Car theft nets 6 months for Merced tow company owner

MERCED — A tow-truck company owner whose wife has been missing in Mexico since early 2009 was sentenced to six months in jail Tuesday on felony auto theft and embezzlement charges.

Randal Wright, the 60-year-old owner of RTS Towing, was convicted of unlawfully taking a black Mercedes-Benz G55 from a Fresno dealership in December 2008.

The car turned up in San Felipe, Mexico, at a condo managed by Wright's girlfriend in April 2009.

His wife, 50-year-old Karen Rene Wright, disappeared there in February 2009, and officers believe someone killed her.

Wright's case had been scheduled for trial last year, but in August he pleaded no contest to felony charges of embezzlement and taking a car without consent.

Wright's attorney in February filed a motion to withdraw his no-contest pleas, claiming Wright misunderstood the plea, was impaired by prescription pain medication and was being pressured to enter the plea by his previous attorney.

Judge Brian McCabe denied Wright's motion Tuesday and ordered him to report to the Merced County Jail. After the sentencing, Wright and his attorney Tom Gillis left the courtroom without comment.

Deputy District Attorney Steven Slocum said he had been prepared to go to trial last year, when Wright pleaded no contest. "That took the sentencing out of my hands and left it to the sound discretion of the court," Slocum said.

Meanwhile, Merced County sheriff's deputies said Tuesday there have been no new developments in the disappearance of Wright's wife.

The last time Karen Wright's family heard from her was a phone call placed from Mexico in early February 2009. Merced County sheriff's detectives ruled the case a homicide in September.

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

Two tow-truck drivers who worked for his company, Steven Lincoln Lombard, 33, and Paul Armstrong, 28, vanished Dec. 17, 1993.

Armstrong was last seen at his home by his girlfriend as she left for work at 7:45 a.m. The same day, Lombard had made arrangements to meet his wife, Louise, to go Christmas shopping. He never arrived, family members said.

No one has been named as a suspect in their disappearance, which is now considered a double homicide.

Last year, sheriff's investigators said they also were reviewing the circumstances surrounding the 1982 drowning of Randal Wright's 6-year-old stepson. Wright never was charged with any crime related to the drowning.

Sheriff's investigators are asking anyone with information about Karen Wright's disappearance to call 385-7472. Tips are kept confidential, and callers can remain anonymous.