MINEOLA, N.Y. – For years, the commercials beckoned TV viewers in New York to do something that seemed laughable at first: order a mattress by phone. But the idea worked, making a mattress mogul of an Ecuadorean immigrant who as a kid had sold soda off the back of a donkey.
"Dial 1-800-MATTRES — and leave off the last S for savings." It was a catchphrase many New Yorkers came to know by heart.
Now, the business empire built on two-hour delivery of Sealys, Sertas and other brand-name mattresses is in ruins, the founder's wife is dead and their son is behind bars, charged with her murder.
Napoleon Barragan, 69, is left to visit his son in a jail hospital ward and watch as the assets of his bankrupt business, 1800Mattress.com, are sold off to the highest bidders.
"It's bad enough to see your business slipping away. I can't imagine the stress he's going through," said Larry Thomas, a reporter for Furniture World magazine, who has covered Barragan and his company for almost two decades.
Eduardo Barragan, 39, is charged with fatally beating his mother, Kay Barragan, 65, after an argument last week at their home in Albertson, on Long Island. His attorney said both mother and son had suffered from schizophrenia.
The family story is both inspirational and tragic. Two of the Barragans' five children died earlier in the decade, a son by drowning, a daughter of illness.
The elder Barragan has not spoken publicly since the slaying of his wife. "His focus is centered on consoling his family," said company spokesman Stan Steinreich.
Kay Barragan helped her husband start Dial-A-Matress in 1976, lending her husband $2,000 she earned from selling Avon products. In the 1980s, the company changed its name to 1-800-Mattres and began running its ubiquitous TV and radio commercials — starting on the Howard Stern radio program — featuring the tagline "Leave off the last S for savings."
The reason for the dropped "S" was simple: The toll-free number would have had one digit too many.
Customers could order a bed over the phone and have it delivered in the metropolitan New York area within two hours. The privately held company, based in Queens, grew into a national leader in the bedding industry with annual sales that topped more than $100 million, according to Furniture World.
"I'd describe him as a visionary," Thomas said. "Nobody would have dreamed that you could sell a mattress over the phone and have it delivered the same day. That was a laughable notion at the time."
Over the years, other mattress businesses started catching up, offering similar customer service and product selection. In recent years, Thomas said, 1800Mattress.com began opening stores, and that may have led to its downfall.
"Retail stores entail a lot more overhead and training of the sales staff is entirely different," he said. "They got away from the business they did best. And contributing to all this was a lousy economy."
In March, the company filed for bankruptcy in Brooklyn. A number of competitors, including Sleepy's, have expressed interest in the company's assets. The court has set a May 28 auction date.
Napoleon Barragan grew up in Ecuador and sold beer and soda off the back of a donkey when he moved to Colombia as a teenager. He and his wife, also from Ecuador, came to the United States in 1968. He worked odd jobs before seeing an ad in the New York City subway for an outfit called Dial-a-Steak.
He figured if it worked for beef, it would work for beds.
Over the years, Barragan shared his wealth, creating scholarships for high school students in Queens and offering internships at his company. He was recognized widely for his charitable work and dreamed one day that his son Luis would take over the mattress business.
That dream was shattered in 2006, when Luis, 34, the company's president and chief operating officer, drowned on a family vacation in Connecticut. Three years earlier, daughter Beatrice Barragan died of an illness when she was 27.
He once told an interviewer the "biggest mistake of my life" was a 1993 conviction for evading $300,000 in taxes. He paid $1 million in fines and spent a year with an electronic surveillance device attached to his ankle. He blamed the legal woes on disorganization.
A funeral was held last weekend for Kay Barragan. Although the couple lived apart for several years, Eduardo Barragan's attorney, Andrew Monteleone, said they maintained an amicable relationship.
Detectives had been called to the Barragan home four times in the month and a half before the killing, but described the calls as "minor in nature." They said mother and son had argued the night before Kay Barragan was found dead, but did not elaborate.
Monteleone said he was told none of the calls involved his client. A police spokesman did not respond to an inquiry about the calls.