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A Checkered Saga

A decade ago, Chris Trickle was gunned down on Blue Diamond Road.
The shooter was never caught, the family still suffers, and the driver
who stepped into his car is a NASCAR superstar



John Katsilometes

The memories are frozen in time. Memories of little Chris Trickle, an infant still in diapers, racing the family dog around the perimeter of the swimming pool. Of Chris as a teenager, yanking the handlebars of a mud-splattered motorcycle sideways at open throttle, his tires spitting smoke and dirt. Of Chris as an adult, drafting tight behind, then swiftly passing, lesser drivers on asphalt ovals. Of Chris whizzing past in a blur under a flapping checkered flag in his light-blue Chevy Monte Carlo bearing the familiar No. 70 and white-and-orange Star Nursery logo.

Even today, Chris’ father, Chuck, still hears the “cute little voice” that seemed so mismatched coming from his strapping young son. Both of Chris’ parents, Chuck and his wife of 44 years, Barbara, sometimes still speak of Chris in the present tense. When asked how old Chris was when he died, Barbara slips and says, “35”—the age he would have been if he were still alive. “I mean, 25. He would be 35, now.”

The visions of Chris Trickle, a powerhouse racecar driver and a cool customer off the track, are indeed frozen in the Trickle home. Some of the memories are, in fact, represented by a single object that has been left in a deep freeze: a bowl of frosted-over tapioca pudding, untouched from the night Chris walked out of the family home for the last time. This dessert, solid as a block of ice, sits in the Trickles’ kitchen freezer. The bowl has not been emptied, thawed or even moved for more than a decade, a symbol of the last moment Barbara saw her son before the family’s world was turned upside-down.

It was on a February night 11 years ago that Barbara mixed the pudding as an after-dinner snack for Chris and his girlfriend, Jennifer Robinson. They had dined at Carluccio’s Tivoli Gardens next to the Liberace Museum, and wished congratulations to a couple at a nearby table who were celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary. Though Chris and Jennifer had not announced any engagement or made formal plans to marry, the Trickles expected them to be wed and to raise a family together. After dinner, Chris and Jennifer climbed into the white 1995 Chrysler LeBaron convertible owned by Barbara and drove back to the custom one-room apartment they shared at the Trickles’ 15,000-square-foot home on West Torino Avenue, near Blue Diamond Road, west of Interstate 15. During the drive, Chris’ buddy Greg Hadges, who was looking for a nighttime tennis partner, buzzed Chris on his cell phone. Chris told Greg he’d meet him at the lighted courts at Sunset Park. It was about 9 o’clock.

Barbara saw the lights of the car as it pulled into the front gate of the house. One of the family dogs rushed to the car, and Chris shooed it back and lurched forward. As Barbara stirred the pudding, the couple entered the apartment. But it was just a pit stop for Chris, in top athletic condition at age 24, who was hustling off to whack tennis balls.

“I should have gone back and taken the tapioca pudding back to him,” Barbara says while seated next to Chuck on a sofa in the couple’s spacious living room of the home they’ve shared for more than 15 years. “Maybe he would have taken a few more minutes to eat the pudding. I sometimes look for ways to alter the time, just a little. But I put the tapioca in the freezer. It’s still there.”

Chris was home long enough to swap attire, changing into sweats and a NASCAR letterman-style jacket, and drove off again in the convertible. He eventually pulled onto Blue Diamond Road, heading eastbound toward the I-15 overpass.

About 10 minutes after he drove away from home, Chris Trickle, at the time the brightest star on the local racing scene, the Kurt Busch before anyone knew of Kurt Busch, was shot between the eyes. The convertible spun off the road and settled to a stop. There were no witnesses to the crime (at least, none who has come forward in the 11 years since). The bullet was initially reported to be a 9-millimeter, but today the parents aren’t sure of the caliber. It hardly matters. The bullet fragmented and lodged in Trickle’s brain. He spent more than a year drifting in and out of a coma as the racing community rallied around the grieving family. Finally, 409 days later, on March 25, 1998, complications from the shooting—Trickle’s lungs aspirated, and he went into cardiac arrest in the emergency room at Sunrise Hospital—ended his life.

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Ten years on, the death of Chris Trickle is a classic cold case. Metro Police stopped actively investigating a decade ago, and cases officially turn “cold” after 10 years. According to a Metro spokesman, there are 1,100 cold cases in Clark County dating to 1954, and a staff of one and a half officers assigned to sort them out, which is sobering news to fans of the crime drama Cold Case, which employs a fleet of fresh investigators on every unsolved case.

An archaic law on the Nevada books initially limited the Trickle investigation. At the time of the shooting, Nevada law blocked murder prosecutions in cases where the homicide victim died more than a year and a day after being attacked. Chuck and Barbara pushed for legislation to repeal that law, and a year after Chris’ death the legislature passed a new law removing the time limit on prosecution for murder charges. The bill was dubbed “The Chris Trickle Bill,” though the person who shot the person whose death inspired the law will never be prosecuted for murder if apprehended. The new law applies only to cases after March 1999, when then-Gov. Kenny Guinn signed the bill.

The Trickles offered a $35,000 reward to anyone who could provide information leading to the killer. The case was featured in two episodes of America’s Most Wanted. The Trickles know of at least four individuals, “people who just wanted to get their names in the paper,” as Chuck says, who actually confessed to the crime, including a guy in Iowa who claimed to know where to find the murder weapon, and another in Hawthorne who said he shot Chris and offered no other details. Homicide officers investigated the actions of a “mystery man,” a sketchy hitchhiker who was first on the scene and who flagged down a Citizens Area Transit Bus, then took off before Nevada Highway Patrol troopers arrived. The man, the closest individual authorities had to an eyewitness, was finally tracked down in the Los Angeles County Jail, where he was locked up on a domestic-violence charge. He thought he’d stumbled on a traffic accident that night and offered nothing to the case.

So the Trickles are left with theories. Some have speculated that the incident was a gang-related “thrill kill.” Chuck says, “Somebody might have come out of the Silverton, probably lost $1,000 and was just mad. They stopped at the stoplight there and maybe Chris hit the horn or flipped his lights or something.” Investigators have said the case could break as relationships change; an ex-girlfriend or former friend and confidant might one day come forward with new information. “It could be that the person who did this has no idea what actually happened,” says Barbara, who for years has been resigned to the fact that the person who pulled the trigger will never be punished.

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Chris Trickle’s case is at once tragic and mysterious because of its pure randomness—to this day nobody who has followed the case or who knew Chris can construct a plausible scenario in which somebody would knowingly shoot one of Las Vegas’ best and most popular young drivers. Investigators asked the family if there were any rivals who resented Chris enough that they would fire a shot at him in the dark of night. There were none. In fact, three months before the shooting, Chris was presented with an award by the Southwest Tour for the series’ most popular driver—the racing tour’s version of the Mr. Congeniality award—after a vote of competitors during a banquet in Reno.

At the time, the Southwest Tour was a “starter tour,” a series of fertile minor-league racing circuits for rising stock-car drivers yearning to ascend to the Busch Series and, ultimately, the NASCAR Winston Cup tour (today known as the Sprint Cup). It is the sink-or-swim level of racing, where young guys figure out real quick if they have the fortitude to make a career of driving stock cars at 170 mph. Most don’t. But Chris was special, a strong and driven kid who was built for speed. He certainly had racing in his blood. Chuck, a master mechanic who is sometimes spooked by his own ability to walk by a motorcycle and “feel” if it is or isn’t in top running condition, is an accomplished off-road racer whose career dates to the days of the old Mint 400. Chuck also competed regularly at the short track at Las Vegas Motor Speedway as recently as 2005, and takes part in a memorial Father’s Day race every year at LVMS as a tribute to Chris. Chuck’s brother and Chris’ uncle, Dick Trickle, was for years competitive on the NASCAR Winston Cup tour (and his name always enticed a smirk from then-ESPN SportsCenter anchor Keith Olbermann, who read Dick’s finishing results each week whether he placed first or 33rd). The family surname was even borrowed for Tom Cruise’s character—Cole Trickle—in the ode-to-left-turns cinematic classic Days of Thunder.

At age 16, Chris began racing aboard motorcycles, and moved on to the more promising world of stock cars by the time he was 20. He was good, winning the 1992 Rookie of the Year honor in the late-model division at Las Vegas Speedway Park, the top division at the 3/8-mile asphalt oval that eventually became one of the tracks at the sprawling LVMS facility. Over the next four years, Chris accelerated up the NASCAR ranks and was about to move up to the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series—which, along with the Busch Series, was a rung below the Cup tour—at the time of the shooting.

Chris’ fast rise in the sport had attracted the attention of one notable aspiring driver. In the stands during one of Chris’ Southwest Tour races in Phoenix on February 3, 1997, just six days before the shooting, was a fellow Las Vegan dreaming of a career in stock-car driving: Kurt Busch.

“I looked up to him, and thought that if he could make it to that level as someone from my own hometown, maybe I could, too,” says Busch, a Vegas native (who four years ago moved to Charlotte, North Carolina) and one of the favorites in the March 2 UAW Dodge 400 at LVMS, the Vegas stop on the Sprint Cup tour. “I remember when I heard about the tragedy, I was away at Tucson, going to U of A [the University of Arizona]. I had seen him as a big name in the racing community. I couldn’t believe it. I tried to piece it together. I thought it might have been a gang-related thing. It made no sense at all.”

Busch has driven on the Cup circuit since 2000, and won the series title in 2004. He says he’s confident that Chris, too, would have become a name on the Cup tour. “He had the family support, that name, that NASCAR connection,” Busch says. “I felt he was going to make it to the elite level of racing because of his surroundings, his ability, everything was in place. Chris was a person who young racers could look up to.”

At the time of the shooting, Busch had no inclination that the event would serve as the catalyst for his own racing career. Kurt and Chris had not even met, but shared a number of friends in the racing world, including Star Nursery owner Craig Keough, who sponsored the Chevy Monte Carlo that Chris drove while on the Southwest Tour. Soon after Chris’ death, the Southwest Tour was due to make a stop in Vegas—and Keough had no driver. It was Busch, who had started just seven races at that level and was all of 19 years old, who was summoned to take the wheel of the light-blue No. 70 Chevy once driven by Chris for the Star Nursery 100 Southwest race at LVMS.

It was quite a night at “The Bullring,” the nickname used for the short track at the speedway. Busch fought off a veteran driver named Steve Portenga to win the main event as a packed crowd of 2,000 racing fans went wild. Afterward, tears streaking his cheeks, Chuck said, “I knew it was meant to be. Chris was with us tonight. He was in that car with Kurt. I could feel it.” A seemingly shell-shocked Busch added, “You can’t predict when things like that are going to happen. It was fate, I guess.”

Reflecting a decade later, Busch says, “I definitely hit the fast-forward button that night.” But the relationship between Busch and his younger racing brother, Kyle, and the Trickles is none-too-tidy. Though Chuck has fondness and respect for the brothers, Barbara criticizes Kurt for his occasional dustups with fellow drivers and officials on the Cup tour. Busch, amiable and articulate away from the track, can run a little hot in competition. During his sometimes turbulent Cup career he has had run-ins with fellow drivers Jimmy Spencer, Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart. Busch was fined $100,000 and placed on probation after an altercation with Stewart in June, and the two were involved in another fender-bending confrontation that spilled into the NASCAR officials’ trailer on February 8 in Daytona. On the Cup tour, Busch is a guy fans either love or hate, a distinction he shares with several other top drivers—including Stewart.

“He got in [Chris’] car, he ran that car and had so much publicity, and as he moved on to the Southwest Tour that publicity always went with him. It always traveled with him,” Barbara says, the volume in her usually soft voice rising. “Chris was a much better person. In one breath Kurt says great things about Chris, and then he gets reprimanded for doing whatever he’s done. Maybe he wouldn’t have gone anywhere if it hadn’t been for what happened to Chris.” As Chuck, sitting at her right-hand side, attempts to intercede, Barbara shakes her head and says, “No. I can feel the way I feel.” Chuck finally adds, “She has some hard feelings. I don’t share those hard feelings.” He also notes that when Busch won the Cup title in 2004, he invited the Trickles to New York for the awards banquet. Chuck attended. Barbara didn’t. Chris’ old friend and Chuck’s crew chief, Brian Kaiser, went in her place. “He saw me and called me over right away and said hello, and that he was happy to see me,” Chuck says. “Right now, I could call Kurt and we’d be okay.”

Busch says he understands Barbara’s feelings about how his career unfolded in the aftermath of the shooting. “I respect the Trickle family, and nobody likes to have to watch their child die in front of them,” he says. “I would have loved for Chris to be driving at the elite level of racing, believe me. But whether it was me or anyone else in that car, she wouldn’t have liked it because it was supposed to be Chris. I understand that.”

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Barbara’s pointed opinions about Kurt Busch are not always at the forefront, however. Nor are the thoughts of what might have been, though Chuck does offer that he feels Chris would have made between $10 million and $15 million in endorsements and prize money if he’d continued on the path the racing world expected for him. “I see some of these drivers on TV, they just don’t have the charisma Chris had,” Chuck says. “The guy he reminds me most of is Dale Earnhardt Jr., that smile and the way he talks.”

But the Trickles say they don’t dwell on such painful hypotheses of Chris’ unrealized career. The pain they feel is for their personal loss. It would not be too strident to say they have cried a river of tears. Even a decade ago, weeks after Chris’ death, Chuck wondered just how much a human being could cry. He says he still thinks about Chris “constantly, every day.” The 409 days after the shooting were extraordinarily difficult for the family, which faced the dual challenges of caring for Chris and attempting to track down the person who fired the shot. In the Trickles’ 2007 holiday letter to friends and family—the first time they have ever drafted such a letter—they talk of the fear and despair of those 409 days, using the familiar term “overwhelming” to describe the grief they experienced. But there is plenty to be thankful for, too. As Barbara says, “We don’t talk about this, and cry, every night. We have joy, too.”

It helps that the family business, Western Mailing Services, is robust. Their home is spacious, but also warm and intimate. It’s a fun house, to be sure, filled with kids who are in fact or in spirit members of the Trickles’ extended family. Their grandkids, the children of their daughter, Tami, are named Chris, Tommy and Onna. The young Chris Trickle, just 7, is a very good go-kart racer. Tommy will likely follow that path, too, with Chuck serving not only as crew chief but also as the entire crew, building and repairing go-karts in the garage and toting the crew to races in Las Vegas, throughout California and even Missouri.

The legacy of Chris Trickle is carried beyond the naming of young Chris. Weeks after he was shot and rendered comatose, his sperm was harvested with the idea that Jennifer would one day bear his children. That never happened. After three emotionally grueling months at the house, Jennifer told the Trickles she could no longer bear living in the apartment on the property. “She said, ‘I can’t sleep in there with his clothes anymore,’” Barbara recalls. Jennifer has since married, and the families have drifted apart.

But Chris does have two natural offspring: twins Cole and Joelynn, age 6, were born to friends of the family Tonya and Marshall Miele, who had asked the Trickles if they could carry on Chris’ lineage (they have since divorced). Cole’s full name is Cole Trickle Miele.

The youthful energy buzzing through the home tempers some of the emotional pain the Trickles have felt over the years. They still recall the six brain surgeries Chris underwent after the shooting (including the first emergency operations conducted by Lonnie Hammargren), when Chris was given less than a 10 percent chance of making it through the first night alive. They remember the long trips to renowned Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital in Inglewood, California, a haven of sorts because of the facility’s outstanding and responsive staff.

There was a time when Chris awoke from the coma, in November of 1997. Chuck remembers holding a phone to his son’s ear and hearing him twice tell Jennifer, in a muffled but audible voice, “I love you.” Shown photos of his favorite football player, Dan Marino, and his father’s, Brett Favre, Chris nodded in the direction of Marino. “He was aware of what was going on, and I tried to hold him against me, to channel my energy, whatever I had to him,” Chuck says, tears again flooding his eyes. “I remember once asking him, ‘Do you know what happened to you, Chris?’ And he turned to me with his eyes wide open, like he wanted me to tell him. I didn’t. I should have. I think he wanted to know.”

During that period Chris was back at home for additional rehabilitation, going to movies (he saw Titanic countless times) and even going out to dinner at places like the Rainforest Café at the MGM Grand. The Trickles purchased a customized van to transport Chris around town and were working tirelessly on his rehab. “He was very strong, still, and that’s what kept him alive for so long,” Barbara recalls. “We knew we weren’t going to have him back the way he was. We knew that. But we had something. We had him at home, comfortable.”

The Trickles say that, as time passed, they became less and less concerned with finding the culprit. They don’t use the term “closure,” but have built a life after Chris that does not include an identified or jailed assailant.

“To this day, I don’t think we’ll ever find him,” Chuck says. Adds Barbara, “But if they had, we would have had to go back to court so many times. It would be nice to see someone punished, but when you’re dealing with a court case, it’s over and over and over, talking about it. You wonder, how many times does your child have to die?”

At the time the case was still being investigated, Barbara says she was “busy wondering what his potassium level was for the day, what his water intake was. Those numbers were always going through my head.” The Trickles say they are angrier about the circumstances surrounding Chris’ death than the incident itself. Chris had been admitted to the emergency room at Sunrise after suffering breathing problems. Barbara says she and Jennifer had seen this condition before and were experts at suctioning his lungs so he could breathe properly. But they could not help Chris this time.

“We were escorted out of the emergency room, taken away from him,” Barbara says, her voice trembling. “We weren’t allowed to help … One of our friends said, ‘Maybe Chris didn’t want to keep fighting.’ I don’t believe that. I believe he wanted to fight.”

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The Trickles want to visit Chris’ apartment. It’s a short trip, just through the indoor half-court basketball court connected to the house. It used to be a full-scale gym, but was halved to build Chris’ single-room, 2,500-square-foot living quarters. It’s a fun and funky crib, with a slightly elevated sleeping quarters, small kitchen, an office space with a desk and an old computer. In fact, everything in the room seems a bit old. It soon becomes evident that this room is frozen in 1997. It remains as it was that night Chris left to play tennis, when Jennifer was awakened and asked by Chuck and Barbara and a team of homicide detectives who was driving the Chrysler, because something terrible had happened.

This is where Chris, who died 10 years ago, still lives. His many driving awards are still displayed, old photos of him on his old racing bike and in the No. 70 Chevy, and the disassembled body of the car itself is stacked against a wall. Tiny NFL helmets he collected are still assembled on a shelf near his bed, still in the order of finish from the 1997 NFL season. His old Sony Trinitron TV, too, is still in place, topped by a Play Station video-game system. For a long time the TV was tuned, 24/7, to SportsCenter, before it finally crapped out about five years ago.

“We’ve cleaned in here, we’ve washed the clothes, but this is how it was back then,” Barbara says. Has she ever thought to clean it out for good and move on? “No,” she says without a hint of apology. “This is our way of keeping Chris with us.” Chuck adds, “We’re not throwing anything away in this room. You know, I used to sit in the front room and watch TV, and he’d walk through to this place, around the corner and say, ‘Hi, Dad.’ I don’t know how many times, still, I wait for him to come around that corner.”

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There was a moment many who attended Chris’ funeral at Palm Mortuary 10 years ago have long wondered about. About 500 mourners, many clad in NASCAR jackets, hats and shirts bearing his No. 70 logo, turned out for the service. At Chris’ grave site, Keough led the congregation in a final round of applause for the fallen driver, sending him out a winner. Chuck then approached the casket and, sobbing, shouted something unintelligible and crashed his fists down on his son’s coffin. The thunder of the blows, delivered in pure agony, drowned out his voice.

What did he say then? Chuck is fast with the answer.

“‘I love you, Chris.’ That’s what I said. ‘I love you, Chris.’”

John Katsilometes is the Weekly’s writer at large.

Photographs by Iris Dumuk 

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