By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Richard Connelly
By Jeff Balke
By Casey Michel
By Craig Hlavaty
By Jeff Balke
Constructing the belt proved much more complicated than Stanley and Barker expected. Stanley holed up in the office of his Sugar Land home and, using the specs Barker had commandeered, began cranking out engineering drawings of the belt's parts. Barker would then take the drawings to various machine shops to have the parts manufactured.
Stanley says that Barker was wrong, that it turned out the rocket belt's secret didn't lie in the throttle valve. Still, he stayed with the task.
In retrospect, Stanley says, he had plenty of warning that Barker wasn't shooting straight with him. Shortly after they began work on the belt, a machine shop owner warned Stanley to keep an eye on his partner. Without being specific, the man said that Barker had asked him to do things that weren't quite aboveboard.
Stanley ignored the warning.
Joe Wright, too, ignored others' misgivings about Barker.
Wright was a Rust Belt refugee-cum-entrepreneur. Almost 20 years ago, the small, wiry man said good-bye to his family and friends in Michigan, loaded his car and headed to Houston. For the first few weeks here, he slept in his car. He got a job installing car stereos, then started his own stereo-installation business out of his garage. By 1983 he'd saved enough to open his own shop, Car Audio Plus, on Spears Road in north Harris County. At its peak, says a former employee, Car Audio Plus was pulling in over $2 million a year, and Wright had 22 people working for him.
"He was a high roller," remembers the employee, who asked to remain anonymous. "He did anything he wanted, and he always had money." Many knew that he handed out expensive gifts and was an easy touch for a loan. Few people knew that he was gay.
Brad Barker liked trinkets such as sound systems and car alarms, and he liked people willing to do him favors. Soon after Wright installed a stereo for Barker, the two men became friends. After Barker quit his job fueling Kinnie Gibson's rocket belt, it was Wright who drove Barker and his son back to Houston.
Wright's employees worried about Barker. At first, says one, Barker seemed "like an attractive, well-rounded guy." But later, Wright and Barker "would be talking about something, and some little thing would just make [Barker] explode," the former employee says. "Things that shouldn't bother people and that would just roll off the back of anyone else."
According to Stanley, Barker originally wanted Wright as his partner in the rocket-belt project, but Barker soon realized that he and Wright didn't have the expertise to get the job done. After that, Stanley says, Barker strung Wright along, hitting him up for dough when he needed it. Stanley estimates that Barker sucked as much as $50,000 out of Wright in exchange for a vague promise of 5 percent of Barker's share of the belt.
Wright agreed to let Barker and Stanley use office space at Car Audio Plus and gave them use of one of his six work bays to build the belt and to store the trailer that would someday be used to transport the fuel system. It was there, at Joe Wright's shop, that the growing tension between Barker and Stanley finally came to a head.
Stanley says that over the three years he worked on the belt he grew suspicious that Barker was cheating him. Barker could never seem to remember to get a receipt for anything he'd bought or any of the work he'd done. One machine shop owner told Stanley that the shop had charged only $5,500 for a job that Barker had said cost $11,000. Stanley heard other, similar stories, the gist of which seemed to be that Barker was reporting costs twice as high as they actually were.
"In other words, I was buying all the parts," says Stanley. "Barker wasn't paying for anything." He figures that Barker used much of the money he received from Wright and others mainly for his living expenses.
After they completed the belt in October 1994, Stanley looked forward to its test flights. Around the same time, he decided to confront Barker about his creative accounting. Early in the afternoon of Saturday, November 12, Stanley drove to Car Audio Plus with John Connelly, one of the machine shop owners who'd warned Stanley that Barker was stealing from him.
When they arrived at the shop, neither Barker nor Wright was there. While waiting in the rocket-belt office, Stanley phoned Wright to tell him what he'd learned about Barker.
While ranting to Wright, Stanley didn't notice Barker's arrival. Barker hid around a corner and listened as Stanley told Wright of his complaints. When Barker had heard enough, he grabbed a Day-Glo orange, rubber-coated lead mallet, the kind used for auto body work.
"He rushed in and smashed the phone I was talking on," remembers Stanley. "That was, in his madness, the offending device, I guess. And the phone just exploded."
Barker then decided to use the mallet for body work on Stanley's head: "In a lightning flash, he's beating on my head and screaming, 'I'm going to kill you, motherfucker!' "
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