Ample evidence exists to try Randal Loy Wright, a Merced tow company owner, on a charge of making a false stolen car report, a judge decided Thursday in Merced County Superior Court.
Meanwhile, prosecutors also filed a separate charge against Wright -- accusations that he stole a car from a Fresno dealership.
The 58-year-old owner of RTS Towing was arrested March 18 for allegedly contacting the California Highway Patrol in February and falsely reporting his 2001 Ford Explorer Sport Trac stolen. The vehicle was later found in Oroville, but investigators claim Wright already knew its whereabouts.
Dressed in an orange jailhouse jumpsuit, Wright appeared in court for a preliminary hearing Thursday. During a preliminary hearing, a judge typically determines whether there's enough evidence to try a defendant.
Prosecutors called CHP officer Phillip Riggins to testify during Thursday's proceedings. Riggins testified that Wright had made a stolen vehicle report to the CHP on Feb. 23. Wright wrote on a CHP form that he'd last seen the Ford Explorer in the driveway of his home at 2012 Yosemite Park Way on Feb. 13.
Chuck Hale, a detective with the Merced County Sheriff's Department, testified that Wright's wife, Karen Rene Wright, in late December had asked her sister, Kim Stewart, to drop off the Ford Explorer at a self-storage unit in Oroville. Hale said the Ford is still at the Oroville storage facility in a unit under Karen Wright's name.
An odd twist to the story, however, is that Karen Wright disappeared after making a trip to San Felipe, Mexico, on Feb. 9, according to her family members. She remains missing, and Merced County sheriff's deputies are investigating her disappearance.
Sheriff's investigators said they learned of the false auto theft report while looking into the missing persons report involving Karen Wright. The couple had two vacation homes in San Felipe, where she disappeared.
Prosecutor Steven Slocum argued that Randal Wright's claim that his car went missing Feb. 13 couldn't have been true because the vehicle has been in Oroville since December. Tom Pfeiff, Wright's attorney, disagreed, saying the form his client signed was loaded with contradictions and was vague.
Pfeiff said there's no evidence that his client knew he was signing the CHP stolen car report under penalty of perjury. Despite the information on the CHP stolen car report, Pfeiff said Randal Wright wasn't exactly sure about when the Ford Explorer was stolen. "He just knew it was gone and reported it," Pfeiff said.
Judge Frank Dougherty ruled on the side of prosecutors, saying the evidence was sufficient in the case. Dougherty also kept Randal Wright's bail on the false report charge at $350,000, citing concerns by prosecutors that he's a flight risk.
Still, the perjury charge isn't the only accusation that Randal Wright is facing. He pleaded not guilty on a separate auto theft charge, after Thursday's preliminary hearing.
Merced County sheriff's investigators believe Randal Wright unlawfully took a Mercedes Benz G55 from Mercedes Benz of Fresno sometime between Dec. 9 and Dec. 18. Sheriff's spokesman Tom MacKenzie said Wright had taken the car to the dealership for repairs -- but had stopped making payments on the car.
Even though it's unknown whether Wright drove the car away from the dealership himself, MacKenzie said investigators believe he's responsible for the missing car. MacKenzie declined to provide more details, citing the integrity of the investigation.
MacKenzie said sheriff's investigators are still looking into both the disappearance of Karen Wright and RTS tow truck drivers Steven Lincoln Lombard, 33, and Paul Armstrong, 28. Lombard and Armstrong vanished on Dec. 17, 1993.
Randal Wright hasn't been named as a suspect in the disappearance of his wife or the RTS tow truck drivers. MacKenzie said there are no new details in either case.
Randal Wright remains at the Merced County Jail in lieu of $390,000 bail.
Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.