Over two months since his disappearance and more than a month since the discovery of his body, the family of 28-year-old physical therapist Alfred Wright of Jasper is still searching for answers as to what happened to their beloved relative and why.
The search for Alfred Wright
Alfred Wright disappeared the night of Nov. 7, 2013, after calling his wife for a ride. Having mechanical issues with his pickup truck, he pulled into the CL&M Grocery store on Highway 87 in Hemphill. Wright’s wife was not able to pick him up at that time, so his parents went to get him from the store. When they arrived, Wright was not there, although his truck remained. The store attendant told police she had seen Wright running from his stranded vehicle, going north on U.S. 87.
Wright’s father Douglas reportedly told CNN, the national news network that has thus far aired three reports on Wright’s disappearance on the Anderson Cooper 360 program, that the clerk told him she was outside on a smoke break when Wright “all of a sudden put his cell phone in his sock and took off like the truck was going to blow up.”
Wright’s family notified the Sabine County Sheriff’s Office to report the disappearance. The initial search for Wright led authorities to several of the missing man’s personal items, clothing, a watch and his ID, found on a nearby ranch in a remote pasture a few miles from where Wright was last seen by the store attendant.
Days later, the search was halted.
In a December 2013 press conference at the Bernsen Law Firm in Beaumont, attorney Ryan MacLeod, who represents the Wright family, said Sabine County Sheriff Tom Maddox called off the search for Wright on Nov. 11, citing lack of manpower and implying the disappearance could be drug-related.
Wright’s family was not ready to give up and decided to take action. Volunteers flocked to assist the distraught family, and eventually, a family-organized volunteer search team discovered Wright’s body Nov. 25 about 150 yards from where his belongings were found, an area already reportedly searched by investigators. Wright was wearing his tennis shoes, one sock with his cell phone tucked inside, and a pair of boxer shorts.
In an interview in early December 2013, Sabine County Sheriff Tom Maddox confirmed that preliminary autopsy results released Tuesday, Dec. 3, showed no trauma to Alfred Wright’s head, but the medical examiner did find some shallow punctures around Wright’s abdomen, possibly from a barbed wire fence. Still, Maddox said there was no evidence of foul play in the initial autopsy report. At the time of the interview, Maddox said it was too soon to tell what really happened to Wright and would not comment on the details of the investigation, which was taken over by the Texas Rangers.
When asked why the Texas Rangers had taken over the case, Maddox responded, “We wanted them to. That way it just cuts down on any confusion.”
He went on to say in the same interview that another reason Sabine County handed over the investigation of Wright’s death to the Texas Rangers was to put any perceived racial tensions with Wright’s family at ease.
“The Rangers will do a thorough investigation the same as we would, but we want the family to be satisfied too,” Maddox said.
Attempts to speak with Sheriff Maddox for this story were rebuffed by a secretary who said, because the sheriff is no longer handling the investigation, he would have no further comment.
The family was not at all satisfied with the preliminary autopsy report and had a private forensic pathologist do a second examination of the deceased man’s body. A request by Wright’s family for Dr. Lee Ann Grossberg to sit in on the initial autopsy was denied, but the pathologist was later granted access to Wright’s body. In contradiction to what the initial autopsy report indicated, Grossberg said she found signs of trauma indicative of murder. In the December 2013 press conference at The Bernsen Law Firm, Grossberg shared her preliminary findings.
“Based on the information I have thus far, I have a high index of suspicion that this is a homicide,” Grossberg said. “I base that opinion on the circumstances surrounding his death, where and how the body was found, and my findings at autopsy. My examination was limited due to the somewhat advanced decomposition of the body and due to the fact that it was a second autopsy, but I did see findings that were suspicious for homicidal violence.”
Weeks later, the first page of the initial autopsy report by Jefferson County Forensic Medical Management Services of Texas pathologist Dr. John Ralston was released and made public. The conclusion was Wright’s death was the result of “combined drug intoxication” and was “accidental.” The report indicated Wright had numerous drugs in his system including cocaine, methamphetamine, amphetamine and alprazolam, or Xanax, and had shallow puncture wounds to the abdomen, left thigh, left lower leg, and palm of the left hand.
Since then, The Examiner obtained a copy of the complete autopsy report and toxicology results. According to the complete report, Wright was missing his eyes, left ear, his tongue, the fingernail of his right index finger, two top teeth and one bottom tooth, all reported by the medical examiner to have been caused by animal and insect activity and decomposition. In addition, according to media sources, Wright’s throat appeared to have been slit.
But what happened to Wright, and why was his body found by family members in an area already searched by Sabine County authorities? And why would investigators release a report ruling Wright’s death as accidental while an investigation is still ongoing by the Texas Rangers? National media reports suggest there could be much more to the story than anyone imagined.
The CNN reports
In an interview on Anderson Cooper 360, Wright family attorney MacLeod proposed that Wright’s body was not decomposed enough to have been outside for 19 days, the interval of time that lapsed between Wright’s disappearance and the discovery of his corpse. He believes the body was likely dumped at the location, and that Wright may have been held and tortured prior to his death.
Wright’s wife Lauren told Examiner and CNN reporters she spoke to her husband multiple times on the day of his death. The last time she called him, she reported hearing heavy breathing as though Wright was in duress, but he did not speak and she could not reach him afterward. After Wright’s death and due to the unusual circumstances, she started doing some digging of her own, according to an interview with CNN. She reportedly discovered three instances of her husband renting a hotel room while she and their children were away the month before he died. She told reporters that was unusual.
According to the reports, it is unknown at this time whether Wright shared the rented rooms with a second person, but surveillance videos requested since Wright’s wife’s discovery could provide investigators with more information on that subject.
Sheriff Maddox is no stranger to controversy and has been associated with some questionable moves in the past. For example, Maddox is the same sheriff who made it possible for Sabine County resident Derek Wesley McBride, who pleaded guilty and was sentenced to eight years in state prison in March 2013 for killing Amber Roussel and injuring her husband on the Neches River bridge in a terrible car crash on July 30, 2012, to transfer from the state penitentiary to Sabine County Jail where he was immediately given trustee status. McBride was at the Lychner Unit in Humble for no more than three months prior to his transfer, made at the request of the sheriff.
“It’s like they couldn’t wait,” Criminal District Court Judge John Stevens said in an October 2013 interview with The Examiner. Stevens, who before the plea revoked McBride’s bonds of $100,000 for intoxication manslaughter and $50,000 for intoxication assault after McBride tested positive for amphetamines on a urinalysis and who subsequently sentenced McBride to eight years in state prison, said he was shocked when he found out McBride was no longer in state custody.
According to the bench warrant dated June 27, 2013, and signed by District Judge Charles Mitchell and Sheriff Thomas Maddox in Sabine County, McBride was brought there for no other reason than “to be a trustee in the Sabine County Jail.”
After demands from an outraged Stevens, McBride was transferred back to the state penitentiary.
The Texas Rangers are still investigating what they have called a “questionable death,” MacLeod said, and the Wright family is still looking for answers. Some of the questions they want answered could provide the missing link in discovering what happened to Alfred Wright.
Where is missing video footage from CL&M Grocery?
When were the drugs pathologists found in Wright’s system introduced to his body, prior to or after his disappearance?
Why were Wright’s shoes, boxer shorts and one sock completely lacking mud or debris?
Was Wright held captive and tortured before his body was discovered?
Wright had been indicted in a federal court in Tennessee for embezzlement and had a trial date upcoming. What affect, if any, did that case have on Wright’s behavior?
For now, those questions remain unanswered, but the Wright family continues to hold out hope for resolution.
Clay Thorp contributed to this report.