Alabama Basketball Manager Says He, Not Player, Was at Deadly Shooting

A student manager of Alabama’s men’s basketball team said Friday that he had been a passenger in the car of a star player, Brandon Miller, during a January shooting in Tuscaloosa. One person was killed and Mr. Miller’s car was hit by stray bullets in the episode, which involved multiple vehicles.

The manager, Cooper Lee, acknowledged his presence at the crime scene to The New York Times after another player, Kai Spears, sued the newspaper this week for having reported in March that he had been in Mr. Miller’s car when its windshield was struck by bullets.

Mr. Spears has denied being in the car and said in the lawsuit that being falsely identified as the passenger “will forever label him as a person associated with a murder.” The lawsuit, which seeks damages for defamation and invasion of privacy, disclosed for the first time that Mr. Lee had gotten into Mr. Miller’s car at 1:40 a.m. on Jan. 15, just minutes before the shooting.

“I can confirm that I was the passenger in Brandon Miller’s car at the time of the shooting,” Mr. Lee, 21, said in an email to The Times. Mr. Lee, who is not accused of wrongdoing, declined to comment further beyond confirming that Mr. Spears was not in the car. His LinkedIn profile lists him as a hospitality and sports management major at the university.

A spokeswoman for The Times, Danielle Rhoades Ha, said the article would be corrected.

“We have a longstanding policy of correcting errors,” she said in a statement. “Based on information in the affidavit and new reporting by our newsroom, we believe our original story was not accurate and plan to append an editor’s note to the story.”

Two people have been charged with capital murder stemming from the shooting: Darius Miles, who began the season on the team, and his friend Michael Davis, who was accused of firing the fatal shots that killed Jamea Harris, 23, a passenger in a second car. Mr. Miles pleaded not guilty; Mr. Davis is seeking youthful-offender status.

Mr. Miller, likely to be a top pick in the N.B.A. draft, and Mr. Lee were not harmed and have not been implicated in the incident, which unfolded as bars emptied out along the Strip, a gathering spot near campus along University Boulevard.

Ms. Harris’s killing has garnered widespread attention, coming at a time when the University of Alabama team, the Crimson Tide, was among the top-ranked in the country and contending for a national championship. Alabama’s handling of the case has been closely examined in the months since, as players present at the crime scene continued to suit up for games while the authorities investigated.

Two months after the episode, on March 15, The Times reported that Mr. Spears, who was a freshman walk-on, had been in Mr. Miller’s car during the shooting. The identity of Mr. Miller’s passenger was attributed by The Times to a person familiar with the investigation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

In a brief locker-room interview then, Mr. Spears was quoted by The Times as saying, “I’m sorry, I’m not going to be able to speak about that.”

The shooting unfolded as bars emptied out along the Strip, a gathering spot near campus along University Boulevard in Tuscaloosa.Credit…Gary Cosby Jr.-Tuscaloosa News/USA Today Network

But after the article published online, Mr. Spears, his family and the university said the account was inaccurate, and The Times updated the article to reflect their statements.

An Alabama athletics spokeswoman said at the time that “based on the information we have, there were no current student-athletes present at the scene other than Brandon Miller and Jaden Bradley,” a player who was in a third car near the shooting. The university’s athletic director, Greg Byrne, said in a statement that it was not true that Mr. Spears was present.

And Mr. Spears’s father, Christian Spears, who works at Marshall University as athletic director, said in a statement on Marshall’s athletic website that he was “disappointed in the irresponsible and demonstrably false reporting by the NY Times.”

The lawsuit, filed on Wednesday in federal court in Alabama, said that lawyers for Mr. Spears had sought a retraction from The Times on March 20 but the newspaper did not grant the request.

Mr. Spears was “wrongfully thrust into nationwide news,” leading to emotional distress for being linked to a “criminal event,” the suit states.

The suit provided the first public accounting of Mr. Spears’s whereabouts during the shooting, including a sworn statement from a visiting high school friend and exchanges from FaceTime video calls with Mr. Bradley, who has since transferred to the University of Arizona.

After Alabama’s win against Louisiana State on Jan. 14, Mr. Spears went to eat at a Waffle House with two high school friends visiting from Clemson University before returning to his dorm to get ready for a night out, which included dining with Mr. Miller at a barbecue restaurant near the Strip, according to the suit and the sworn statement from the friend, Dylan Serafini.

At the barbecue restaurant, Mr. Spears had a FaceTime call with Mr. Bradley, who, along with Mr. Miller, asked Mr. Spears and his friends if they wanted to stay out. They declined because of the late hour, and Mr. Spears and his high school friends headed home, while Mr. Miller got into his car with the team manager, Mr. Lee, the suit says.

Within minutes, Mr. Spears was back on FaceTime with Mr. Miller and Mr. Bradley to ask where they ended up going, the suit says. He learned then that shots had been fired at the windshield of Mr. Miller’s car and the young men were “frantic.”

“Jaden Bradley was upset and shows Kai on FaceTime Brandon Miller’s windshield with bullet holes and tells Kai Spears he must call him later,” Mr. Serafini said in his sworn statement.

On Friday, the Alabama athletic department referred to their statement in March in which the athletic director said both Mr. Bradley and Mr. Miller were cooperating witnesses and had not been charged with any offense or violated any university policy.

Julie Tate contributed research.

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