No one knows what happened to Alfred Wright, the 28-year-old married father of three from Jasper who disappeared in Sabine County on Thursday night. What we do know is that his truck broke down in Hemphill, where the home health physical therapist may have been visiting a patient; that a witness reported seeing him walk away from his truck after talking on his cellphone; and that his clothing, his watch, his keys, and his credit cards were found in a pasture that was the opposite direction from the one the witness says she saw him walk.
Without any more evidence than that, it's impossible to claim to know the nature of Wright's disappearance. But Sabine County Sheriff Tom Maddox, who called off the search for the missing man on Monday night, told KTRE News that "there is no evidence in this investigation that leads authorities to believe that there is foul play involved," and "Alfred Wright is just a missing person," whose case will be treated as such.
Texas Monthly called Sheriff Maddox on Wednesday and Thursday, and he did not return our call to help us understand how he came to that conclusion, but the situation raises some questions. Does law enforcement believe that the most likely scenario here is that a 28-year-old man with three kids, a wife, and a career decided—after calling his wife for help in finding a ride home when his truck broke down—to suddenly take off all of his clothes, leave his valuables behind, and disappear in the woods for what is now six days?
Any suggestion that foul play was at work here is pure speculation, of course—no one knows what happened—but the part of Texas that Wright was in when he disappeared is not one in which foul play against an African-American man is outside the realm of possibility. Hemphill, where Wright was last seen, is 35 miles away from Jasper, a town that reported the most recent lynching in the U.S., in 1998, when James Byrd Jr. was dragged to death by three men in a truck. More recently, in Maddox's own jurisdiction, some Sabine County residents responded to the arrest of a man for a cross-burning with shocking nonchalance:
"I mean, they can do whatever they want. I didn't think it was that big of a deal," said [longtime resident] Jack Rutherford.
"I really don't see that it's that important. Putting all that money and effort in it because not going to amount to anything," said [another longtime resident Charles] Conner.
The New York Times reported from Jasper last year about increased racial tensions in the area as well—all of which makes it reasonable for authorities to consider that foul play may be involved when an African-American man goes missing while awaiting a ride, and all of his belongings are found abandoned.
To be certain, if Wright did disappear of his own accord, that would beat the alternative. But it's strange that the alternative isn't still being considered by the authorities given the recent history of hate crimes in the area—and for that decision to have attracted almost no media attention outside of a local TV report. As Austin journalist Andrea Grimes pointed out on Twitter yesterday, it's hard to imagine that if Alfred Wright had been a 28-year-old white mother of three who disappeared, the police would call off the investigation and the media would collectively shrug after her clothes were found in a field.
"Missing White Woman Syndrome" aside, at this point, all one can really do is hope that whatever Sheriff Maddox knows about the case that we don't is accurate, and that Wright left his things and his truck on the side of the road for reasons we don't understand at the moment. But people who are worried about the man probably wish that local law enforcement was doing more than just hoping along with them.
UPDATE, 5:00pm. A commenter pointed us to this story from 12 News Now from Southeast Texas. The report indicates that a bank in Tennessee had accused Wright of defrauding them of over $1,000 in early 2011, and that he had been indicted and faced a court date in December. Like everything else about this case at the moment, any suggestion that this is related to his disappearance seems to be speculation. The story also reports that a deputy with the sheriff's office took to Facebook to indicate that while the ground search has been called off, they have continued to search by air, and to say that "there's only so much you can do."
(Photo via Douglas Wright's Facebook page. Alfred Wright is on the right.)
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