Editor's note: The following is part two of a story detailing the investigation of the slaying of Jason Wright, based on more than 200 pages of court documents that were unsealed last week. Today's story focuses on the investigation.
By TED SULLIVAN
Chronicle Staff Writer
Six days after two former Montana State University football players were involved in downtown brawl in June 2006, an acquaintance of theirs was kidnapped and shot 10 times, including twice in the head.
Jason Wright's body was found June 23, 2006, in a field off Huffine Lane, west of town. His death kicked off an 18-month investigation involving local, state and federal law officers - and a series of arrests of former university athletes.
Prosecutors now are preparing to try two of the young men, Branden Miller and John Lebrum, on charges of murder kidnapping and tampering with evidence.
Miller, 22, of Milwaukee, goes to trial in January. He played basketball for the Bobcats from 2004-05.
Lebrum, also 22, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., goes to trial in April. He played football for the Bobcats in 2003.
But as the investigation unfolded over the past 18 months, six others, including Lebrum, were arrested on drug charges. And three of them were indicted in connection with what law officers said was a cocaine-ring that brought 26 pounds of the drug to Montana from June 2005 to May 2007.
Although the facts surrounding the homicide and who pulled the trigger remain sketchy, court records, interview transcripts and federal indictments unsealed last week detail a history of cocaine sales and violent behavior.
The crime scene
Found near Wright's body that June afternoon were several shell casings from a .40-caliber handgun, lots of shoe prints and a good set of tire tracks. Five days later, police found a black Chevrolet Tahoe abandoned in the driveway of an auto shop in Belgrade.
A state crime lab report later showed that the shoe impressions found near Wright's body and the ones near the abandoned Tahoe were consistent with shoes owned by Lebrum. And, during a recent hearing on the evidence, a detective testified that Miller's .40-caliber handgun had Wright's blood on it. The gun was found a few days after the shooting - in a locker at Montana State University.
The detective also said that tests indicate the gun was the weapon used to kill Wright.
Further investigation revealed that the tire tracks found near the body are consistent with a GMC Envoy that has been connected to former MSU basketball player Aaron Rich, who has not been charged in the case. But Rich was known to buy cocaine from Wright and Miller, according to statements from James Clark, a former assistant basketball coach at MSU and Wright's former brother-in-law.
Court records indicate that defense attorneys for Lebrum and Miller have witnesses who will testify that three other people had motives for killing Wright. They also might argue that Miller and Lebrum acted in self defense. The court records refer to witnesses who have said Wright always carried a handgun because he was threatened with a gun by his Billings cocaine supplier.
Lebrum's police statements are sealed because District Court Judge Mike Salvagni hasn't ruled on whether they will be admissible at trial, so his version of the crime remains unknown. A detective testified in recent hearing, however, that shortly after his arrest Lebrum expressed fear of Miller during police interviews.
Miller's version of the events, as told to investigators, was included in the documents unsealed last week. He told investigators that the night before Wright's body was found he ran into Lebrum at a bar.
At the bar, Lebrum asked Miller for a ride to the Perkins Restaurant on Bozeman's West Main Street, where Wright was dining. On the way to the restaurant, Miller told detectives, he and Lebrum smoked marijuana. They then parked near the restaurant and waited for Wright to come outside.
When Wright left the restaurant, Lebrum, wearing gloves, ran toward Wright, hit him on the head, and loaded him into the back seat of Wright's Chevrolet Tahoe, Miller said. Lebrum then drove the Tahoe west on Huffine Lane with Wright in the back seat.
Miller told investigators he drove away in his own car in the other direction, eventually going to his apartment on Tai Lane. He admitted witnessing the kidnapping, but he denied having any role in the shooting.
"I didn't pull the trigger Š I didn't pull the trigger Š I didn't pull the trigger," Miller told detectives. "(Lebrum) heard that Jason has a lot of money Š so I guess he wanted to rob him or something."
Miller told police he helped cover up the crime because Lebrum threatened him, according to the 148-page transcripts of his police interrogations. Miller also told detectives that Lebrum said "something was gonna happen to me if I didn't … hide the guns for him."
Even though he met with Lebrum and helped cover up the crime, Miller told police he never asked about what happened to Wright. He also told investigators he knew what had happened, even before the homicide was reported in the news.
"I mean, I knew, like once I seen Jason's blood, I knew," Miller told investigators.
Other testimony in the case, revealed in the court records, disputes Miller's version of what happened.
When the cases go to trial, Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert is expected to argue that Miller needed money, knew Wright had a stash of cocaine and planned the robbery in advance. The court records indicate Lambert will argue that Miller and Lebrum ransacked Wright's apartment because they wanted Wright's money and cocaine.
Jordan Wright, Jason Wright's brother and roommate, told the prosecutor he wasn't home the night his brother was "kidnapped and when defendant (Miller) and co-defendant Lebrum went through Jason's room," according to the court records unsealed this week.
Jordan Wright told investigators he was at a friend's house that night and arrived home between 3 and 5 a.m. When he arrived home, he told investigators that the front door of his apartment was open. He also told investigators the lights were on in his brother's bedroom and closet, but his room was undisturbed.
When detectives later searched Jason Wright's apartment, they found "pays and owes" sheets related to drug dealing. A handgun Wright owned was missing. Cocaine residue was found on Wright's bathroom counter.
The cover up
About 3 a.m. June 23, a witness was driving on Huffine Lane west of Bozeman and turned onto Ferguson Avenue. The witness saw a maroon, GMC Envoy parked in the middle of the southbound lane on Ferguson, between the entrance to Casey's Corner and Fallon Avenue.
Approaching the Envoy, the witness saw a man later identified as Wright running away from the vehicle. Wright appeared to be afraid and in a hurry. The witness said Wright attempted to flag him down and even lunged at the vehicle in an attempt to stop it. But the witness kept driving.
Thirty minutes later, a man who lives on Love Lane told investigators he heard five gunshots near his home. He then heard a vehicle speed away, its tires spinning.
Wright's body was found about 10 hours later.
The following day, Miller told detectives that Lebrum met him outside his apartment and asked him to get rid of a bag with Wright's belongings, including Wright's laptop computer and personal documents. Miller said he tossed the belongings in a Dumpster near his home. Those items were later recovered by police.
Miller also said Lebrum asked him to get rid of two handguns. He said he put the guns, ammunition, a scale for weighing drugs and several of Wright's identification cards in a locker at MSU's Brick Breeden Fieldhouse.
Two days after the homicide, Lebrum called Miller and asked him to bring bleach and meet him at the Hilton Garden Inn, where Wright's Tahoe was parked, Miller told detectives. The back window of the vehicle had been broken and the interior was covered in blood. Miller told detectives that he and Lebrum wiped down the car with bleach, then abandoned the car in Belgrade.
When the Tahoe was recovered, police found dried blood on the exterior and interior. A small bag of cocaine and an empty can of bleach were found nearby.
The arrests and the aftermath
Six days after Wright's body was found, Miller and Lebrum were arrested and charged with murder, kidnapping and tampering with evidence.
After the arrests, federal and local investigators uncovered the cocaine-dealing ring. What followed was a series of arrests of former and then-current MSU athletes, including Lebrum's roommate Andre Fuller, on drug charges. Two of the men also were charged with the beating and pistol-whipping of two men outside a downtown bar that June.
Six of those arrested had at one time played football for the Bobcats.
"It's a horrific disappointment for me and the university," football coach Mike Kramer told the Chronicle in December 2006. "For the amount of energy we spent trying to grow and mold and teach, and the amount of expense we used to try and have these guys mature into making the right decisions, (it) can all be tipped over very quickly by the impression of one guy doing something that he shouldn't have."
Shortly after the last arrest, of former wide receiver Rick Gatewood in May, MSU fired Kramer.
This week, Kramer filed a lawsuit against MSU, claiming he was wrongfully fired and the university ruined his reputation across the country. He claims he had absolutely no control over the activities of his former and then-current athletes.
Following the arrests, concerned university officials sought an NCAA review of its recruiting practices. The NCAA's report, released in February, suggested improvements in recruiting, academic and social-mentoring programs, and in the graduation rate of football players.
"What's been happening is a black cloud over all our kids," athletic director Peter Fields told the Chronicle after Kramer's firing. The university has already adopted new mentoring programs for athletes.
"You feel bad for the athletes," Fields said. "You feel bad for the staff that has worked so hard. They get painted with a brush that they're part of a drug university, when it's far from the truth. But that is the perception that is out there."
Five of the eight young men have pleaded guilty to federal or state drug charges; two have been sentenced, one to 30 days in jail and the other to three years. Three still await sentencing hearings.
Of the three men whose cases remain open, the one who faces multiple drug charges is still awaiting a trial date. The two facing murder should see their cases resolved by spring.