Trouble in Paradise

Aug. 13, 2007
Aug. 13, 2007

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Aug. 13, 2007

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Trouble in Paradise

Two former athletes allegedly murder a drug dealer. An ex-football player is charged with heading a cocaine ring. Montana State is coping with a crime wave--and with Bozemanites who feel the Division I-AA school's recruits from distant cities are endangering their idyllic town

On a friday a fewmonths ago 23-year-old Ashley Kroon wrote a letter to the editor of the Bozeman(Mont.) Daily Chronicle. She had been writing letters to the newspaper sincehigh school--over the closing of a youth center, or urging people to vote--andshe knows how to make her point. She banged this one out in 30 minutes on herlunch break. ¶ Kroon, a bookkeeper for a construction company, has short,blonde hair and hazel eyes behind stylish turquoise glasses. She was born andraised in Gallatin County and cherishes her life there. When she sat down towrite, Kroon was angry, like many who live in Bozeman. "How far are we, asindividuals and most importantly as a community, going to let this deplorablebehavior on behalf of the athletic department at MSU go?" Kroon wrote."Shame on us as a community for not being more outspoken, for not holdingthe school accountable long ago."

This is an article from the Aug. 13, 2007 issue

Kroon's missivefollowed the most recent alleged transgression by a former or current MontanaState athlete. On May 15 federal investigators arrested onetime star widereceiver Rick Gatewood, 24, from Richmond, Calif., and his brother Randy,accusing them and a second former Bobcats football player (unnamed in theindictment) of running a drug ring that had imported some 11 pounds of cocaineto Montana over a 23-month period. Gatewood allegedly used scholarship money tofront the cash to start his operation in Bozeman. Last winter two other formerfootball players and one current one were also arrested for dealing drugs,including cocaine. (One of them pleaded guilty to two counts of marijuanapossession; the other two cases are pending.) Six months before that, a formerfootball player and a former basketball player from Montana State allegedlymurdered a local man who police believe was a cocaine dealer.

While MontanaState athletes had been in trouble with the law before--in 2005 a formerBobcats point guard served a 90-day jail term for raping a 15-year-old girl; in'04 an assistant football coach was sentenced to four years in jail for dealingmethamphetamines--the number and severity of the latest misdeeds were, toBozemanites, beyond comprehension. The accused have had two things in common:All are African-American and from faraway states such as California andFlorida. As Kroon and others see it, the university's athletic department hasbeen importing crime to an idyllic mountain setting. The website Deadspin.comjoked that Montana State was bringing Tony Montanas to Montana. Wrote Kroon,"They're destroying the quality of life and general peace of mind in myhometown."

Bozeman (pop.35,061) sits in a wide swatch of rangeland surrounded by the Absaroka andGallatin mountain ranges. It often lands on Top 10 lists like America'sDreamtowns (No. 1 by Bizjournals in 2006) or Most Active Towns (Men's Journal,2006). Much of the quality of life can be attributed to Montana State, whose12,338 students and 1,067 faculty members give the town just outside the aptlynamed Paradise Valley an intellectual vibrancy to match its beauty.

On Main Street anancient Army-Navy store sits a block from Plonk, a four-year-old wine bar thatserves Argentine Malbec while a deejay plays Thievery Corporation. Still, ahometown vibe prevails. There are no Starbucks in Bozeman, and if a franchisearrived, residents would likely shrug and continue to support the RockyMountain Roasting Company, opened by a local couple 15 years ago.

Accounts vary asto when Montana State began bringing troubled out-of-state athletes to thissetting. One football player who attended the Division I-AA school in the early1990s says the practice started before he got there. "There were playerswho would brag how they could have gone to a Pac-10 school if they had had thegrades, which made you wonder how they got into Montana State," says theplayer, who asked not to be named. "And everyone on the team knew who theguys were who had been in trouble with the law."

Under coach MikeKramer, who arrived before the 2000 season and led the Bobcats to three Big SkyConference football titles over the next seven years, an average of roughly 35players per team came from California, Florida or a major metropolitan area inanother state, such as Denver. Division I-AA teams are limited to 63scholarships, so in some years Kramer awarded more than half of his to athletesfrom those places. Kramer also had up to 20 transfers on a team, which somecoaches liken to playing with fire: If a player didn't go to a four-yearcollege out of high school, or did go but wanted to leave a year or two later,it's often because of bad behavior or poor academics. The basketball team undercoach Mick Durham was not as reliant on transfers but went from having only twoor three players from faraway states to eight (on rosters of 14) in 2005-06 and'06-07. (Brad Huse replaced the retired Durham before the last season.)

Some minorityathletes recruited from urban areas have thrived in Bozeman. John Taylor, fromDenver, graduated in 2002 and went on to play two years as an NFL defensive endbefore returning with his wife. He is now an assistant in student-athleteservices at the school. But it has also been common for an out-of-state playerto be kicked out of school or leave a team well before his eligibility expired.The most recent six-year graduation rate, for the freshman class that enteredin 1999-2000, was a mere 21% for football and 33% for basketball. Under the newNCAA benchmarks known as the Graduation Success Rate (GSR) and the AcademicProgress Rate (APR), there is no breakdown based solely on transfers. But in2003, the last year such figures were available, 2% of Montana State's footballtransfers and 13% of its basketball transfers graduated. The rate for blacktransfers in both sports: 0%.

One transfer whofailed to graduate was Branden Miller, who arrived in Bozeman in 2004. He hadgone to high school in Milwaukee (earning all-area honors as a 6' 1" pointguard) and then to Colby (Kans.) Community College. The bounty of outdooractivities in Gallatin County--skiing, fly-fishing, rafting--that luretelecommuters from Silicon Valley and Seattle held no appeal to Miller. He tolda reporter from the Bozeman Daily Chronicle that other than the occasionaldinner with his teammates he mostly stayed in his apartment and played GrandTheft Auto on his PlayStation2.

In December 2005,in the middle of his second season, Miller, a starter averaging 12.2 points,was ruled academically ineligible and left the team. The following April heentered his girlfriend's apartment in Bozeman and kicked in her bedroom doorbecause he suspected that she had been unfaithful. He shattered a mirror, brokea cellphone and punched a wall. Miller told a judge at the time of his arreston charges of partner assault and criminal mischief that when he graduated withhis degree in sociology in May 2006, he would move back to Mississippi; he wasborn in Starkville. (Miller eventually pleaded no contest and was credited withtime served.)

But Miller neitherfinished school nor left town, and on an evening in late June of last year hegot a call from John LeBrum, a former Montana State defensive back, who wanteda ride to a Perkins restaurant. Miller picked him up, and when the two men,then both 22, got to Perkins, they spotted the black Chevrolet Tahoe of JasonWright, 26, a restaurant worker and coach of a local American Legion baseballteam, who police would later learn was also dealing cocaine. According tostatements Miller would eventually make to the police, when Wright emerged fromthe restaurant, the 5' 11", 175-pound LeBrum, who was wearing gloves,rushed toward him and punched him in the head, knocking him to the ground.

LeBrum, a FortLauderdale native who was suspended from the Montana State team in the fall ofhis first season (2003) and dismissed the following spring for undiscloseddisciplinary reasons, had previously shown the damage he could do with a singleblow. In October 2005 he punched a player who blocked his shot during a pickupbasketball game on campus, shattering the man's jaw. LeBrum was convicted offelony criminal endangerment, handed a six-year deferred prison term andordered to pay nearly $35,000 in restitution.

Miller told policethat LeBrum loaded Wright into Wright's Tahoe and drove west on Huffine Lane.An unnamed witness told police that around 3 a.m. an agitated and scaredCaucasian with blondish hair who the witness was "100 percent" certainwas Wright tried to flag down the witness's car on a street off of Huffine. Thefollowing afternoon Wright's body was found in a nearby field. An examinationfound several blunt-force-trauma injuries and multiple gunshot wounds.

As policeinvestigated, they found "pays and owes" sheets at Wright's apartment.Then James Clark, a Bobcats assistant basketball coach, informed police thatMiller had several handguns and Wright's I.D. card. Police later found thoseitems--including a gun that police told the Belgrade (Mont.) News was the samecaliber as the shell casings found near Wright's body--in another basketballplayer's locker at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse. LeBrum and Miller were arrested onJune 29, 2006, and charged with aggravated kidnapping, tampering withevidence and deliberate homicide. Both men have pleaded not guilty in thecapital case.

News of thearrests shook Bozeman and left Montana State fans feeling violated. The teams,especially football, are well supported by the denizens of Gallatin County. ABobcats victory, such as last year's 19-10 upset of Colorado in the opener,fosters pride and unites the southwestern portion of the state like littleelse. Jeff Welsch, the sports editor of the Chronicle, heard about LeBrum andMiller while on his drive back after fly-fishing on the upper YellowstoneRiver. In the following Sunday paper he wrote, "Murder. Kidnapping.Cocaine. Here. In Paradise. It's all so incongruous, so spiritually bankrupt,so very wrong."

Geoff Gamble,Montana State's president, is short and bespectacled, with a neatly trimmedbeard. He played defensive back for a year at Fresno State and has a doctoratein linguistics from Cal. Gamble, 65, came to Bozeman seven years ago afterserving as senior vice president and provost at Vermont, where a hazing scandalinvolving the hockey team in 1999 drew national attention. He acknowledges thatMontana State could have done more to prevent its athletic department fromembarrassing the school and straining relations with the town. Most notably,says Gamble, "we should not have been bringing in recruits who had littleor no chance of succeeding academically and socially."

Yet according to areport compiled last February by a panel of independent investigators hired bythe school, the Bobcats had been doing just that for years. Investigators foundthat the football program had almost total autonomy in getting recruitsadmitted and that it was "prioritizing the team's competitive needs withoutfull consideration of the academic impact" of taking large numbers oftransfers. The report scolded the program for its low APR, which under NCAAguidelines caused the loss of three scholarships for the coming season. Thebasketball program was spared direct criticism, but the entire athleticdepartment was cited for failing to properly review the academic credentials ofincoming athletes, among other shortcomings.

When the reportcame out, Gamble said there was little in it he didn't already know, andathletic director Peter Fields likened it to a financial audit. Both heapedpraise on Kramer, with Gamble citing his "integrity." Their stancechanged, however, when Rick Gatewood was arrested and charged with conspiracyto distribute cocaine and distribution of cocaine. Police linked the rise incocaine use in Montana to the birth of Gatewood's alleged drug operation,having seized more of the drug in the past two years than in the previous sevenyears combined. "We didn't have a cocaine problem in Montana 20 monthsago," says Lieut. Dan Springer, commander of the Missouri River Drug TaskForce.

Randy Gatewoodpleaded guilty to conspiring to sell cocaine on July 26 and will be sentencedin November; a charge of conspiracy possession is pending. Rick has a Sept. 17court date and has pleaded not guilty. Law enforcement officials in GallatinCounty have declined to comment on a link between Wright's murder and the drugring. However, Miller and LeBrum allegedly joined with Randy Gatewood in afight outside a downtown bar six days before Wright's murder. Gatewood has beencharged with two misdemeanor counts of assault, but police say Miller andLeBrum could also face charges.

The team's leadingpass catcher in 2004 and '05, Rick Gatewood graduated with a degree inpsychology last year and was well liked by teammates, coaches andadministrators. His arrest forced the school to stop selling the idea that afew random incidents had besmirched an otherwise model athletic department. OnMay 18, Fields fired Kramer, citing "a crisis in leadership." Kramerpromptly hired a lawyer and threatened to sue the school for wrongfultermination. "[The firing] was done by people who were covering their ownbacksides," said Kramer's attorney, Cliff Edwards.

Rob Ash, a collegehead coach for 27 years, most recently at Drake, replaced Kramer on June 11.While vowing to implement a culture of accountability, he acknowledges that toremain competitive the Bobcats must recruit in places like California and taketransfers. He vows to investigate every recruit. "This summer we werelooking at a couple of guys, but we found out that they had been kicked off ateam previously," says the 56-year-old Ash. "We also had guys who hadqualifying GPAs, but when we looked at the transcripts closer, we found toomany nonacademic credits, and we couldn't predict success academically for themhere. We didn't take any of them."

Montana State didtake Demetrius Crawford from Sacramento City College in July. According to hiscoach, Mike Clemons, Crawford was available so late in the recruiting cyclebecause it took him longer than expected to get his associate in arts degree."He is a smart kid, and he comes from a good family," says Clemons. Butthen, he also notes, "What coach would tell you one of his players is not agood kid?"

If Montana Statecontinues to bring in black, urban athletes, it must find ways to integratethem into a community that is 95% white, and where, given the events of thelast year, even residents like Ashley Kroon believe the town is better offwithout them. Other schools face similar--if less daunting--challenges. At theNCAA convention last year, several college administrators attending a seminaron athletes and crime pleaded for ways to help athletes adapt to ruralsurroundings; many inquired about the need to run background checks onrecruits. "You could tell that [the school officials] were frustrated,"says Richard Ashby, a Southern California police detective of 14 years whospoke at the convention. "Schools are not equipped to deal with some of theathletes they admit. They are shocked when they bring friends with them, peoplewith a criminal history.

"And if thesekids, for whatever reason, should no longer have a team to play for, they oftenrevert to what they grew up around, which can be dealing drugs or othercriminal behavior. That's what we saw in Bozeman."

Ashby offered asuggestion at the convention that few schools are likely to heed: "If youcan't afford to have someone looking after these kids at all times--to monitorwhom they are with, to counsel them--if you don't have people who are like themin a place that they can trust, don't recruit them."

When Montana Stateofficials defend their recruitment of inner-city athletes, they point toplayers like Evin Groves, a senior running back from San Diego. In hishometown, Groves says, "guys get caught for drugs or for something else sooften you hardly pay attention." In Bozeman he found a safe haven, thoughnot without enduring a long period of adjustment that began on his first daythere. "I walked into the dorm, and someone gave me an envelope with fivedollars and said, 'God bless you,' " he says. "I still don't know whatthe hell that was about. I don't know if they gave it to me because I was blackor what."

Groves was luckyto find older teammates who guided him, people he could talk to about thestares he received when Martin Luther King was discussed in history class orwhen students misunderstood his slang. "A lot of people here think I am athug just because my jeans aren't as tight as a rancher's," says Groves,who won't play his final season because of a knee injury. A support groupcalled Focus on Motivated Minorities (FAMM), which was started by two blackassistant coaches in 2004, aided the acclimation of Groves and others. But whenthe FAMM coaches told administrators they couldn't continue without fundinglater that school year, the athletic department allowed the group to fold.

Gamble and Fieldshave since created One Team, a committee whose long-term goal is a deeperconnection between members of the athletic department and the university atlarge. They believe the town needs to be more accepting as well. "There aresome folks who say if we just brought in Montana kids none of this wouldhappen," Gamble says. "But you can't isolate yourself. . . . This is arapid-growth area, and the Gallatin Valley and the university are going to haveto go through some growing pains."

Residents likeKroon have their own radical solution: Athletes who no longer compete forMontana State must leave Bozeman. "But you can't make someone leave,"says Fields. "You would assume that they would go home, but they askthemselves, Can I make a living here, or do I want to be confined to an urbansetting? We have a good quality of life here."

In other words,what makes Bozeman appealing, what makes residents want to defend it, alsomakes it vulnerable. Kroon, for one, is still chilled by what she saw two daysafter Wright's body was found in that wheat field.

Each summer,students and Bozemanites flock to a section of the Madison River that is mostlyshallow and calm. They pile into inner tubes and enjoy a meandering float. Onthat Sunday, Kroon shared the river with, of all people, Miller and LeBrum. Shesaw them floating and laughing with a gaggle of young women and then, five dayslater, she saw their pictures in the newspaper and read stories describing themurder. They had allegedly killed a man, she thought, and then floated abeautiful stretch of a magnificent river.

"They shouldbe giving those scholarships to farm boys," Kroon says.

Her feelings,which is to say the feelings of many in Bozeman, aren't likely to changesoon.


Extreme Measures

George Dohrmann on how some schools are doingbackground checks on recruits.


Miller told a reporter that other than the occasionaldinner he MOSTLY STAYED in his apartment and played Grand Theft Auto.
Investigators found that the football program hadalmost TOTAL AUTONOMY and that it prioritized "the team's competitiveneeds."
"Folks say if we just brought in Montana kids, noneof this would happen," says Gamble. "But you CAN'T ISOLATEyourself."
Miller (4, and mug shot top left) and former Bobcats football player LeBrum(mug shot, center) allegedly killed Wright (far right), an American Legionbaseball coach and suspected drug dealer, further roiling a town known for itsvibrancy and beauty.
Kramer (left) brought in Gatewood, a star receiver who allegedly used some ofhis scholarship money to start a drug ring.
In her letter to the newspaper Kroon (right) decried the Bobcats'"deplorable behavior," which Ash must now address.