The rocket belt has been a staple of sci-fi and spy movies for years — from Sean Connery in 1965's Thunderball to Tom Cruise in this year's Minority Report.
But not many people know that working rocket belts actually exist. They were developed for the Army in the late 1950s, and after the Army decided they were not suitable for military use, dedicated civilians kept a few models in operation.
Today, three rocket belts are known to exist. Two are owned by Howard "Kinnie" Gibson, a daredevil and stuntman who acquired the patent on an essential part of the design.
The third belt — whose builders claim it is the most advanced ever constructed — has gone missing, leaving a trail of death and intrigue in its wake. One of its developers was found beaten to death in his Houston home, another is a suspect in the killing, and a third faces a possible life sentence for kidnapping the second and holding him hostage for seven days with a hood over his head.
A Crowd-Pleaser at Stadiums
Starting in the mid-1980s, Gibson, who was a stunt double for action star Chuck Norris, ran a side business exhibiting his rocket belts at cultural and sporting events around the world.
At the time, his rocket belts were the only ones in the world, but in the early 1990s, two men who had worked with him, Brad Barker and Thomas "Larry" Stanley, struck out on their own. Barker had worked on Gibson's ground crew during a run of appearances at Disney World, and Stanley had once owned a hot-air balloon business with him. The two men, who met each other through Gibson, had both fallen out with him in separate incidents.
Barker had been entranced by the rocket belt ever since seeing it in the James Bond movie when he was 9. But after seeing Gibson earn as much as $25,000 per appearance, he had a new motivation: "Everybody wants to be wealthy," he told Primetime in a recent interview. "And that was pretty much it: you know, build the belt, go out and make a lot of money, and that was it."
Barker and Stanley became equal partners in a company they called the American Rocket Belt Corp. Over a four-year period, at a cost of more than $100,000, they paid machinists and engineers to build an improved version of the device. Stanley put up most of the cash, and the work took place at a car audio store in Houston that was owned by Barker's friend Joe Wright, who got a 5 percent stake for his trouble.
First Test Flight a Success
By January 1995, the new belt, dubbed the RB-2000, was ready for its first full-fledged test flight. The partners enlisted the help of Bill Suitor, the test pilot for the original military prototypes and by far the most experienced rocket belt pilot in the world. The flight was a huge success. Suitor reached speeds of 70 miles an hour and an altitude of 150 feet. The new, lighter model stayed airborne for 30 seconds, nine seconds longer than earlier military versions.
According to Barker, Suitor later wrote in a letter "I've flown every rocket belt ever created ... This is the finest of its kind."
But by the time of the test flight, Stanley and Barker had quarreled. Stanley had come to believe that Barker was stealing from him by telling him the company's bills were twice as high as they actually were, meaning that Stanley was actually shouldering all the costs himself and Barker was contributing nothing.
On Nov. 12, 1994, Stanley confronted Barker at Wright's store. The two men got into a fistfight. "Stanley got in my face," remembers Barker. "I grabbed a five-pound dead-blow lead-filled hammer off the table. I hit Stanley short blows twice to the back of the head, and got him off me.... That's pretty much what ended the partnership." Barker was convicted of assault and given probation.
Stanley, who was not invited to the triumphant test flight, next filed a civil lawsuit against Barker and Wright, and got a default court judgment declaring him the owner of the rocket belt. But when he went to Wright's store, the rocket belt and the trailer carrying its fuel supply were gone.
Barker also disappeared, and Stanley and his lawyers believe he took the belt with him. "He liked to polish it every day, caress it. He wanted to see it and feel like it was his baby. He would never let it go and be out of his sight," said one of Stanley's civil attorneys, Michael von Blon.
Beaten to Death in His Own Home
But soon afterward, in June 1995, the RB-2000 surfaced at a celebration for the Houston Rockets' victory in that year's NBA championship. Barker was visible in the television coverage, and Stanley learned that Wright was there too.
Believing that Wright would be able to lead him to Barker — and the rocket belt — Stanley offered to drop Wright from the lawsuit in return for his help. By the time Stanley's lawsuit was finally due to go to trial in July 1999, Wright had agreed. They set up a meeting with their lawyers, and Stanley agreed to loan Wright some money so he could lay low. According to his lawyer, Ron Bass, Wright was afraid of Barker and concerned for his safety.
Wright did not show up at the meeting, telling Stanley and the attorneys he was sick. Four days later, on July 16, 1999, just 11 days before the trial was due to begin, a corpse was found at Wright's home, so badly beaten that authorities needed dental records to identify the body as Wright's.
Barker denies that Wright had anything to fear from him, but Houston police took him into custody and questioned him for three days. They were unable to verify alibis he gave them for the night of Wright's death, but released him, saying they still considered him a suspect.
Stanley ended up winning the lawsuit, with the judge awarding him sole ownership of the rocket belt, if it could be found, plus $10.2 million in damages, the estimated value of the device over its lifetime.
Lured By a Desert Movie Offer
A few months later, Barker says, he got a call out of the blue from a skydiving buddy, Chris Wentzel. Wentzel, a stuntman who knew Barker and Stanley through Gibson, offered Barker a Hollywood job on a shoot in the desert that would pay $400 a day.
When Barker showed up at Wentzel's North Hollywood bungalow in November 1999, he found two men he did not know waiting with Wentzel. They chatted for a few minutes and then, Barker says, he felt one of the men put an arm around his neck. "When I looked up, Chris Wentzel was in front of me, and he had a pistol pointed out at my forehead," Barker said.
Barker says the three men wrestled him to the ground, pulled his arms behind his back and held a gun to the back of his head. They asked him where the rocket belt was, but he refused to answer, he says, not to save the belt, but because he feared that if he told them where it was, "I was dead as a doornail."
The three men held Barker for seven days, bound and gagged with a hood over his head. He refused to talk. Then they packed him into a plywood box measuring four feet by three and half by two and half, screwing the lid down with an electric screw gun. Then, Barker says, Wentzel hit the box and warned him to "watch your effing head," and the three men started drilling holes in the side of the box with an electric drill. Barker heard Wentzel say, "The more holes, the faster it'll sink," and believed he was going to be tossed into the ocean. He says he pleaded to be let out of the box, but says Wentzel told him to "shut the f—- up."
Late that night, the men pulled Wentzel out of the box and took the hood off his head. To his amazement, Stanley was in the room, with a pistol in his left hand. According to Barker, Stanley told him: "I've got a notary. She's coming by and you're going to sign some papers."
"Basically it was a document turning over all rights of the rocket belt to Larry Stanley and American Rocket Belt Corporation," Barker told Primetime. Barker refused to sign, and later that night managed to slip his handcuffs and eventually force a window and escape. He ran for two miles and found a telephone. After getting a number for the FBI from his brother, he called the agency and two agents picked him up 15 minutes later.
One Dead, One a Suspect, One in Jail
Stanley, 57, and Wentzel, 54, went on trial in Los Angeles and were convicted in April of kidnapping and extortion. They are due to be sentenced in November. Both face possible life terms.
Stanley's supporters say the wrong man ended up in prison. "Larry Stanley is the good guy, and Brad Barker is the evil," said his lawyer von Blon. "Unfortunately what we have now, as I sit here today, is one man that's dead, an innocent man that's incarcerated, and you've got a con artist who's running free."
Barker, who is now 48, continues to be evasive about whether he has the belt, which was last seen at the Houston Rockets event in 1995. "If I had it, would I give it to Larry Stanley? No. No, I wouldn't," he told Primetime. But he refused to say whether or not he knows where the belt is. "I've answered that question as best as it will get answered, so move on to the next one," he said. He said it was possible the belt would show up again one day: "You know, you just never know. You never know."
Wright's slaying remains unsolved, and Houston police say Barker is still a suspect.