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Tragedy Returns to Arizona State

Months after the death of Tillman in combat, tailback Wade is in jail, accused of killing former player Falkner.

March 30, 2005|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

TEMPE, Ariz. — 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.

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