Feds to Investigate Texas Man’s Mysterious Death

By Paul Gaita 02/13/14

The Justice Department will look into why a man found with his throat slashed and ear cut off was considered to have died from 'drug-related' causes.

alfred wright.jpg
Alfred Wright. Photo via

The U.S. Department of Justice will investigate the death of Alfred Wright, a 28-year-old Texas man whose body was found near a highway 19 days after he had been reported missing by his family.

The case has drawn national attention over allegations of mishandling by the Sabine County Sheriff’s department, which initially conducted the investigation into Wright’s disappearance, while also raising the specter of racial violence that has plagued that part of Texas for decades.

Wright, who worked as a physical therapist, disappeared on November 7, 2013 while en route to a client. He called his wife, Lauren, at their home in Jasper, TX, to report that he had experienced trouble with his truck on Route 87 and stopped at a convenience store outside the town of Hemphill. When Wright’s wife called back to inform him that his parents were coming to pick him up, she heard heavy breathing on the line which she reported as “respiratory distress of some kind.” Wright’s parents arrived at the convenience store an hour later to find their son’s truck abandoned in the lot. A clerk at the store later reported that Wright put his cell phone in his sock and ran quickly on the paved road toward town.

Wright’s family contacted the Sabine County Sheriff’s office to conduct a search. Wright’s watch, clothes, and ID were found on a nearby ranch, but officers failed to find a body, despite ground and air efforts. According to Wright’s family, Sabine County Sheriff Tom Maddox called off the search after only four days, and informed both the family and the press that he believed Wright was a missing person and not the victim of foul play.

Wright’s family mounted an independent search, and found his body, clad only in boxer shorts, tennis shoes and a single sock, in which Wright’s father reportedly found his son’s cell phone.  Wright’s face had suffered significant trauma – he was missing an ear and two front teeth and displayed slash wounds to his throat and tongue – but his body was otherwise free of evidence that it had been left in the elements for more than two weeks. Most significantly, Wright’s body was found approximately 25 yards from where he had disappeared – an area allegedly searched by Sabine County deputies.

From there, the Wright case grows more convoluted and controversial. His family claimed that Sheriff Maddox had informed them that Wright’s disappearance was “drug-related” - an M.O. underscored by an autopsy conducted by Sabine County officials on November 26, which reportedly found levels of cocaine and methamphetamines in his system, but no evidence of severe trauma. Family members decried the findings, citing Wright’s good health and no prior drug history, and privately ordered a second autopsy. That investigation revealed that the wounds to Wright’s face appeared to be “definitely suspicious of homicidal violence.”

On January 23, 2014, the Wright Family met with Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), who petitioned the U.S. Department of Justice for the federal government’s involvement in the investigation. In her letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Jackson Lee cited the Sabine County Sheriff’s department overlooking “overwhelming and credible evidence" and contradicting autopsies as motivating factors for her petition, as well as “documented racial violence towards African-Americans in South East Texas.” Wright’s hometown of Jasper has had a history of racial conflict, including the 1998 murder of an African-American man, James Byrd, Jr., who was dragged to his death behind a truck driven by three white men.

Jackson Lee announced that the Justice Department had opened their investigation into the Wright case on February 4, shortly before Sabine County District Attorney Kevin Dutton announced that the Wright case had been turned over to the Texas Rangers, which had contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation for assistance.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.