State

Child exhumed in new twist surrounding man

MERCED -- 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.

Authorities 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.

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

His 50-year-old wife, Karen Wright, disappeared in San Felipe, Mexico, in 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 been named in Karen Wright's disappearance, but Randal Wright remains a "person of interest" in the sheriff's investigation.

No suspects named

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 last was 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, according to family members. No one has been named as a suspect in the disappearances. They're considered victims of a double homicide.

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.

"It seems like everybody that he comes in contact with is gone," Pazin said.

Wright, who spoke to the Sun-Star on Friday, denied having any involvement in his stepson's drowning, saying he wasn't home when the incident happened.

He reiterated that he's never been considered a suspect in his stepson's drowning or in the disappearance of his ex-wife, Lombard or Armstrong.

"I have nothing to hide here," Wright said.

He pointed out that he filed a $15 million claim against Merced County in September, claiming that false statements 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 damage his name further.

"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.

Randal and Karen Wright had been married 12 years and 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 construction work on one of their San Felipe homes until the divorce was final. Prior to her disappearance, Barnes said, Karen Wright had gone to check on the house.

Kim Stewart, the 46-year-old sister of Karen Wright, said Randal Wright was 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.

Randal Wright said he'd been separated from his wife for several months and they were getting a divorce prior to Feb. 9 last year, the last time he saw her. He said she showed up mid-morning 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 construction there.

Wright said his wife was unhappy about their relationship and told him at the house that she was going to do something "that he would never get over," adding that he'd never be able to return to San Felipe. 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 hounds 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 said he let the dogs out of the Hummer, and then began going door to door to neighbors in the area, searching for his wife.

Wright said he figured his wife was playing a trick on him, particularly because of the statement she'd made.

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

He 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 that Mexican police wouldn't take any action unless his wife had been gone for three days.

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 person report in Wright's absence.

He drove back to Merced on Feb. 11, Wright said, arriving about midnight. He said he informed the Merced County Sheriff's Department on Feb. 12 that his wife was missing.

Claims of violence denied

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

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

Regarding Armstrong and Lombard, Wright said he had no knowledge of an insurance claim they filed against his company. He also said he had no knowledge of their disappearances, adding that Armstrong wasn't working for RTS Towing when he went missing.

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.

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, filed a motion requesting an extension of time to report to jail, a request approved by Judge Brian McCabe.

Wright is expected to report to the county jail June 11 to serve his sentence.

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