A Texas businessman was sentenced to life in prison Friday for kidnapping a former partner and holding him hostage in North Hollywood for eight days, sometimes handcuffed and in a wooden box, as part of a scheme to recover a stolen rocket-powered flying device.
Thomas Laurence Stanley, 57, slumped over in his chair and put his head on the counsel table -- on the verge of tears -- as Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Barry A. Taylor ordered him to serve life plus 10 years in state prison.
“Mr. [Brad] Barker was not harmed in any way,” said Stanley, who fired his lawyer after the trial and was representing himself in the penalty phase. “I don’t understand how this is a life sentence.”
He told the judge: “Your Honor, I never imagined that I ever did anything wrong. I was just trying to be persuasive.”
He nearly broke down crying as he told the court that his 10-year pursuit of the RocketBelt 2000 has cost him more than half a million dollars and left his family “destitute and on food stamps.”
Moments earlier, his co-defendant, 55-year-old Christopher James Wentzel, escaped a similar sentence when he entered into a plea agreement with prosecutors. He was sentenced to seven years in state prison.
A Van Nuys jury in April found Stanley, of Sugar Land, Texas, and Wentzel, of North Hollywood, guilty of kidnapping, false imprisonment and extortion.
Stanley and Bradley Wayne Barker, along with a third partner, spent years developing the RocketBelt 2000, a Buck Rogers-like backpack that was designed to lift a person into the air for several seconds. After a few years, their relationship soured as the men fought over money and possession of the device.
Stanley sued Barker and in 1999 won the rights to the belt, which he believed Barker was hiding. The RocketBelt was last seen publicly at the Houston Rockets’ 1995 NBA championship celebration.
According to prosecutors, Stanley and Wentzel lured Barker, 47, from Arkansas to Los Angeles in November 1999 with the promise of a job on a Hollywood movie set.
When Barker arrived, they held him against his will in an attempt to learn where he had hidden the belt. Barker later escaped through a window.
Barker said Friday he is pleased with Stanley’s sentence.
“I guess my son and I are safe for a while,” Barker said. “He’s a dangerous person, and he is where he belongs.”
Barker said he was less concerned with Wentzel’s fate.
“I don’t know which is worse, seven years in prison or eight days in a box,” he said.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Peter Korn agreed to the lesser sentence because, he said, Wentzel had been Stanley’s “lackey” who got involved only for the $10,000 he believed he could collect for returning Barker to Arkansas for trial on a burglary charge (which was later dropped).
The defense argued that Stanley and Wentzel were acting as bail bondsmen and holding Barker so he would not skip out on an Arkansas court date.
Korn countered that Stanley was obsessed with recovering the belt and “would definitely be out there pursuing the RocketBelt at any cost,” were he not in jail.
Korn also said Stanley, who never took responsibility for his role in the crimes, had predicted in court that he would win on appeal.
“I don’t know how he justified in his mind how it is legal to put someone in a box,” the prosecutor said.Korn said he offered both defendants at least two chances to plea to lesser charges, but only as a package deal. Stanley refused, making it impossible for Wentzel to take advantage of a plea agreement during the trial.
Prosecutors were wary of making a deal with Wentzel too early, fearing that he would admit to the crime and exonerate Stanley.
Later, Korn said he was convinced that Wentzel was less culpable and, because of his age and lack of a serious criminal record, deserved less than a life sentence for his role.
The prosecutor asked the court to dismiss the kidnapping charge against Wentzel, who waived his right to appeal and was sentenced for false imprisonment and extortion.
“I think the worst thing that Mr. Wentzel did was put Mr. Barker in the box,” Korn said, calling the act “inhumane and despicable.”
Defense attorney Donald J. Calabria told the judge that Wentzel’s case was not typical.
“This is a different man than many of the people you’ve sentenced,” Calabria said.
“If there was ever a man that would never be back here again under any circumstances, this is the man.”