitbarth wrote. "I walked toward the car. Just then, the four men jumped out and ran up to me very fast and knocked me down to the ground. Three of them held me down while the fourth man -- a Mr. Brad Barker -- hit me with a baseball bat. He hit me a total of three times on my left leg. Then he asked where Mr. Stanley was. He told me he was very upset with Mr. Stanley and would like to hit him some."

A few months after that incident, in early 1991, Barker began calling Stanley. Over the course of a half-dozen phone conversations, Barker convinced Stanley that Gibson was behind the attack, and that by teaming up with Barker, Stanley could gain a measure of revenge and get rich.

Both had worked with Kinnie Gibson, says Stanley, and both were willing to betray him -- it was the basis of their partnership. At the very least, they both should have known how partnerships can turn sour.

After the Michael Jackson tour, Kinnie Gibson landed a contract to fly the rocket belt regularly at Disney World, in Orlando, Florida. To help fuel and maintain the belt, he once again hired Barker.

According to Stanley, Gibson accidentally damaged his belt in the summer of 1990. While he was taking the cap off a throttle valve, gas pressure propelled a piston out of the valve, and the piston lodged in a wall across the room. The piston was badly damaged, and Gibson was horrified: He had a performance scheduled for the following day. He immediately dispatched Barker to Houston, where the part could be repaired.

Stanley says that Barker later told him that during that trip he secretly measured the piston's dimensions. Gibson had told Barker that the rocket belt's secret lay in its throttle valve. Now, Barker believed, he'd stolen that secret.

A few months later, Gibson complained that Barker did a poor job of controlling his young son, whom he often brought to work. Barker quit and took the rocket belt's secrets to Stanley.

A tinkerer and a lover of flight, Stanley was strongly drawn to the challenge of building a new rocket belt, and to the quick riches it promised. He and Barker planned to split the costs 50-50. For seed money, Stanley borrowed more than $100,000 from his mother and other family members; likewise, he says, Barker borrowed from his own mother.

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