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SANTA FE – Estefan Montoya has been sentenced to life in prison for the murder of basketball star Vedonta “JP” White at a house party in the summer of 2020.
Judge T. Glenn Ellington verdict after an emotional hearing in the First Circuit Court on Wednesday.
The family and supporters of both Montoya and White crowded into the Santa Fe courtroom for the hearing.
Eight White family members read letters to the court or have their letters read by prosecutors. There were sighs throughout the courtroom as the Wyatt family described the toll of the 18-year-old’s death on the tight-knit family, and during a series of slide shows showing Wyatt growing up.
Bianca Vega, White’s mother, spoke about the trip to the hospital the night of the shooting. She and her mother were originally concerned about Wyatt’s basketball future. She said she collapsed on the hospital hall floor when she learned of her son’s death.
“I am devastated and confused,” she wrote in a letter read in court.
Jude Voss, White’s grandmother, tried to read a letter in court, but she got overwhelmed with emotion and started crying, so the prosecutor read it for her. In the letter, Voss said she thinks a lot about her grandson’s last moments. Was he afraid? Was he in pain? Was he thinking about his family?
“These are the thoughts that will haunt me for the rest of my life,” she said in the letter.
Montoya, 18, also spoke in court. He apologized to White’s friends and family, as well as to him.
“Whether you believe me or not,” he said, “my intentions were never to harm or kill anyone.”
A jury found Montoya guilty on May 17 in the shooting that occurred in Chupadero, a rural community 15 miles north of Santa Fe. Montoya was convicted of first-degree murder, both intentional and premeditated. He was 16 years old at the time of the shooting.
Jurors also found Montoya guilty of tampering with evidence, unlawful possession of a handgun by a person under 19, and unlawful use of a lethal weapon near a residence.
White was shot during a party that prosecutors said began as a “cold” event between friends. A word about the ceremony spread on social media and attracted a large number of young people, including Montoya and many friends.
Prosecutors argued that Montoya “lured” White into a fistfight in the moments before he pulled out a .380-caliber pistol and fired a single shot into White’s box.
Deputy District Attorney Blake Nichols also told jurors in closing arguments that White “believed he was engaging in a fistfight” and did not know Montoya was armed.
Nichols also argued that Montoya was at least partly motivated by jealousy toward the “tall, athletic, handsome” white.
Nichols told the jury that White was “everything not the defendant.”
White was a nationally ranked basketball player at Santa Fe High School who declined offers from other Division I programs to play at the University of New Mexico Lobos.
White, a 6-foot-5-inch winger, was just days away from moving to Albuquerque to train with Lobos when he was killed on August 1, 2020.
Zach Cole, the white basketball coach and a relative by marriage, said he spoke with several Division I basketball coaches during White’s enlistment. They told Cole that he was coaching a professional basketball player in the future.
“This is what one looks like,” Cole remembers coaches saying. “He’s a star.”
Montoya’s attorney Daniel Marlowe argued that Montoya shot the Elder White in self-defense.
Marlowe told jurors that White was the assailant who stalked Montoya and punched in the moments before the shooting. Marlowe said Montoya pulled out a pistol and shot him over the shoulder as White pursued him.
Montoya fled the scene and was arrested the next morning. The gun was not found.
Marlowe asked Ellington to give his client the possibility of parole in 15 or 20 years. Nichols asked Ellington to stack the maximum sentence for the lesser charges, about 4½ years, plus a life sentence.
Ellington allowed the lower charges sentence to be applied concurrently with the life sentence. Montoya will be eligible for parole after serving 30 years, including the 1 year and 10 months he has already served.
Before announcing the sentence, Ellington said it was a high-profile case due to White’s talents and celebrity status in society. About half of the group of jurors were disqualified after a questionnaire sent to potential jurors showed that they were familiar with the case.
The judge said he noticed an increase in the number of young suspects and victims of gun crime.
“We don’t live in a time when fistfights are taking place and things are resolved this way,” he said. “We live in a time when someone is pulling a gun.”