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Mysterious TX death sent to Eric Holder
01:26 - Source: CNN

“Cover-Up? A Mysterious Death in Texas” airs Sunday at 11:30 p.m. EST

Story highlights

Alfred Wright was missing three weeks before his body was found

A coroner's report says his body was filled with drugs, and his death was ruled accidental

Family members say they never saw him do drugs

The U.S. Justice Department is reviewing the investigation

CNN  — 

No one knows why Alfred Wright died. Or why the physical therapist and married father of three with no history of drug-abuse ended up in the Texas underbrush – his body full of cocaine, amphetamines and methamphetamine.

Rumors and speculation about his disappearance and death have nearly everyone in Sabine County and deep East Texas talking about what they think happened.

Wright’s death has shaken local law enforcement in the region and raised serious questions about who is actually in charge. The Sabine County sheriff determined there was “no foul play,” then turned the case over to Texas Rangers, who called the death “questionable.”

District Attorney J. Kevin Dutton ‎was asked to recuse himself to “avoid any appearance of impropriety” in the face of “allegations against the sheriff,” who is a friend, according to a statement from Dutton’s office. He then turned the case over to the Texas attorney general, who turned it down, saying, “investigative involvement by this office is not appropriate at this time.”

The U.S. Justice Department, at the request of U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, is keeping an eye on the investigation: the U.S. attorney in Beaumont will be reviewing the findings. A spokeswoman would not confirm DOJ’s precise role. And so far, the FBI remains on “stand-by” to assist the Texas Rangers should they need help.

The disappearance

Alfred Wright disappeared November 7, 2013.

His truck had been having problems all week and was overheating when he pulled into the CL&M liquor store on a quiet stretch of Route 87. Wright, a physical therapist, had been on his way to treat a client in the nearby town of Hemphill.

He called his wife, Lauren, and gave her specific directions where to pick him up. Yet, because she was home with their two young sons, who’d been to the doctor earlier in the day, his parents, Douglas and Rosalind Wright, set out instead on the hour-long drive.

They were not far away when Wright simply disappeared. His wife tried reaching him just after 6 p.m. and says she heard “heavy breathing as if he were in distress of some sort.”

That was the last she heard.

When his parents arrived at the CL&M store, Wright’s truck was in the parking lot but there was no sign of Alfred. His father says he was told by the store clerk that Wright, “All of a sudden put his cell phone in his sock and took off like the truck was gonna blow up.”

The store clerk is one of the last people known to have seen Wright alive. She would not comment to CNN on the circumstances which caused Wright to run, saying only, “He left of his own free will.”

The CL&M store is owned by one of the sheriff’s dispatchers, whose son is a deputy. Despite the presence of surveillance cameras, the family’s lawyer says he was given several explanations by authorities why no footage exists: the cameras were broken; the cameras provided a live feed only; and there was no tape in the VHS system.

The search

A day after Alfred Wright disappeared, his watch and items of clothing were found on a ranch about a mile from the liquor store. Sheriff Thomas Maddox called in deputies and volunteer firefighters from around the county to help in the search.

Yet despite finding Alfred’s royal blue scrubs, his ID and his watch, Maddox inexplicably called off the search for the 28-year-old Jasper man after only four days.

The Wright family says the sheriff told them his office had “exhausted its resources and funds” and dismissed Wright’s disappearance as “likely drug-related,” telling the family there was “no foul play” and that Wright was simply “a missing person.” The search and, therefore, the investigation was over.

The sheriff’s actions stunned the family.

Wright’s mother, Rosalind Wright, says Maddox told them: “He just ran away. He’s probably on drugs. If someone is on meth this is how they act. They get hot. They get out of their clothes.”

Wright’s family says they never saw him take drugs. And his close childhood friend and confidant Seattle Seahawk defensive-end Joseph “Red” Bryant says the two men were close enough that, “If he was doing those kinds of drugs, I would have known.”

Bryant, whose team just won the Super Bowl, describes Wright as deeply devoted and religious, someone who always “thought outside the box.”

The sheriff has denied CNN’s repeated requests for an interview. Speaking briefly on the phone, Maddox refused to address his handling of the search and told CNN he turned over the investigation to Texas Rangers. Aware of the public’s deep mistrust, the Rangers have asked for “patience,” promising a thorough investigation.

Body found

After Maddox and his deputies abandoned their search and called off the investigation, Wright’s family and dozens of volunteers were left to find him on their own. They did the week of Thanksgiving, 19 days after he disappeared, finding his body in an area of the ranch that had supposedly already been searched by deputies.

Standing in a wooded area where his son’s body was discovered, his father, says, “When we first found him, his spirit got to me. He said, ‘Daddy, I knew you were going to find me.’”

Douglas Wright refused to allow any of the sheriff’s deputies to touch his son. Instead, he waited by the body overnight in the cold and rain until the Texas Rangers arrived the next day.

The location of the body has fueled speculation that Alfred Wright was not there during the initial four-day search, but ended up there sometime later.

Two trained dogs searched an area of the ranch but lost Wright’s scent at a creek.

Ryan MacLeod, the Wrights’ lawyer, says, “If Alfred’s body was there, it’s incredible, actually unimaginable to me that the dogs would not have found the body.”

Also strange was the position and condition of Wright’s body.

He was wearing only boxer shorts, his sneakers, and a single sock inside which his cell phone was neatly tucked – just as the store clerk had described. His father says he was told by the mortician that Wright’s keys were inside his sneaker, under his foot.

Despite the area’s heavy rains, dense underbrush and barbed wire, Wright’s body had no scratches. “This is the first thing I noticed,” says Douglas Wright. “How smooth his forearms and his back [were]…smooth, no scratches at all.”

It was “weird,” says his father, that “his sock was clean and his sock was pulled up with his phone stuck in it as if he was in a Sunday School class. Neat. His tennis shoes were very clean.”

Many people familiar with that part of Texas say wild hogs, dogs, crows, buzzards, rats and the like will usually devour a carcass to the bones in a matter of days.

The ranch, down a long wooded road, cannot be seen from the highway. Wright had worked in the area less than two months. His mother, Rosalind Wright, says, “You would never know that place was there unless you were familiar with that area.”

She says her son was terrified of the dark.

“There is no way on God’s earth that Alfred Wright would have come down this road,” she said. “There’s no way. No way.”

The small trail where Wright’s body was found is directly opposite a cattle gate, across a large field which is easy to access by car or truck.

The autopsy

Based on Sheriff Maddox’s assessment, the Wright family says they were not surprised when the autopsy came back and toxicology tests showed Alfred Wright did indeed have drugs in his system: Cocaine, methamphetamines and amphetamines. The medical examiner ruled the death an “accident.” The cause of death: “Combined Drug Intoxication.”

That same autopsy also inexplicably concluded that Alfred Wright died three hours after his family found his decomposing body.

Wright had shallow puncture wounds on the left side of his body, including his left palm, thigh, leg and abdomen. The college athlete had lost 30% of his body weight. He was missing his tongue, his two front teeth and the nail on his right index finger.

There appeared to be a cut across his neck. The Rangers say it was made during the autopsy by the medical examiner. However, it was not documented as an entry-point in the official report. The autopsy attributed the wounds to “insect and animal activity.”

Suspicious of the investigation, the family hired its own pathologist. Dr. Lee Ann Grossberg, who examined the body and determined there was a “high likelihood of homicidal violence.”

The sheriff and Texas Rangers have so far refused to hand over the original autopsy photos pending the outcome of the investigation. Dr. Grossberg says she can’t reach definitive conclusions until she reviews them.

The family believes the drugs entered Wright’s body after he ran from the liquor store. His wife, Lauren, says: “I still believe wholeheartedly that someone, someone did this to my husband.” His mother, Rosalind, believes her son was tortured, saying that whoever did it “pumped those drugs into him.”

‎Killer’s clue?

Adding to the mystery is a single silver dime found along the edge of the bramble-covered trail not far from Wright’s body. The family’s pastor, Ray Lewis, was among the first to arrive at the scene and noticed it almost immediately.

“One thing that really stood out when we first found the body, we couldn’t explain a dime. Why is there a silver dime lying on top of the ground? We couldn’t figure that one out,” says Lewis, who ministers to the Wright family in Jasper, Texas.

“Dropping a dime,” in the criminal world, is commonly used to describe “snitching,” and leaving a dime at a crime scene can be perceived as a warning to others to “keep your mouth shut.”

Wright was found wearing only boxer shorts, and the volunteers in their rain slickers were careful not to contaminate the scene, says Lewis.

All of which raises the questions: Where did the dime come from? Did someone besides Wright drop it? Did Alfred Wright know something potentially threatening to someone? And, was Wright in the wrong place at the wrong time when his truck broke down at the CL&M liquor store owned by Sabine County Sheriff’s Department Dispatcher Betty Jones Fricke, who did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

The Wrights say Sheriff’s Deputy David West told them he was at that liquor store buying a six-pack of beer that night and saw Alfred outside, talking on his cell phone between 6:05 p.m. and 6:08 p.m – minutes before he vanished.

Rosalind Wright, says that doesn’t make sense when viewed through the prism of racial tension in the area. “That seemed strange to me for the fact that if you see a young black man standing by himself and he’s outside. You are law enforcement. Why you never approached him and said, ‘Son is there anything I can do? Is there anything going on?’” asks his mother in disbelief.

Sheriff’s ex-girlfriend

The dime near Wright’s body could have easily been written off as another unexplained event. Except, when Brenda Chastain heard about it, she says, her mouth fell open.

“That spooked me,” says the energetic brunette who runs the barber shop in Mount Enterprise, Texas. “When I heard that a dime was found close to [Wright’s] body, that spooked me.”

Chastain says she and Sheriff Maddox dated for nearly three years, though likely “not exclusively, on his part.”

Chastain says she broke off the relationship before Christmas, in part, because strange things were happening, including a skinned kitten placed on her doorstep and the appearance of dimes where they didn’t belong – like the one tucked between her bed sheets, and another dime stuck in the top of her car door, positioned so it would fall as she slid into the driver’s seat.

Chastain swears she made the bed the morning the dime appeared between the sheets and says she doesn’t sleep with coins in her pajamas. And although neither she nor CNN have any evidence of who left the dimes or if her former boyfriend the sheriff was involved, she stresses, “How’d they know what side I sleep on? How’d they know I don’t sleep on that side? Who knows I sleep on this side? Who knows my habits?”

Is it possible Chastain was being sent a warning?

Chastain is very outspoken and says she complained repeatedly to Maddox and to local law enforcement in her hometown of Mount Enterprise about a known drug house at the far end of her 63-acre ranch. That house was raided by narcotics officers from the Rusk County Sheriff’s office in March 2012. Two people were arrested and 27 grams of methamphetamine and more than 77 grams of marijuana were confiscated. Chastain says she has seen red lights and other strange activity coming from the house despite the fact it is boarded up.

CNN checked out the dilapidated home and saw dogs but no people on the property.

Who was Alfred Wright?

That still doesn’t answer the question: What happened to Alfred Wright? Could his work hold any clues?

In September 2013, two months before he vanished, Wright resigned from his position as director of rehabilitation at the Rayburn Rehabilitation Clinic in Jasper. He took a job as an independent physical therapist working with East Texas Healthcare. His new job involved traveling between homes and clinics in east Texas to treat patients. His co-workers say his clients “loved him” and that several refused to be treated by anyone else once they met him.

Part of Wright’s territory is known to locals in Sabine County as “Six Miles,” presided over by Sheriff Tom Maddox and his deputies. The sheriff’s daughter, Cindy Maddox, works at a clinic in that area, scheduling physical therapists.

Though many people have told CNN she and Alfred knew each other through their work in health care, Cindy Maddox strongly denied on her Facebook page knowing or having any relationship with Alfred or his family.

Reached by phone, Cindy Maddox immediately hung up on CNN. She has refused to return any messages and recently changed her Facebook photo to an image of her father with the caption “Support Sheriff Tom Maddox.”

Alfred Wright’s wife, Lauren, says: “I remember him talking about the Six Miles and the big churches in the middle of nowhere. He would tell me, ‘You wouldn’t want to come out there,’ but he never made it seem as if he was scared.”

But was he scared?

It’s one of many theories and possibilities. Because on September 27, a little more than a month before he vanished, Wright checked into the Jasper Holiday Inn Express not far from his home and just across the street from his old job at the Rayburn Clinic. It is one of three unexplained hotel charges wife Lauren found after her husband died.

Each time, Lauren Wright says, she was out of town with the children.

The Holiday Inn has three entrances. CNN has confirmed surveillance video from the hotel shows Wright checking in alone Friday evening still wearing his royal blue work scrubs. The next morning, he left alone looking calm as he joked with an older couple about needing physical therapy in the future.

A source who has seen the video could not say if anyone appears to have joined Wright, and if so, whether they entered and left around the same time.

As the investigation continues, more questions surface. The only thing anyone knows for certain is that there are too many things that simply don’t add up.