MEMPHIS, Tenn.— In the year since Lorenzen Wright’s decomposing body was found in a secluded field in southeast Memphis, his mother has kept pressing authorities to find whoever killed the former NBA player.
Deborah Marion has repeatedly visited and called the Memphis Police Department for answers about her son’s shooting death, though authorities have very few.
“We are a long way from solving this crime,” Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong said last week.
Marion said: “I will never lose hope until I’m dead and buried.” But mistakes have hurt the case, which remains unsolved since Wright, 34, was found dead July 28, 2010.
Wright’s relatives and friends have complained a missing person’s report wasn’t taken seriously. It was 10 days before his body was found, complicating the investigation because evidence was left to deteriorate in a swampy field at the height of summer. A 911 call made from Wright’s cell phone soon after he was last seen by his family was botched by dispatchers. A small reward of $6,000 — less than the $8,000 offered by a family and animal rights groups for a missing pit bull named Kapone — has yielded just 28 Crime Stoppers tips.
Armstrong acknowledged the reward and the number of tips were low for such a high-profile case.
Marion filed a $2 million lawsuit Wednesday, accusing suburban authorities in Germantown and Collierville of messing up the emergency call and the missing person’s report. Officials in both municipalities have declined comment. Marion said the police departments involved did not take enough responsibility.
“It’s like they were just passing the ball from court to court,” Marion said of the agencies.
The slender, athletic Wright played for the Memphis Grizzlies and four other NBA teams as a forward and center over 13 seasons before retiring in 2009. He also played high school and college ball in Memphis, where he was a fan favorite thanks to his charity work with youth and his father’s involvement as a coach in summer leagues.
His death was immediately met with grief and calls for justice. Hundreds went to the crime scene off a back road that he often drove. A memorial service and vigil were held in the FedEx Forum arena, attended by NBA players and politicians.
Since then, public interest has waned.
More than a dozen homicide detectives were once entrenched on the case, Armstrong said at a news conference on the one-year anniversary of Wright’s disappearance. Now the case has moved into the hands of a new lead detective who Armstrong hopes can bring “fresh eyes” to the case.
Armstrong, who took over as police chief in April, also said he plans to ask city officials to increase the reward.
Wright, a father of six, was last seen on July 18, 2011, as he left the home of his ex-wife, Sherra Wright. According to an affidavit, Sherra Wright told police she saw him leave her home carrying money and a box of drugs.
Before he left, Sherra Wright said she overheard her ex-husband on the telephone telling someone that he was going to “flip something for $110,000,” the document said.
Sherra Wright said Lorenzen Wright left her home in a car with a person she could not identify. The affidavit said Sherra Wright gave the statements to police in the Memphis suburb of Collierville, where she lives, on July 27 — nine days after he left her house for the last time.
In the early morning of July 19, a police dispatcher in the suburb of Germantown received a call from Wright’s cell phone. Dispatchers acknowledged they heard noises like gunshots before the call was dropped.
Dispatchers said they didn’t alert patrol officers or commanders because they couldn’t confirm it came from their jurisdiction. They didn’t send a patrol officer or relay the information to Memphis police until days later.
Wright’s mother filed a missing person report with Collierville police on July 22. Authorities in Collierville were accused of dragging their feet in the days after the report was filed, and an apparent lack of communication kept authorities from linking the 911 call to the missing person report.
Police found Wright’s body July 28. An autopsy report showed bullet fragments were lodged in Wright’s skull, chest and right forearm, indicating five shots. Police said they recovered shell casings of different calibers with Wright’s body, indicating the possibility of two shooters.
The corpse was badly decomposed, weighing 57 pounds. The 6-foot-11 Wright’s playing weight was around 225 pounds.
Wright’s ex-wife and a half-dozen other people were called before a Shelby County grand jury, but officials have said those appearances produced no substantial leads.
Wright also had a distant connection to drug kingpin Craig Petties, who has pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiracy and racketeering in four murders for hire.
Court documents show Wright acknowledged to the FBI in 2008 that he sold a Mercedes sedan and a Cadillac SUV to Bobby Cole, known by authorities to be part of the Petties gang. The affidavits about the business deal don’t show if Wright knew Cole well or was aware he had been indicted on drug distribution charges in 2007.
As part of that drug case, Cole offered in 2008 to forfeit the vehicles to the Drug Enforcement Administration. The vehicles still were registered to Wright, who claimed in court that he didn’t know they had been used in crime. The judge ruled in favor of the DEA in March 2010, and the vehicles were forfeited.
Marion told The Associated Press she would like to hire a private investigator to look into her son’s slaying but cannot afford it. She said Armstrong, who is now police chief, recently spoke with her but didn’t seem to know anything about the case.
“He said he hadn’t been briefed on that case at all,” she said.
She said she has turned to counseling and her pastor to cope with her son’s death. Herb Wright, Lorenzen Wright’s father, continues to coach basketball, “doing exactly what he knew Lorenzen wanted, which is to keep his boys in basketball,” she said.
Wright had a house in Atlanta and spent time there, but his mother said she is certain the killer or killers are in Memphis and had a “vendetta” against her son: “They were just stone-cold killers.”