April 8, 2008 - 9:00 pm
There really is no such thing as a larger-than-life character. Even the greatest character, no matter how colorfully robust and seemingly invincible, is always mortal in the end.
The odd death over the weekend of James “Buffalo Jim” Barrier reminds me of this sad truth. He lived like a character torn straight from the pages of a graphic novel.
His body was discovered Sunday in Room 105 of the Motel 6 on the Boulder Highway in a section of the valley known for its brief encounters.
The Clark County coroner’s office is looking into the death, but so far Metro police don’t suspect foul play. His family and friends are certain the 55-year-old father of four was murdered.
To the unsuspecting world, Barrier was the unkempt beast who ran the Auto & Marine Electric shop on Industrial Road next to the infamous Crazy Horse Too topless cabaret. With his bushy beard and long dark hair, he resembled a cross between a professional wrestler and a two-legged bison.
To those who knew him, he was the indefatigable Buffalo Jim, a character for all seasons. He was pals with pro wrestler Yokozuna, produced a wrestling program on low-power television, had been courted for a reality TV series, and planned a gag run for mayor.
Barrier didn’t make the WWF, but how many of us can say our likeness is immortalized on an action figure? Buffalo Jim could.
Of course, how many of us can say we own a fleet of automobiles and an enormous, automated bison with glowing eyes and smoke-snorting nostrils? Buffalo Jim could.
And like an action-comics character, Buffalo Jim is the man who went toe-to-toe against supremely connected Crazy Horse Too owner Rick Rizzolo and came away with a split decision. He waged a daily war against Rizzolo and his crew.
Barrier and former City Councilman Steve Miller became Rizzolo’s worst nightmares — gadflies with guts and an unlimited e-mail account. Although the FBI and IRS were credited with putting Rizzolo out of business, I don’t think they would have been successful without Buffalo Jim.
For his effort, Barrier received death threats. Only weeks ago he said he was threatened by Rizzolo’s father, Bart Rizzolo, and had gone to court on the matter. More recently, Barrier reported his shop had been burglarized and he’d received letters warning him his life was in danger.
“He was my closest friend,” Miller says. “He predicted his own death on the phone Saturday.”
He just didn’t predict the day.
I last spoke with Barrier Friday afternoon. He was excited about his business prospects and was aware Rizzolo had finished his year-and-a-day vacation at government expense. Barrier left no doubt he was concerned for his safety, but he didn’t hide from his enemies or keep a low profile.
He tried unsuccessfully to reach me Saturday afternoon. Something was on his mind.
He left home at 7:20 p.m. Saturday and told his youngest daughter, 15-year-old Jerica, he’d return around midnight. He said he was meeting some people. Jim made no secret he was attempting to sell his vast memorabilia collection to help grubstake the purchase of a new site for his auto repair business. He’d also been communicating with a “life coach,” didn’t use drugs often or drink much, took vitamins and fish oil regularly.
He didn’t come home Saturday night, and by Sunday, Jerica and her 19-year-old sister, Elise, received a phone call informing them of their father’s death.
An eyewitness described the motel scene this way: The room was undisturbed. The bed was made. Barrier was fully clothed except for his shoes.
His wallet contained $1. Although someone used his bank card to secure the room, the receipt wasn’t signed.
Barrier’s daughters say their dad sometimes took half a Valium before bed. A prescription bottle was found in the room. Police officers removed the remainder of the medication and returned the bottle to Barrier’s daughters.
Metro homicide is skeptical, but 24-year-old Jennifer Barrier is convinced her dad’s demise was unnatural.
“I believe it was a homicide,” she says. “It was a murder. We don’t really know until the autopsy. But from everything I’ve gathered, it looks to be a homicide.”
So far, Metro doesn’t agree.
But the mystery only adds to Buffalo Jim’s reputation as a larger-than-life character who was mortal, after all.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295