Fan on team plane in drug probe
A Missouri men's basketball fan who regularly traveled with the team to NCAA tournament games the past four seasons is among more than a dozen people facing federal drug conspiracy charges for cocaine distribution.
Levi McLean Franklin Coolley, a 33-year-old car stereo shop owner, was on the team plane on tournament trips to Boise, Idaho, and Phoenix in 2009; Buffalo, N.Y., in 2010; and to Washington, D.C., in 2011. Coolley also joined a team flight to Columbia from Austin, Texas, in January and received complimentary tickets from Missouri players at nine games in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons.
The connection was first reported Sunday by the Columbia Daily Tribune, which obtained flight manifests from the university under state public records laws.
In March, FBI agents arrested Coolley on felony cocaine distribution charges at the Missouri team hotel in Omaha, Neb., hours before the Tigers' most recent NCAA appearance, a second-round loss to Norfolk State. Missouri athletic officials said that an internal review found no improper influence by Coolley, who was on the team flights as a guest of Jay Lindner, a Columbia real estate developer and prominent Missouri donor.
''We conducted a review, and we were comfortable with the results,'' said spokesman Chad Moller. ''It's very concerning, and very troubling to hear that people who come around your program be accused of this type of thing. At a basic level, you try to trust that people are doing the right thing. But it's impossible to know the background of everybody.''
A federal grand jury indicted Coolley in late May on four counts of drug distribution, alleging that he conspired to sell more than five kilograms (about 11 pounds) of cocaine from January 2005 through mid-March as well as less than 50 kilograms of marijuana (110 pounds) between July 2011 and March 16 of this year. He and the other defendants are awaiting trial dates.
A total of 16 people face charges in the federal investigation, with five defendants charged after the initial March arrests. All but one of the defendants, a Kansas City man, listed central Missouri addresses in court documents.
Coolley could not be reached for comment on Monday, and his attorney, Jeff Hilbrenner, did not immediately respond to an Associated Press interview request.
Lindner, whose father Jose founded the Forum Development Group and was a Columbia Chamber of Commerce president before his 2010 death, said Coolley's arrest ''was a complete shock.'' Lindner, the development group's president, said he has not since spoken to Coolley.
Missouri athletic director Mike Alden told the Tribune that he too was ''shocked'' by Coolley's arrest and didn't think the fan's contact with the program involved the improper exchange of tickets by student-athletes or other NCAA violations. Like other Division I programs, Missouri allows major donors to purchase empty seats on team planes when traveling to big events such as NCAA and conference tournaments and football bowl games.
Coolley's team trips occurred under both former Missouri coach Mike Anderson, now at Arkansas, and Frank Haith, who led the team to a 30-5 record and a Big 12 tournament title in his first year in Columbia. Haith spent the previous seven years at Miami, where the NCAA continues to investigate allegations that convicted Ponzi schemer Nevin Shapiro provided cash payments and other extra benefits to 72 Hurricanes athletes between 2002 and 2010.
Haith, who won several national coach of the year awards earlier this year, has denied any improper contact with Shapiro.