HOUSTON (AP) — Unanswered questions shroud the death of an East Texas man as his family rejects authorities’ claims that their loved one died of a drug overdose, believing instead that foul play was involved.
The family of 28-year-old Alfred Wright wants to know more about his death in November, including why the initial search was called off after only four days and how authorities could have missed finding his body in an area so close to where his clothing was located. They also say that Wright, a father of three, wasn’t a drug user, but that authorities quickly said drugs played a role in his disappearance even before his body was found.
The official autopsy concluded the death was accidental due to drug intoxication. But Dr. Lee Ann Grossberg, a forensic pathologist hired by Wright’s family, said her preliminary review found things that were “suspicious of homicidal violence.”
The autopsy done on behalf of Sabine County noted Wright’s eyes, left ear and several teeth were missing, attributing that to animal and insect activity. Grossberg said she needs more photos and documents from the investigation to determine if tissue missing from Wright’s neck and face might have been caused by a wound.
“For me, the most frustrating thing has been not knowing what happened,” said Lauren Wright, Alfred Wright’s widow. “We don’t have closure.”
The U.S. Department of Justice said this week it will be looking at what’s already been done in the investigation, which is headed by the Texas Rangers. Tom Vinger, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, which oversees the Texas Rangers, said his agency could not comment on details of the case because of the ongoing investigation.
“We ask for the public’s patience and request that they withhold passing judgment on this case until the investigation is complete,” Vinger said in an emailed statement. The Sabine County Sheriff’s Office had been the lead agency until December.
On Nov. 7, Wright was driving around, visiting his physical therapy patients, when his truck broke down at a grocery store in a rural area just south of Hemphill, about 170 miles northeast of Houston.
He called his wife in Jasper, who sent his parents to pick him up. When his parents arrived about an hour later, Wright’s truck was there but he was gone.
Wright’s wristwatch and pieces of the scrubs he had worn were found in a pasture the day after he disappeared. But the search was ended after four days, with Sabine County Sheriff Thomas Maddox telling reporters all resources had been exhausted and he believed this was a missing person case.
“The initial search I think was incredibly ill performed,” said Cade Bernsen, one of the attorneys for Wright’s family.
Maddox said Friday he could not comment on an open investigation.
Wright’s family organized its own search party and found the body Nov. 25 about 200 yards from where a piece of his clothing had been initially located. Wright was only wearing underwear, a pair of black shoes and one sock on his left foot. Inside his sock was his cellphone.
“It’s questionable how his body was not found when the sheriff said (they) ran dogs through there,” Bernsen said.
A toxicology report found drugs in Wright’s body, including cocaine and methamphetamine. The autopsy report did not narrow down when Wright died.
“I don’t feel (the drugs in his system) had anything to do with his demise,” Lauren Wright said.
Though Alfred Wright had been facing a federal embezzlement charge in Tennessee, Lauren Wright doesn’t believe that had anything to do with his disappearance.
Bernsen said the Texas Rangers have refused to provide additional information that Grossberg needs to finish her report.
Wright, who is black, lived in Jasper, which is about 35 miles south of Hemphill and infamous for being the site of the 1998 murder of James Byrd Jr., who was dragged to death by a group of white men.
While Bernsen said there is no evidence this was a hate crime, Lauren Wright, who is white, said she is not ruling out the possibility.
“We can’t forget the history of the area because we’re both from here,” she said.
Lauren Wright described her husband as a hard-working, dedicated father.
Davilyn Walston, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Texas, said her agency is reviewing the investigation but declined further comment.
J. Kevin Dutton, district attorney for Sabine and San Augustine counties, said in a statement he “welcomes the investigation by the Justice Department as there are serious allegations being made that need to be resolved.”
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