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Larger than life

Buffalo Jim Barrier was a living, breathing tall tale in Las Vegas for 37 years. As his family seeks answers regarding his untimely death, a Weekly writer—and a friend—looks back.

Joshua Longobardy

Before he was to be buried, four weeks ago, the great multitudes filed into the Palms Mortuary in the old part of Las Vegas to see Buffalo Jim Barrier one final time. They arrived in endless droves: midgets, wrestlers, Hells Angels, Native American Indians of unadulterated descent, lawyers, journalists, world-renowned neurosurgeons—the lame and the homeless—politicians, bankers, television executives, men who had more money than God, boxers, leviathans, Elvis impersonators, those like Buffalo who fixed cars and who arrived with fresh grease smeared across their jumpsuits, sinners, celebrities, folks as old as Vegas itself and young babes just born into the city this Spring.

“My dad would do anything for his people,” Elise Barrier would say while eulogizing her father. And then, waving her hand across the sea of mourners: “You all were his people.”

Behold, more and more came, from far and wide, to the point that Pastor Marvin Gant would stutter in holy astonishment that in his 32 years of conducting funeral services he had never seen such a sight. The multitudes converged into the nave of the chapel and with a silence bred between reverence and incredulousness they marched down to see Buffalo in his giant’s coffin, large enough to fit a dozen men of normal size and suitable for a Pharaoh’s riches. They marched down on this Saturday as if to follow Buffalo even unto death, or just to see with their own eyes what they could not believe was true: That he had in reality died.

It was a fact. Exactly one week prior, Buffalo had, under the most suspicious and enigmatic circumstances, passed away. The news of this loss, however, was not dispersed until the day after, a Sunday. It was an upheaving day from the start, with wind speeds exceeding 42 miles per hour. Those incessant gusts of misfortune first carried the news of Buffalo’s death to the younger half of his four daughters, Elise and Jerica Barrier, who at 20 and 15, respectively, had been living in town. Then it carried the news to Buffalo’s elder daughters, Jessica, 26, who was with her boyfriend and their three children in Colorado, and to Jennifer, who had been vacationing in Southern California and who at 24 resembles her father more and more with each passing day. By Sunday night it had carried the news across the continent, with friends of Buffalo from the east coast and Buffalo fans in Canada writing in to Buffalo’s closest friend and confidant, Steve Miller, questioning if the tragic news was really true.

It was. Buffalo Jim Barrier—the veteran of a fifth grade education who came to Las Vegas in 1971 and soon set up his auto repair shop in the heart of the city where in time he, a mechanic by trade but an entertainer by vocation, and an entire institution to himself, became the center of gravity in town, with anyone who was anybody passing through his shop and all famous visitors stopping in to take photographs—had breathed his last at the age of 55. “We have some very big shoes to fill,” Elise would say, leaning on her sisters for support as she held up one of her father’s black Nikes, purchased like the rest of his clothes at shops designated for giants on earth and worn thin by unchanging routine.

And now that, with Buffalo’s passing, his story was about to come to an end (and was therefore ready to began to be told), the media crowded the sanctuary, too, with their notebooks and tape recorders and still-shot and video cameras drawn. They documented the proceedings in a frantic pace as the friends and family of Buffalo took the sanctuary’s podium and spoke.

“Look at this room,” said Rick Dahl, a former business partner of Buffalo’s back when Nixon was president. “This is a slice of American pie.” Dahl and Buffalo had parted ways 36 years ago because of Buffalo’s absolute refusal to cut his hair. For Buffalo had always been obedient above all to his own constitution, forcing the world to conform to him and not the other way around. Dahl had understood it in this way and so the two remained friends.

“Jimmy Barrier believed he had the right to do his own thing,” Dahl said. “Jimmy Barrier believed that everyone here has the right to do his own thing. Jimmy Barrier was a great American.”

And a great Las Vegan, one community activist stated. Not only was he beloved, as evinced by the reading tours he and Buffalo would take through the city’s elementary schools, where entire student bodies would line up outside of Buffalo’s classroom in hopes of an autograph, inciting the administration to call official recesses to the school day, but he was an advocate, too, said Peter Christoff. With his heart in his throat, he elaborated:

“As people in this community are coming to grips with the crime in Las Vegas, wondering if it’s ever going to stop, Buffalo put his foot down and said, ‘I’m going to fight for my people.’ People like him who represent our city and who fought for our city will never be forgotten.”

Gus Flangas, a longtime lawyer for Buffalo, said that he will always remember the pluvial gifts with which Buffalo showered his people. The multitudes blurted “Amen.”

“I am the proud recipient of more than 6,000 wooden Buffalo Jim chips, Buffalo Christmas cards, Buffalo candy boxes, Buffalo CDs, Buffalo T-shirts, Buffalo figurines, and a Buffalo popcorn machine,” Flangas said. “Nor will I forget the way he loved to sit down and talk about Las Vegas, especially Old Las Vegas.” Once more the multitudes blurted “Amen.” “But the most outstanding thing about Buffalo,” said Flangas, “was that he hated corruption, and he was passionate in that hate, and he had not only hated it, he fought it. We all know he did.”

Amen, motioned Indian Ronnie, who came up to the podium with a woodwind flute to honor the man whom he considered father. Indian Ronnie lifted his head, searching through the chapel’s ceiling for spectral inspiration, and he said:

“Buffalo Jim fought more than anyone I’ve ever seen. He was a warrior. So I’m gonna do a warrior’s song for him.”

The musical homage passed across the multitudes like a chill breeze, exiting the chapel through the open back doors, went down the long hall of the mortuary, hovered over the jam-packed parking lot, and continued out unto the streets of downtown Las Vegas, where all at once the hustle and bustle of everyday life, the low and high pitches of passing police cars, the various vices that have swamped the region since its incipience, came to an abrupt halt, their sound no longer heard banging against the walls of the chapel. If this did not stir goose bumps throughout the multitudes, it’s only because the pimples had been there from the start. That’s when Steve Miller, also known as Buffalo’s personal memo pad, had taken the podium and delivered this sad irony:

“Last week was the happiest, healthiest and most prosperous week in Buffalo’s life.”

His daughters had watched from a short distance, and when one by one the multitudes concluded paying their last respects, the four girls approached their father’s body for the last time. In his coffin he looked serene, thinner than ever before, and a bit like the iconic wax sculptures in Madame Tussauds collection, for his illustrious body had, by then, undergone the rigors of two separate autopsies. The girls, slumping over Buffalo’s enormous torso, bewailed and lamented him. “Daddy, come back,” they said. “Come back, daddy.” They wept and they wept and they wept, and their collective wails seemed to lodge themselves in the walls of the sanctuary, their collective heartbreak seemed to propound in a public way questions about God—if not His existence then His omnipotence—and their collective woe seemed, at once and without recourse, to be infectious, in such a fashion that the plague of grief swept through the multitudes watching from the pews with inescapable celerity. The people cried. Their eyes soaked with tears that dribbled down their cheeks and then fell to the floor, puddling first and then streaming together to form a little pool that accrued more and more momentum as the grief compounded, and soon enough it erupted into a torrential river of tears that roared down the graded nave and flooded the Palms Mortuary chapel on that sublime afternoon of April 12, 2008.

“This is unprecedented!” Pastor Gant managed to exclaim.

According to Jerica Barrier, Saturday, April 5, started out as a happy day. Her father’s bike, a Big Dog, which had been out of commission for more than a year, was revived that afternoon by Gus Morillo, chief mechanic at Barrier’s shop, Allstate Auto and Marine Electric. Barrier could not repress his enthusiasm, says Jerica.

Moreover, it had been an exciting time for Barrier, say his closest associates. Despite ominous letters Barrier had recently received from an unnamed source, including one on that particular Saturday warning Barrier about alleged plots that were being made on his life by his arch enemies—the Rizzolo family—Barrier had a lot to look forward to. He was about to sign a contract finalizing a new reality television series about his life. His auto repair business on 2478 Industrial Road was more prosperous than it had ever been during its 31-year existence. And he was on the verge of moving that business to a new location, on Sahara Avenue and Boulder Highway, far from the neighboring strip club with whom he had been entangled in a stressful feud the past 24 years.

“He was so happy,” says Jerica. “His face just lit up.”

It was with that countenance that he took the revived Big Dog for a spin, says Morillo. And though he returned with the levelheaded assessment that it needed new oil, Morillo says, his smile was still unvanquishable when Morillo left the Barrier residence a little after 5 p.m.

Barrier had called me three hours earlier, at 2:12 p.m. The call came on account of the latest letter. In Barrier’s mind it was even more alarming than two similar letters he had received in the past three months, because this one not only contained insider information that was pinpoint accurate, like the previous two, but also contained his home address. He and Jerica lived by themselves in a two-story, 4,800-square-foot house on Sunrise Mountain.

Barrier had placed similar calls on Saturday to at least two other journalists in town.

He had already been on high alert. His concerns for his safety had exacerbated with the knowledge that Rick Rizzolo, the former owner of the Crazy Horse Too gentlemen’s club, who federal authorities allege has ties with organized crime families, and against whom Barrier helped solidify a federal case that resulted in a one-year prison sentence, had been released to the free world the day before.

For this reason Barrier had also called me on Friday evening. Earlier in the day he had received a phone call from a self-described hit man, and though Barrier didn’t believe anyone would attack him face to face, he did express concern about an alternative form of attack. Because I spoke to Barrier on a weekly basis, and because I had always known him to be a sensible man, I deemed his worries generally valid, and told him so. “Be aware of ambushes,” I said. He countered by stating his presentiment that his enemies—in name, the Rizzolo family and their associates—would try to get him through a stratagem. “They’re gonna try to do it through a woman,” he said. “Or they’re gonna try to drug me.”  

 

And so we agreed that he should be vigilant over everyone he socialized with this weekend, and cautious with everything he ate or drink, and that we would meet first thing Monday morning at his shop to discuss these matters further.  

On Saturday, Barrier was set to go out at about 7:15 p.m, according to Jerica. She recalls the last conversation she had with her father:

 “Hey, kid, I’m going to meet a friend,” Barrier said. “I’ll be back in a few hours.”

Jerica didn’t want him to go.

“I’ll be back by 12:30,” Barrier said.

“Don’t go.”

“If I’m not back by 12:30,” said Barrier, “then I’ll give you $50.”

“Make it $100,” Jerica said.    

“Done.”

They shook on it, says Jerica. Not a customary shake, but the ornate, privileged shake Barrier shared with his four daughters.

Jerica says her dad left with a large wad of cash in his pocket, according to his well-known habit, and in his Rolls Royce, a 1979 Silver Shadow.

She also remembers a large smile on his face.

   

According to Barrier’s cell phone, he spoke to a person from an unsaved phone number at 7:40 p.m., for seven minutes and forty-seven seconds. Later, cross-checking a number left on a voice message in Barrier’s phone, Jerica would determine this woman’s name: Lisa.

Of the last phone conversations of Barrier’s life, only one involved a phone number that was not saved under a name, and that was Lisa’s.

At 8:20 p.m., according to Metro’s Captain Randall Montandon, Barrier can be seen checking into the Motel 6 on Boulder Highway on a four-minute surveillance video from the motel’s lobby. A credit card receipt in Barrier’s name confirms this time.

Dr. Lary Simms, a medical examiner from the Clark County coroner’s office who performed the initial autopsy on Barrier’s body, would later tell Barrier’s daughters that he, with confidence, can place the time of death for their father between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.

At 9:30 on Saturday night, Jerica could not bear being alone any longer, and called her older sister Elise. “Can you come get me?” she said. Elise told her to try their father.

And so Jerica called her father’s cell with a private number, having hit *-6-7 prior to dialing, Jerica says. That was 9:41 p.m. The call went straight to Barrier’s voicemail, in the way calls do when they are rejected by the receiving party.

Then Jerica called back Elise, who told her to try their father once more. This time Jerica called without privatizing her number. That 9:50 p.m. call went unanswered through its complete cycle of rings, and then went to voicemail, says Jerica.   

Elise came and picked up her younger sister.

The following afternoon, at 12 o’clock, Jerica texted her father: “Where you at?”

She received no reply, but she continued with her day at any rate, which included serving as a model for Elise, who as a cosmetology student was participating in a show at the Fiesta Henderson Hotel and Casino. In that role Jerica received a call from a coroner’s investigator around 2:30 p.m., notifying her that James Barrier had died.

When she and Elise pulled into the parking lot of Motel 6 on 4125 Boulder Highway, they did not see their father’s Rolls Royce, anywhere, and so the girls regained hope. “We thought they had the wrong person,” says Elise.

Barrier’s body was in a bag and on a stretcher when Jerica was asked to identify her father. He was wearing his trusty blue, buttoned shirt, she recalls. The police handed her a prescription pill bottle without anything inside and said that her father had had it inside his pocket. They said that they had recovered three pills from it. Jerica says she asked if the pills were green, and the coroner’s investigator said yes. “His Valium,” Jerica recalls saying to her sister Elise. The bottle’s label, however, indicated it was Norvasc, prescription heart medication that had expired in 2003. The police also handed Jerica a manila envelope with Barrier’s belongings: a cell phone, the receipt for the room, the keys to his Rolls Royce, a garage-door opener, and his wallet—which was missing Barrier’s ID, and which had exactly $1 in its fold.

But that was not the only thing that shook Jerica. She says that as soon as she entered the room, before seeing her father, she felt a sudden, intuitive and irrefutable response that something wasn’t right. “It just felt so unnatural,” she says. Elise confirms this, and says that, after seeing their dad, and after composing themselves, the girls did a quick once-over of the motel room, and the involuntary sense that something was amiss only grew worse. In short, the environment was too sterile.

Which also was the case with Barrier’s Rolls Royce. The police asked the girls about the car, having not seen it on the premises of the Motel 6, and Elise says the officers told them that they would check the Boulder Station across the street. Later in the night, Officer Merrill would call Elise and leave a message stating they found the Rolls Royce. “It’s actually in the parking lot now,” Merril said. “It’s behind the office.” When the girls sent a close family friend to retrieve the car, he took pictures of it as it was parked, and reported back to the Barrier girls that the car was very clean. He also stated that it was parked in a spot no doubt visible from the street front. “Even Stevie Wonder can see it,” he said.

“After my sisters, Steve Miller is the first person I called,” says Jerica, “because everything about what I saw just didn’t feel right.”

The next person she called was the woman Lisa. “According to my dad’s phone, it was the last person he spoke to,” she says.

Jerica says that a woman answered.

“Do you know Buffalo Jim?” Jerica recalls saying.

“What?”

“Do you know my father, Buffalo Jim?”  

“I don’t know no Buffalo Jim,” the woman said, and then hung up. 

It was the voice of the same woman who had left voice messages at 7:30 p.m., asking Barrier to call her back, and then again at 9 p.m., asking in alarm if Barrier was all right, Jerica says.

James Christopher Barrier had made his way to Las Vegas in 1971 without education or money but happy to be liberated from his roots in Cleveland, Ohio, and with a spirit of invincibility so fully charged that 35 years later it was the first thing I noticed walking into Buffalo’s shop on old decrepit Industrial Road. In short time he became my mechanic, my friend, and my ultimate source, and in all three capacities he kept my fever for Las Vegas stories up over 100 degrees with his myriad and incredible tales. Above all the one about himself.

The city had tried to expel him as soon as he entered, the way a body does to foreign substances, with the Las Vegas Police Department bombarding him with 13 traffic tickets before he even settled in. By the end of the decade Buffalo had accrued so many infractions that Robert Lueck, his longtime lawyer and Las Vegas brother, says Barrier nearly earned the nickname Jailhouse Jim. “But I’m still here!” Buffalo would say to me time and time again, triumphant after 37 years in Vegas, through both its Old and New eras.

He had been introduced to Las Vegas at the age of 9, when his parents brought him along on vacation, and even as a child he recognized the countless affinities he shared with this inimitable city. It was then, in fact, that he vowed to one day return to make this spot his own.

And he did. At the age of 13, Jim Barrier, an autodidact who skipped out on formal education after the fifth grade to matriculate himself into the higher institution of real life, became his own man. He possessed an atavistic knack for automobiles, and after several joyous years of immersing himself under the hoods of as many cars as he could find, Buffalo gained work at various Midwestern garages and gas stations, where he would often make his bed. That, too, is where he learned the art of the salesman. “He could sell anything,” says his brother, George, 68. “He could sell snow to an Eskimo.”

Barrier was indomitable. As Rafael Garcia, 47, a pallbearer at Barrier’s funeral, puts it: “You couldn’t say no to him, because he just wouldn’t accept no for an answer.” Many years later, as Buffalo faced constant harassment from his next-door neighbors and their complicit friends in the Las Vegas City Hall, in an attempt to bully him off his property, he would showcase this same intransigence. The type, moreover, that had helped him resist the myriad forces that told him to cut his hair as it begun to flourish as a young adult in the early ’70s. Instead, true to his own disposition, he let it grow. Thick, dark and indigenous that hair began to flow over his ears, down onto his shoulders, curl over his upper lip, cover his cheeks and chin, spread disheveled across his chest. It grew and grew and grew, virgin and unkempt, and before long it grew into a shaded nesting place for all the busty little birds in town, and a refuge for the city’s dispossessed and downtrodden. Garcia, a professional boxing trainer whose eyes moisten when he speaks about the time Buffalo once rescued him from near homelessness, reviews it this way:

“It was good to be under the feathers of his wing.”

With this untamed coat, Barrier walked through a downtown casino after dinner one day in 1975. He was with Dee Egbert, a man who ran a car lot on Boulder Highway, with whom Buffalo had found work upon entering town and a lifelong friend. They were stopped dead in their digestive stroll by a Texas man wearing a 10-gallon hat, and who was very drunk. “One time, when I was a young man,” the Texan confessed in a stentorian voice worthy of his home state, “I got drunk, and I had sexual relations with a buffalo.” Silence ensued. And then, turning his attention solely to Barrier and wagging a limp finger in his face, the Texan said:

“You know, you just might be my son.”

The name stuck. Not only did Buffalo embrace it, but he charged through the dusty town of Las Vegas during those wild times promoting his new identity. It was then that Buffalo arrived at the conviction that he would keep locked and inviolate in his heart until the day he died: “There’s only two cities in this great country where I can be me,” Buffalo used to say. “Las Vegas is the first one.” The second was San Francisco, and one day last year we met in that historic city for dinner, on the wharf, where together we envisioned Buffalo Jim, now older, wiser and much more docile, setting shop. The dream became so real to him, and brought him so much joy, that a waitress who was not ours took the initiative to come by and tell Buffalo just how splendid his smile was.  

But during the ’70s and ’80s there was no place for Buffalo but Vegas. He was by his own admission a slave to his primal instincts. On his motorcycle he roamed from bar to bar, where the ambiance was mostly Western and where fighting was a natural course of the night, and Buffalo always made his presence known. He was loud. He cursed like a sailor. And he drank through the night as if tomorrow were not guaranteed. The reality, however, is that Buffalo thought he was indestructible.

With this self-conception, he did drugs. “Every kind there is,” he would tell his daughter Elise in a moment of complete frankness. Up until the birth of his daughter Jessica, in 1982, Buffalo ran with a pack of friends who pursued the false paradise of getting high whenever and wherever they could. In this way Jessica, and her three sisters who would follow in the 10 years to come, were heaven sent. For they diverted their father from a path that led Buffalo’s best friends to utter destruction. Of course, Buffalo hadn’t alleviated himself in whole of his vice. He would experiment with more drugs in the ’80s, dabble into them with his professional wrestling friends up until 2000, and, according to his close friends, renege with a night of heavy partying even as recently as three years ago. For this reason, it was not entirely inconceivable when the woman with whom Buffalo spent his last moment of life, according to the police, insinuated that the two were socializing at the Motel 6 on Boulder Highway with drugs.

On the morning of Monday, April 7, Officer Marty Wright said Metro police found no evidence of foul play regarding the deceased body of James Barrier, discovered the day before, and so homicide detectives were not called to the scene.

Rather, the officers who responded to room 105 at Motel 6 on South Boulder Highway summoned a coroner’s investigator. Wright says she found nothing suspicious, either.

According to her report, Barrier’s death is a possible drug overdose. It says: “I noted a white powder-like substance around the decedent nostrils and particles of the same substance were found in the decedent’s beard an on his shirt.” Moreover, the report cited that Barrier once had a cocaine addiction, pursuant to information provided by Elise. No illicit drugs were found on the scene.

And so, while photos of the scene were taken by responding officers, nothing was dusted for prints, family and friends of Barrier were not interviewed, nor was his cell phone checked for recent calls, say police. There was no justifiable reason, they say.

Intense media pressure in the following days would provoke Metro detectives, though not from the homicide unit, to take a closer look.

Captain Montandon says there is still no evidence to indicate there was anything amiss regarding Barrier’s death. He says that surveillance footage of Barrier checking into the motel by himself does not indicate he was under any distress, but on the contrary, was quite content. “It’s about four minutes long,” Montandon says of the footage, “and I am extremely confident it is Barrier.”

Moreover, police say the motel clerk who checked Barrier in on the night of his death stated that Barrier had purchased the room for two.

Montandon says police interviewed a woman who was in the room with Barrier on Saturday night, and that she told detectives she left when Barrier had a seizure. This interview took place on April 15, 10 days after Barrier’s death. Although he cannot comment on the validity of her statement about the seizure until results from a toxicology test performed on Barrier’s body return, Montandon says the details of the woman’s other statements were verified by detectives.   

While no semen was found on the scene, or by medical examiner Simms during an April 7 autopsy on Barrier’s body, Barrier was discovered on Sunday with his pants lowered to his ankles.

And while there is no surveillance footage of the motel’s parking lot or its façade, where room 105 is located, Montandon says motel employees witnessed nothing suspicious with regard to room 105 or Barrier’s Rolls Royce parked behind the office.

Police found a bottle of prescription medication in Barrier’s pocket, which had a dated prescription label, according to Jerica Barrier, to whom it was given after she identified her dad’s body. Contrary to Jerica’s assumptions—and to the coroner’s investigative report—Montandon says there was no Valium found inside the motel room. The report says three Valium pills were found in the bottle.

In any event, the case has not been referred to homicide, says Montandon, and as of now it is at rest.

“We’re not actively seeking new information,” says Montandon. “But we’re open to receiving any new information anyone wants to bring forth.”

He adds: “We’ve done quite a lot of work on this case.”

And now, he says, the police are just waiting for the results of a toxicology test before they make any more statements about the death of James Barrier. Those results may not come back until the end of June.

Buffalo’s most persistent vice was women. Especially—and almost exclusively—those with big tits. It was they who disturbed his peace as an adolescent, and they whom he chased with great success through the open range of Las Vegas in the late ’70s. On one of those historical pursuits Buffalo was led to the Palomino, a burlesque club on North Las Vegas Boulevard that offered showroom class and unparalleled entertainment, and that was on its way to becoming famous for the supernatural beauty of its women, promulgated across the world by on-air endorsements from Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show and prominent spreads in Playboy magazine.

Through his girlfriend at the time, a top dancer, Buffalo got to know the Palomino’s owner, Paul Perry, and then became best friends with Perry’s son, Jack. And so Buffalo made Palomino his chief hangout. He was so popular with the women there, his blood brother George recalls, that on many nights every dancer in the club would pile into Buffalo’s van, with which he operated his mobile auto repair business by day, and not return until they needed to catch their collective breath from carousing and partying along Las Vegas Boulevard late into the night.

Buffalo could not be stopped. He and his best friend Jack did as they liked, storming through town, hunting new broads, meeting the kind of very important persons who ran this city, which was not so big then, and concluding their night with a 50-cent breakfast at Jerry’s Nugget, downtown. Buffalo would maintain the connections he made during these times, so that when his youngest daughter Lil Buff’ turned 16 and wanted a suite atop the MGM Hotel and Casino to celebrate, it was done, and when his sister wanted to come to town and have a room and a nice dinner at a Boyd Gaming property, it was done, and when his friend Rafael wanted to relax from a lifetime of hard work with an unforgettable night at the Palomino, it was done, and when I needed a rental car to travel home for the holidays, that too was done.

Jessica’s boyfriend, Tarnell, the father of Buffalo’s three grandchildren, received a startling lesson in Buffalo’s status in Las Vegas upon first introduction. “You know who I am?” Buffalo said as soon as Tarnell walked into the door of Allstate Auto and Marine Electric. “No,” said Tarnell. Buffalo responded with the breadth of his immodesty:

“I run this town.”

And in many respects he was right. For Buffalo had arrived in Las Vegas at a time when it was so intimate, so informal, so inchoate that his monstrous persona became not only well known but salient too. And so the common sentiment expressed during Buffalo’s funeral last month was that Las Vegas had become a lot less Las Vegas after Buffalo died, and it was a sentiment doubly mournful, because with Buffalo’s passing the flesh-and-blood figures who had given Old Las Vegas its grandeur had become all but extinct.

Buffalo had begun to sense this while he was alive. His nostalgia for Old Las Vegas was acute—everyone knew that—and it only heightened when a friend or reporter like myself dragged him deeper into the baseless trenches of his memory with questions about how things used to be. His eyebrows would squinch in the solitude of memories and his Indian pupils would flare, and more times than not his recollections slid without notice into the present tense, reliving the times with so much ardor the accuracy of his recall was indisputable, because only when listening to Buffalo talk about the past did the truth of human experience emerge:

Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers, and how one remembers it in order to recount it.

Buffalo’s stories never failed to resonate with me because, like him, I perceived reality in poetic terms. Above all in Las Vegas, where very strange things happen on a regular basis and everything occurs on a bigger, grander and more mystical scale than other cities. Here, nothing is too hyperbolic or fantastical to believe, and sometimes the city’s reality is more magical than its fiction.

Which is the reason NBC was courting Buffalo to star in a new reality TV show. The man who was orchestrating this deal, Ben Norton, a longtime television and film producer, attended Buffalo’s funeral, and with great chagrin in his heart he said that he had been a fan of Buffalo’s ever since he brought his Rolls Royce to Allstate Auto and Marine Electric for an improbable repair.

“Buffalo was a miracle worker,” Norton pronounced.

It was true. Buffalo’s shop had gained the reputation as the last hope in the Valley for any car, truck, RV, boat or motor craft that couldn’t be fixed elsewhere. The business had endured for 31 years, starting with Buffalo fixing cars from his van and then setting shop on Polaris Avenue and Spring Mountain Road in 1977. The next year he moved to his location on Industrial Road, and he and his staff worked five days a week for 12 hours a day. And on Fridays, sighs Ulises Arguelles, who has taken over Buffalo’s position at the front counter since his boss’ death, everyone put in a solid 15.

Inexhaustible, and happy to do what he was doing, Buffalo was never hard to find: inside the lobby of Allstate Auto and Marine Electric, behind the desk, talking to a reporter on his cell phone, picking up the ringing business phone, “Auto Marine, please hold,” drafting up a work order, running a credit card for the old friend whose car he just resuscitated, picking up the ringing business phone, “Auto Marine, please hold,” pulling from his pocket his eternal wad of cash and paying the delivery boy who just brought hard-to-get parts, waving back to the homeless man passing by on his way to the old railroad tracks behind Industrial, answering Ulises’ question on how to rewire a temperature switch for the 96 BMW ti, picking up the ringing phone, “Auto Marine, please hold,” disseminating to customers in the lobby Steve Miller’s latest e-brief on mafia happenings in Las Vegas. He had the intense eyes and reverberating laugh of a man who does not doubt himself, and behind his desk his sheer size and caveman’s mane gave him the look of man primordial, too occupied with the hard and meticulous task of making each day a masterpiece to concern himself with people like barbers or things such as shaving.

And because of his first-rate work and colossal personality, the rich and famous came to Allstate, even if only to meet Buffalo. His voluminous collection of photographs with celebrities framed on the walls of Allstate bear witness: Wayne Newton, Tony Curtis, Muhammad Ali, The Undertaker, Mike Tyson, Robert Goulet, and too many more to list. It was during those hectic times that a sinister rumor circulated town that Elvis Presley had come back from the dead to visit Allstate Auto and Marine Electric, because he had found no one in this life or the next to perform trustworthy service on his beloved Cadillacs. Buffalo neither confirmed nor denied the rumor, but it was a well-known fact that Buffalo knew more about the Cadillac than anyone else this side of Michigan, and it was also true that Buffalo was the proud owner of privileged Elvis memorabilia that he was due to sell to a bidder for more than $750,000—had his life not come to an abrupt and unforeseen end on April 5.

Just as the city of Las Vegas was a perfect fit for him, it was only natural for Buffalo to induct himself into the race of professional wrestlers, for whom the line between reality and fiction is fluid. In 1996, Buffalo, a born showman, began to exaggerate the persona to which that drunk Texan 22 years earlier had given name, and he initiated a vocational school for pro wrestlers. They trained twice a week. Buffalo taught them not just the illusionary arts of wrestling, but also the magical formula by which a character was created. Then Buffalo began to put on live shows at the Silver Nugget and the Orleans, which were taped for cable television, and he pulled off the greatest trick of them all by managing to break even with those modest events. I myself often noticed Buffalo Wrestling Federation shirts worn on the street long before I ever met Buffalo.

He had always been strong. Buffalo’s fitness coach, Garcia, says that his core strength dwarfed that of even many heavyweight boxers whom Rafael has worked with.

“He could always Indian wrestle,” says George. “As a boy he would whoop boys much older and much bigger than himself.” And he passed this strength along. Jerica, also known as Lil’ Buff, who can be seen shadowing her dad on the dated “Jim Wars” that still run on cable television, gave her father eternal bragging rights when she grabbed the largest man in the history of the BWF—seven-feet, 600 pounds—hoisted him into the air and threw him across the ring, over the top rope, and unto the ground below. The man had landed so hard, in fact, that the repercussions continued to clap many years later, during Buffalo’s funeral, when Steve Miller would evoke the memory of the time Lil’ Buff threw a giant 40 feet through the air.

Jerica had earned her nickname by emulating her dad’s every move during those years. She endeared herself to Buffalo’s heart. And so when her mom took her and Jerica’s sisters to live in Washington because the turmoil between Buffalo and Rick Rizzolo had become too much, Buffalo begged to have Jerica back.

Like everyone else, Roxanne Pollock had a terrible time saying no to Buffalo. They had met in 1979, and Roxanne acquiesced to all of Buffalo’s wishes but one: she would not dance at the Palomino. She nevertheless gave him three daughters, 22 years of unmarried domestic love, and in 1998, when Buffalo, the ultimate deal maker, was able to purchase a dream house atop of Sunrise Mountain with God’s view of the city he loved, her name to register the home under, so that Buffalo’s enemies could not find him. And in January of 2001, after she took her daughters to live far away from Las Vegas and the Rizzolos, she let Buffalo retrieve Jerica and bring her back to Las Vegas, where his loneliness had become unbearable.

 

All these things I heard from Buffalo and those multitudinous people who passed through his shop, and I kept them in my heart. We shared so many affinities with regard to tastes, philosophies, reproaches, values and vices that Buffalo and I became friends, and we often spoke of our intention to continue and strengthen that friendship over the next 50 years—the both of us resolved to it, in fact. Because I wholly anticipated him to live forever, considering his enthusiasm for life and his aura of invincibility.

“You’re indestructible, Buff,” I used to tell him. His face would illuminate.

“That’s because you and me are just alike, brother,” he would respond. “We’re too driven by what we do to call it quits!”

I believed him.

Jim Barrier’s family and friends are also awaiting the results from the toxicology test. Their hope is that it will help clear some of the many questions surrounding Barrier’s death, which came as an absolute shock to those who knew Barrier best.

They don’t believe it was a natural death or that Barrier overdosed on drugs.

“This is a huge mystery that needs to be solved,” says Jennifer Barrier, who left her home and business behind in Seattle to “get to the bottom of this.”

Barrier’s fitness coach, Garcia, says that Barrier had made a concerted effort to get in shape since 2000. His daughters say their dad drastically cleaned up his diet, eliminating sugars in whole, since he was diagnosed with diabetes 2 in the ’80s, and that he was religious in his dedication to vitamins, herbal remedies and acupuncture. Miller says Barrier’s physician gave him a clean bill of health just a week before Barrier died. Simms told the Barrier family that Barrier’s autopsy showed no signs of a heart attack or aneurism.

“He had such a desire to live,” says Garcia. “So he did everything he could to be healthy.”

All four of Barrier’s daughters, with whom he was in constant communication, have been convinced their father was murdered since the day Jerica and Elise went to room 105 at the Motel 6 on Boulder Highway to identify his body. In complete opposition to the police’s stance, they say nothing that’s surfaced since then has swayed their belief.

For while the physical evidence might not support homicide, they say, there is too much suspicious circumstantial evidence to dismiss, without even investigating, the possibility that their dad was murdered.

That might or might not be true, but what is for certain is that the mysterious circumstances surrounding Barrier’s death raise a lot of questions.

Barrier had received letters in the mail that warned him about alleged plots being made on his life by the Rizzolo family. The most recent of which had arrived on the Saturday Barrier died. Barrier forwarded it to several friends and journalists. It read:

MR. BARRIER,

MEETINGS HAVE BEEN TAKING PLACE AT VARIOUS LOCATIONS AROUND TOWN BY RICK RIZZOLO…RICK WAS ONE OF THE PERSONS DRIVING AROUND YOUR PROPERTY LAST WEEK. BE CAREFUL HE’S UP TO NO GOOD. HE’S USING PEOPLE TO GET CLOSE TO YOU. HE’S DISCUSSED USING A FEMALE TO GET ACCESS TO YOUR BUSINESS.

The letter was similar to two others Barrier had received and passed along in the recent past. One dated February 1 reads:

BART RIZZOLO HAS BEEN OVERHEARD TELLING SOME OF HIS CLOSE CONTACTS THAT THERE WILL BE VIOLENT ATTACKS AGAINST YOU. HE HAS LET IT BE KNOWN THAT YOU WILL SUFFER IN THE NEAR FUTURE.

It was not the only documentation of alleged conspiracies against Barrier’s life. In November 2007 a judge granted Barrier a restraining order against Bart Rizzolo due to Barrier’s claim that Rizzolo tried to run him down with a black SUV in the parking lot shared by Allstate Auto and Marine Electric and the defunct Crazy Horse Too.

Last year I reported on a story about the rise and fall of the gentlemen’s club. In doing so, I interviewed a cocktail waitress who worked at the club and who was responsible for bringing Bart Rizzolo his coffee every morning. According to my notes, she said:

“Bart and Rick were obsessed with Buffalo. Every single morning Bart talked about him. I think in all the time I worked there, there was maybe five mornings Bart wasn’t talking about how to get rid of Buffalo.”

Moreover, Barrier’s friends and family were aware that Rick Rizzolo (Bart’s son) had just been released from prison on Friday, April 4. He had just served a 1-year sentence for tax evasion charges stemming from a decade-long investigation in which Barrier was the key informant.

Calls to Rizzolo’s attorney for this story went unreturned. Captain Montandon says Metro has not interviewed Rizzolo or his associates with regard to Barrier’s death.

Barrier’s friends and family also want to know why Barrier had neither money nor ID on him when he was found dead. Jerica says he left their house Saturday night with a big wad of cash in his pocket, typical of his well-known habit. 

The wallet returned to Jerica at Motel 6 had a single dollar in its fold.

And no ID.

Detectives say that the video footage from inside the motel lobby shows Barrier presenting his identification upon check-in. It remains unrecovered to this day.

The pill bottle given to Jerica at the death scene had a dated label, and the coroner’s investigative report says it contained three Valiums. Jerica finds this strange because she knows first-hand that her father, who typically takes half a pill to help him sleep at night, has a new bottle of prescribed Valium that is almost full, as Jerica is the one who often prepares his dose each night. Moreover, she says her dad had no intention of sleeping at Motel 6 on Saturday night, because he had promised her he would be back by 12:30 a.m., and she had never known her dad to fail on a promise.

Jerica also finds it perplexing that the investigative report states the bottle had no label, because the bottle she was given in all certainty did have one.

There are several facts from Barrier’s death scene that his daughters cannot reconcile to his character. Two cups of water sat on the room’s nightstand, but Barrier had long ago repudiated tap water and was inflexible with his taste for bottled water, the girls say. The motel room, like Barrier’s Rolls Royce, was impeccably clean, but Barrier was notoriously messy, and shed hair everywhere he went. Police found Barrier’s garage door opener in the motel room, but his daughters had never before seen Barrier take it off the sun visor of whatever car he was driving.

Jennifer says the family does not have much confidence that Metro will find answers to their questions, provided their refusal to initiate a homicide investigation. Moreover, she and her sisters have grown increasingly frustrated that Metro has not shared with them information that they do possess.

“Everything we learn, we have to read in the papers,” says Jennifer. “That is not right.”

Captain Montandon says that Metro will share with the girls all of its information, including the Motel 6 video footage and the statements Lisa gave the police, which provide a picture of Barrier’s last moments of life, once the toxicology report comes back.

Dennis Domansky, executive lieutenant to Sheriff Doug Gillespie, says that the information cannot be divulged because “the case is considered open and active at this point” (even though Montandon tells the Las Vegas Weekly: “We are not actively seeking new information”).

And so the Barrier family has kept in contact with Kevin Sheehan, from the FBI’s Las Vegas field office, and hired a private investigator and pathologist to help provide them answers to their questions. They haven’t been able to provide the girls many, so far.

“We just want closure,” says Jennifer.

“We hope and we want it to be natural causes,” Jerica adds, “but we just know that it is not.”

The battle between Buffalo and the regime that ran the Crazy Horse Too was momentous. And though it was Allstate Auto and Marine Electric still standing after the ashes left in wake of that war had been swept up from Industrial Road, the feud took a devastating toll on Buffalo as well. On account of the neighbors’ struggle, which persisted for more than two decades, Buffalo’s family split, his auto repair business almost crumbled, his wrestling federation disintegrated, and his old way of life came to an end.  

Though he suffered these things on account of parsimony, and pride, I admired Buffalo because he endured. And it was my belief that he prevailed, too.

Which was a belief I hung onto as if it were a life raft, for my experience as a citizen and a reporter in this city has been that the daily news of corruption, violence and myriad injustices pushes through like a sea storm that you just can’t stop. And so I took great relief in hearing Buffalo shout, triumphant in the face of it all: “But I’m still here!”

The first question I ever posed to Buffalo upon meeting him inside his embattled shop was the obvious one:

“Are you ever afraid?”

At the time I was reporting on a story about the Crazy Horse Too, excavating with an anthropologist’s fervor the tale of the club’s epic rise and fall. I had known all about the beatings and extortions that had taken place at the club, as documented in part by Buffalo himself, and I was aware of the ties between Rick Rizzolo and certain organized crime families, as alleged by the federal authorities. What I had not known then, however, but would find out starting with that simple question, was that the story of the Crazy Horse Too was also the story of Buffalo Jim Barrier: they were inextricable.

It had started in 1987. Las Vegas had begun to change during that time. The Crazy Horse Too, which opened its doors in 1984 and which would soon attain celestial heights of power and prosperity, was a sign of this. The men who ran the club did not do it the old way—Paul Perry’s way at the Palomino—through class and familial service, but rather, through extortion and promiscuity. But Buffalo had minded his own business, sometimes even partying there after work with his incorrigible friends, until Rizzolo tried to run him off his end of the property. Buffalo invited Rizzolo and his chief associate, a reputed mob member, to his office so that a gentleman’s deal could be negotiated, and then consecrated over a drink and handshake, the way Buffalo had worked out the deal that landed him that location in 1978. But Rizzolo, curt and indignant, declined the terms. He walked out of the office and, according to Buffalo, began a ceaseless campaign of harassment meant to intimidate Buffalo off his property. His customers’ cars were bashed or towed away. His shop was broken into and set on fire. He came to work early each morning to find Crazy Horse patrons lying in front of his shop, incapacitated by alcohol or beat-downs. There was the infamous case of Kirk Henry. There was the used condoms out back in plain sight, the used needles in the front stumbled upon by Buffalo’s young daughter. There was the crooked councilman Michael McDonald. There was the police and fire code inspectors who all of a sudden wouldn’t leave Buffalo alone.

Buffalo’s family and friends say that Buffalo reached his boiling point in 2000, just before his family left. “He felt all this stuff he was going through was preventing him from putting food on the table for his family,” says Jennifer. His brother George says he thought the Crazy Horse Too regime was destroying the image and aura of the city he loved. And so Buffalo changed. His demeanor tightened. Rafael says he abdicated the ways of his wild years and committed himself to maintaining physical and mental acuity. “There was a special occasion three years ago, and he went back to partying for a night,” says Garcia. “When he came back the next day he looked so disappointed in himself, because he knew it set back the progress he had made by at least three months. He told me he couldn’t afford to do that again if he was going to be sharp for his fight with those guys next door.” And he did, by and large, give up drinking. His focus and intensity heightened, as if he were training for the heavyweight championship of the world.

Buffalo was not afraid to fight. The truth is, he begged for a fight, man against man, with any of the men who ran the Crazy Horse Too. “You be my Don King,” he would say to me: “Set up a cage match, me against all the Rizzolos at the same time!”

He knew, however, that he would never get that wish. He thought that ambush or sabotage would be the way they confronted him. Later, on the night before he died, he would tell me he suspected they’d use a woman or drugs.

Protecting one’s self from these threats, if valid, seemed to me like a daunting task.

That’s the reason the first thing I had asked him when we met was if he was ever afraid.

Buffalo contracted his eyebrows, and after a moment of thought he gave me a

straightforward answer with the utmost conviction:

“No. Not so long as I stay in the public spotlight. They can’t get me.”

It was an experienced statement. Buffalo established for himself a web of journalists whom he fed constant doses of news and information, disseminated printed stories about himself or the Crazy Horse to hundreds of key people and locations in town, led the charge during the Helldorado parade every year with his ostentatious Buffalos, and promoted himself with the type of vigor and snorting smoke that had not been seen since the days of Old Vegas, and that won him the Review-Journal’s Most Colorful Character award in 2005.

And, of course, he provided federal investigators with photos, witnesses and critical information that helped bring indictments to 16 Crazy Horse Too employees, jail time for Rick Rizzolo, and a decisive end to the Rizzolo regime in the city’s adult entertainment industry.

“I had to, brother,” Buffalo told me while I was reporting on that story. “During all the years of our fight I knew I was in the right—on every single matter. They were robbing and beating people up. Who’d want to visit this city if we let them? Who’d want to live here?”

Buffalo had believed that all truth came out in the light. Jessica was to understand this conviction of her father’s in the way he kept the lights on in his house, at all times, even when he slept or went away on vacation. Jennifer, who perhaps more than her three sisters—even Lil’ Buff—was created in the image and likeness of her father, has taken up her dad’s affinity for light by keeping his name and case in the public domain since the day she suffered the seismic news that he was dead. She has maintained a siphon between herself and reporters, organized public rallies in Buffalo’s name, and gone on radio to discuss the mysteries surrounding his death. “I have to keep this in the light,” she says. And then, shaking her head: “I can’t help it: I’m just like my father.”

It’s true. Buffalo’s experience was that corruption and injustice and their avatars were, by internal makeup, opposed to the light. The last thing he said to me on the night before he died, after we agreed to meet first thing Monday morning to discuss writing a story about the threats he was receiving, was an axiom he loved to repeat:

“Turn the lights on, and watch the cock-a-roaches run!”

There are still many unanswered questions surrounding Lisa, the last person to be with Barrier while he was alive.

According to Captain Montandon, she told detectives that Barrier had had a seizure, and for that reason she left the motel room that night. Montandon says her explanation for why she left without notifying anyone passed muster with the police.

“There’s no indication that anything she did or did not do was illegal,” he says.

Montandon says Lisa told detectives she was a 10-year friend of Barrier, and that they had met at the Motel 6 to socialize. Montandon does not say if Lisa’s statements to detectives indicate Barrier was taking drugs.  

Nor does Montandon say if her statements indicate why Barrier’s pants were around his ankles when he was discovered dead in his room the next day.    

Montandon says only that “we were able to verify the details of her statements—dates and places and times.”  

None of which has Metro shared with the Barrier family.  

The stress of not knowing these things, as well as other mysteries surrounding Barrier’s death, has become intolerable, says Jennifer. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she says, in tears. “I can’t live without knowing what happened to my dad.”

   

Buffalo is now gone. On the evening of April 5, 2008, exactly two weeks after his 55th birthday, after dining on what looks to be vegetables and coffee, and after driving a Rolls Royce obtained as collateral from eccentric Las Vegas developer Bob Stupak to a motel in a part of town not far from where he got his start in Las Vegas with Dee Egbert more than 30 years earlier, Buffalo shed his flesh, shed his pains, shed his carnal desires, shed his humanly reproaches, shed his vanities and shed his shortcomings, shed it all until there was nothing left save for that magnificent spirit by which his people knew and loved him, free, innocent and unconquerable. And then Buffalo departed.

“Lord, give him a home,” Robert Lueck was to pray at his Las Vegas brother’s funeral one week later, just in case the issue was still on the fence, “where the Buffalo can roam.”

Pastor Marvin Gant states that he does not know for sure what heaven is like, but he suspects it is someplace just like that.

Then, behold, there descended upon Buffalo’s head a dove with impeccable white feathers, and it consecrated Buffalo into his new home with a flutter of its wings. A feather fell, and it drifted down through the wall of oblivion in the opposite direction Buffalo had just come, penetrated the roof of the house Buffalo had lived in with Lil’ Buff and fell to the floor of the room in which Jessica was trying to sleep without success in the wake of her father’s death. She yelled for her sisters to come.

    

“It was a large white feather next to her bed,” says Jennifer. “It was a sign.”  

Buffalo lives. Jessica sees it in the countenance of her newborn, Noah, her third child and Buffalo’s first grandson, whenever the baby sleeps. His face lights up and he smiles in the same way his grandfather did. And I see it at Allstate Auto and Marine Electric. While business there has slowed considerably without Buffalo running the show, the multitudes still come by, the rich and the homeless alike, and they all call each other “brother.”

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