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Unsolved Mystery

Three years after it happened, former NBA star Lorenzen Wright's murder still puzzles his friends, his family - and the police.

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You can still travel along the narrow back road off of Callis Cutoff between Hacks Cross and Germantown — the same path that Lorenzen Wright took July 18th, 2010. Later that night, he lost his life.

Ten days later, on the afternoon of Wednesday, July 28, 2010, the gunshot-riddled, decomposed remains of the former NBA star were found in a secluded field near the narrow strip of road. Today, barbed wire, an electric fence, and "no trespassing" signs prohibit access to the area.

Wright was last seen alive leaving the house of his ex-wife Sherra Wright and their six children in Collierville around 10:30 p.m. on July 18th. Sherra would later inform Collierville police detectives that he had a box of drugs and an indefinite amount of money in his possession. She also stated she overheard Wright on the telephone saying he was going to "flip something for $110,000." He left her home in a car with a person she could not identify.

Minutes after midnight, Monday, July 19th, a 911 dispatcher in Germantown received a call from a frantic voice muffling an expletive before more than 10 gunshots were heard. According to Courthouse News Service reports, one of the 911 dispatchers then hung up on the phone call to handle the police radio, while another dispatcher attempted to call the cell phone number back. No one responded.

It wasn't until Tuesday, July 27th, one day before Wright's body was located, that the Germantown 911 service notified investigators about the call — five days after Wright's mother, Deborah Marion, had reported him missing. Many, including Wright's parents and his ex-wife, questioned why the Germantown 911 service took so long to contact the proper authorities.

When the 34-year-old's body was located by Shelby County Emergency Services Search and Rescue, it weighed a mere 57 pounds, due to exposure to the summer heat, rain, and animals. At the time of his death, Wright weighed around 225 pounds and stood 6' 11".

Although the exact number of times Wright was shot is uncertain, his autopsy report confirmed he suffered two shots to the head, two to the torso, and one to the right forearm.

"They wouldn't let me go down there and see him," Marion recalls. "I wanted to see my child for the last time. I wanted to just walk his last walk. That's all I wanted to do."

Three years after Wright's death, no arrests have been made. Numerous rumors have surfaced, including the possibility that Wright was involved in drug trafficking and was killed when a transaction went wrong. Or that he was set up by someone close to him. There are also allegations that Wright had ties to drug kingpin Craig Petties' organization and was executed. And the list goes on, but they are just rumors.

"There's no difference from a rumor in high school than one dealing with a homicide," says Dennis McNeil, 25-year Memphis Police Department veteran and longtime friend of Wright. "Until some facts can be established [and] somebody can positively verify something that happened, it just remains a rumor."

One thing that isn't a rumor is the fact that Wright leaves behind a shining basketball legacy that will be fondly remembered by many. Wright was born and raised in Oxford, Mississippi, but moved to Memphis his senior year in high school. He played for Booker T. Washington High School, averaging 19.1 rebounds in the regular season for the school. He was selected to participate in the 1994 McDonald's All American game in New York.

Wright was heavily recruited by schools all over the country, but he committed to the University of Memphis in 1994 and became one of the U of M's — then known as Memphis State — most popular players on and off the court during his two-year collegiate career.

In 1995, he was named first-team, freshman All-American after leading the Tigers in scoring (14.8 points per game), rebounds (10.2), and blocked shots (2.1).

His success would carry on into his sophomore year, when he led the Tigers once more in scoring (17.4), rebounding (10.4), and blocks (1.9). He was named second-team All-American.

In the first round of the 1996 NBA draft, he was selected seventh overall by the Los Angeles Clippers. For the next 13 years, he played in the NBA for the Clippers, Atlanta Hawks, Memphis Grizzlies, Sacramento Kings, and Cleveland Cavaliers. He retired after the 2008-2009 season with career averages of 8 points and 6.4 rebounds in 778 career games.

"He was like Dennis Rodman slash the Birdman [Chris Andersen]," says Trevino Vassar, Wright's first cousin. "If you gave him the ball down low, he was going to dunk. He was going to put it in off of the hook shot. He was a great player."

Vassar and Wright spent summers together in Oxford as kids. They remained close, even after Wright moved to Memphis and subsequently joined the NBA.

"We were like Batman and Robin," Vassar recalls. "Growing up, wherever he went, I went. And he was still the same person when he got the money. He never changed. He always kept me right beside him."

Many of those who knew him describe Wright as a person with an enormous heart. A person who kept a smile on his face and sought to help those around him in any way he could.

In 2000, Wright was one of four Memphis-based NBA players who collectively donated $10,000 to 9-year-old Travis Butler, an orphan who lived in his house for a month with his mother's corpse. Others who contributed to Butler's fund included Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway, Todd Day, and Elliot Perry.

Wright also founded the Sierra Simone Wright Scholarship in honor of his 11-month-old daughter, who died from sudden infant death syndrome in March 2003.

"He was the nicest guy I've ever met in my life," Phillip Dodson says. Wright and Dodson were Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity brothers at the U of M. Wright was the best man in Dodson's wedding and became his children's godfather.

"He took me in as a brother," Dodson says. "When I was finishing school and my parents had gotten a divorce, he took me into his home. I lived with him for a year in L.A. He basically paid my bills for me and gave me a job. I was like his assistant when I was out there."

Aside from Wright's ex-wife, his children, and his murderer(s), Dodson was the last person to see him alive. The two spent the entire final Sunday of Wright's life together. Dodson said nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

"We went and had lunch at Logan's Roadhouse, and then we came back to my house," Dodson recalls. "He wrestled with my boys. They jumped all on him. That day, he and my son were playing PlayStation. It was totally cool, [because] my son was playing as him on 'NBA Live.' It was like old times."

Dodson took his sons and Wright for a ride in his new Nissan Armada. They picked up Wright's son, Lorenzen Jr., along the way. Dodson said the get-together ended around 10 p.m., when he dropped Wright and Lorenzen Jr. off at Sherra's. It would be the last time he saw his friend.

"When I dropped him off, everything seemed normal," Dodson says. "When we were leaving, he said he'd call me the next day and come by the house. The next day, I tried to call him, but I didn't hear anything. I figured he had just gotten busy. And then a couple days went by, and I didn't hear from him. I thought that was kind of weird."

On Thursday, July 22, 2010, Marion filed a missing persons report with the Collierville Police Department. Family and friends began to conduct their own searches for Wright.

Sabia Archie, Wright's little sister, went on Facebook and put out a message alerting people of her brother's disappearance. She distributed fliers that displayed his info and questioned the last people who saw him alive.

McNeil, who assisted Marion in filing the missing persons report, said he also contacted people daily regarding Wright's whereabouts.

"For a parent to have [their] kid missing, it's a different feeling," McNeil says. "I [was] feeling what [Marion] was feeling from my everyday experience of being a police officer and knowing the longer it is, the not-so-good the result will be. The longer it got, the more concerned I became, but there were a limited amount of things we could do."

In addition to being an MPD officer, McNeil does traveling security for the Memphis Grizzlies. Wright helped McNeil obtain the position after introducing him to former Grizzlies general manager Billy Knight.

"[When] I became security with the Memphis Grizzlies and he got traded to the Grizzlies, our friendship really evolved," McNeil says. "We were seeing each other on a regular basis, as opposed to here and there. When you're around a person so much and so often, you develop a closer relationship."

McNeil is also the brother-in-law of convicted drug dealer Bobby Cole. In October 2012, Cole was sentenced to eight years for using trailers to traffic millions of dollars worth of cocaine into Memphis and millions of dollars in profit back to Mexico. He was a member of the notorious, multimillion-dollar drug empire run by Memphis-bred drug kingpin Craig Petties.

Court documents disclose that Wright had a relationship with Cole. In 2008, Wright sold his 2008 Mercedes Benz S63 and 2007 Cadillac Escalade SUV to Cole — a year after Cole had been indicted on drug distribution charges. During the Drug Enforcement Administration's investigation, they discovered that Cole purchased the vehicles from Wright with drug money and seized them. When questioned by police, Wright reportedly admitted to selling the cars to Cole but having no knowledge of whether or not they had been used for illegal activity.

Marion says she thinks that Cole possibly feared her son was going to disclose information that he knew about the Petties organization to police. She thinks this potentially led to his murder.

McNeil says he has "no comments or thoughts" on Marion's belief that his brother-in-law may possibly have some involvement in her son's murder.

"I haven't heard anything new, other than what anybody else may have heard out in the streets, but those are just assumptions of what may or may not have happened," McNeil says. "What I would like to see [are] the persons who are responsible and guilty held accountable."

In addition to believing members of the Petties organization murdered her son, Wright's mother suspects that her daughter-in-law, Sherra, had some involvement in its orchestration.

"He was worth more to her dead than alive," Marion says. "He had [gone] on with his life."

In February 2010, five months prior to Wright's death, his divorce from Sherra was finalized. Wright was ordered to pay more than $26,000 a month in child support and alimony. He reportedly fell into arrears with the payment obligations.

Although he earned an estimated $55 million over his 13-year NBA career, Wright appeared to be experiencing financial troubles at the time of his death. His home in Atlanta had been repossessed for $1.1 million, as well as his custom-built, 17-room residence in Eads, Tennessee, for $1.3 million.

Subsequent to Wright's death, more than $1 million in life insurance proceeds were allocated to Sherra Wright, primarily to support the couple's six children. By September 2012, 10 months after receiving the proceeds, Sherra had spent more than $970,000 on a wide assortment of luxuries, including a Cadillac Escalade for $32,000; a Lexus for $26,000; and $69,000 on furniture. She also spent $11,750 on a trip to New York; $339,000 to buy and improve a new house that she placed in her children's names; $7,100 for a deposit on a swimming pool; and $5,000 for lawn equipment.

"How do you spend that much money at one time?" Marion asks. "She blew that money in less than 10 months. Who does that? That was crazy. She has six kids who all have to go to college, and [tuition is] getting higher and higher every year. The only thing I wasn't mad at her about was buying my grandson's car."

Dodson, however, doesn't believe Sherra had any involvement in Wright's murder. He says that although the two were divorced, they still maintained a tremendous amount of love for each other.

"A lot of people get married and the relationship doesn't end up working out how you think it would," Dodson says. "[But] watching the amount of love they had between each other and their kids, I don't believe that she could be involved in [anything] like that. I just don't see it."

Despite the various rumors that have surfaced regarding Wright's death, Mike Ryall, a supervisor in the MPD's Homicide Bureau, says there hasn't been any new information established in the case that he could disclose.

"We're still looking at any and all leads," Ryall says. "We do not have anyone under arrest at the present time. We are still conducting a continued investigative process trying to find out the individual or individuals involved in this horrible crime."

CrimeStoppers of Memphis and Shelby County is offering a cash reward to anyone who can provide some substantive information that leads to the arrest of Wright's murderer(s).

"We really haven't had any leads. We've got about 25 calls," says Buddy Chapman, director of CrimeStoppers and a former Memphis police director. "It's a total dead-end at this point. It's one of the strangest cases I've ever had anything to do with. [He was] such a high-profile individual; [it's] such an outrageous crime, and, yet, it just seems like it stays out there in the ozone."

Although it's been three years since Wright's death, his family, friends, and fans continue to feel the pain brought on by his gruesome murder — and the fact that his killer or killers remain free.

In hopes of establishing new information on the case, Marion has connected with TV One's Celebrity Crime Files, a show that profiles the lives and untimely deaths of celebrities. The show will air a segment on Wright's story — tentatively scheduled to appear at the end of July or beginning of August.

"I commend his mom for trying to find who's responsible," Dodson says. "It's very unfortunate to lose a child. Parents aren't supposed to bury their children. I feel for her and the entire family. If I think about him every day, I know they do, too. I hate that he's gone."

Marion has held candlelight vigils for Lorenzen Wright each July at FedExForum to celebrate his life and legacy. She's planning to continue the tradition on July 20th, in the Forum's outdoor plaza. For more information, go to fedexforum.com.

Neither Sherra Wright nor the 911 dispatchers who took Wright's final call were available for comment.

The Legal Fallout
The parents of Lorenzen Wright — Deborah Marion and Herbert Wright ­— filed a civil damage suit against Germantown, Collierville, and Shelby County on behalf of their son's estate and his children. They're seeking $2 million in damages and charge the aforementioned entities with violations of the 14th Amendment, negligence, gross negligence, wrongful death, and mishandling a human corpse.

The suit claims that the 911 call was mishandled by Germantown dispatchers and that Collierville police failed to properly investigate the missing persons report that Marion filed.

Lorenzen Wright's ex-wife Sherra Wright is also seeking $2 million in damages on behalf of her six children. She's accusing Germantown, its police department, Germantown 911 dispatchers Claudia Kelney-Woods and Chris Rowlson, Lt. Donald Taylor, and Collierville and its police department with due-process violations, failure to train, and negligence.

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