By TOM BERMAN and HALEY YAMADA, ABC News
(NEW YORK) — Former NBA player Lorenzen Wright was murdered more than a decade ago in a plan involving his ex-wife, but Wright’s family and friends are still dealing with many unanswered questions, including “why?”
“When you’re the mother of six kids and you’re married to their father, and you would [want to] see him dead, that’s just evil. That’s wicked,” Montae Nevels, Wright’s friend, told 20/20.
“I hope the truth comes out,” Phil Dotson, another of his friends, told 20/20.
Growing up in Oxford, Mississippi, Wright found a fierce passion for playing basketball. His success on the high school and collegiate levels in Memphis, Tennessee, eventually culminated into his being the seventh overall pick in the 1996 NBA draft when he headed to the Los Angeles Clippers.
Wright eventually moved to the Atlanta Hawks and then was traded to the Memphis Grizzlies in 2001.
“To be able to play high school ball here, to play college ball and then to play in the NBA in front of your hometown, I don’t know if it gets any better than that,” Dotson said.
Wright’s mother, Deborah Marion, was thrilled to have her son home again.
“It was great because my dad was still living and my mom… They were getting older. But then they could actually see their grandson do something,” Marion said.
Although he skyrocketed into the fast life of the NBA, Wright’s childhood friends said that he never lost touch with his roots.
“He would give people jobs,” said Dotson. “He just wanted his buddies around to enjoy the fruits of his labor. … It was like Disneyland at his house!”
While playing summer basketball in his junior year of high school, Wright met his ex-wife Sherra Robinson, who became Sherra Wright Robinson. Her father happened to be his coach and friends said Wright fell for her.
“She was easy on the eyes,” Nevels said. “I don’t think he had never ever [come] in contact with anyone that looked like Sherra.”
The couple eventually started dating and had their first child together — a son named Lorenzen Jr. But Wright’s mother said she never fell for his ex-wife’s charm.
After having Lorenzen Jr., the couple got married and had a daughter named Loren, twin boys named Lamar and Shamar, another daughter named Sofia, a son named Lawson and a girl named Sierra, who died of sudden infant death syndrome when she was a baby.
Fighting to stay in the league, Wright was at the tail end of his career when he went back to the Hawks for a time, and then played for the Sacramento Kings and the Cleveland Cavaliers. It’s estimated that Wright had earned around $55 million over the course of his NBA career. But, as Nevels put it, “just as fast as he was making money, money was being spent.”
There were also accusations of infidelity in the relationship on both sides. After 13 years together, the couple divorced in February 2010.
“Lorenzen told me the marriage ended because he didn’t trust Sherra anymore and she felt the same about him … but they were still going to … try to find a way to raise these kids,” said Mike Gipson, another one of Wright’s friends.
“I think what happened to the marriage was that … they grew apart,” Dotson said.
By summer 2010, Wright was living in Atlanta with Gipson, while his ex-wife remained in Memphis with the kids. Yet, Gipson said Wright still had an intimate relationship with his ex-wife. One weekend, Wright flew home to Memphis to attend his daughter’s dance recital and his sister’s baby shower. He called Dotson and the two arranged to hang out. It was July 19, 2010.
“Completely unexpected, out of the blue … he calls me … and says, ‘Hey bud, I’m in town, let’s hang out,” Dotson said. “So he comes over… We’re kicking back, we’re relaxing, smoking cigars on the patio.”
That evening, Dotson said Wright’s ex-wife called him demanding that he bring their son back home “now.”
“And he was like, ‘OK, all right, fine. I don’t want to argue with you,"” Dotson said. “So we drove to the house. … And when we pull up at the house … he said, ‘I’m going to go in here and I’m going to calm her down, and I’ll call you later and then we can go out.”
Dotson said that was the last time he saw Wright.
Hours later, just after midnight, a Germantown, Tennessee, 911 operator responded to an incoming call. On the call, a voice could be heard yelling, “God ****” before it was followed by gunshots.
“Hello? Hello?” the dispatcher said over and over again, but the phone remained silent.
The Germantown Police Department, which declined to comment to ABC News for this report, did not follow up on the call. It wasn’t revisited until nine days later while the Memphis Police Department investigated Wright’s disappearance.
At the time, a review by the Germantown Police Department concluded that the dispatchers had properly followed procedures.
Marion, who had reported her son as a missing person, said she became suspicious of his ex-wife. In the days after Wright went missing, she said his ex-wife told her Wright was with “some women.”
“I kept calling him all day and he didn’t answer the phone,” said Marion. “This is what I told her… ‘Sherra, where is he? You need to let us know.’ She’s constantly saying about [other] women … he [was] with some women.”
Wright Robinson, however, also claimed to investigators that there was a drug connection. She told investigators she had last seen Wright drive off with an unknown man carrying a box of drugs that she claimed he was trying to sell. She also claimed armed men wearing trench coats had recently come to the home looking for Wright.
Wright was never implicated in any criminal activity.
Nine days after the distressing 911 call, after Memphis police found out about the 911 call, they were able to pinpoint where it was made. This eventually led them to Wright’s remains in a wooded area on a desolate road that he used to take to get to his mother’s house. His body had gunshot wounds.
His mother and friends were in disbelief when they heard the news. It seemed to Gipson that this would be an easy case to solve.
“He’s a celebrity from Memphis, so I thought this would be an open and shut case,” he said. “Never in my life did I think it would take so long [to solve].”
Police ruled the case a homicide and began investigating. Wright Robinson denied any involvement during questioning with police as well as in a local TV news interview. The criminal case turned cold for the next seven years.
Meanwhile, Wright Robinson seemed to move on with her life. But those in Wright’s corner said some of his ex-wife’s behavior was unusual.
For one, she was accused of misspending some of the $1 million life insurance policy that was intended for their kids’ benefit, which Wright had purchased as a condition of their divorce settlement.
In 2015, five years after the murder, Wright Robinson published “Mr. Tell Me Anything,” a novel that centered around the life of a woman who marries an abusive and unfaithful basketball star. She claimed in an interview that the supposedly fictitious story was based on her real life.
“I just believed it. I was like, ‘She’s baring all,’” said Kelvin Cowans, referring to the book.
Cowans, a journalist, started dating Wright Robinson that same year even though he admits their relationship crossed a professional line. He claims he fell in love with her during an interview about Wright Robinson’s life, which included talking about her new book. The pair eventually moved to Houston together with Wright Robinson’s kids. Cowans said he was never suspicious of her during their relationship.
“I’m like, ‘If she’d done something, they’d have her by now.’ I mean I never would’ve moved away with her if I thought she was a killer,” said Cowans.
Cowans said the relationship eventually fell apart because he couldn’t get past what he described as her obsession with getting money from Wright’s estate.
“[I thought] I cannot believe that your apex of life is still, ‘How much money can I get?’” Cowans said.
After they broke up, Wright Robinson relocated to California with her kids.
Life seemed to continue on until November 2017, when police announced a huge break in the Wright murder investigation: They had found one of the murder weapons — a gun — in a lake in Walnut, Mississippi, about 45 minutes away from Wright’s former home.
In court, prosecutors said the break had come from Wright Robinson’s cousin, Jimmie Martin. He had been convicted of second-degree murder in an unrelated case that had occurred three years prior to Wright’s death. While he was awaiting sentencing, Martin allegedly started talking to investigators. Prosecutors say he claimed he participated in the planning to kill Wright with Wright Robinson and another man named Billy Ray Turner but that the attempt was foiled.
“Turner was a landscaper, a yardman who happened to be a deacon in a small country church that Sherra attended,” said Memphis journalist Marc Perrusquia.
According to prosecutors, Martin claimed that a few days after Wright’s death, Wright Robinson and Turner confessed to him that they had murdered Wright, and that he then helped them clean up the crime scene.
Martin alleged that a metal detector was used to try to find a gun that had been dropped during the crime, and that he and Turner then drove to the lake in Mississippi where Turner disposed of a gun, according to prosecutors.
Martin has not been charged in connection with Lorenzen Wright’s death. He declined to comment to ABC News for this report.
After the gun announcement, investigators said they started monitoring Wright Robinson’s and Turner’s cell phones, and alleged that they learned incriminating information. Both were arrested and charged in December 2017.
Turner was indicted on first-degree murder charges and pleaded not guilty. When he first appeared in a Shelby County, Tennessee, courtroom on Dec. 5, 2017, Wright’s mother was finally able to see the person allegedly responsible for killing her son.
“When I saw him, I knew instantly [that Wright Robinson] used him because that’s not what she want[ed]. You know, he had no money! She don’t deal with no grass cutter!” said Marion.
“It was a standard arrest. There was no incidence to it. This person who, for the past 25 years, had not had any sort of troubles,” said John Keith Perry, Turner’s defense attorney. “I absolutely think that he did not do it.”
Wright Robinson was charged with first-degree murder, criminal attempted first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder. She pleaded not guilty.
When he saw the announcement of her arrest on the news, Cowans was blown away.
“I’m like, I just spent almost … three years of my life with a killer,” he said.
The stage was set for Wright Robinson and Turner to be tried together, but that all changed when Turner was faced with another legal matter.
Turner, a previously convicted felon on unrelated charges that stemmed from a case in the early 1990s, was found in illegal possession of a gun when he was arrested for murder in the Wright case. He pleaded guilty to possessing the firearm.
After they learned about the plea, Wright Robinson’s lawyers worried that Turner would strike a plea deal with prosecutors in the Wright murder case and testify against Wright Robinson. Her lawyer, Juni Ganguli, said, “We told her, if Billy testifies against you, it’s going to be disastrous.”
On July 25, 2019, Wright Robinson agreed to a plea deal, pleading guilty to the facilitation of first-degree murder. Prosecutors agreed to a lesser sentence of 30 years in prison and parole eligibility, for which she could be released as early as 2026. Had Wright Robinson gone to trial, she faced the prospect of spending the rest of her life in prison.
Prosecutors declined to comment to ABC News for this report.
When Wright Robinson’s plea bargain was announced in court, the judge allowed Marion the chance to speak to her son’s ex-wife.
After close to a decade of pain, Marion turned to face the woman who admitted she had been involved in her son’s murder. At that moment, instead of expressing outrage, Marion said she made the decision to focus on her six grandchildren.
“Ms. Sherra, I want to thank you for giving me my grandchildren, that’s what I want to thank you for,” she said in court. “I want you to unlock them so I can get to them so they can see their grandma, because Sofia keeps calling. She wants to come make chicken and dumplings. But I want you to call them, [and say], ‘No it’s OK to talk to grandma, grandma still loves you.’ That’s all I want is my grandkids.”
“I just hate what happened to my child,” Marion continued, speaking to Sherra. “But he left nice looking kids here for his grandma. They want to see me like I want to see them. I’m ready for them to come back to the home with their family. Because I miss them.”
Wright Robinson asked if she was allowed to reply, but her lawyers told her it was not a good idea.
“I advised her not to, because at that point, what difference does it make,” said Ganguli.
Although Wright Robinson is now behind bars, Marion still does not have full closure.
Turner was expected to go to trial this month, but the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed his proceedings. Marion is forced to wait longer for a resolution.
“With Lorenzen, I’d be talking to his picture and sometimes his picture could look at me a certain way like it’s really him… He was a momma’s boy. Simple as that,” she said. “He would still be a momma’s boy if he was here now.”
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