Featured photo: Lobo baseball coach Ray Birmingham wipes away tears during a May 6 news conference about Jackson Weller, who had been gunned down two days earlier (GoLobos.com).
By Mark Smith
Editor in Chief
Enchantment Sports has learned that at least one University of New Mexico Lobo baseball player and a former Lobo women’s soccer player were with Jackson Weller the morning that Weller was shot dead in Nob Hill. However, neither is yet on District Attorney Raul Torrez’s witness list.
It is just the preliminary list. Witnesses can be added or subtracted as the investigation continues.
During a June 4 news conference, UNM baseball coach Ray Birmingham and athletic director Eddie Nuñez said Weller, a Lobo baseball player who never played an official game for the team, was protecting a “first date” just before he was killed.
However, to this point, there is no woman on the witness list.
There are numerous police officers and first respondents on the list, but there are only three identified as eyewitnesses. All three are men, and none are on the 2018-19 Lobo baseball roster.
Sources, however, confirmed that Weller was with another Lobo baseball player when he was gunned down.
Like Weller, the other man is from Texas.
The soccer player, according to sources, was last on the UNM women’s roster in 2018.
Sources did not know if she is the “first date” to whom Birmingham and Nuñez referred.
At the June 4 news conference, Nuñez said the alleged “first date” was “not a student-athlete, but we’re basically taking her in as one of ours. It’s tough for her right now as it is for the other student-athletes that were with her at the time and everyone else who saw the incident firsthand.”
Darian Bashir, the alleged gunman, is in custody and charged with murder. He has pleaded not guilty. The 23-year-old Bashir, an alleged gang member, was on the streets despite being arrested twice in less than two years – once for shooting a man and the other time for shooting a semi-automatic assault rifle out of a car, nearly hitting two cops.
Meanwhile, Birmingham finally answered one of the many questions Enchantment Sports has asked him since the killing of Weller.
Just not to the website.
And chances are good that Birmingham won’t be speaking to any media, at least on the record, in the near future. He was apparently forced to cancel a scheduled interview with an Albuquerque radio station Tuesday (July 2) afternoon.
Earlier on Tuesday, the Albuquerque Journal published a story — with Birmingham being quoted multiple times — about how crime has hurt his recruiting.
The story was written by the Journal’s Ken Sickenger, the paper’s Lobo baseball beat writer.
The story said Colton Onstott was in the Lobo program last fall but transferred after having his truck, wallet and phone stolen at gunpoint in November.
Numerous times during the season, Birmingham told reporters about a player transferring out of the program after being held-up at gunpoint, but it was never reported by any local media.
Santa Fe New Mexican sports writer Will Webber mentioned it for the first time in a story about Weller’s homicide on May 4. But that story did not use Onstott’s name or any details. The Journal, again after Weller’s death, also mentioned that Birmingham had alleged such an incident, but also did not give Onstott’s name or details.
Enchantment Sports emailed Birmingham, Nuñez and UNM athletics communications director Frank Mercogliano multiple times since early May, asking who the player was and what the details were.
UNM refused to answer.
Enchantment Sports has been publishing a series on Weller’s killing, which has discovered vast contradictions in what Birmingham and Nuñez said happened before the homicide and what eyewitness accounts. The UNM version also contradicts a surveillance video of the killing, which Enchantment Sports has viewed numerous times.
Also on Tuesday, KQTM Radio (101.7 FM) handed Birmingham an open platform to talk about how crime in Albuquerque has hurt his recruiting.
Hurting Lobo baseball recruiting, after all, is apparently the straw that broke the camel’s back for residents and politicians to curb violent crime in this out-of-control city.
But despite Birmingham having a golden opportunity to get on a soap box, facing nothing but soft-soap questions, he canceled a scheduled live interview just two minutes before The Jim Villanucci Show at 4 p.m.
Villanucci told his listeners that Birmingham said “his boss” wouldn’t let him do the interview.
So instead of giving himself the opportunity to divert attention from the Weller killing, Birmingham left Villanucci awkwardly filling the first half-hour informing his audience that crime, indeed, is bad.
Villanucci did not address the contradictions between Birmingham’s version and the eyewitness accounts of Weller’s killing.
Those contradictions, however, could soon hit the mainstream.
And don’t expect Birmingham’s “boss” – athletic director Nuñez – to allow the coach to present any more of his versions of the tragedy anytime soon.
Birmingham, Nuñez and the sweep-it-under-the-rug UNM athletics department could soon be facing much more scrutiny starting today.
And not just from Enchantment Sports.
At least eight media sources have been in contact with Enchantment Sports about its series, but none has been given approval from its upper management to report on the website’s findings.
However one Albuquerque television station told the website it will report some new information by next week.
Thus, Birmingham and Nuñez could finally get grilled – from an outlet other than Enchantment Sports – with real questions about why Weller was shot dead in the wee hours of May 4 in Nob Hill.
They didn’t give any information about the homicide during a May 6 news conference, two-and-a-half days after Weller was killed, speaking only about Weller — who Birmingham called “John Wayne.” A month later in the second news conference, they gave their accounts of Weller trying to protect his date.
Enchantment Sports emailed Nuñez asking if he gave Birmingham the go-ahead to do the interview for the Journal story and why he didn’t allow the coach to do the radio interview.
Nuñez did not respond.
While the July 2 Albuquerque Journal story mentioned Weller being killed, it did not address any of the information that Enchantment Sports has detailed about Weller’s actions the morning of his homicide.
Witnesses said Weller was kicked out of Nob Hill Bar & Grill, then got beat up in a fight that he instigated by shoving his way into a line at a late-night outdoor food stand, then approached the shooter multiple times for reasons that, apparently, had nothing to do with his fight.
Birmingham and Nuñez have yet to address any of Weller’s actions prior to his killing. They have also refused to answer repeated questions from Enchantment Sports about why they gave the accounts of Weller trying to protect a date.
Besides documenting Onstott’s allegations, in which he said there was an arrest, the July 2 Journal story also said:
- Birmingham said a former pitcher, Mike Gould (who last played for UNM in 2016), also had his vehicle stolen by armed suspects.
- Birmingham was quoted as saying that Albuquerque’s crime problems had a “negative” impact on Lobo baseball recruiting.
- The coach wrote a letter to the Journal in August of 2017 seeking changes to the criminal code in New Mexico.
That information begs some huge questions:
- If Birmingham is so concerned with Albuquerque crime taking a toll on his teams, why doesn’t he have a curfew for his players?
Weller and at least two of other Lobos, according to sources, were out in Nob Hill in the early-morning hours on May 4. What’s more, the Lobos had an important Mountain West Conference game against Air Force scheduled at 2 p.m., that day.
- If you are trying to reassure parents about sending their young men to the Lobo baseball program in violent Albuquerque, wouldn’t you want to assure them you are going to make sure the student-athletes are in before midnight – at least on game nights?
- And why did Birmingham give the account of Weller “protecting a date” before he was killed, instead of using Weller’s escapades that evening an example of what can happen when you put yourself into bad situations?
- Why hasn’t Birmingham used this as a teachable moment instead of trying to make Weller sound like he was doing something heroic, and calling him “John Wayne?”
All great questions, yet again.
Just don’t expect answers soon.
Mark Smith has worked in New Mexico sports media for more than four decades, and is one of the most decorated sports journalists in state history. Smith has won more than 30 combined awards in print, television and radio. He is the editor in chief of Enchantment Sports. Contact him at mark.enchantmentsportsNM@gmail.com.