By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Richard Connelly
By Jeff Balke
By Casey Michel
By Craig Hlavaty
By Jeff Balke
Connelly attempted to intervene and finally grabbed Barker in a bear hug. Somehow the three men found themselves pressed against the office door, with Barker sandwiched in the middle but still swinging the mallet at Stanley's legs. Then, recalls Stanley, the office became very quiet for several seconds. And Barker -- who'd started the fight -- yelled for help.
A Car Audio Plus employee called the police, and Barker was taken to jail. Stanley was driven to LBJ Hospital, where doctors treated him for cuts and bruises. After six hours there, he too was sent to jail. (The charges against Stanley were eventually dropped, but in June 1996, a judge found Barker guilty of misdemeanor assault. He served six months probation.)
In the meantime, the rocket belt and its fueling trailer vanished from Car Audio Plus. Stanley last saw it the day he was attacked. In his lawsuit, he claims that Wright, at the behest of Barker, filed a fraudulent lien statement against their American Rocket Belt Corp. for unpaid rent for the storage of the equipment, as well as office space, and the seized the rocket belt in lieu of the back rent -- rent Stanley claims he was never told was owed.
Stanley searched in vain for the belt, and four months after the mallet incident, he heard of the belt's appearance. In June 1995, after the Houston Rockets beat the Orlando Magic in the NBA finals, Bill Suitor -- the Buffalo man who'd flown the original belt -- piloted the new belt at a city-sponsored victory party. In a deposition, Wright later testified that the city paid $10,000 for the flight.
But as suddenly as the belt had surfaced, it disappeared. Suitor, who Wright said was paid $2,500, told The Buffalo News that after the performance he gave the belt back to Barker, who put it in his trailer and drove away.
By 1996 Joe Wright was a broken man. The American automobile industry had caught up with him; auto makers were now installing state-of-the-art sound systems in new cars, and Car Audio Plus was a dinosaur. Wright filed for bankruptcy.
His appetite for drugs was no secret, especially his fondness for crystal meth, a foul but potent form of speed popular among bikers, trailer trash and those who believe that staying awake for the rest of their lives might be fun. Wright drifted into paranoia and depression. He stayed inside his house, didn't dress or shave, and played with his computer.
He also concluded that Barker was not his friend. In a June 1996 deposition in the lawsuit, Wright testified that he no longer trusted Barker. And by January 1998, he'd thrown his lot in with Barker's enemy and old partner: He agreed to help Stanley find Barker and the rocket belt. In return, Stanley promised to cut him loose from the lawsuit, to give him a percentage of any future profits from the belt and to supply him some running money to help him avoid the wrath of Brad Barker.
But Wright's help to Stanley, like Wright's paranoia, ran hot and cold. Six months later, Stanley was no closer to finding Barker or the belt than he had been before the agreement. In July 1998, as a trial date for the lawsuit approached, Stanley and his attorney, Michael Von Blon, issued an ultimatum to Wright and his attorney, Ron Bass: Either help us -- now -- or we'll see you in court.
The two sides agreed to meet in Bass's Greenway Plaza-area office on Wednesday, July 12, 1998. Wright was a no-show, but Bass finally reached him by phone at his home. Wright claimed to be sick, but Bass put him on the speakerphone and insisted that he stay on the line. A few hours later, Wright once again agreed to track down Barker.
Four days later, Wright was dead.
A friend from Austin discovered the decaying body in a blood-spattered room of Wright's north Harris County home, a home surrounded by an eight-foot brick fence and equipped with an exterior surveillance system. Wright's head and face were beaten so severely that it was several days before detectives from the Harris County Sheriff's Office made a positive identification.
Nine months later, the case seems no closer to being solved. Last month, Lieutenant Bert Diaz told the Houston Chronicle that Barker is the only suspect in Wright's death. (Diaz was not available for comment to the Press.)
Wright's former employee complains that county investigators have dragged their feet on the case: "The Harris County Sheriff's Office wrote off Joe's killing as some sort of gay sex crime, and they were done."
A source close to Wright's family agrees: "They insulted me to my face about [Joe's] homosexuality."
The family hasn't ruled out Barker as a suspect in the killing. At the time of Wright's death, says the source, Wright and Barker were "far from being friends." The family source also acknowledges that Wright was planning to help Stanley find the rocket belt and was very concerned about Barker's reaction.
The source also says that Barker isn't the family's only suspect. Shortly before Wright's death, he told a friend that he was concerned for his safety. Wright told the friend where to find a file on a local bookmaker who he owed money. Wright said that if anything happened to him, the file should be turned over to investigators.
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