Justin Bannan, ex-NFL player, blames CTE after shooting woman in 2019

Ashley Marie arrived for work that day about 10 minutes before her scheduled acupuncture session. She strolled through the sprawling warehouse, past the weight racks and the abstract paintings on the walls, to her private treatment room – a cramped space, maybe eight feet long. The door was shut but not locked.

As she turned the handle, Marie didn’t know there was a 6-foot-3, 275-pound man crouched in the corner of the room, hiding, with a loaded handgun at the ready. 

She heard the crack of a single gunshot as soon as she opened the door.

“What the (expletive)?” Marie said. “You just shot me?”

The man was in his early 40s, wearing a black button-up shirt and dark jeans. He said he was sorry, but the Russian mafia was after him. He had to go.  

In the chaotic seconds that followed, Marie’s boss rounded the corner and yelled for someone to call 911. Blood from the hole in Marie’s right shoulder began to pool on the concrete floor. And the man with the gun took off into the warehouse, headed toward a rear exit.

The first police officer on the scene found Marie sitting in the middle of the doorway, with her boss pressing a shirt against her wound. It was Justin, she told them.

Survivor of Justin Bannan shooting speaks out

Ashley Marie, an acupuncturist and former Colorado State basketball player, recounts being shot by retired NFL player Justin Bannan in 2019. Bannan has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to an attempted murder charge.

SportsPulse, USA TODAY

“Who’s Justin?” the officer asked.

Marie had never met Justin Bannan, but she recognized him immediately. She knew him as one of the owners of the building, an unmistakable character there.

She also knew he used to play in the NFL.

‘A significant story to tell’

Former teammates remember Bannan as an old-school football player. A throwback. A grinder. “Tougher than (expletive),” as Trevor Pryce put it. But hardly a household name.

Over parts of 12 NFL seasons, Bannan bounced around from Buffalo to Baltimore to Denver to St. Louis and back to Denver again. He never made a Pro Bowl. Never won a Super Bowl ring. He was primarily known as a run-stuffing defensive lineman, dependable yet unspectacular. In 163 career games, he recorded all of 6½ sacks.

to found Black Lab Sports – which is part sports technology incubator, part venture capital firm. They set up shop in a chic, industrial warehouse in Boulder, Colorado, in 2015.

It was behind that warehouse that a witness saw Bannan carrying a black duffel bag and a black backpack on the afternoon of October 16, 2019, walking along the train tracks that weave through the eastern part of the city.

Police found him a short time later, sitting at a picnic table behind the building with O’Brien, his longtime business partner. O’Brien did not respond to messages from USA TODAY Sports.

According to an affidavit, officers asked Bannan if he had any weapons on him, and he mentioned a “couple of guns in his bags.” They found two .45 caliber handguns in the black backpack, each with a round in the chamber, as well as a holster and extra ammunition.

He was also carrying a rolled-up $20 bill containing traces of cocaine.

Ashley Marie is on a stretcher and being treated for a gunshot wound outside of Black Lab Sports.
Matthew Jonas, MediaNews Group/Boulder Daily Camera via Getty Images

As Bannan was escorted to a police car, he told officers he had hydrocephalus – fluid buildup in the brain. He had gotten rid of his cell phone, he said, because someone was using it to track him. He told one officer that he had “a significant story to tell.”

In the hours after the shooting, he admitted to firing the weapon but described it to officers as an accident, saying “she did not deserve that.” They booked him into a Boulder County jail on multiple felony charges, including attempted first-degree murder and first-degree assault.

An excerpt from the arrest affidavit submitted by Boulder police.

An excerpt from the arrest affidavit submitted by Boulder police.

Bannan, 42, has since pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. His trial is set to begin in June. He has claimed that he was incapable of distinguishing right from wrong when he pulled the trigger that afternoon – and that head trauma from his NFL career, including the neurodegenerative brain disease commonly known as CTE, is to blame.

‘Like a battering ram’

When the Buffalo Bills selected Bannan in the fifth round of the 2002 NFL draft, team executive Dwight Adams described him to The Buffalo News as “a square-bodied old boy that’s tough as hell and will give you a hard day’s work.”

It was a fitting description given Bannan’s childhood.

When he was growing up outside Sacramento, California, his father, Terry, ran a construction company. In the summer, he would often put Justin and his older brother, Jason, to work – pouring concrete, doing odd jobs, sometimes in scathing heat.

Justin told The Baltimore Sun in 2008 that, as the younger brother, he was often “the low man on the totem pole.”

“Any bad job there was to get, I got it,” he recalled.

Bannan didn’t play organized football until his freshman year at Bella Vista High School, but by his senior year, he was earning all-state honors, all-star game invites – and, eventually, a scholarship to play at the University of Colorado. He went on to be a four-year starter and help lead the Buffaloes to a Big 12 title in 2001. 

Justin Bannan played for the Denver Broncos, and four other teams, during his 12-year career.

Justin Bannan played for the Denver Broncos, and four other teams, during his 12-year career.
Harry How, Getty Images

After his senior season, Bannan also received the coaching staff’s Regiment Award – given annually to the player who made the “greatest contribution with the least recognition.”

Former teammates say they loved playing with him. “No one had a problem with Bannan,” said Pryce, his linemate in Baltimore. He was good enough to contribute but never too good to do the dirty work. Down to take on a double-team in order to free up a teammate, but also down to throw back a few beers and crack jokes after a game.

“Kind of a chameleon who could adapt to a lot of different situations,” another ex-teammate, Corey Ivy, said. “A guy that you could go talk to and would shoot you straight, and would always have your back if you were in his circle of friends.”

Bannan was physical, too, they said – even moreso than the average defensive lineman. On kickoff returns in Baltimore, he was usually one of the blockers in the wedge, a formation deemed too violent and banned by the NFL in 2009.

Defensive linemate Kelly Gregg said he hated going against Bannan in practice because he would always use his head to “get knock-em-back” in the trenches. When the team would swap out helmets midway through the season, Gregg said, Bannan’s would look “like a battering ram.”

Yet for all his physicality, Bannan was also rarely in the training room. He played hurt. Ryan Denney, who came into the league with Bannan in Buffalo, recalled a moment late in one season when Bannan’s leg was entirely black and blue, from his hip to his ankle. He could barely bend his knee. He played anyway.

In 2012, ahead of Bannan’s penultimate season in the NFL, a reporter with The Denver Post asked the lineman about the toll that football might be taking on his body. The reporter asked about concussions, and the potential long-term effects of head trauma. 

Did he ever think about all the ways the sport could be damaging his body? 

“I try not to,” Bannan replied.

‘It’s been tough’

According to multiple news media reports, Bannan made at least $30.4 million over the course of his NFL career. And when he retired at 34, it appeared even to some of his close friends that he had his post-football life figured out.

He dove headfirst into Black Lab Sports, which offered a chance to learn about the tech and investment worlds while maintaining a connection to sports. The company’s first major investment was iSplack, which sells custom, multi-colored eye black for athletes.

The entrance to Black Lab Sports is seen in Boulder, Colorado.

The entrance to Black Lab Sports is seen in Boulder, Colorado.
Bethany Baker / The Coloradoan

Bannan wrote on his LinkedIn profile that “my sport is now business, and I play to win.”

“He liked staying in a competitive space,” said his longtime agent, Tom Mills. “I think that kind of fed the competitive juices that you lose when your career is over.”

Meanwhile, Bannan’s personal life also began to change. He and his wife of three-plus years, Sommer, filed for divorce in 2014. The couple has one son. He also has a child from another relationship, with Desiree James. Their daughter was born in 2015.

Tragedy came in 2017, when Bannan’s college roommate and former St. Louis Rams linebacker Drew Wahlroos shot himself in a California apartment. The San Diego Medical Examiner’s Office ruled his death a suicide, and noted in its report that “NFL concussion settlement paperwork was found on the decedent’s dining room table.”

Wahlroos’ brain was donated to Boston University’s CTE Center for study. Wahlroos’ family declined to comment on the findings.

“He’s my best friend,” Bannan told The Boulder Daily Camera shortly after Wahlroos’ death. “… It’s been tough.”

Roughly two years later, in the fall of 2019, a pair of property management companies took Bannan to court, alleging that he had failed to pay rent at separate addresses and seeking to evict him. 

According to dispatch reports from the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, Bannan was evicted from one of the locations on Sept. 25 but did not arrange to pick up his belongings. A house-cleaner called police when Bannan showed up at the property, claiming that he would “break in to take his guns back” after the cleaner left. Police later found no signs of forced entry, and no arrests were made.

The following week, police responded to another one of Bannan’s addresses at the request of the local Department of Human Services. DHS representatives told responding officers that they had “received allegations that the father of the child at this address uses a ‘main line’ (intravenously) of cocaine while his children are present in the home.”

The shooting in Boulder occurred less than two weeks later.

Bannan’s attorney, Harvey Steinberg, did not respond to repeated requests for comment from USA TODAY Sports about his client’s legal case and the conduct alleged in the dispatch reports.

‘I’m thinking twice’

Marie remembers hearing a bang and collapsing to the floor.

What was that noise? she thought. And why does it feel like my arm’s been ripped off?

Ashley Marie is also a former athlete, having playing basketball at Colorado State in the early 2000s until a series of concussions cut her career short.

Ashley Marie is also a former athlete, having playing basketball at Colorado State in the early 2000s until a series of concussions cut her career short.
Bethany Baker, The Coloradoan

She had been working in the warehouse for about a year, as a part-time acupuncturist at Element 6, which specializes in fitness training and rehabilitative treatment. The company is one of many that call the 22,000-square-foot building home, besides Black Lab Sports. There’s also a brewery inside, and an art studio.

for more than two decades, successfully defending the likes of Travis Henry, Brandon Marshall and Bill Romanowski, among others.

When former Broncos cornerback Perrish Cox, another Steinberg client, avoided a potential life sentence after being found not guilty of felony sexual assault in 2012, he told The Associated Press: “I love my lawyer.”

In Bannan’s case, Steinberg and his team have laid the groundwork for a novel strategy, one that has been often floated but rarely tried in court. They intend to argue that Bannan was insane at the time of the shooting, and that the mental disease or defect responsible for his insanity was chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), or other traumatic brain injuries sustained during his playing days.

Steinberg has mentioned in separate court hearings that Bannan “probably had 25 concussions in the course of his career” and “may be in need of brain surgery.” Hydrocephalus, which Bannan mentioned during his arrest, can be caused by head trauma but has not been conclusively linked with CTE.

An exchange between Justin Bannan's attorney, Harvey Steinberg, and a Colorado judge at preliminary hearing on Dec. 31, 2019.

An exchange between Justin Bannan’s attorney, Harvey Steinberg, and a Colorado judge at preliminary hearing on Dec. 31, 2019.

Experts describe Bannan’s legal strategy as legitimate but speculative, in large part due to the developing science around CTE.

Scientists at Boston University have identified common symptoms of the disease – including cognitive issues, such as short-term memory loss, and emotional and behaviorial issues, like anxiety or impulsivity. They also found a correlation between CTE risk and time spent playing football, estimating that athletes who play the sport for at least 14½ years are 10 times more likely to acquire the disease than those who never play at all. But they are not yet able to diagnose the disease in a living person.

“We’re further along than we were,” said Robert Cantu, the medical director of the Concussion Legacy Foundation and one of the foremost experts on CTE. “But we’re not where we want to be.”

Cantu said this is one of the reasons he wouldn’t feel comfortable testifying in any criminal case that hinges on CTE. Not only is it impossible to say with certainty whether an individual has the progressive disease, Cantu explained, but it’s also impossible to say with certainty whether it directly led that individual to commit a crime.

“You’re grasping at straws, in my opinion,” he said. “That would prevent me from ever trying to help somebody with that defense, because the bar is so high.”

What is CTE? The degenerative brain disease that’s been found in NFL players, explained

Others see a so-called CTE defense as a legal strategy that will become more popular over time – particularly in cases involving populations to whom jurors might be sympathetic, like military members or former NFL players. 

J. Amy Dillard, a professor of law at the University of Baltimore, wrote in a New York Times op-ed in 2017 that if recent CTE research had been available at the time of former NFL player Aaron Hernandez’s murder trial, it might have altered the trajectory of his case. Hernandez killed himself in 2017 and was later diagnosed with a severe case of the disease.

Dillard believes the legal relevance of CTE is growing quickly, comparing it to battered woman’s syndrome, which was studied for years before it was successfully presented in court and later utilized in an insanity defense.

“We’re right on the brink of the science being significant enough (with CTE) …  that it has reliability to come into a courtroom,” Dillard said. “That’s the brink we’re on.”

Cocaine and unanswered questions

More than a year after the shooting, many of Bannan’s former teammates are still trying to make sense of what happened. They describe his alleged cocaine use – and the rolled-up $20 bill mentioned in the police report – as out of character for the guy they knew. 

“We drank a lot of beer, and we did a lot of pain pills and everything, but I never saw this out of him,” Gregg said.

The longtime nose tackle has been thinking about all the hits that he and Bannan experienced during their time together in Baltimore, play after play, over and over. “It just makes me worry, and wonder,” Gregg said. Ivy said he’s prayed for Bannan. Pryce remembers seeing the news and simply thinking police had the wrong guy.

Justin Bannan walks toward the Boulder County Justice Center before a preliminary hearing on Dec. 9, 2019.

Justin Bannan walks toward the Boulder County Justice Center before a preliminary hearing on Dec. 9, 2019.
Matthew Jonas, MediaNews Group/Boulder Daily Camera via Getty Images

“Then I saw it was Justin,” he continued. “I was like, ‘Well, football had something to do with that.’ “

Bannan spent less than one week in jail immediately after the shooting before posting a $500,000 bond. He was ordered to stay away from Marie and Black Lab Sports, relinquish all firearms and participate in a substance-abuse monitoring program.

Hours after his release, Bannan’s ex-wife Sommer asked police for an increased patrol presence in her neighborhood. She stated that he was “very upset with her” after recent developments in the ongoing legal fight following their divorce, and claimed that he had unregistered firearms. Sommer declined comment to USA TODAY Sports through an attorney.

Then, last spring, prosecutors asked a judge to revoke Bannan’s bond and take him into custody. They wrote in court filings that Bannan had missed a court-mandated drug test in December 2019 and tested positive for cocaine in April 2020.

“It is clear that the defendant poses a significant risk in the community, and that this risk is exacerbated by his use of illegal drugs,” the Boulder County District Attorney’s Office wrote.

Bannan subsequently provided emails indicating that he had taken the 2019 test but the lab had been unable to supply the results. The judge pledged to take a “zero-tolerance approach” moving forward but allowed him to remain out of custody.

The district attorney’s office said it does not comment on pending cases.

Bannan is facing up to 50 years in prison if convicted on all charges – which, in addition to attempted first-degree murder and assault, also include one count of possessing a weapon on school grounds. The source of the last charge is unclear.

‘Man, you shot me’

The confluence of CTE and cocaine allegations in Bannan’s case will likely “muddy the waters” for jurors at trial, according to Dan Recht, a recently retired criminal defense attorney and founder of the Denver law firm Recht Kornfeld P.C.

“This will come down to a battle of experts,” Recht said. “And then the jury’s going to have to scratch their heads and decide whose expert to believe.”

Boulder police are on the scene following a shooting by former NFL player Justin Bannan.

Boulder police are on the scene following a shooting by former NFL player Justin Bannan.
Matthew Jonas, MediaNews Group/Boulder Daily Camera via Getty Images

Steinberg appeared to preview as much during a hearing in November, while debating with prosecutors about which of Bannan’s medical records should be admissible at trial.

“I think that the government’s theory is, ‘Hey, whatever took place was secondary to his abuse of cocaine,’ ” Steinberg said during the hearing. “Our position is what took place here is clearly a result of traumatic brain injury. And if it turns out that he’s self-medicating with cocaine, that can be an issue for the jury to determine.”

As the criminal case goes forward, Marie’s civil case against Bannan has been put on pause so he can adequately defend himself on both fronts. Marie’s attorneys, Stewart Cables and Marc Harden, said the development was unsurprising but nevertheless frustrating as she continues to recover from the injury.

“We were hoping there would be some quicker accountability,” Harden said, “that he would take responsibility for the very serious harms he caused.”

Marie was more blunt.

“It’s like, man, you shot me,” she said. “Just take responsibility for it.”

In the months since the shooting, Marie has done research on the resources the NFL provides for retired players, which she finds “seriously lacking” – particularly with regard to head trauma. She’s come to realize that Bannan made so many poor decisions leading up to Oct. 16, 2019, that it’s clear he was suffering in some way. She can empathize with him. And, to an extent, even forgive him.

Yet Marie also knows first-hand about dealing with head trauma. She knows what it’s like to have impulse-control issues and mood swings after concussions – to feel like your body is healthy, but your mind just isn’t right.

It’s real, she said, but it’s not a legal lifeline.

“It’s really hard for a lot of people to manage,” Marie said. “… I still don’t think it’s an excuse for ending up in someone’s treatment room with two loaded guns, hiding and waiting for the next person that comes through that door, to shoot them.”

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

Contact Tom Schad at [email protected] or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.