In 1998, the small town of Jasper, Texas, made headlines for all the wrong reasons when an African-American man, James Byrd Jr., was killed by a group of white men who dragged him alive behind their truck for miles.
Now, more than fifteen years later, locals in the neighboring town of Hemphill are concerned that racism could yet again be raising its ugly head in their midst after Alfred Wright -- the brother of American Idol contestant Savion Wright -- was found dead with his tongue ripped out amid rumors of his relationship with a relative of a local law enforcement agent, who is white.
"Alfred was dating the white relative of someone in law enforcement," one local source tells Radar.
"You can't do that in East Texas. If you're a black man, you'll get killed. They still have cross burnings in that area!"
Adding to the mystery, CNN reports that his wife found three charges for local hotels when she was out of town the month before he died.
And while the exact nature of Wright's alleged relationship with the woman is unclear, Chuck Foreman, a private investigator hired by Wright's family to work on the case, tells Radar exclusively that the Sheriff's Department "knew about the rumors about the woman and Wright. That's what makes it interesting. They definitely knew."
Wright went missing on November 7 after his truck broke down outside of Hemphill. When help arrived an hour later, he had vanished.
Despite the fact that initial searchers turned up his watch and pieces of the clothes he'd been wearing when he disappeared, Sabine Conty Sheriff Tom Maddox called off the search after just four days.
Wright's family later found the body on their own, several weeks later. Lying in a pasture, he was stripped down to his boxer shorts, and his body had been mutilated.
"His two front teeth were missing and his tongue was removed," Foreman tells Radar. "And an ear was missing." According to some reports, his throat also appeared to be cut.
Those wounds came to light in a second autopsy completed by an independent official hired by the family, who said there had been "severe trauma" to Wright's body. The official autopsy, however, claimed that Wright had died of an accidental overdose of cocaine and methamphetamine, and attributed the other wounds to "animal and insect activity."
Foreman insists that the drug autopsy may be a smokescreen for the real cause of Wright's death. "He was a family man, not a drug user," the investigator tells Radar. "If he was doing any drugs at all, it would've been recreational. And it's hard to OD on what they found, cocaine, methamphetamine, that kind of stuff, if you're 28 and you're a grown, healthy man doing it recreationally."
Wright's widow, Lauren, told the AP, "I don't feel the drugs in his system had anything to do with his demise."
Oddly, authorities released the first page of that autopsy report to the public before alerting the family.
Lawyers for the Wrights called the move "extremely insulting," and said in a statement obtained by Radar, "It appears as though local authorities in Sabine County, the same individuals involved in the 'search' for Alfred Wright, were eagerly waiting to release this information regardless of any ongoing criminal investigation efforts." In addition, they noted, "The presence of drugs in Alfred's system fails to explain the very apparent signs of severe trauma found on his body."
This week, the Department of Justice took over the investigation, but friends and family of Wright are saying it's too little too late, and they demand justice.
"There was no diligence or honesty from the authorities from the start," Foreman tells Radar. "There's a definite lack of trust between the family and law enforcement."
"They just need to be honest," he insists. "Continuing to withhold information won't work at this point. Especially how bad it was handled from the start."
The families attorneys insist that "the most basic and disturbing questions remain unanswered." Among the questions they have posed to the authorities in a publicly released statement are: "Have the Texas Rangers interviewed Sheriff Tom Maddox concerning the relationship between Alfred and members of the Sheriff's family?," "When did the supposed drugs enter Alfred's body? Namely, before or after his disappearance?," and "Was Alfred held captive and tortured before the body was discovered?"
The investigation continues, but in the meantime those demanding "Justice for Alfred Wright" held a rally in Jasper on Saturday, with a march to Hemphill following.
Authorities insist that there is no evidence this was a hate crime, but J. Kevin Dutton, district attorney for Sabine and San Augustine counties, said in a statement to the Associated Press that he "welcomes the investigation by the Justice Department as there are serious allegations being made that need to be resolved."
Meanwhile, Wright's younger brother Savion was eliminated from American Idol on Thursday night after singing an original song dedicated to his dead brother.