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

Harris County homicide division Sergeant Jim Parker bristles at the suggestion that Wright's sexual orientation has any bearing on the way the case has been investigated. He confirms, however, that detectives did receive a file that Wright had compiled before his death, but it has shed no new light on the probe. He also says, without elaboration, that investigators do have one other suspect besides Barker.

But Wright's former employee suspects only Barker: "As soon as I heard about it, I told them that if it wasn't a suicide, Larry Stanley was also in grave danger."

For weeks, Brad Barker didn't return phone calls from the Press, but in person he seemed happy to talk.

He was in court last week on charges of theft. Stanley accuses Barker of stealing a .357 Winchester rifle. Barker freely admits that he took the rifle from the offices of American Rocket Belt and that he pawned the gun for $100. But he says that the gun was rightfully his, that Stanley had offered it as collateral to cover a bad $75 check in June 1992.

Stanley denied Barker's story, pointing out that he didn't purchase the gun until December of that year and so couldn't have offered it as collateral for a check written six months earlier. But in court Stanley couldn't produce proof that he owned the rifle, and state District Judge Elsa Alcala repeatedly admonished him for not answering questions directly.

During a break in the trial, Barker was willing to chat for a few moments in a courthouse hallway. He said he hadn't returned calls because he'd decided not to comment. But he then proceeded, with little prodding, to offer his views about Stanley, Wright and the rocket belt.

"The truth is that I built the rocket belt," says Barker, "not that dumb son of a bitch. And you can tell [Stanley] I said that."

Barker says that he's living these days in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and claims he was there at the time of Wright's death. He says he's working on a "new and improved" rocket belt with the help of an unnamed benefactor with a $150-million bankroll. He also says that he and Kinnie Gibson, the stunt man, remain good friends. Gibson, he says, recently gave him a Bible, which he reads often.

Barker also volunteers that, following the discovery of Joe Wright's body, Harris County authorities held him for questioning for three days. He claims that he gave county investigators hair and DNA samples, and that detectives took his car apart looking for evidence connecting him to Wright's death. He says they came up empty-handed.

He also says he has no insight into Wright's death, that he plans to ask the FBI to look into it: "Maybe if a real law enforcement agency gets involved, people will leave me alone." Furthermore, he says he plans to file a complaint with the sheriff's internal affairs division about being named publicly as a suspect in the case.

Earlier this year Barker was reported driving by Stanley's home, and Judge Alcala issued a restraining order preventing Barker from coming within 300 feet of his former partner. Barker, however, says he never drove past Stanley's house; he says he was in church at the time and offers as proof his signature on the register of a Dallas-area church.

Asked about the location of the missing rocket belt, Barker smiles and says only, "Gee, I don't know."

In the end Judge Alcala concluded that neither Stanley nor Barker was a credible witness. Reasonable doubt, she said, forced her to find Barker not guilty, and he walked out of court a free man.

But Barker is scheduled to be back in court next month, when Stanley's civil suit against him comes to trial. Even if Stanley prevails, Ron Bass, the late Joe Wright's friend and attorney, predicts it will be a hollow victory. He thinks it's doubtful that Stanley will ever get his hands on the rocket belt again.

"I think you have a classic example here with the rocket belt of a vision these three guys had -- and like so many of us have -- for a big payday," says Bass. "And somebody's got that sucker. But it's not doing anybody any good right now."

And it probably never will.

Nine months after Wright's death, Stanley sits behind a large conference table in his lawyer's office. Asked whether he's concerned for his own safety, Stanley says nothing. Instead, he rises from his chair, pulling away the left side of his beige windbreaker to reveal a .40-caliber Desert Eagle automatic pistol.

Stanley says he bought the gun recently, after his son saw someone in the backyard of their Sugar Land home. The restraining order against Barker makes him feel a bit better, but not much. Stanley -- who knows first-hand about violence, betrayal and deals gone bad -- isn't taking any chances.

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