An attorney for RTS Towing owner Randal Wright filed a motion Tuesday to withdraw his no-contest plea in a bizarre auto theft case.
Meanwhile, his wife, Karen Rene Wright, mysteriously disappeared in Mexico one year ago this week -- and members of her family say they're still waiting for answers.
Wright is accused of unlawfully taking a black Mercedes Benz G55 from a Fresno dealership in December 2008. Prosecutors believe Wright had been leasing the car since April 2007, but was behind on his payments and returned it to the dealer.
But the car later went missing from the dealership, only to turn up in April 2009 in San Felipe, Mexico, at a condo managed by Wright's girlfriend. The car is now in the custody of the Merced County Sheriff's Department.
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In August, Wright pleaded no contest to felony charges of embezzlement and taking a car without consent. He was scheduled Tuesday to be sentenced to up to six months in jail in that case. However, Wright's attorney, Tom Gillis, filed a motion, asking Judge Brian McCabe to set aside that plea.
McCabe set an April 6 court date to decide whether to accept the motion. According to court documents, Wright contends he misunderstood the no-contest plea, saying he was impaired by prescription pain medication and was being pressured to enter the plea by Tom Pfeiff, who was his attorney then.
Wright also claims in court documents he repeatedly tried to make arrangements with the dealership and the leasing company to return the car, to no avail.
Regardless, Gillis said his client has always denied the charges and never unlawfully took the car from the Fresno dealership. Gillis said "no jury in the world" would convict Wright of stealing a car that he'd already leased. "He's not guilty. I don't know how he entered the (no contest) plea. It was very bad," Gillis said.
Despite Wright's claims, prosecutors have said they have ample evidence to convict him, even if the judge accepts the motion to dismiss his no-contest plea. "I'm confident that we could prove this case beyond reasonable doubt," said Deputy District Attorney Steven Slocum, prosecutor in the case.
Pfeiff, reached by telephone Tuesday, said he couldn't comment on Wright's claims that he was pressured into entering a no-contest plea, citing attorney privilege.
Some of the evidence against Wright includes a taped Feb. 13, 2009, phone conversation between him and Mercedes Benz Financial, where he explicitly denied picking up the car from the dealership. He also said he returned it in November 2008 and had never picked it back up, according to prosecutors.
Prosecutors said additional evidence included a taped phone call Wright placed from the Merced County Jail to his girlfriend in Mexico. During that phone call, Wright told the woman, "Black needs to take a permanent vacation," referring to the Mercedes.
In another strange twist to Randal Wright's legal saga, his 50-year-old wife, Karen Rene Wright, disappeared in San Felipe, Mexico, in early February 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.
Although no suspects have ever been named in Karen Wright's disappearance, Randal Wright remains a "person of interest" in the sheriff's department's investigation.
The couple, who'd been married 12 years, had owned two houses in San Felipe. Karen Wright had filed for divorce in October 2008.
Karen Wright's mother, Sonja Barnes, said her daughter suspected her husband may have been violating a court order prohibiting him from doing construction work on one of their homes until the divorce was final. The month of her disappearance, she'd gone to check on the house.
Kim Stewart, the 46-year-old sister of Karen Wright, said Randal Wright was already 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. "It's been treacherous. It's ripped holes in our hearts," said Stewart about her sister's disappearance.
Sgt. Jason Goins of the Merced County Sheriff's Department's Major Crimes Division confirmed Stewart's claim, saying police in Mexico were never informed of Karen Wright's disappearance -- until Merced County sheriff's investigators went to Mexico and filed a missing persons report themselves.
Goins also said the sheriff's department wasn't aware of Karen Wright's disappearance until Randal Wright called investigators Feb. 12 to report a possible burglary at his home. When deputies responded, Randal Wright mentioned his wife's disappearance. The department then started its own missing persons investigation.
Court documents also paint a violent picture of the couple's relationship. Karen Wright claimed in court documents that her husband had threatened her and physically abused her, saying that he told her that "he could kill her and nobody would know." She also said her husband broke her hand and "ripped out chunks" of her hair.
Karen Wright isn't the first person connected to Randal Wright's RTS Towing to disappear under mysterious circumstances. Two tow truck drivers who worked for Wright's company, Steven Lincoln Lombard, 33, and Paul Armstrong, 28, vanished Dec. 17, 1993.
Armstrong was last 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 made it to that appointment, according to family members
The next morning, Lombard's truck was found in a Kmart parking lot. The truck's keys were inside, along with a cup of coffee in the console holder. The truck's windows were rolled down, and the door was unlocked.
No one has been named as a suspect in the men's disappearance, which is now considered a double homicide case.
Last year, sheriff's investigators said they were also reviewing the circumstances surrounding the 1982 drowning of Randal Wright's 6-year-old stepson. Wright was never charged with any crime related to the drowning.
Sheriff's investigators said Tuesday that Karen Wright's disappearance remains an open homicide investigation. They declined further comment. "It's not considered a cold case, although I can't release what we're doing," Goins said. "We're still aggressively working on this case."
Although Randal Wright has never been considered a suspect in his wife's disappearance, Deputy Tom MacKenzie, sheriff's spokesman, said there's no shortage of strange circumstances around him. "It seems like a lot of bad luck surrounds Mr. Wright," MacKenzie said.
Randal Wright was approached by the Sun-Star in court Tuesday and was asked if he wanted to comment on his pending court case, or any of the accusations made against him. Wright said he's been advised by his attorney not to talk to the media.
Wright did say, however, that much of what has been published about him is "not true," although he declined going into detail. "I just wish the facts were straight before things get printed," Wright said.
Gillis, Randal Wright's attorney, said there's nothing to indicate his client had anything to do with his wife's disappearance -- and he's repeatedly denied having any involvement. "He's just as mystified and worried about it as anyone," Gillis said. "There's no connection with him and the missing wife."
RTS Towing closed last year, and Randal Wright said in court documents that he's filed for bankruptcy.
He remains free on bail.
Sheriff's investigators are asking anyone with information about Karen Wright's disappearance to call (209) 385-7472. Tips are kept confidential, and callers can remain anonymous.
Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.