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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

Posted: Tuesday August 7, 2007 11:00AM; Updated: Tuesday August 7, 2007 3:39PM
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Miller (above) and former Bobcats football player LeBrum allegedly killed Wright, an American Legion baseball coach and suspected drug dealer, further roiling a town known for its vibrancy and beauty.
Miller (above) and former Bobcats football player LeBrum allegedly killed Wright, an American Legion baseball coach and suspected drug dealer, further roiling a town known for its vibrancy and beauty.
Gallatin County Sheriff Department

On a Friday a few months 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 since high school -- over the closing of a youth center, or urging people to vote -- and she knows how to make her point. She banged this one out in 30 minutes on her lunch break.

Kroon, a bookkeeper for a construction company, has short, blonde hair and hazel eyes behind stylish turquoise glasses. She was born and raised in Gallatin County and cherishes her life there. When she sat down to write, Kroon was angry, like many who live in Bozeman. "How far are we, as individuals and most importantly as a community, going to let this deplorable behavior on behalf of the athletic department at MSU go?" Kroon wrote. "Shame on us as a community for not being more outspoken, for not holding the school accountable long ago."

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

While Montana State athletes had been in trouble with the law before -- in 2005 a former Bobcats 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 dealing methamphetamines -- the number and severity of the latest misdeeds were, to Bozemanites, beyond comprehension. The accused have had two things in common: All are African-American and from faraway states such as California and Florida. As Kroon and others see it, the university's athletic department has been importing crime to an idyllic mountain setting. The website Deadspin.com joked that Montana State was bringing Tony Montanas to Montana. Wrote Kroon, "They're destroying the quality of life and general peace of mind in my hometown."

Bozeman (pop. 35,061) sits in a wide swatch of rangeland surrounded by the Absaroka and Gallatin mountain ranges. It often lands on Top 10 lists like America's Dreamtowns (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, whose 12,338 students and 1,067 faculty members give the town just outside the aptly named Paradise Valley an intellectual vibrancy to match its beauty.

On Main Street an ancient Army-Navy store sits a block from Plonk, a four-year-old wine bar that serves Argentine Malbec while a deejay plays Thievery Corporation. Still, a hometown vibe prevails. There are no Starbucks in Bozeman, and if a franchise arrived, residents would likely shrug and continue to support the Rocky Mountain Roasting Company, opened by a local couple 15 years ago.

Accounts vary as to when Montana State began bringing troubled out-of-state athletes to this setting. One football player who attended the Division I-AA school in the early 1990s says the practice started before he got there. "There were players who would brag how they could have gone to a Pac-10 school if they had had the grades, which made you wonder how they got into Montana State," says the player, who asked not to be named. "And everyone on the team knew who the guys were who had been in trouble with the law."

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