The Unsolved Mystery Behind The Death Of Buffalo Jim Barrier, The ‘Most Colorful Character’ In Las Vegas

Published October 22, 2022
Updated October 27, 2022

Though James "Buffalo Jim" Barrier's 2008 death was declared accidental and likely related to cocaine use, his family is convinced that he was murdered by his enemies.

To many who knew him, “Buffalo Jim” Barrier seemed invincible. Broad-shouldered with wild, black hair, Barrier was a Las Vegas legend who’d made a name for himself as an auto repairman, a wrestling promoter, and a friend to the variety of characters who make Vegas the unique place it is. When he was found dead in April 2008, much of the city was devastated.

But though a coroner found that the 55-year-old had died from cardiomyopathy — inflammation of the heart — after supposedly using cocaine, Barrier’s four daughters are adamant that their father was murdered.

They point to a number of eerie details surrounding his case, including his missing ID and cash, the shifting testimony of the woman he spent his last hours with, and the all-too-clean motel room where he died.

Buffalo Jim Barrier

Steve MillerBuffalo Jim Barrier had plenty of friends in Las Vegas — and had plenty of enemies, too.

And then, of course, there are the letters. Before he died, Barrier received a number of escalating death threats. What’s more, he had a well-known, long-running feud with his neighbor and landlord, Rick Rizzolo — who happened to be released from prison the day before Barrier was found dead in a motel.

So was Buffalo Jim Barrier actually a victim of foul play? His case is coming to light once more thanks to Netflix’s Unsolved Mysteries, where the details of this Las Vegas mystery will reach a wider audience and the truth may finally be revealed.

How Buffalo Jim Barrier Became A Las Vegas Legend

Born on March 22, 1953, in Cleveland, Ohio, James “Buffalo Jim” Barrier fell in love with Las Vegas at a young age. According to Las Vegas Weekly, he first visited the city when he was nine years old and was so enchanted that he decided that he’d one day return. Barrier made his way back to Vegas in 1971, and he soon built a reputation for himself.

Buffalo Jim At His Auto Shop

Steve MillerAn undated photo of Buffalo Jim outside his auto repair shop.

Starting in 1977, James Barrier put his knowledge about automobile repair to use. He began fixing cars from his van, then he signed a 30-year lease at a shop 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 quipped that he’d once had sex with a buffalo, and Barrier could very well be their love child.

But though Barrier made friends with almost everyone he met — his funeral was attended by a full cast of Las Vegas characters — he also made a significant enemy 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 Jim Barrier’s auto shop. Though Las Vegas Weekly claims that James Barrier tried to befriend Rizzolo, a deep animosity soon bloomed between the two men. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that Rizzolo wanted Barrier to leave so he could expand his club. Barrier wouldn’t budge.

Crazy Horse Too

RaulJusinto/FlickrRick Rizzolo, the owner of Crazy Horse Too, became Buffalo Jim’s sworn enemy.

Over the next two decades, Barrier and Rizzolo clashed. Barrier claimed in a 2002 lawsuit that he found used needles and condoms on his property, had his shop broken into, and sometimes came into work to find his customers’ cars vandalized or towed away.

“I was afraid to leave anything at my lot because of vandalism or them towing cars away,” Barrier said during a hearing. “It was like being under siege.”

So, Buffalo Jim Barrier fought back. With the help of his friend, City Councilman Steve Miller, he launched a campaign of his own against Rizzolo, alleging that he’d witnessed drug use and beatings at Rizzolo’s club.

With Barrier’s help, the FBI and the IRS eventually found that Rizzolo hadn’t been paying his taxes. He was found guilty of tax evasion and sent to prison for a year in 2007. But though his main nemesis was behind bars, Barrier started to receive a number of threatening letters and phone calls.

Death Threat Letter

Steve MillerOne of the threatening letters that Buffalo Jim Barrier received before his death.

He shared details about the threats with a number of Las Vegas journalists, including Las Vegas Weekly‘s Joshua Longobardy. On Friday, April 4, 2008, Barrier called Longobardy to discuss the situation.

“They’re gonna try to do it through a woman,” Barrier told Longobardy, when the journalist told him to be careful. “Or they’re gonna try to drug me.”

Two days later, Buffalo Jim Barrier was found dead at 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

Buffalo Jim Barrier left home around 7:15 p.m. on Saturday, April 5, and promised his daughter, Jerica, that he’d return soon. Surveillance footage at a nearby Motel 6 captured him checking in an hour later and conversing with the clerk, seemingly in good spirits.

The following day, Jerica and her sister Elise were told that their father had died. The Las Vegas Sun reports that Barrier had been found face up in bed, with his pants around his ankles. The coroner later ascribed his death to cardiomyopathy — inflammation of the heart muscle — which had perhaps been brought on by cocaine use.

But not everyone bought that Buffalo Jim Barrier had died of natural causes.

Portrait Of Buffalo Jim Barrier

Steve MillerA portrait of Buffalo Jim Barrier.

“I believe it was a homicide,” his daughter Jennifer told the Las Vegas Review-Journal a few days after Jim Barrier’s death. “It was a murder… from everything I’ve gathered, it looks to be a homicide.”

Many of Barrier’s friends agreed.

“Nothing is adding up here,” his lawyer and friend, Robert Lueck, told the Las Vegas Sun. “It makes no sense.”

And Barrier’s confidant Miller, with whom he battled Rizzolo, darkly referenced the death threats that Barrier had recently received.

“He was my closest friend,” Miller told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “He predicted his own death on the phone Saturday.”

So, is there proof that Buffalo Jim Barrier was killed? Or was his death, as the coroner declared, a tragic accident?

Did Someone Kill Las Vegas’ “Most Colorful Character”?

Buffalo James Barrier In His Shop

YouTubeBuffalo Jim Barrier in his auto shop, where he worked for decades despite harassment from his neighbor, Rick Rizzolo.

To Buffalo Jim Barrier’s four daughters, there are a number of strange things about his death. Jerica and Elise rushed to the motel after hearing that their father had died and found an unsettling scene.

There were two glasses of water on the counter — but their father exclusively drank bottled water. The room was clean — but Barrier was notoriously messy. The police had found his garage door opener — but Barrier always kept it in the car. And Barrier’s wallet was missing most of its cash and his ID.

Then, there was the matter of a woman named “Lisa.” The police found that Barrier had spent his last hours with Lisa, who claimed that she had left the room after Barrier had a seizure. But Barrier’s daughter, Jennifer, doesn’t buy it. She told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that Lisa had changed her story multiple times.

“She lied,” Jennifer said. “I asked why [the police] won’t make her take a lie detector test, and they said she would have to agree to it. The way this has been handled is really not fair.”

Who would have killed Barrier? To his family and friends, the obvious answer is Rizzolo, who had suspected mob ties. Barrier even joked about it, quipping that his greatest professional accomplishment was: “Being able to stay in business while being attacked by the mafia for 25 years.”

For now, the case into Buffalo Jim Barrier’s death seems to be closed. But Netflix’s Unsolved Mysteries is set to take a second look at Barrier’s story, more than a decade after Las Vegas’ “Most Colorful Character” was found dead. The renewed attention is likely welcomed by his daughters, who still wonder what happened to their father.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Jennifer Barrier told Las Vegas Weekly in 2008. “I can’t live without knowing what happened to my dad.”

After reading about the mysterious death of Buffalo Jim Barrier, see how mobster Bugsy Siegel helped put Las Vegas on the map. Then, see these vintage Las Vegas photos that show what it was like before it became the “entertainment capital of the world.”

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Fraga, Kaleena. "The Unsolved Mystery Behind The Death Of Buffalo Jim Barrier, The ‘Most Colorful Character’ In Las Vegas.", October 22, 2022, Accessed May 18, 2024.