Students and teachers reflect on June 2021 shooting of Ball State freshman Montana Lopez

<p>Friends and family members release balloons in Montana Lopez&#x27;s honor in Muncie, June 23, 2021. After Lopez was shot and killed June 19, family members organized a balloon release, funeral and candle lighting. <strong>Blake Smith, Photo Provided</strong></p>

Friends and family members release balloons in Montana Lopez's honor in Muncie, June 23, 2021. After Lopez was shot and killed June 19, family members organized a balloon release, funeral and candle lighting. Blake Smith, Photo Provided

After a few hours at Brothers Bar & Grill on a Saturday night, senior telecommunications major Blake Smith received a University Police Department (UPD) text alert that said officers were investigating reports of shots fired on her street.

She was the first of her group of roommates and friends to go back to her house, and texted her friend and neighbor Montana Lopez to check on him. Smith had been at Lopez’s house for a party before going to Brothers.

“Shootings happen more frequently than I think they should, but they don’t normally end in someone’s life being taken,” Smith said. “I figured it was probably his house, and I was concerned, so I texted him and he didn’t respond. I thought, ‘Oh gosh, I wonder if it was something that had to do with him.’ Sure enough, I got there and I found out it was him. It was really real, for it to be with someone I knew really well and was close with — it’s something that I’ll never forget.”

Montana Lopez was shot and killed June 19, and pronounced dead at the scene when police arrived at approximately 2:30 a.m. Muncie Police Department (MPD) Captain Steve Cox said the homicide is still under investigation and MPD made one arrest June 24.

Smith said she went to the police station in the early morning June 19 with about 10 witnesses. She wasn’t home when the shooting occurred, but said she wanted to help police with any information she had.

“I think I talked to Montana an hour before he passed away,” Smith said. “The cops had come previously and they asked us to turn the music down. I told Montana, ‘I’m heading out, I’ll be back later.’”

Once she got back to her house on West Abbott Street, Smith said she received a phone call from the officer she and Lopez talked to earlier that night. None of Smith’s roommates were home or witnessed the shooting happen. Smith said she spent about four hours at the police station waiting to be interviewed and left around 7 a.m.

“I was just trying to help the police find out who it was, because they couldn’t figure out who it was when it first happened,” she said. “It was hard [and] definitely tough, and he was so happy that night, so to see that happen just randomly was devastating.”

Not all witnesses were close friends of Lopez like she was, Smith said, but most of them had seen the crime happen. Officers interviewed each person individually.

When she heard police arrested a 15 year old on June 24, Smith said she was shocked because "a crime being committed at that age isn’t common." She said she hopes the criminal investigation delivers justice for Lopez, his family and the community.

‘I never heard a bad thing about him’

“[Lopez] was a really really good kid, super nice, and I never heard a bad thing about him,” Smith said. “I think if he was sitting here today, he would be like, ‘I want people to remember me as being a positive influence to people and someone that was always there for people. I think that’s what he would want to be remembered as — a shining light through people’s dark times.”

Smith had just become friends with Lopez less than a month before he died. Her pit bull, Rocky, had watched Lopez’s dog, Pablo, from their yard three houses down West Abbott Street. One evening, Smith said Rocky ran across North New York Avenue to meet Pablo and she and her roommate Bela Manor chased after him.

“From that day on, [Lopez] would just bring his dog over all the time and we would just hang out,” Smith said. “I think the dogs really made us friends and then we built a friendship because of our dogs becoming such good friends.”

Smith said Lopez and her roommates walked the dogs together and talked almost every day. Lopez would also swim with the dogs in his above-ground pool. 

When Smith looks down the street, she said she always thinks of Lopez.

“There's still candles sitting outside,” she said. “It's tough because it’s always a reminder. I definitely think about [the shooting] once or twice a day because it’s just crazy to think that it was so close to us and to someone who was becoming such a close friend to me who had never done me wrong, who was always positive, always there — it’s tough to think about.”

Montana Lopez swims with his dog, Pablo (front), and his neighbors' dog, Rocky (center), in his above-ground pool in Muncie. The dogs met each other and prompted their owners to become friends in early June 2021. Blake Smith, Photo Provided

‘You could see how much everybody cared for him’

Cailey Heyl, junior respiratory therapy major and one of Smith’s roommates, was also at Lopez’s party and went to Brothers with Smith.

She said when she got back to Lopez’s house, she was too distraught to go to the police station to be interviewed.

“I couldn’t go that night, it was bad. I got out of the car and there were police everywhere and there was tape you couldn’t cross,” Heyl said. “I remember I was just there crying a lot. I was really worried about his dog, Pablo, because I didn’t know where he was and I know how much Montana loved his dog.”

Heyl said Pablo was in his crate the night Lopez was shot and one of his neighbor’s took care of Pablo for about a day before one of Lopez’s family members picked up the dog. The day of the funeral, June 23, Heyl said Lopez’s older sister brought Pablo to their house. Heyl and Smith attended the funeral and balloon release, but watched the candle lighting from their house while taking care of Pablo.

“The balloon release was really sad because you could see how much everybody cared for him,” Heyl said. “The funeral was the hardest because it was an open casket. It also gave closure, though. The priest that was talking knew Montana since he was probably 12, so it was really cool to hear how Montana impacted everybody’s life, but it was really sad.”

‘A very charismatic dude’

Lopez entered Ball State as an exercise science major, but changed his major to social work in the spring 2021 semester. Because he had not started any social work classes, Chair of the Department of Social Work Matt Moore said faculty had few interactions with Lopez.

Moore sent a statement via email June 24 to all social work students.

“Over the weekend, we learned about the tragic death of a Ball State University student,” the statement said. “We also learned Montana Lopez was dedicated to a career in child welfare and he had declared his intention to become a social worker. While our faculty did not have the pleasure of teaching Montana, our hearts are heavy with the passing of a social justice warrior.”

Even though he didn’t have a personal relationship with Lopez, Moore said he and other social work faculty were heartbroken by his death.

Smith said Lopez told her about growing up in the foster care system and how he hoped to use those experiences to create a better life for himself.

“I think he spoke to a lot of foster kids and tried to influence them to make good decisions, go to college, graduate high school and stuff like that,” Smith said. “That was really influential to me to hear because it is tough to be in that situation, but he never talked negatively about it, he said it was an opportunity for him to be better and do different things.”

Lopez was a 2018 graduate of Wes-Del High School and his former football coach Nick Early also remembered him as a positive influence for other students.

In the 2017 season, Early said Lopez was the starting running back and helped lead the Warriors to their first sectional championship since 1998.

“He was so excited and proud for being a part of something special,” Early said via email. “Montana was a great presence in the halls of Wes-Del. Students enjoyed his positive energy.  He was always a very charismatic dude who people just wanted to be around.”

Montana Lopez celebrates with his Wes-Del High School football teammates after their sectional championship win in 2017. Lopez was the team's starting running back that season. Danny Careins, Photo Provided

‘He’d always look on the bright side of things’

Heyl said seeing family and community members support Lopez was encouraging and knowing some of the scope of his influence comforted her. When she and her roommates were able to take care of Pablo for one night, she said she knew Lopez would have appreciated it.

“Pablo ended up staying the night at our house and he slept with me in my bed, which was weird because it felt like Montana was there too,” Heyl said. “If I can see Pablo at all, that’s always something because I knew how much Pablo meant to Montana.”

After the neighbors became friends, Lopez would talk to them about his family and goals for college.

“He grew up in a rough home, but he was a freshman in college and wanted to make something out of himself and wanted to succeed in life and do good,” Heyl said. “He’d tell me about his twin sister and his nieces, he loved his nieces.”

Before Lopez’s funeral, Heyl said his twin sister, Juanita Lopez, thanked her and her roommates for supporting Lopez during their short time as friends.

“She came over and was talking to us and was like, ‘I know how much you guys meant to him, he talked about you guys all the time and in the end, the only people he had were me and you guys,’” Heyl said.

Heyl said she still thinks about Lopez every day when she opens her front door. She’ll remember him as always being a positive and supportive friend.

“No matter what, he’d always look on the bright side of things and he was always there for everybody, too,” she said. “Even though it’s not the way I wanted it to be, he’s probably in a better place.”

Grace McCormick with comments at grmccormick@bsu.edu or on Twitter @graceMc564.

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