Buffalo Jim Barrier and the unsolved mystery behind his death
Although James “Buffalo Jim” Barrier’s death in 2008 was ruled accidental and possibly related to cocaine use, his family is convinced he was murdered by his enemies.
To many who knew him, “Buffalo Jim” Barrier seemed invincible. Broad-shouldered and wildly dark-haired, Barrier was a Las Vegas legend who made a name for himself as an auto repairman, wrestling promoter, and friend to the variety of characters that make Vegas what it is. When he was found dead in April 2008, the whole town reeled.
But despite a coroner finding the 55-year-old died of cardiomyopathy – inflammation of the heart – after allegedly using cocaine, Barrier’s four daughters are adamant that their father was murdered. They point to a number of oddities surrounding his case, including his missing ID and money, the changing testimony of the woman he spent his final hours with, and the overly clean motel room where he died.
And then, of course, there are the letters. Before dying, Barrier received a number of escalating death threats. He had a well-known and long-running feud with his neighbor and landlord, Rick Rizzolo – who was released from jail the day before Barrier was found dead in a motel.
So, was Buffalo Jim Barrier the victim of a crime? His case resurfaces with a feature on Netflix Unsolved mysterieswhere the details of this Las Vegas mystery will reach a wider audience.
How Buffalo Jim Barrier became a Las Vegas legend
Born March 22, 1953 in Cleveland, Ohio, James “Buffalo Jim” Barrier fell in love with Las Vegas at an early age. According Las Vegas Weekly, he first visited the city when he was nine years old and was so enchanted that he decided he would return one day. Barrier returned to Vegas in 1971 and quickly established a reputation.
As early as 1977, Barrier put its knowledge of automobile repair to good use. He started fixing cars from his van, then signed a 30-year lease at a store on Industrial Road that he called Allstate Auto and Marine Electric. Along the way, the gregarious, well-built mechanic earned his nickname – Buffalo – after a drunk tourist from Texas joked that he had sex with a buffalo before, and Barrier could very well be their child in love.
But although Barrier befriended almost everyone he met – Las Vegas Weekly reports his funeral was attended by a full cast of Las Vegas characters – he also made a significant foe in the 1980s.
The notorious feud between Rick Rizzolo and Jim Barrier
Rick Rizzolo was the owner of Crazy Horse Too, a gentlemen’s club next to Barrier’s auto shop. However Las Vegas Weekly claims that Barrier attempted to befriend Rizzolo, a deep animosity quickly developed between the two men. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reports that Rizzolo wanted Barrier out so he could expand his club. The barrier did not move.
Over the next two decades, Barrier and Rizzolo clashed. Barrier claimed in a lawsuit in 2002, as reported by Las Vegas Weeklythat he found used needles and condoms on his property, had his store robbed, and sometimes came to work to find his customers’ cars vandalized or towed away.
“I was afraid to leave anything on my land because of vandalism or them towing cars,” Barrier told a hearing, as reported by the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “It was like being under siege.”
So Buffalo Jim Barrier hit back. With the help of his friend, Councilman Steve Miller, he launched his own campaign against Rizzolo, alleging that he had witnessed drug use and beatings at Rizzolo’s club.
With help from Barrier, the FBI and IRS eventually discovered that Rizzolo had failed to pay his taxes. He was convicted of tax evasion and sent to prison for a year in 2007. But despite his main enemy being behind bars, Barrier began to receive a number of threatening letters and phone calls.
He shared details of the threats with a number of Las Vegas reporters, including Las Vegas Weeklyis Joshua Longobardy. On Friday, April 4, 2008, Barrier called Longobardy to discuss the situation.
“They’re going to try to do it through a woman,” Barrier told Longobardy, when the reporter told him to be careful. “Or they’ll try to drug me.”
Two days later, Buffalo Jim Barrier was found dead in a Motel 6. Rick Rizzolo had been released from prison the day before. So what exactly happened to Barrier?
The shocking death of Buffalo Jim Barrier
Las Vegas Weekly reports that Barrier left home around 7:15 p.m. on Saturday, April 5, and promised his daughter, Jerica, that he would be back soon. Surveillance footage at a nearby Motel 6 captured him checking in an hour later and chatting with the receptionist, apparently in good spirits.
Sunday, according to Las Vegas Review-Journal, Jerica and her sister Elise learned that their father had passed away. The Las Vegas Sun reports that Barrier was found face down in bed, with his pants around his ankles. The coroner later attributed his death to cardiomyopathy – inflammation of the heart muscle – which may have been caused by cocaine use.
But not everyone believed Buffalo Jim Barrier died of natural causes.
“I believe it was a homicide,” his daughter Jennifer told the Las Vegas Review-Journal days after Barrier’s death. “It was a murder…from everything I’ve gathered, it appears to be a homicide.”
Many of Barrier’s friends agreed.
“Nothing adds up here,” his lawyer and friend, Robert Lueck, told the Las Vegas Sun. “It does not mean anything.”
And Barrier’s confidant Miller, with whom he fought Rizzolo, grimly referenced the death threats Barrier had recently received.
“He was my closest friend,” Miller told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “He predicted his own death over the phone on Saturday.”
So, is there any proof that Buffalo Jim Barrier was killed? Or was his death, as the coroner declared, a tragic accident?
Did someone kill the “most colorful character” in Las Vegas?
For Buffalo Jim Barrier’s four daughters, there are a number of weird things about his death. Las Vegas Weekly reports that Jerica and Elise rushed to the motel after hearing their father had died and found a disturbing scene.
There were two glasses of water on the counter, but their father drank exclusively bottled water. Room was clean – but Barrier was notoriously messy. The police had found his garage door opener, but Barrier had always kept it in the car. And Barrier’s wallet was missing most of his money and his ID.
Then there was the case of a woman named “Lisa.” Police found Barrier spent his final hours with Lisa, who claimed she left the room after Barrier had a seizure. But Barrier’s daughter, Jennifer, isn’t buying it. She told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that Lisa had changed her story several times.
“She lied,” Jennifer said. “I asked why [the police] won’t give her a polygraph test, and they said she’d have to take it. The way it was handled is really not fair.
Who would have killed Barrier? For his family and friends, the obvious answer is Rizzolo, who suspected Mafia ties. Barrier even joked about it, saying his greatest career achievement was, “Being able to stay in business while being attacked by the mob for 25 years.”
For now, the case of Buffalo Jim Barrier’s death appears to be closed. But the Netflix one Unsolved mysteries is about to take a second look at Barrier’s story, more than a decade after the death of Las Vegas’ “most colorful character.” The renewed attention is likely welcomed by his daughters, who are still wondering what happened to their father.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” said Jennifer Barrier Las Vegas Weekly in 2008. “I can’t live without knowing what happened to my father.”
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