LAS CRUCES, N.M. (KRQE) – A deadly shooting at an off-campus house party near New Mexico State University has led the victim’s family to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the university, one of its coaches, and a professional soccer academy program. It’s also sparking new concerns about athletic programs at NMSU.
Body camera footage from Las Cruces Police shows neighbors describing to officers what happened when a house party in July 2021 ended with the shooting death of 23-year-old Nicodemus “Nico” Gonzales.
“They had a couple people pinned to the ground; they were beating on people,” said one neighbor to police. “And then I heard eight to ten shots.”
Gonzales, who heard about the party on social media, attended with some co-workers, court documents state. According to police, a fight broke out and when Gonzales tried to run away, he was shot twice and died.
“When firearms were pulled out, he tried to protect his friends, told people to get away, started running and was shot and killed,” said Mollie McGraw, the attorney representing Gonzales’ family in a wrongful death lawsuit.
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Gonzales’ death is now drawing scrutiny in light of who threw the party. “The family has brought this lawsuit to prevent this from happening again and to ensure accountability,” said McGraw. “It’s a cascade of failures here that resulted in Nico’s death.”
The lawsuit names NMSU, University Degrees Abroad (UDA), which runs a soccer program at NSMU, and that program’s head soccer coach, Tahlon Drake. According to its website, UDA gives students from all over the opportunity to play year-round soccer while receiving an education.
NMSU and UDA entered a joint venture in 2019. Under its agreement, UDA was required to recruit 20 full-time students for the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years. The agreement states all UDA employees, agents, and volunteers are subject to NMSU’s policies and guidelines, according to the lawsuit.
Police said student-athletes in the UDA program lived at the house where the party happened. That house was also owned by the head soccer coach, Tahlon Drake. The house had been an ongoing headache for neighbors, according to court documents.
In the month of July 2021, including the day of Gonzales’ death, police had been called to the house 14 times, mostly for complaints of noise or a loud party, court documents show. McGraw said no one intervened.
“Based on the evidence, no action was taken to stop the underage drinking, the shooting of guns, all of that,” McGraw said. McGraw added that Drake, NMSU, or UDA should’ve taken action and that perhaps the coach and some players shouldn’t have been in the program in the first place.
“I would say that’s one of the most startling facts to me is who they chose as a head coach,” said McGraw. “NMSU brought that head coach into this community. He’s a convicted felon.” According to court documents, in 2015, Drake pled guilty to possession of drugs in Texas. Then in 2019, he failed a drug test, testing positive for cocaine. He was hired as the head coach for the UDA program at NMSU less than a year later. NMSU declined an interview, but according to its UDA website, Drake is still employed with the program.
“It’s very upsetting to the family to see that they’ve taken no action to make sure further harm doesn’t happen in this community,” said McGraw. For the family, the concern also spreads to the student-athletes.
Elias Ordonez, one of the program’s student-athletes who was living at the house, was a fugitive out of Ohio, according to court documents. He had an outstanding felony warrant for aggravated robbery in 2020, the documents show. After the shooting, police searched the home and found guns improperly stored there, accessible to Ordonez and others.
According to the lawsuit, it’s unclear if NMSU and UDA conducted criminal background checks on the coach or students or if the findings were ignored. But with Drake’s felony conviction being public record, McGraw said they should’ve known.
“If NMSU and UDA didn’t know, they should’ve known. They have a responsibility to ensure they choose appropriate people to serve in these roles,” said McGraw.
This isn’t the first time the university and its athletics have come under scrutiny. Earlier this year, student basketball players came forward about a culture of hazing and sexual assault. It eventually led to the firing of then-head coach Greg Heiar. Also, in November 2022, the team faced a scandal after a basketball player was involved in a shooting on the University of New Mexico’s campus the night before the rivalry game. The team’s games were canceled for the rest of that season.
“This is yet again an institution who has failed to live up to its promises to the community and to the state and it’s students to keep them safe. And to provide… a safe environment for education,” said McGraw. “This is another example of shortcuts and lowering their standards.”
The Gonzales family is asking for change to make sure this doesn’t happen again. In the meantime, they’re remembering Gonzales as a beloved son, father, and a hard worker.
“The mother said to me a statement that I wrote down, ‘Nico would want us to expose this wrongdoing. Nico was about good,’ and I thought that spoke volumes,” said McGraw.
NMSU said it does not comment on pending litigation and did not agree to an interview about its UDA program. Two people were charged in connection to the shooting that killed Gonzales. Mawu Ekon Revels was sentenced to 25-and-a-half years in prison, according to our sister station KTSM, and Isaiah Taylor is awaiting trial.
Nico Gonzales’ mother, Xochitl Gonzales, sent the following statement via email to KRQE News 13:
“NMSU and UDA did not properly vet the individual they hired to serve as the Men’s Head Soccer Coach or the student-athletes who played on the soccer team and lived in the known party house. They created and allowed a dangerous environment to exist at the house, where partying , a lot of underage drinking and gunshots were a common occurrence. Many people have been affected by Nico’s death. Nico was looking forward to raising his son and helping the community. We brought this lawsuit to ensure NMSU and UDA are held accountable for the irresponsible actions that have had profound consequences on this community, including the tragic loss of my son’s life,” said Xochitl Gonzales.