A Missing Man and Familiar Old Wounds in Jasper

The search for Alfred Wright earlier this month in a pasture outside Hemphill, seen from Jasper Mayor Mike Lout's plane.
The search for Alfred Wright earlier this month in a pasture outside Hemphill, seen from Jasper Mayor Mike Lout's plane.

Update on Nov. 25: Beaumont’s 12NewsNow reported Monday afternoon that Alfred Wright’s body was found near the Sabine County field where his clothes and belongings had been found earlier. Jasper City Councilman Alton Scott told the TV station “wearing only his underwear, a sock, a shoe and had his cell phone in his sock.”

KTRE confirmed the report with Chuck Foreman, a Lockhart-based private investigator hired by the family to continue the search. Foreman told KTRE he’d learned Wright “may have been using a substance known as bath salts for an energy boost.” Sabine County Sheriff Tom Maddox, however, said he could not confirm the body’s identity, so his office’s search for Wright was ongoing.

Update on Nov. 26: In a statement issued Tuesday morning, Beaumont lawyer Ryan McLeod and the Bernsen Law Firm say that Wright’s family “is now looking for answers” after Wright’s body was found in “an area where the family had been asking the Sabine County Sheriffs office to search for weeks.” Wright’s family, according to the statement, “is particularly aggrieved by the story that Alfred was on bath salts. This story was apparently simply a supposition by an overzealous private investigator and had no basis in fact.”

Wright’s father spent a cold Monday night outside near the body, according to the statement, waiting for Texas Rangers to arrive and begin their investigation.

The East Texas town of Jasper is united around this much, at least: Alfred Wright’s disappearance two weeks ago was very, very strange.

A more divisive question is whether there were dark forces at play the evening he took off running from a remote liquor store parking lot, or in the so-far unsuccessful search for him since. And in the town where James Byrd, a black man, was picked up 15 years ago by three white supremacists, savagely beaten and dragged three miles behind their truck, the divisions are all too familiar.

On one side, there’s ample precedent in the area’s racist past for violence against a black man out alone at night, and for indifference or complicity from local police. On the other side, local authorities are frustrated that, even as their investigation continues, so many people in and outside of Jasper have been so quick to find racism and scandal in such a confounding mystery.

Alfred Wright
Sabine County Sheriff
Alfred Wright

Wright, a 28-year-old African-American father of three, a local football standout with a wife, family and lots of friends around Jasper, pulled his truck, which was breaking down, into the parking lot of CL&M Grocery, a package store on a country stretch of State Highway 87 near Hemphill. A physical therapist out on house calls, Wright had just finished one appointment and may have been on his way to another. Stranded now, he left his truck, called his wife and then, according to a widely reported account from the store’s clerk, stuffed his cell phone into his sock and took off running north along the highway. Hemphill, the nearest town, was four miles away. Wright’s parents arrived to find his truck abandoned at the store.

In the search that followed, the only signs of Wright were found south of the store, away from town, down a country road where the dense woods open to a fenced-off pasture. His ID and credit cards, watch, therapy supplies, shirt and pants were all in the field or around the barbed wire fence, and there was blood on the fence. Tom Maddox, the Sabine County sheriff, says dogs tracked Wright’s scent across the pasture to a creek but couldn’t pick it up on the opposite bank, or anywhere else in the woods for a mile in either direction.

Dive teams, Texas Equusearch trackers, sheriff’s deputies and volunteers scoured the woods and ponds in vain. Mike Lout, Jasper’s mayor and owner of the local radio station KJAS, flew his plane over the woods but found nothing. On the evening of November 11, after three days of searching, Maddox called off the ground search. They had found “red flags,” he said, but “no signs of foul play.” After a sheriff’s deputy suggested on Facebook that Wright was simply on the lam, KJAS broke the story that Wright was facing charges of embezzling money from a Memphis bank where he’d worked in college.

The decision to treat Wright’s disappearance as a missing-person case, and to end the official search, took on the look of a budding scandal. Texas Monthly noted how strange it seemed to call off the search so soon. Wright’s sister Kassilia began raising money for an independent search.

Ray Lewis, a pastor in Jasper, was critical of the official search effort. Late on Monday, speaking from the pasture where Wright went missing, he told the cameras he had joined the search for a time, but quit because “I do not feel they’re really adequate in what they’re doing. I really do think they need some more professional help,” he said. “I am really disappointed with the sheriff. I don’t think he’s friendly, I think he’s unruly. He has not given the family an update every day, and he’s standing over now and he is going to get in his truck and leave here in a few minutes.”

On the phone with the Observer this week, Sabine County Sheriff Tom Maddox sounded exasperated at the criticism his office took for ending the search, and at the rumor-mongering that’s filled the days since his office shared any news.

“We have drug the creek, we have flown over it in helicopters, we’ve flown over it with flare units. What else can I do? I’ve done ground searches for four days,” he says. “There are some people that were really wanting to make this a black and white issue, and it’s not. It has nothing to do with black and white, not at all.”

He says his officers are still running down leads and have multiple witnesses. He says he checks in with Wright’s wife daily and has notified Texas Rangers and even the FBI about Wright’s disappearance. “Thank you very much,” he says, “hey, we don’t release every single piece of evidence.”

Ray Lewis, right
Patrick Michels
Ray Lewis, right, organizes the distribution of “missing” flyers for Wright.

Last Thursday morning, a week after Wright disappeared, about a dozen men and women gathered at Faith Temple Church of God in Christ in Jasper, where Lewis is pastor. Stacks of “missing” flyers with Wright’s photo covered the tables. As they waited for Lewis to arrive, the volunteers—mostly black, some white—traded theories.

Some said the store’s clerk, and the police in Hemphill, “know more than what they’re saying.” They agreed that Hemphill, less than 45 minutes away, was even more dangerous territory than Jasper. One woman called it “a mini-Vidor,” referring to the town outside Beaumont where the Ku Klux Klan protested the first black residents moving to town in 1992. “People up there are so tight-knit, if something happened they won’t talk,” one said.

“Who’s gonna get out their truck and walk down a dark country road that time of evening?” asked Patricia McQueen, who lives in Jasper. “What I understand, a lot of the people didn’t even want them on their property to go look for him.”

McQueen recalled the murder of Loyal Garner, Jr., a black man beaten to death by white officers in the Sabine County Jail on Christmas Day 1987. She told the Observer she had her own theory about Wright’s disappearance: “What happened, the clerk at that store called one of them dirty policemen, they come and see this black man sitting in his truck, made him get out, made him get out down that road … and done with him what they do.”

Lewis walked in, and parceled out nearby stretches of highway for volunteers to cover with “missing” signs. He reminded them not to go out alone or at night.

“We want Alfie home,” Lewis said. “I’m not going to stop looking until we know his whereabouts. He’s become now a son of the community, he’s all of ours now. And we cannot just sit back. We’re trying not to make this deal a race issue, a hate issue, but like I said the other night if that’s the road it takes us down, that’s the road we’re gonna travel.”

And it’s a well-worn path. The psychologist Ricardo Ainslie, author of a book on Byrd’s murder, told the Observer in 2004: “Jasper, I know, has long ago grown tired of this story.” But its persistence is only partly because of the brutality of Byrd’s death in a town known for little else. It’s been decades now since police in Hemphill killed Loyal Garner, but just six months since two Jasper police were caught on video beating a black woman named Keyarika Diggles, who was being held for an unpaid traffic ticket. The year before that, the town’s first black police chief was ousted by newly elected city council members, after a successful recall effort forced out black city council members who hired him.

In response to the council recall, Ray Lewis led an unsuccessful effort to recall Mayor Mike Lout, who is white. During the petition drive, Lewis’ church was vandalized.

“Ever since James Byrd, everything in Jasper’s black or white. And that’s just crazy,” Lout told the Observer this week. “It’s about to get silly and old. I don’t know why in the hell when the space shuttle broke up over East Texas, people had to bring up this was right around where James Byrd was killed. Well, what the fuck does that have to do with it? … It’d be kinda like anything that happens in Dallas has got to be somehow connected to the Oswald conspiracy.”

As a reporter, Lout says, he was the first one to cover Loyal Garner’s murder and the first on the scene when Byrd’s body was found. He ran for mayor, he says, because of the city’s reluctance to help minority residents in poor neighborhoods that were constantly flooding. During the police chief controversy, Lout maintained the white officer he’d picked for the job was simply better qualified.

After joining 50 to 60 people in the massive search effort, over four days in the thick woods, Lout doesn’t buy the idea that the area’s white leaders abandoned Alfred Wright. “The woods were full of white folks. I never saw any black folks searching. I just saw them standing around the cars,” he says. “So how do you make that a racial issue?”

Lewis and his church are just a few of the locals who disagree with Lout, who note that Jasper is a dangerous place to be stranded like Wright was, and that Hemphill may be even worse. Official silence or guarantees that this isn’t about race don’t do much to address those fears.

Wright’s wife Lauren hasn’t spoken to the press since his disappearance, but Ryan MacLeod, a Beaumont lawyer and friend of the family, told the Observer “it is apparent that she is concerned with the sheriff’s office and their public statements,” including those Facebook posts suggesting Wright is just hiding out. “It is difficult for me to imagine a young black man deciding to flee from his beautiful family, choosing to run in the backwoods north of Jasper, Texas,” MacLeod says, “an area that his family says he would be terrified to be in alone.”

Staff writer Patrick Michels covers school reform and crime for the Observer.

Published at 12:23 pm CST
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