Life Sentence Is Reduced in RocketBelt Case

Times Staff Writer

In a highly unusual move, prosecutors asked a judge Monday to reduce the mandatory life sentence of a Texas man found guilty of kidnapping his former business partner over possession of a rocket-propelled flying machine.

Prosecutors dismissed the kidnapping-for-ransom charge against Thomas Laurence Stanley, 57, and he was then resentenced to eight years in state prison on the lesser charges of false imprisonment and extortion.

"My job is to do the right thing and I think this is the right thing," Deputy Dist. Atty. Peter Korn told Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Barry A. Taylor.

Korn said he considered Stanley's age and clean criminal record. He said he also believes the RocketBelt flying device was wrongly taken from Stanley.

Stanley, a professional airline transport pilot, and Bradley Wayne Barker, 47, were partners with another man in developing a rocket-pack similar to those used in James Bond and Buck Rogers films. Each man's family invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the venture.

The RocketBelt had disappeared after its public debut in 1995 and Stanley believes that Barker has it. Barker will not comment on the device.

Stanley was accused of orchestrating a plot with Christopher James Wentzel to lure Barker from Arkansas to Los Angeles with the promise of a job in the movies. Barker was then held against his will in an attempt to locate the missing RocketBelt 2000.

Barker was held captive, sometimes in a large wooden box at Wentzel's North Hollywood home, for eight days in November 1999. He escaped through a window and contacted authorities, but never revealed the belt's location.

A Van Nuys jury in April convicted Stanley and Wentzel of kidnapping, false imprisonment and extortion. The first-time offenders faced mandatory life terms. Wentzel made a deal with prosecutors to reduce his sentence to six years.

Korn said he was reluctant to strike a deal with Stanley until he had admitted his guilt. He feared that Stanley would get out of prison, restart his obsessive hunt for the belt and possibly violate the law.

"What concerned me about Mr. Stanley," Korn said, "was the depth of his denial ... and his obsession with the RocketBelt."

That changed in late November when Stanley wrote to Korn from prison and admitted, for the first time, that he had broken the law and was repentant. Under state law, a defendant has 120 days to ask the court to modify a sentence.

"I owe you and the people of California an apology for taking so long to recognize my problem," Stanley wrote. "My persistence and determination to obtain justice had become the obsession you spoke of in court on Friday."

Korn told the court Monday that he never believed Stanley and co-defendant Wentzel, 54, should be sentenced to life in prison.

Korn said that Wentzel deserved a lighter sentence because he had been Stanley's "lackey" and gotten involved for money. Stanley had told Wentzel that he could collect $10,000 for returning Barker to Arkansas for trial on a burglary charge, which was later dropped, according to trial testimony.

Korn said that before trial he had offered both men three-year prison terms if they would plead guilty. But Stanley refused, thereby sinking the deal for Wentzel. Stanley was certain he would be exonerated at trial.

At the November sentencing hearing, Stanley, who fired his defense attorney after the guilty verdict, refused to waive his appellate rights in exchange for a lighter sentence. He still believed he would be exonerated.

Two days later, Stanley asked Korn to modify his sentence.

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