Merced sheriff's department exhumes body of Randal Wright's stepson

Randal Wright as he exits Merced County Superior Courtroom 4, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2010 morning.
SUN-STAR PHOTO BY MARCI STENBERG Randal Wright as he exits Merced County Superior Courtroom 4, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2010 morning. Merced Sun-Star

The bizarre saga of Randal Wright took another strange turn Thursday as Merced County sheriff's detectives exhumed the body of the former tow truck company owner's 6-year-old stepson, Aaron Wright, who drowned in 1982.

Meanwhile, Randal Wright spoke to the Sun-Star for the first time Friday, saying the sheriff's department has made countless unfounded accusations against him, and claiming the media has slandered his name to no end.

Detectives from the department's Major Crimes Unit exhumed the boy's body from Evergreen Funeral Home and Memorial Park on Thursday, lifting the tiny casket from the dirt and placing it inside a coroner's truck.

The drowning, which happened at the home of Wright's neighbor in the 600 block of San Diego Court, was considered an accident in 1982, but Sheriff Mark Pazin said detectives are shining a new light on the boy's death. They have asked a forensic pathologist to examine the body. That suggests authorities may believe scientific advances since the boy's death may reveal clues not available to investigators 28 years ago.

Prior to exhuming the body, Pazin said investigators obtained a search warrant and consent from the boy's mother and Wright's ex-wife, Judy Larson. Pazin said it was the first time in recent memory that a body was exhumed from a cemetery for a local investigation.

Because the drowning happened in Merced, Pazin said the new investigation into the boy's drowning is being conducted jointly with Merced Police Department detectives.

News of the exhumation is the latest chapter in a series of questionable circumstances surrounding the 60-year-old ex-owner of RTS Towing.

For example, his 50-year-old wife, Karen Wright, disappeared in San Felipe, Mexico, in early February 2009. The last time her family members heard from her was a phone call placed from Mexico on Feb. 9 last year. Merced County sheriff's detectives ruled the case a homicide in September.

No suspects have ever been named in Karen Wright's disappearance, but Randal Wright remains a "person of interest" in the sheriff's investigation.

In another odd twist, two tow truck drivers who worked for his company, Steven Lincoln Lombard, 33, and Paul Armstrong, 28, vanished Dec. 17, 1993, after filing workers compensation claims against Wright's company. Armstrong was last seen at his West 25th Street home by his girlfriend as she left for work at 7:45 a.m. That same day, Lombard had made arrangements to meet his wife, Louise, to go Christmas shopping. He never arrived at that appointment, according to family members. No one has been named as a suspect in the men's disappearances, which is now considered a double homicide case.

While Pazin stopped short of calling Wright a suspect in the death of his stepson, he said there's a "common thread" of suspicious circumstances that cannot be ignored. "I just felt strongly about this, and there is a common denominator -- and I think it's pretty obvious that all the numerators are gone," Pazin said.

During the press conference, Pazin told a reporter "I'm not trying to be pithy with you, but it seems like everybody that he comes in contact with is gone." Pazin added "we have some theories about motives that I don't want to get into right now...but it's fairly obvious that the common thread through all these persons, or common denominator, is Randy Wright."

Randal Wright, who spoke to the Sun-Star on Friday, denied having any involvement in his stepson's drowning, saying he wasn't even home when the incident happened. He reiterated that he's never been considered a suspect in his stepson's drowning or the disappearance of his ex-wife, Lombard or Armstrong. "I have nothing to hide here. So much has been printed in your paper that is false," Wright said.

Wright also pointed out he filed a $15 million claim against Merced County in September, claiming false and slanderous statements made by the sheriff's department caused the demise of his business. He said the sheriff's department is trying to exploit the death of his stepson to do further damage to his name and reputation. "It's a damn shame that they are doing that, degrading and disgracing my ex-wife and her son through a terrible tragedy," Wright said. "(The sheriff's department) are trying to do anything they can to bolster their side of it."

Randal and Karen Wright had been married 12 years and had owned two houses in San Felipe.

Karen Wright's mother, Sonja Barnes, said her daughter suspected her husband may have been violating a court order prohibiting him from doing construction work on one of their San Felipe homes until their divorce was final. Prior to her disappearance, Barnes said Karen Wright had gone to check on the house.

Kim Stewart, the sister of Karen Wright, said Randal Wright was already in Mexico when her sister went there to check on the home. Stewart said Randal Wright later returned to Merced County from Mexico -- but never informed law enforcement in Mexico about his wife's disappearance.

Sgt. Jason Goins of the Merced County Sheriff's Department's Major Crimes Division confirmed Stewart's claim earlier this year, saying police in Mexico were never informed of Karen Wright's disappearance -- until Merced County sheriff's investigators went to Mexico and filed a missing persons report themselves.

Randal Wright said he'd been separated from his wife for several months and they were in the process of getting a divorce prior to Feb. 9 last year, the last time he saw her. He said she showed up mid-morning that day at their main residence in San Felipe, and that before noon they drove to their second home in separate vehicles because she wanted to take photos of some new construction there.

Wright said his wife was unhappy about their relationship, and told him at the house she was going to do something "that he would never get over," adding that he'd never be able to return to San Felipe. "We could just never get along, as far as the relationship," Wright said.

Wright said he left and went to a friend's house in San Felipe, where he spent the night. The next day, Wright said he returned to the couple's primary home in San Felipe. Although Karen Wright's H2 Hummer was parked at the home, he said she was nowhere to be found. Wright said he thought it was strange because his wife's two basset hound dogs were inside the car, with the windows partially down. "That's very unusual for Karen, because her dogs were her life," Wright said. "She'd never leave the dogs alone in her car."

He let the two dogs out of the Hummer, and then began going door-to door to neighbors in the area, searching for his wife. Wright said he and other residents looked for Karen Wright for about six hours, but she was nowhere to be found. Still, Wright said he figured his wife was playing a trick on him, particularly because of the statement she'd made.

Randal Wright said he also tried calling his wife on her cell phone, but she didn't pick up.

Regardless, Randal Wright said he wanted to inform law enforcement in Mexico about his wife's disappearance, but an attorney in San Felipe named Francisco Sosa advised him Mexican police wouldn't take any action unless his wife had been gone for three or four days.

Randal Wright said he had to be back in Merced County to handle payroll. As a solution, Wright claims Sosa said he'd file the missing persons report with Mexican police in Wright's absence.

Wright said he drove back to California from Mexico on Feb. 11, arriving in Merced around midnight. Wright said he informed the Merced County Sheriff's Department on Feb. 12 that his wife had been missing.

Court documents painted a violent picture of the couple's relationship, although Randal Wright claims otherwise. Karen Wright claimed in court documents that her husband had threatened her and physically abused her, saying that he told her that "he could kill her and nobody would know." She also said her husband broke her hand and "ripped out chunks" of her hair.

When asked Friday if he was ever violent toward his wife, or threatened her, Randal Wright replied "Absolutely not."

Wright said he has no idea what happened to Karen Wright and denies having any involvement in her disappearance. Even though he's never been named a suspect, Wright said he's being treated by the media and sheriff's department as if he's responsible. "I feel for her family -- and for what this has done to me. But I wish I had information. It's really easy for people to think, 'Oh, he did something," Wright said. "I am getting angry now. There is so much about this story with Karen's disappearance here and what they have done to me. It's unbelievable."

Regarding Armstrong and Lombard, Randal Wright said he had no knowledge of an insurance claim they filed against his company. Wright also said he knows nothing about how or why they vanished, adding that Armstrong wasn't even working for RTS Towing when he disappeared. "Not a bit," said Wright, when asked if he knows what happened to Armstrong and Lombard.

In the most recent case involving Wright, he was convicted in August of unlawfully taking a black Mercedes Benz G55 from a Fresno dealership in December 2008. Although Randal Wright had been leasing the car since April 2007, prosecutors said he was behind on his payments and had returned it to the dealer.

But the car later went missing from the dealership, only to turn up in San Felipe at a condo managed by Randal Wright's girlfriend in April 2009. Sheriff's deputies brought the car back to Merced County from Mexico and booked it as evidence.

Some of the evidence against Wright in the embezzlement case included a taped Feb. 13, 2009, phone conversation between him and Mercedes Benz Financial, where he explicitly denied picking up the car from the dealership. He also said he returned it in November 2008 and had never picked it back up, according to prosecutors.

Prosecutors said additional evidence included a taped phone call Wright placed from the Merced County Jail to his girlfriend in Mexico. During that phone call, Wright supposedly told the woman, "Black needs to take a permanent vacation," referring to the Mercedes.

Wright maintains the case was nothing more than a contract dispute, saying he'd tried to call the Fresno dealership to fix the matter. "How do you steal your own car?" he asked, saying the dealership never even issued a repossession order.

Randal Wright, who remains free on bail, was supposed to report to the Merced County Jail on May 6 to serve a six-month sentence on auto theft and embezzlement charges in that case. His attorney, Tom Gillis, however, filed a motion requesting an extension of time to report to the jail -- a request approved by Judge Brian McCabe.

Wright is now expected to report to the Merced County Jail on June 11 to serve his sentence.

Randal Wright asked for the extension because he'd requested to serve his sentence on an ankle-bracelet program at his Shingle Springs home in El Dorado County. The Merced County Sheriff's Department denied Wright's request, because of the 130-mile distance of Wright's Shingle Springs home from Merced County.

Randal Wright's embezzlement case had been scheduled for trial last year, but he decided in August to plead no contest to felony charges of embezzlement and taking a car without consent. He later asked to withdraw his no contest plea, saying he was impaired by prescription pain medication and was being pressured to enter the plea by his then-attorney, Tom Pfeiff.

McCabe denied Wright's request to change his plea.

Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsun-star.com.