Tragedy Returns to Arizona State

Times Staff Writer

Nearly one year after the outpouring over Army Ranger Pat Tillman's death in Afghanistan galvanized the Arizona State athletic community, it is reeling after the death of another former Sun Devil football player. Tailback Loren Wade, a junior from Los Angeles, is in Madison Street Jail, where for the last four days he has been held without bail in connection with the shooting death of former player Brandon Falkner early Saturday outside a nightclub in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Wade, 21, was charged with first-degree murder Tuesday, shortly after Arizona State football Coach Dirk Koetter acknowledged at a news conference that there may have been signs the former Gardena Serra High star was headed for trouble but that he had failed to "connect that dot."

Tillman was a beloved undersized linebacker at Arizona State who went on to star at safety in the NFL and turned down millions of dollars to enlist in the Army. His death, while he was on a combat mission, resonated worldwide and led to scholarship funds and a memorial service televised on ESPN.

The death of Falkner, 25, a defensive back who last played for the Sun Devils in 2001, has cast an entirely different pall because of the circumstances.

The juxtaposition of tragedies was not lost Monday as outgoing Arizona State Athletic Director Gene Smith held a news conference outside Sun Devil Stadium, about 50 feet from the spot where, last April, streams of mourners lighted candles and laid flowers for Tillman at a makeshift memorial.

"There is a huge sense of failure, a huge sense of guilt," Smith said. "You don't know what you could have done."

Koetter said Tuesday that, since September, Wade had made two threats against female athletes and had been involved in two other incidents -- about which he declined to elaborate -- that might have constituted red flags.

Wade reportedly made threats against his girlfriend, former Arizona State soccer player Haley von Blommestein, and gymnast Trisha Dixon.

Arizona State gymnastics Coach John Spini told Associated Press that Dixon told him Wade had threatened her because she told a friend that she had seen Wade with another woman and word got back to von Blommestein. Wade later apologized and the incident was nearly forgotten when Ray Leone, von Blommestein's coach, learned that the woman was scared to break up with Wade and that the running back might have a gun.

Early this month, Leone took his concerns to Koetter, who said he called Wade's mother, Patsy Webb, in Los Angeles. Koetter said she denied that her son had a gun.

A few hours later, Wade called his coach, telling him that his relationship with von Blommestein was ending. Koetter asked Wade to allow von Blommestein to speak to him, and when she did she said she was not in danger and that she doubted Wade had a gun.

Wade was vying to regain his starting tailback spot on a Sun Devil team that next year hopes to challenge two-time defending national champion USC for the Pacific 10 Conference title. He sat out nine games in 2004 after being suspended for alleged rules violations, but had been cleared for spring practice last week pending a final ruling from the Pac-10.

Saturday morning was supposed to have been Wade's first practice day in pads. At the time Sun Devil players convened, however, Wade was in jail. His preliminary court hearing is April 4.

Sun Devil players returned to spring practice Monday but were off limits to the media through Tuesday.

News of Falkner's murder rippled across campus.

"I was astonished," Chris Parkinson, a freshman, said during a homework break on a sun-splashed afternoon. "For something like this to occur, and him [Wade] being liable, it's mind-boggling to me. I can't even believe it, being a student here."

Police say Wade was summoned to the hip-hop Coyote Bay Night Club early Saturday morning to pick up van Blommestein. When he arrived, she was speaking with Falkner, who was seated in his BMW along with three friends.

Wade reportedly approached the vehicle, had "sharp words" with Falkner and fired one shot into his head. Off-duty Maricopa County sheriff's deputies, who were working security at the nightclub, arrested Wade.

"It's a shooting that happened in front of lot of people," Scottsdale Police Sgt. Mark Clark said. "The shooter, guy who did it, was arrested at the scene right away. Beyond that, it's certainly not a case where we're looking for suspect. We got the guy who did it, no one's disputing that."

Falkner was not believed to be romantically involved with van Blommestein.

Wade told investigators his gun "just went off" during a confrontation with Falkner.

At least seven people witnessed the shooting.

Arizona State football players met Monday with crisis counselors, who encouraged the team to resume some semblance of normalcy.

Smith, who plans to leave the school April 14 to become athletic director at Ohio State, said he was numbed by the tragedy but thought it was an isolated incident and not a systemic failure.

"The reality is we will be stigmatized to some degree like Baylor," Smith said of the scandal that last year rocked the Texas school.

The Baylor case involved the murder of basketball player Patrick Dennehy -- allegedly by former teammate Carlton Dotson -- and a subsequent cover-up involving then-coach Dave Bliss, who tried to portray Dennehy as a drug user in tapes secretly recorded by an assistant coach.

"It's far from the Baylor situation," Smith said. "Everything from me standing here and being open to you. There's nothing we're hiding. It's a little different from that one but, yeah, the black eye's the same."

Smith said Arizona State has a strict policy against its athletes carrying weapons and that his department "constantly" preaches to players about its no-gun policy.

"Obviously, it didn't work," Smith said.

Smith, a defensive end on Notre Dame's 1973 national championship team, termed "scary" the proliferation of gun use in society.

"I got my butt kicked a lot of times, by a lot of fists and a lot of kicks in the side," he said. "Today those aren't kicks. It's a different deal."

A sports information assistant described Wade as "humble" and "quiet."

Asked if she knew Wade well, she replied, "I thought I did."

Wade is not the first Arizona State tailback to run afoul of the law. Last year, Koetter dismissed Hakim Hill after a series of off-the-field problems. Hill transferred to Northern Iowa but was soon dismissed after an altercation with a police officer in Iowa City.

Wade was not a household name outside Tempe sports circles but figured prominently in the future of a struggling Arizona State running game that averaged only 3.3 yards per carry last year.

Wade rushed for 1,391 yards and 16 touchdowns as a senior at Serra in 2002.

He rushed for 773 yards for Arizona State as a freshman in 2003 and had 203 yards in 50 carries in three games last year before his suspension.

Arizona State has 15 starters returning from last year's 9-3 team and is expected to be a top-20 team in many preseason polls.

"It makes us look really bad," said Parkinson, a broadcast-journalism major who played football at nearby Desert Mountain High. "To find out that one of our big players on the football team was involved in a murder? It's a pretty big deal. Of course it's going to reflect on ASU."

At "The Cap Company," a sports apparel store downtown, manager Tim Soukup, an Arizona State graduate, recalled the international outpouring that followed Tillman's death and how his legacy, on the field and in battle, reflected positively on the school.

"This story is the exact opposite," Soukup said of the Falkner case.

Soukup said he doesn't believe the football program should be held responsible for what happened.

"I think people will look at it as an isolated incident of an incredibly unthinking kid," he said.

Soukup said he considered the point-shaving scandal involving the basketball team in the 1980s more of an indictment of the athletic department.

Not in dispute is the fact it will be some time before Arizona State comes to terms with Falkner's death and the man who allegedly pulled the trigger.

"There are two lives lost here," Smith, the athletic director, said. "One permanently. Lord knows where the other one goes."

Associated Press contributed to this report.

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