Man Gets Rights to Rocket Belt
HOUSTON (AP) _ Fed up with years of stalling, a judge today granted an aviation enthusiast the rights to a one-man rocket belt, awarded him more than $10 million in damages and ordered the belt returned to him.
Trouble is, no one has seen the contraption since 1995. And one of the defendants was beaten to death shortly before a trial was to have begun.
Larry Stanley won the default judgment today from State District Judge John T. Wooldridge at the end of a two-day trial. No one appeared to present a defense.
Stanley, of Houston, contended his former American Rocket Belt Corp. partner, Brad Barker, and Joe Wright, a Barker associate who provided office space for the fledgling outfit, bilked him out of the company and the belt in 1995.
``I’m relieved this is over with,″ Stanley said after the ruling. ``Hopefully, this will exert public pressure on them to finally return the belt.″
Barker, who has not responded to the lawsuit since giving a deposition in 1996, did not attend the trial. Wright was bludgeoned to death on July 16, 1998, 11 days before the trial was supposed to begin.
The RB-2000 rocket belt was one of only three such devices operational in the world. In its first and last public flight, in 1995, a test pilot strapped it on, shot into the air and flew over the Houston Ship Channel for 28 seconds.
Then one of the developers put it in his trailer and drove off.
Stanley and Wright’s attorney, Ronald Bass, have said Wright agreed to try to find out from Barker where the belt was in exchange for getting out of the lawsuit. He was killed shortly thereafter; no one was been charged. Barker was questioned but never charged and he vehemently denies the slaying had anything to do with the belt.
The size of a bulky backpack and weighing 120 pounds when fueled, the belt has two tanks filled with hydrogen peroxide and a third containing nitrogen. When the throttle is opened, a high-pressure stream blasts out two nozzles, providing the lifting thrust.
Bell Aircraft first developed the device in the early 1960s for the Defense Department, which wanted a rocket to improve soldiers’ mobility. But its fuel capacity allowed for only a 20-second flight, making it impractical.
Others, like Barker, were intrigued and dreamed of building their own machine. He enlisted the help of Stanley, an old acquaintance, pilot and aeronautics buff.
Wright, a friend of Barker’s who owned a car audio shop in Houston, offered them space at his business to build the belt with the understanding that rent would be paid after the rocket belt became successful.
In November 1994, the belt was ready for test flights, but suspicion already hung over the project.
Stanley believed Barker had been charging him at least twice what the parts and machinery cost and pocketing whatever money was left over.
Stanley confronted Barker. A fight broke out, and Barker beat his partner with a 4-pound hammer. Both men were charged with assault, though the charges against Stanley were dropped. Barker was convicted and placed on probation.
Wright quickly placed a lien on the rocket belt, claiming Stanley owed him back rent. Stanley never saw the belt again.
After that test flight, Barker put it in his trailer and drove away.
Barker hasn’t said whether he still has the belt.
``I could tell you yes, I could tell you no,″ he told The Associated Press in a recent interview.
Stanley, who believes the device ``conservatively″ would command $500,000 a year in rentals, says he’s still willing to cut Barker in if he relinquishes the belt.
Stanley doubts Barker has sold or destroyed the contraption.
``He worships that belt,″ he said. ``It’s his golden calf.″
Stanley is seeking reimbursement for the rental value of the rocket belt since December 1994 _ an estimated $500,000 a year.
But Stanley says all he really wants is the rocket belt back.