By Adrian Sainz
MEMPHIS, Tenn.— Former NBA big man Lorenzen Wright, whose body was found in the woods outside Memphis, was shot to death, and the case is being investigated as a homicide, police said last Thursday.
Police wouldn’t answer questions about motive or suspects. But records indicate that Wright, 34, revered in his hometown as a generous and likable sports hero, was probably carrying a large amount of cash when he disappeared on July 18. A court affidavit obtained by The Associated Press also said Wright had sold two vehicles to a man affiliated with a Memphis drug ring that’s suspected in six deaths.
His family filed a missing person report with police on July 22, four days after he was last seen, but investigators repeatedly said they didn’t suspect foul play. Wright’s mother said in the report that she was worried because his silence was out of character and “he probably has a large amount of cash on him.”
The report said that the day he disappeared, he had been dropped off at a restaurant by a woman and later taken to his ex-wife’s house in Collierville, a Memphis suburb. The ex-wife, Sherra Wright, told officers that Wright left her home in the middle of the night with someone.
Family members said Wright’s body was found near an apartment complex in southeast Memphis on Wednesday, but police awaited dental records to confirm his identity. Police on Thursday said a 911 call was placed from Wright’s cell phone early on July 19 and investigators determined it came from the area his body was found.
Court documents show that Wright acknowledged to the FBI that in 2008 he sold two luxury vehicles, a Mercedes sedan and a Cadillac SUV, to Bobby Cole. The affidavits about the business deal don’t show if Wright knew that Cole had been indicted in 2007 on drug distribution charges or if they knew each other.
Cole told the FBI he was connected to the organization run by Craig Petties, an accused drug kingpin charged with racketeering and conspiracy in six murders.
In 2008, Cole offered to turn over to Drug Enforcement Administration agents three vehicles he bought with drug money, including a 2007 Cadillac Escalade SUV and a 2008 Mercedes Benz S63 that had been registered to Wright.
Wright told agents he had sold two vehicles to Cole and he no longer owned them, although registration records listed the Cadillac in Wright’s name and the Mercedes in one of Wright’s business investments, Allwright Automotive LLC.
In federal court filings, Lorenzen Wright claimed ownership of the cars and said he didn’t know the property was used in a crime. A federal judge entered a default judgment in favor of the government in March 2010 and the vehicles were forfeited and the case closed.
The 6-foot-11 Wright played 13 seasons in the NBA for the Los Angeles Clippers, Atlanta Hawks, Memphis Grizzlies, Sacramento Kings and most recently the Cleveland Cavaliers. Wright left the University of Memphis early for the NBA, and the Clippers made him a lottery pick with the No. 7 selection overall.
He averaged 8 points and 6.4 rebounds in 778 career games.
Wright leaves behind six children, his mother Deborah Marion, and father Herb Wright, who coached his son from a wheelchair after he was shot in the spine. Lorenzen Wright 11-month-old daughter, Sierra, died in March 2003 of sudden infant death syndrome.
Longtime friend Kevin Nelson remembered Wright as a well-meaning person who treated people with respect.
“He was a people person, he never met a stranger,” Nelson said. “It really hit us hard.”
Nearly 200 people had turned up Wednesday at the crime scene after hearing that police might have found Wright’s body. Among them was former NBA star Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, who played at Memphis two years before Wright and heard the news from a friend.
“I cried. The emotions hit me immediately. It’s just sad because we lost a good person and a brother,” Hardaway said.
Wright’s friends also questioned why police didn’t act with more urgency, pointing to the 911 call.
The Commercial Appeal newspaper, which first reported the call, said a dispatcher in the suburb of Germantown heard a garbled male voice say an expletive and then at least 10 gunshots. The call went dead and no one answered when the dispatcher called back, the newspaper reported.
Collierville spokesman Mark Heuberger said he couldn’t comment on whether his department knew about the call. Family spokeswoman Camelle Logan, Wright’s cousin, declined comment.