BOZEMAN (AP) – Former Montana State men’s basketball player Brandon Miller pleaded guilty Friday for his role in the shooting death of a cocaine dealer in a case that stunned the community and led the school to re-evaluate its athletics recruiting policies.
The 23-year-old Miller pleaded guilty to murder and tampering with evidence in connection with the June 2006 death of Jason Wright, whose body was found in an MSU agricultural field. He also pleaded guilty to assault with a weapon in a pistol-whipping at a downtown Bozeman bar two weeks before Wright was killed. A kidnapping charge in the Wright case was dismissed along with other charges in the bar fight.
District Judge Mike Salvagni scheduled Miller’s sentencing for May 5. The plea agreement recommends consecutive sentences totaling 130 years in prison.
Also charged in the Wright case is John Lebrum, a former MSU redshirt football player. His trial is scheduled for April. Both have been jailed since their arrests in late June 2006.
During Friday’s hearing, Miller said he and Lebrum followed Wright from a restaurant to his house so they could rob him. Miller said Lebrum threatened Wright with a gun and then hit him over the head.
Miller said he drove Lebrum and Wright in Wright’s sport utility vehicle to a location west of Bozeman where Wright jumped out of the vehicle. Miller said Lebrum chased after Wright and that he then heard gunshots.
The version of events is different from the one Miller gave during his interrogation. He said then that he gave Lebrum a ride to a restaurant, where Lebrum kidnapped Wright. Miller said he drove away in the other direction.
“This just demonstrates what we’ve been saying all along is that you can’t trust Branden Miller’s statements,” said Lebrum’s attorney, Al Avignone. “Here he is blaming John Lebrum and minimizing his own role.”
Avignone has said Lebrum denies Miller’s version of events. Records of Lebrum’s interrogation remain sealed while a judge decides if his statements can be allowed at his trial.
Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert and Miller’s public defender Peter Ohman could not immediately be reached for comment over the noon hour.
Investigators have said Miller bought two .40-caliber handguns from a Bozeman pawn shop two weeks before Wright was shot. A detective testified at a recent hearing that one of those guns was the murder weapon and that it had Wright’s blood on it, but that Miller’s DNA was not found at any of the crime scenes.
Miller told detectives that he helped Lebrum cover up Wright’s death by hiding the guns in a locker at the MSU field house, throwing away some of Wright’s belongings and helping clean blood from Wright’s vehicle because he felt threatened.
Miller arrived at MSU as a basketball player in the fall of 2004 and started 27 of 28 games that season. He became academically ineligible and was dismissed from the team on Dec. 6, 2005.
Lebrum was a freshman football player in the fall of 2003. He redshirted during that season and was dismissed from the team on Aug. 30, 2004, for disciplinary reasons, school officials said. Lebrum has also been indicted on federal drug charges, but no details have been released.
A review by the NCAA, the Big Sky Conference and the Southeastern Conference — requested by school officials after the arrests of Miller and Lebrum — said the football program must “be better integrated into the athletics department and university as a whole,” must involve more school personnel in recruiting and limit its reliance on transfers.
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