A 16-year-old accused in the fatal shooting of Santa Fe High School basketball star Fedonta “JB” White tried to calm a tense and volatile situation at a raucous party before he fired a gun in a desperate attempt to avoid a violent confrontation with the popular athlete, his attorney said Tuesday.
“This is a horrible case, but it’s not quite the same as people think,” Dan Marlowe, who is representing Estevan Montoya, said in an interview. “I don’t think my guy is the evil guy that everybody thinks he is.”
Marlowe’s assessment of the shooting and the events that led to it was met Tuesday with disagreement, if not disdain, by an attorney representing White’s family.
“Anyone that tries to slander his [White’s] name at the benefit of just providing a legal defense for the suspect, that should be shameful,” said lawyer Jerry Archuleta, who added the family enlisted his services because they anticipated the defense would cast doubt on White’s reputation.
Archuleta, who knew White, called him an “honorable young man” who was “great around children and really represented our community well.”
“You put him on one side and you put somebody who has had a long extensive criminal history since the age of 14 and perpetuated violence and then you want me to judge the character side by side — to me, it’s clear,” Archuleta said.
Montoya has been in trouble with the law since before he was a teenager.
A senior trial attorney with the District Attorney’s Office said at recent court hearing Montoya was first referred to Children’s Court on a count of larceny when he was 10. He got in trouble again earlier this year after police discovered 57 grams of marijuana in Montoya’s backpack at Capital High.
Marlowe, who has previously raised the possibility of self-defense, said his client was dealing with the shooting death of his friend Ivan Perez, 17, when he attended the late-night house party in Chupadero on Aug. 1. Perez had been shot multiple times in the chest in the parking lot of a south-side apartment complex about two weeks prior.
Montoya “was right next to” Perez when he was killed and was still “freaking out” over the deadly incident, Marlowe said.
“I said, ‘Why do you have a gun? You’re just a [expletive] kid,’ ” Marlowe said. “He goes, ‘Because I was afraid.’ ”
Marlowe said he didn’t know where his client obtained the gun.
“I know that he shouldn’t have had it. He’s a kid, you know?” he said.
Marlowe said Montoya and White were acquaintances who had played basketball together.
White, widely considered to be one of the greatest basketball players to emerge from Santa Fe, had been recruited to play for the Lobos at the University of New Mexico this year. He had graduated early from Santa Fe High to get a start on his college career.
But the 18-year-old’s promising future was cut short at the party.
“There was fighting at the party. There were gangbangers at the party, apparently, and there was underage drinking,” Marlowe said.
Montoya “wasn’t part of any of that,” he added. “He was just sitting by himself, and he heard all the fighting or the arguing going on outside and tried to calm them down. That’s when he got called out.”
Marlowe said White challenged Montoya to a fight.
“JB said, ‘You want some of this?’ and took his chain off and came after him,” Marlowe said. “My guy ran away, and JB chased him.”
According to a statement of probable cause, a witness told investigators several fights broke out during the party. At one point, Montoya “came around and said something” to White, and the pair appeared to start to fight, the document states.
The witness “advised JB White appeared to swing ‘punch’ at Estevan,” according to the statement of probable cause. Montoya then started to run, and White “started to chase after him swinging one more time,” the document states.
That’s when Montoya is accused of pulling out a gun, apparently from his waistband, and firing a shot that struck the 6-foot-8 White, who fell to the ground.
Montoya “was running for his life,” Marlowe said, adding that his client is about 5-foot-9 and weighs about 125 pounds. He noted White was about a foot taller and weighed more than Montoya.
“What would you do if LeBron James was coming after you?” Marlowe asked, referring to the 6-foot-9 professional basketball player.
Archuleta, who represents White’s family, disputed Marlowe’s version of events and said “even the limited number of people” he’s interviewed have described Montoya as the aggressor in the altercation.
“He at any time could’ve just left the residence,” Archuleta said, referring to Montoya. “There were so many things he could’ve done where shooting a gun at anybody that’s unarmed should absolutely be the last resort. My belief is if you are going to fight somebody and you have to take a gun to somebody who is unarmed, it’s because you’re a coward. Dan Marlowe might try to spin it that he was desperately trying to protect himself. I think he was doing it as a cowardice act because based on what I know and what I’ve been told about him, he’s pulled guns on people before.”
Marlowe said his client, a former Capital High School student who faces an open count of murder as well as three other felony charges, didn’t intend to kill White.
“It was just a random shot behind to get him away from him,” he said.
White died at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center later that morning.
Juan Ríos, a spokesman for the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office, said the investigation is ongoing. He said detectives so far have conducted about 20 interviews.
“It was a large party, and there were a lot of juveniles who were in attendance at the party,” he said.
One of the people at the party told The New Mexican two weeks ago there were about 70 people at the party.
Detectives have a list of individuals they still need to interview. Among them is the nephew of Sheriff Adan Mendoza.
“One of the people [detectives] had interviewed identified him as an individual that they remember who was there at the party,” Ríos said, emphasizing the sheriff’s nephew, also a juvenile, isn’t a suspect in the case.
“The individual who is the suspect has been apprehended, taken into custody and charged at this point,” he said.