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January 21, 2011

World in collapse

Weatherford man found dead in cockpit of high-dollar helicopter was facing a criminal investigation, multi-million dollar wrongful death lawsuit, bankruptcy proceedings and was in the middle of a divorce.

By Christin Coyne | ccoyne@mineralwellsindex.com

While officials await a formal ruling on Dempsey Tagler Stice's cause of death, one thing is for certain – he was in the middle of several personal and professional legal issues, the outcomes of which could have ruined him financially.

The 42-year-old Weatherford man was also part of a continuing criminal investigation.

“The investigation is ongoing at this time,” Weatherford Police Chief Mike Manning said Thursday when asked about the nature of the investigation. “Because of aspects of the investigation, we cannot release anything at this point.”

Stice was found Jan. 14 dead in the cockpit of a Robinson R44 Raven II turbine helicopter north of Mineral Wells in far northwestern Parker County near Lake Mineral Wells State Park and Fort Wolters.

Weatherford police this week confirmed with the Index that Stice and his business are the subjects of a criminal investigation.  

After a 15-hour hunt using a forensic radar specialist and area searches by ground and air following a report Jan. 13 of an overdue aircraft from the Weatherford area, searchers located the helicopter around 8:15 a.m. the following day. Stice was reportedly found slumped over in the pilot's seat of the helicopter which landed in a dry creek bottom. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

There was no evidence of a hard landing, Parker County officials said. No trauma was reportedly found on Stice's body and rulings by the Tarrant County Medical Examiners office on the manner and cause of Stice's death are pending lab studies.  

Stice, who founded Stice Electric, Stice Construction and several other companies, was best known as president of Stice Enterprises at the time of his death. The business was the general contractor for many large construction projects in Parker County, including hotels, housing additions, churches, businesses and a medical center and bank.  

A local church that had a two-year relationship with Stice Enterprises for a large renovation and construction project was among those who told the Index Stice performed a satisfactory job for them.  

Stice Enterprises also recently donated work to the Grace House Pregnancy Center, according to an article in the Weatherford Democrat.  

However, court records indicate Stice filed for bankruptcy last May and he and his business were facing several large lawsuits filed in recent years with the Parker County District Clerk's Office.

Stice originally filed for chapter 13 bankruptcy protection in May but later changed it to chapter 11. Dozens of creditors were listed.   

Two other lawsuits alleged Stice Enterprises owed them thousands of dollars for work, materials or services performed for the company.

Divorce filing records also indicate Stice's wife, Shauna Stice, claimed Stice owed her about $24,500, from the $11,000 per month spousal support ordered by the court, over a period of time between May 2009 and February 2010.  

In addition to the allegations of money owed by Stice or his company, Stice was also facing another legal and financial battle.  

A wrongful death lawsuit filed in Parker County in March alleges gross negligence and malice by Stice Enterprises and another defendant, EKTA Group, in the death of 38-year-old Rafael Soto in a construction accident July 13, 2009, during the construction of a hotel at 215 Alford Drive.  

Soto reportedly fell about 25 feet to the ground from a lift bucket with an air conditioner that was being raised four stories and later died, leaving behind a wife and two children.  

“The sky track or bucket was not the factory-specified bucket but instead the bucket was made out of metal at the direction of defendant Stice in order to save the cost of ordering a proper sky track that goes with the lift,” the suit alleges.

The lawsuit accuses the defendants of violation of numerous Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules and regulations, failure to properly train or supervise workers, failure to maintain a safe work area, failure to provide hard hats or harnesses and failure to establish a safety program and requests a total of $30 million for funeral and medical expenses, past and future lost earnings, physical pain and suffering and other damages.  

A call to Stice's attorney was not returned Thursday afternoon.

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