For Whom the Belt Tolls
In late 1999, Bradley Wayne Barker received a call from fellow stuntman Christopher Wentzel, offering him a movie gig. The grunt work in the California desert paid $450 a day. Wentzel picked up Barker at a Los Angeles airport, took him for a boat ride in the bay and then to Wentzel's house, where they met up with three other guys.
One man put Barker in a choke hold while Wentzel pointed a pistol at Barker's forehead.
"When I smiled, it scared the shit out of him," Barker says. "He said, 'Get that son of a bitch on the ground.' "
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Wentzel shoved the barrel of the gun into the back of his head, Barker remembers. "He said, 'The last time I put a gun to somebody's head and they smiled at me, I knew they were crazy or they just didn't give a shit,' " Barker says. "I wasn't smiling then."
Wentzel demanded to know where the rocket belt was.
"So Larry Stanley's behind this," Barker said.
The rocket belt was a project commissioned by the Department of Defense to develop a jet-propulsion device designed to help soldiers traverse rough terrain. Built in the 1960s by a Buffalo engineer, it wasn't deemed useful to the military because a person wearing it can levitate for a little more than 20 seconds.
When the patent expired, aerial camera designer Nelson Tyler copied the belt. It was later used by Kinnie Gibson (Chuck Norris's stunt double on Walker, Texas Ranger) for parties and exhibitions -- Gibson even flew it during shows on Michael Jackson's 1990 European tour.
For several years, Barker worked as a technician refueling and maintaining the belt. Barker had a dispute with Gibson in 1990, moved back to Houston and decided to build his own rocket belt. He says he knew it would cost about $200,000, and he needed a partner to come up with half the cash.
That's when he enlisted Larry Stanley of Sugar Land, a man Gibson had introduced him to in 1975. Barker later invited Joe Wright into the deal; he was offered a cut in exchange for office space in his car stereo shop near Bush Intercontinental Airport.
Stanley told the Houston Press that during the next three years he pumped enormous amounts of money into the venture, and so did Wright. As the prototype belt neared the testing stage in late 1994, Stanley prepared to confront Barker with his belief that Barker had been cheating the other partners. Stanley said he was talking to Wright on the telephone about the alleged fraud when Barker heard him, grabbed a rubber-coated lead mallet and smashed the phone. And then he cracked Stanley's skull.
Barker contends that Stanley hit him first and then Barker had to defend himself, although Barker was convicted of misdemeanor assault in the incident.
After the fracas, the rocket belt disappeared from the shop. Stanley sued Barker to try to get it returned. As the lengthy litigation headed toward a trial in July 1998, former partner Wright agreed to testify against Barker. Four days later, Wright was found dead in his north Harris County home. Barker was the prime suspect in the homicide, which remains unsolved (see "Blasted," by Steve McVicker, April 22, 1999).
Barker insists that he has phone records that prove he was in Arkansas at the time. He says he willingly gave hair and blood samples that didn't match the crime scene evidence. He says he told sheriff's investigators to exhume and examine the body of Wright's brother, who he contends may be the real killer. "I'm 199 percent convinced that the Harris County Sheriff's Office knows who killed Joe Wright. And they know it's not me," Barker says.
A year after the homicide, Stanley won a $10.2 million judgment in his case against Barker, but it is doubtful he'll ever collect. Stanley never got the belt -- even after offering a $10,000 reward.
"Brad Barker's a slick guy. But he's a con man, he's a crook," says Stanley's attorney, Michael Von Blon of Houston. "Barker needs to be put away."
When the civil verdict came down, Barker was back in Arkansas working with another financial partner on a new flying machine. He had a dispute with that backer, who locked him out of the warehouse; Barker climbed in through an air duct to retrieve his equipment and was arrested on a burglary charge.
That case was later dismissed, but while he was out on bond he got the call for the quick movie money. Barker insists that he left his bonding company a message that he was heading to California -- and he swears Stanley told the bonding firm that Barker was fleeing to Venezuela.
After the trip to California for the supposed movie work, his abductors gagged and blindfolded him with a purple velvet hood and locked him in a bedroom. He says he was placed in a two- by three-foot scuba gear crate for long periods and fed only one cup of broth and a slice of pizza for a week. He lost 20 pounds.
Barker says Wentzel questioned him over and over again, demanding to know the location of the rocket belt. "I basically told them to get screwed," Barker says. "I knew if I told them, I was dead. The only thing that was keeping me alive was that I wasn't answering any questions."
On the seventh day, Barker says, he was again put into the box, and the lid was screwed shut. "We're going for a little boat ride," Barker remembers Wentzel saying. After Wentzel drilled about 20 holes into the crate, he said, "You think this is enough holes? The more holes, the faster it's gonna sink," Barker remembers.
Stanley arrived and Barker was forced to sign a notarized affidavit relinquishing any rights to the rocket belt.
The next night, Barker says, he broke his handcuffs; in the morning he broke out of the nailed-shut window and fled. He called his brother in Houston and told him to notify the FBI.
At the criminal trial in April, Stanley's California attorney, Dale Atherton, argued that Wentzel and Stanley were simply detaining Barker on behalf of the bonding company.
"It wasn't a kidnapping because Barker came willingly," Atherton contends. "Kidnapping is when I grab you and take you off somewhere and do something to you." Atherton also accuses Barker of being a chronic liar.
Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Peter Korn says Stanley's attorneys tried to use the trial to help locate the rocket belt, while Barker wanted to use it to exonerate himself of any role in Wright's murder.
"I would have none of that. That's not relevant," Korn says. "I told the jury, 'If Barker did this murder, then I hope Harris County can find the evidence. That murder's not my case.' "
"Numerous people came in to say how horrible Barker was," Korn says. "I never defended Barker once. I let the defense keep him on the stand two days, dragging him through the mud."
"The defense was pretty much 'Brad Barker is such a bad person we should be allowed to commit crimes against him,' " Korn says. "The bottom line is you can't put a person in a box like that and keep him for eight days."
Jurors convicted Stanley and Wentzel of kidnapping, false imprisonment and extortion. In late November, Stanley was sentenced to life in prison -- plus ten years. Wentzel took a plea bargain for seven years in prison.
"Barker definitely took off with the rocket belt, for sure. And Stanley did have a lawful right to recover it," Korn says. "He tried to do things legally, and it was too frustrating for him and was taking too long, so he took matters into his own hands, and that's where he got into trouble."
Barker, who is living in Conroe near his mother, has sued Stanley in civil court for false imprisonment, conspiracy and inflicting emotional distress.
"I asked God to forgive both of them," Barker says. "I knew God knew I wasn't being serious I had another talk with God, and this time I meant it. Am I gloating over this? Do I feel sorry for them? Not in the slightest bit."
When questioned about the location of the rocket belt, Barker asks what rocket belt the reporter is talking about. There are three, he says: one in the Smithsonian, another in a museum in Buffalo and then the rocket belt he and Stanley fought over.
That last one. Where is it?
"That's a question that's been asked 100 times," he says. "I'm sorry, but I'm not willing to answer it right now."
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