Lorenzen Wright Murder: Closer to The Truth or Blind Justice?

Seven years after his decomposed bullet riddled body was pulled out of a Tennessee ravine on a hot summer day, discovered in the hilly plateau by cadaver dogs, there has been an arrest in the murder (mystery) of Lorenzen Wright, who was drafted by the Los Angeles Clippers in the Allen Iverson/Kobe Bryant draft, and who also played for the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Memphis Grizzlies. Wright played in 778 NBA games, logged 18,535 minutes, was responsible for 4,943 rebounds and 6,191 points in his 13 year NBA career.

Eighteen months after he scored his last NBA point, eighteen months after he played his last NBA minute- his final game Wright played 34 minutes, eighteen months after he put the NBA and its mercurial world of feast and famine behind him, Lorenzen Wright bled to death in a lumpish field of grass.

The English poet John Donne had a merciful line from a famous poem. Death be not proud. It applies here more than anything else you can say about July 19th.  There was nothing proud about that summer afternoon when Wright was discovered off a wooded road, a 34 year old man left to disintegrate in the lean and brown grasses of Tennessee, sinking into his own disappearing skin.

A 911 called had been received but the call wasn’t traced nor administered correctly and Wright was forgotten for ten days until that moment on Callis Cutoff Road when he was a shrunken victim of a homicide, hardly the NBA center and University of Memphis star with the lucky life. He was as ordinary as any other murder victim, in that moment behind an apartment building,  except he was Lorenzen Wright. But even that, his basketball achievement over time, just didn’t matter.

The investigation into Wright’s murder came to a sudden halt soon after his death as leads dried up. It led to a variety of theories regarding the particulars. Wright was a particularly kind man with a heart for children. He was deeply in debt and broke at the time of his death. So the explanations were dramatic. It was a drug crime. No. It was the work of the Mexican Mafia. No. It was a hit. No. He owed someone large amounts of money. No. His ex-wife wanted the life insurance. The theories took on an other worldly dimension only because there was nothing concrete to go on and that’s what the mind does, it reaches and expands and creates fiction when the facts are slim.

This is fact. Wright left his ex-wife’s home with some money and and an unidentified man. He was never seen or heard from again. Six weeks before his death, three armed men came to his house looking for him. Previously, he had financial transactions with associates of a local drug kingpin.

Seven years after his body was found among tumbleweeds, a gun believed to be the murder weapon was found in a Mississippi lake. Billy R. Turner, 46 years old, was arrested and charged with the murder of Lorenzen Wright. Turner was apprehended by the Multi Agency Gang Unit, booked, and held on $1 million bond, according to the Commercial Appeal.

Between the time he went missing and the arrest of Turner, the Lorenzen Wright case took on a life of its own. There were YouTube dramatizations, articles, exposes, all with the intent of keeping this case in the news and not forgotten. The reward money was a continual lure to keep the case alive, despite the relatively small amount ($21,000) for someone of celebrity status.

Memphis police Director Michael Rallings asserted how they had never stopped investigating. Wright’s mother was, as expected, optimistic at the turn of events. “We got the main player.”

The person in custody, Billy R. Turner, is a business owner and those who know him are stunned by the arrest. His previous arrest and conviction was for reckless endangerment of a deadly weapon and a two year sentence. That was 25 years ago. His friends and acquaintances agree. Turner, a landscaper, is friendly, nice, helpful and decent. The same adjectives  are used to describe Lorenzen Wright.

He was a team player, a great locker room guy. There was never an instance that I talked to him and he wasn’t a positive, outstanding guy. I am heartbroken today. I’m sure there’s a lot of people in Memphis who are very, very sad. He was a good man who had his share of tough times and I’ve got to believe he’s in a better place. The late Michael Heisley, former Grizzlies owner.

Lorenzen Wright was a 6-11 McDonald’s All American forward/center with average offensive skill but rebounding talent, athleticism and a quick first step. He had a gritty game. He would never back down, even against more physical players like Shaq and Alonzo Mourning, a trait he learned from his father, Herb. Herb was a coach and ran a rec center and one day he kicked a man out the gym. The man came back with a gun and fired shots. Herb was paralyzed but that wasn’t the end of his story. He had a son in grade school he had to teach toughness, resliency and respect. When Lorenzen was a pro, Herb was at most of his games, coaching like he always did.

Lorenzen Wright was a member of the exceptional 1996 draft that introduced Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Ray Allen to the NBA. Wright was drafted 7th by the Los Angeles Clippers who were in need of a talented big man to back up center Stanley Roberts.

Wright’s career began to take shape in the latter part of his rookie season when he was a starter and posted 9 points and nearly 8 rebounds. In the playoffs, he gave the Clippers 10 points and 7 rebounds.

His second year in the league, he had an impressive stretch in consecutive games. 17 points, 14 rebounds against Seattle. 13 points, 17 rebounds against the Warriors. 15 points, 22 rebounds (12 offensive) against KG and the Timberwolves. 14 points, 19 rebounds against the Celtics.

He scored nearly thirteen points a game for the Hawks in 28 minutes, the year after he was traded to Atlanta. Wright was then shipped to the Grizzlies with the number three pick in the 2001 draft, Pau Gasol, who credits Wright for giving him guidance in his inaugural year.

His first year in Memphis, he had 33 points and 26 rebounds against Dallas, playing 44 minutes and being fed the ball by White Chocolate (Jason Williams). Coach of the Grizzzlies, Hubie Brown, once said of Wright, “he is living the dream”, a Memphis star back home playing for Memphis.

And yet Wright lost an infant daughter. His marriage ended in divorce. He had two homes foreclosed on. He just wasn’t good with money. He was continually giving what he earned away, less invested in the future than he was in the sad and sorrowful tales of his financially strapped friends. This person needed cash to help them out. That person was in a bad way. Wright had an unrelenting giving nature and was tender hearted. If it was his, it was yours. He didn’t think twice about sharing what he had with those who weren’t able to achieve their dreams, who were stuck. It made his murder so mysterious and peculiar because no one in their right mind would want to hurt Lorenzen Wright.

And therein lies the irony. Someone did hurt Lorenzen Wright.

The news of an arrest in this long suffering case is a relief on day one. But then comes the reality of criminal justice. It is not what you believe but what you can prove. The murder weapon recovery is an important detail, as is ballistics reports. But is there a witness that puts the gun in the defendant’s hands? And how credible is that witness? The body was so decomposed there is not much evidence to be gained from a forensics examination. The number of shots are inconclusive. The mistakes were juvenile. A 9ll call mishandled. A missing persons report botched. The body out in the sun decomposing, the same for important evidence. The negligence was abysmal and in itself a travesty which will be used against the state as the reason why their evidence cannot be trusted.

Absent a plea, a murder trial has less to do with the character of the victim than the humanity of the defendant. What to make of the characterization of the person in custody? Is he a good person that got caught up in that life a long time ago and has made restitution by his service? Or is that a cover? Is he still depraved?

Nevertheless, justice is closer today than it was yesterday. Practically, his family and friends may finally learn why Lorenzen Wright was murdered and how many were responsible and who gets punished and what that punishment is. If the defendant is convicted, those closest to Wright, perhaps his parents, perhaps his children, will get to address the court and talk about how the death of Lorenzen Wright changed their life for the worse, how much they miss him and how that despair never, ever leaves.

John Donne wrote another poetic assumption. Thou art slave to fate.  No. Not in this case. It wasn’t fate that murdered Lorenzen Wright. It was man.