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.
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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.
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!' "
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.
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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