‘We won’

After battling with the state Attorney General’s Office for five months, The Trentonian won its prior restraint fight. I’m pleased to see, in publishing the story that I started reporting on last year, the newspaper also posted the document I lawfully obtained.

Judge Lawrence DeBello, who decided the case this week, which went into the backstory of how a 5-year-old kindergartner ended up in foster care after he was found with drugs at school twice in two months, ruled that I didn’t do anything illegal in obtaining the documents from the boy’s mother, Tashawn Ford. Continue reading


Mercer County’s Angelo Onofri: ‘Lunch pail guy’ or cowardly cop protector?


Mercer County Prosecutor Angelo Onofri (courtesy of MCPO)

Angelo Onofri gives off good first impressions of being a nice guy.

In February 2015, when he was sworn in as acting Mercer County prosecutor on the fourth floor of the criminal courthouse, he told a story about how he and former prosecutor, friend and accused sexual harasser Joseph Bocchini became conjoined at the hip early in life.

Bocchini was running for state general assembly and asked Onofri, a Hamiltonian, to work for him as a legislative assistant, handing him a pair of “Go Jo Bo” shirts the young, enamored Onofri wore every day to work.

That sowed the seeds for Onofri’s successful legal career as a cheerleader who ingratiated himself with the right people – in politics and with the police – and has been elevated to a position of leadership he is uncomfortable in and perhaps doesn’t belong. Continue reading


Remembering journalist Steve Buttry, digital word minimalist

Any time.

Those words stuck with me when I heard the heartbreaking news about the passing of a journalism legend from a disease that afflicts millions and has touched my life.

Steve Buttry, journalist, teacher, human extraordinaire, told me that Dec. 20, when he reached out to me after reading a blog post about my second bout with testicular cancer.

Time is all he had for everyone even though his was marked. Steve succumbed to pancreatic cancer Feb. 19.

That two-word opening in this post is what Steve would have called a “string-bikini lede.” He taught me that when he spoke to our newsroom in 2013, while I was a sports reporter at the North Adams Transcript in Massachusetts.


Steve Buttry

Steve and my interactions were few, but never fleeting. I recounted our first encounter here.

After I got fired from The Transcript after 18 days, and landed at a Digital First Media sister paper in Torrington, Connecticut, Buttry visited a second time and spoke to our newspaper crew there, as part of his rounds with Thunderdome, what was then DFM’s national think tank.

More recently, Buttry reached out to me after my second diagnosis with testicular cancer to pass along words of encouragement.

Those words remain with me while I undergo chemotherapy at the University of Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia. Continue reading


Critiquing ‘The Slaveship’: Journalism, individualism and our institutions

When you put your byline on the top of an article, the teamwork that encompassed the process of journalism becomes an afterthought to readers.

You are responsible for errors, typos, omissions of fact and everything good or bad about the piece. As every reporter knows, that includes the headline.

Look, I’ll take responsibility for it all. But not the headline.

Having been a part of a newsroom, and having come up with clanking headlines, I can tell you firsthand a collection of idiots wrote it, thinking it was brilliant.

It’s groupthink and bystander effect, mixed into a horrible six-word attention-grabber. I saw that manifest itself while watching a college basketball game on “The Mothership,” ESPN.

For a full accounting of my diatribe, you can check Twitter.


Continue reading


New Mexico’s Krebs loves bully pulpit


University of New Mexico athletic director Paul Krebs (courtesy of NBC News)

In his 10 years leading the University of New Mexico’s athletic department, Paul Krebs has shown himself to be a bully and a shameless survivalist who will do anything in his power to escape trouble when controversy hits.


He should step down as athletic director, in light of his latest act of treason.

He is just like President Donald Trump, targeting talented dissenter reporters who have written truthful – and unflattering – stories about him and the UNM athletics department.

The latest: NMFishBowl.com chieftain Daniel Libit has written a number of critical stories in recent weeks that have exposed the underbelly of UNM athletics, much to Krebs’ displeasure. Continue reading


‘No chemo, no case’

Paul Bergrin, a former federal prosecutor who went rogue and was dubbed by New York Magazine as the “baddest lawyer in the history of Jersey,” got a life sentence, when in a full-throated delivery on a federal wiretap, he offered the following nutso advice to a Newark drug kingpin who was willing to shell out in order to snuff out someone who had ratted on an associate: “No Kemo. No case.”

The attorney ordered up a hit on Kemo Deshawn McCray, a federal informant, like others order up pizzas.

McCray was shot in the head three times in Newark on March 2, 2004, according to New York Magazine.

Paul Bergrin is seen at the U.S. Army Taylor barracks in Mannheim

Convicted NJ attorney Paul Bergrin (Reuters)

His death became the cornerstone of the massive murder-racketeering case against Bergrin, the likes of which gripped the ever-notorious Garden State, even with all the low-slung garden-variety dipshittery that goes on here. (Yes, I’m talking about the First Amendment case.)

I remember uttering similar words as Bergrin while I was in the hospital, although in a different context and not on federal wiretap: “No chemo. No case.”

Of course, I wasn’t talking about snuffing out a federal informant, but chemotherapy. Continue reading


Fighting cancer and for freedom of the press

Whirlwind week. I wanted to give everyone an update, and hopefully, some relief after I was admitted to Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in Hamilton last week.

I’m sure some of you heard the news in an article via The Daily Beast that touched on the prior restraint fight I’ve been involved with in New Jersey regarding my reporting on a 5-year-old kindergarten student in Trenton who was found with drugs twice at school in two months.

It had been shaping into a whopper of a fight featuring the state Attorney General, The Trentonian and me, and had attracted the glare of the national and local media and the Society of Professional Journalists.

My focus had been squarely on that until last week, when I got sucker-punched with another cancer diagnosis. photo illustration.PNG

Since then, I have been put on a cocktail of drugs and have been run through a battery of tests – blood scans, CAT scans, MRIs, endoscopy and colonoscopy – to figure out exactly what is wrong with me. Continue reading


UNM’s Craig Neal is an impasta

In 2013, Athletic director Paul Krebs announced Neal’s hiring with a one-word tweet. “Noodles.” “Noodles’” tenure  could also be summed up in one word: “Impasta.”

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Salt Lake City Practice Day

The Craig Neal love affair is over in New Mexico.

That much is clear after Cullen Neal, the now-former Lobo point guard who created his own weather while at UNM, has decided to transfer schools.

This followed, predictably, after his father, New Mexico head men’s basketball coach Craig Neal, told media gathered at his Feb. 11 news conference his son had received death threats.

“The only change that would help him is if he’s not playing here,” Craig Neal said. “He’s wound tight. He doesn’t look well.”

Similarly, the only change that would help UNM is if Craig Neal joins his son on the way out the door.

Really, it’s for his own good.

Albuquerque, a high desert surrounded by the Sandias, is known for having a moderate climate. The media glare isn’t quite as intense as places like New York or Los Angeles.

But even in the mild-mannered Duke City, the temperature following the Lobos’ 17-15 season has become too hot for a thin-skinned Midwesterner like Craig Neal.

The dynamic daddy-and-son duo has been burned to a crisp by criticism from a downright Neal-istic fan base which doesn’t like the direction the program is headed following the Lobos missing the NCAA tournament for the second straight season.

The most that can be said for Craig Neal in his time at New Mexico is that he has been father of the year when fans want him to be coach of the year.

He has been overprotective of his son and overly critical of just about everyone else on the team.

Neal scoffed at a reporter during the same February news conference when he was asked whether he would bring his son off the bench.

“For what?” Neal said. “I’m not going to bring him off the bench. He’s my best point guard. I’m not going to do that. I would bring him off the bench to take more confidence away from him?”

Neal has been prone to fits ever since he took over as head coach in a basketball-crazed state. At his introductory news conference, he promised to finish the Lobos’ “unfinished business.”

Now New Mexico fans, deflated like an old, raggedy basketball, are just finished with the lip service.

Neal has only himself to blame. Whether it was real love or just a rebound, jilted New Mexico fans clamored for Neal when Steve Alford left for UCLA in 2013.

Neal had all the intangibles to succeed as a head coach. He spent nine seasons as an assistant under Alford. The local media sung his praises as a recruiter who helped New Mexico land Los Alamos’ Alex Kirk.

(Similar things were said about a certain football coach.)

And for a while, Neal had plenty of goodwill stockpiled. Kirk’s allegiance to Neal was so strong he threatened to transfer if the Lobos did not elevate Neal to head coach.

Athletic director Paul Krebs, cajoled and coerced by Lobo nation, announced Neal’s hiring with a one-word tweet.

These days, “Noodles’” tenure with the Lobos could also be summed up in one word: “Impasta.”

His missteps have been plenty and public.

On Senior Day, he blamed sparingly used senior walk-ons for a double-digit home loss to league-leading San Diego State.

He played the sympathy card by blaming Cullen’s pedestrian play on polemic fans’ alleged death threats.

It backfired when The Albuquerque Journal’s Mark Smith reported Craig Neal never mentioned anything about death threats against his son when interviewed by UNM police.

Some parents use their kids as meal tickets. In this case, Neal apparently had no qualms about using his son as a human shield for criticism so he could continue putting food on the family table.

It almost worked.

New Mexico fans, boisterous, boastful and brainless, are an easy scapegoat. They’re unrealistic arm-chair coaches and pathetic apologists.

There’s no middle ground with fanaticism, a horrific evil that has underpinned some of the worst events in human history.

The omnipresence of social media makes it worse. In the Twitter era, there’s a troll under every bridge, from Montano to the Rio Grande Gorge.

But love them or loath them, Lobo fans have always packed The Pit even before it became WisePies Arena.

Now, even the diehards have wised up.

Attendance is down. Morale is down. Neal’s stock, which soared after his first year, is down.

The would-be suitors, Tulsa, South Florida and Virginia Tech, have moved on and found better brides.

Krebs has been left holding a $950,000 bouquet.

The honeymoon has been overcome by harsh realities of marriage.

And the reality is despite Krebs’ pronouncement on Twitter that Neal is here to stay, this rocky marriage appears headed for divorce. UNM and Craig Neal were staying together for the kid.

And now that he’s headed for another college, they can parts ways.

File this one under irreconcilable differences between Craig Neal and the fans.

The gravest sin any coach in Albuquerque can commit is to fuck up the basketball program, the quasi-professional crown jewel.

The program is one of the few at the university that makes money, in a time of diminishing returns for college athletics across the country.

The university has poured endless resources into making University Arena a paragon of pride for a state that does not have a professional sports franchise.

More and more, the university is getting less and less bang for its buck.

Neal is a prime example.

Forget that he hired Cody Hopkins, the suspended New Mexico’s director of basketball operations who is being investigated for shady ATM withdrawals worth more than $50,000.

White-collar crime or cherry-and-silver larceny, it’s criminal that Neal, the MWC’s highest-paid coach, has contractually bilked the university out of $950,000 a year – $55,882.35 per win.

The buck stops with the head coach. UNM can’t pay Neal another buck otherwise it risks mutiny from the fans.

The only thing holding up this divorce is finances. There’s that sticky buyout clause in Neal’s contract forcing UNM to eat $1 million unless it finds cause to fire Noodles.

Krebs fell in love with Neal after one season, inking him to a multi-year contract extension after the Lobos went 27-7 and made the NCAA tournament in his maiden voyage.

Krebs needs to admit he made a mistake when he arranged this marriage.

First it was the coach-beater, Mike Locksley.


Now the AD hired a basketball coach who can’t beat anyone.

Fans forgave Krebs for Locksley. The bedraggled football program is the perpetual bridesmaid in Albuquerque.

When Krebs raced to the altar to give away New Mexico to a man who vowed to be more faithful than Alford, he didn’t realize Craig Neal was just a great father.

And an unchaste has-been.



In the few minutes it took Craig Neal to walk up the ramp and settle down in front of the microphones for his first unofficial-official close-up inside the Pit interview room, New Mexico fans were presented further confirmation that the man picked to succeed Steve Alford was not just Steve Alford in costume, two days after Halloween.

At UCLA, Alford was chosen as the man to replace “the man.” At New Mexico, Neal, still in the midst of his dress rehearsal, is trying to convince fans and media that he is his own man after spending nine years as Alford’s right-hand one. One of the most pressing questions the first-year head coach faced at the news conference announcing his hiring was how he’d be different than his predecessor, since the pair were, basically, conjoined at the hip, in basketball philosophy and temperament.

But on a night when  the Lobos unconvincingly dispatched Eastern New Mexico, there was no doubt that Neal was not Alford. Alford was always a swan during those made-for-local-TV pressers. His hair always coiffed, blazer always buttoned, Alford came in, gave punchy statements and smacked the softball questions lobbed at him out of the park. Alford’s enduring character trait at New Mexico was that he was always sure of himself — too sure of himself.

Neal is an ugly duckling and looks like he’s still not quite convinced he’s the head coach of the Lobos. He walked into that news conference unsure of the format, asking New Mexico’s sports information director, Frank Mercogliano, what to do — if he should give an opening statement before fielding questions. He eventually found his way, and with more practice, Neal should one day ooze of the same hot-seat politesse mastered by his hotsy-totsy best friend.

For now, Neal is more folksy, more conversational, unlike Alford, who was described by a Los Angeles Times columnist as an automaton at his introductory UCLA news conference. Neal is Detective Columbo to Alford’s well-dressed prosecutor.

In court, the high-priced, slick-talking attorneys always get credit for winning slam-dunk cases. But it’s the testimony of expert witnesses and the craftily pieced-together investigations that are foundation of that success. A basketball court isn’t unlike a court of law. And Neal isn’t unlike the unassuming detective, who was always underestimated by his suspects.

But Neal’s understated moments of individualism have been drowned out by the university’s excessive harrumphing.

New Mexico brass spent the better part of eight months trying carefully to craft the Lobos’ post-Alford image by, not highlighting, so much as caricaturizing Neal’s differences. That much was evident at this year’s Lobo Howl, when Neal, in a leather jacket and blue jeans, rode into the Pit on a Harley Davidson motorcycle. His grand entrance was set up by a kitschy commercial in which the coach reached into a closet and grabbed Alford’s iconic cherry blazer, returning it the hanger in favor of leather digs. Neal then blazed down Albuquerque’s streets, finally ending up at the Pit.

Someone should have told New Mexico’s public relations department that the best symbolism is subtle and seamless. This was cymbal-ism — cacophonous banging of a percussion instrument in the hopes that tepid, soft-core fans, mixed in with the hardcore ones, would get the intended message that, “Hey, guys, Steve Alford doesn’t coach at New Mexico, anymore. This is Craig Neal, our new coach, and just in case you didn’t realize, he’s not Steve Alford.”

Give New Mexico fans a bit of credit, would you? Yes, they’re susceptible to bouts of irascibility and irrationality whenever their team is knocked out of the NCAA Tournament by a double-digit seed in its opening round game. But they’re not that thick of head. Ditto for the media, although you’d have to listen in on only one of Neal’s question-and-answer sessions to understand why New Mexico’s platoon of PR reps thought it a good idea to paint Neal is such stark contrast to Alford.

Many of Neal’s days leading up to his team’s first exhibition included the usual media banter, questions about Alford, questions about whether Neal had been in contact with Alford, questions about whether Alford liked his eggs scrambled or sunny-side up. Neal, donning a sunny disposition and channeling the notion that sunshine is the best disinfectant, did his best to patiently answer Alford inquiries, but eventually grew tired of it, telling one reporter “it’s not fair to him, it’s not fair to me” to keep bringing up the old Lobo coach, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

To be fair, these questions are fair, even if some believe them to be “tedious.” As my former New Mexican colleague Will Webber wrote, Neal will always be judged against Alford. That’s the way it is. The whole apples-to-oranges rhetoric doesn’t hold here, or ever, really, because who wants to compare apples to apples? That’s tedious.

If New Mexico wanted to neutralize the analogies, it should have done Neal a favor and left that to him. He didn’t need big-screen bravado to prove he’s not Alford. You could simply see it, from his laid-back disposition in running the team to the Lobos’ more wide-open offensive flair, down to how he carried himself at the presser. You can damn well bet Craig Neal is not Steve Alford.

For New Mexico fans, that might be a good thing.

Days after defiantly wagging his finger at a roomful of reporters and talking about the contractual concessions he made to stay at the University of New Mexico, Steve Alford was gone.

Most people are remembered for first and last impressions. Alford’s introductory news conference was as eventful and glowing as his final days were disingenuous and dumbfounding. The head men’s basketball coach’s swan song at New Mexico will be remembered for a reluctance to eat crow in the aftermath of the Lobos’ embarrassing loss to Harvard in their opening game of the NCAA tournament.

On Wednesday, Alford defensively, even arrogantly, apologized for his team, took swipes at the Pac-12 — his new home — and Jim Rome and guilt-tripped Lobo Nation about details of his contract, which bumped up Alford’s base salary to more than $1.2 million a year and was set to go into effect April 1. By Saturday, he was headed for the West Coast.

“I gave a lot to stay here,” Alford said, days before. “I took away incentives that I’ve made for five consecutive years. Six consecutive years. I took those out of my contract. I think it was a pretty big commitment, not only on the school’s part, but it was a pretty big commitment on my part … to show my loyalty to UNM, and how much I appreciate UNM and how much I want to continue to build this thing.”

Alford drained the reservoir of goodwill he built up over a six-year stay by reneging on his contract in the most snide way possible, agreeing to terms with the Bruins a couple days before his new contract, with a $1 million buyout clause, was set to kick in. More than likely, New Mexico will recoup only $150,000 under the terms of Alford’s old deal.

Alford, alluding to the down-and-dirty deal during a conference call with reporters, knew he exploited a loophole.

“I know it’s not April 1st yet,” he said. “I’m not a lawyer. I’m just an Indiana grad that likes basketball. The lawyers will have to get together and figure that out.”

Alford’s former boss, athletic director Paul Krebs, probably knew he’d been swindled, but was calm and poised at a news conference Saturday announcing Alford’s impending departure.

The 48-year-old Alford met with players that morning to inform them he was leaving. Even worse for New Mexico, Alford’s ship-jumping could lead to a mass exodus. At least one player, Alex Kirk, will entertain following his slick-haired, slick-talking coach to Los Angeles.

Alford’s unexpected decision managed to make Krebs a sympathetic figure. The athletic director, it should be said, did everything humanly possible to keep Alford’s eyes from wandering. The administration’s fixation with the success of its basketball program was no more evident than when it poured $60 million into revamping The Pit. Krebs followed up by inking — or so we thought — Alford to a lucrative new deal.

For Alford, the decision is pretty cut and dried. UCLA, once one of the nation’s most storied basketball programs, offered him an express elevator back to big-time coaching stardom. All he has to do is restore John Wooden university’s good name, after some string-bean meager years got Ben Howland axed.

The irony in this, of course, is that what got Alford a new deal at New Mexico is what effectively got Howland, who led the Bruins to three Final Fours, canned.

UCLA won the Pac-12 championship this year, but failed for the fifth straight season to get out of the first week of the NCAA tournament after a 83-63 setback to 11th-seeded Minnesota.

The Lobos regaled fans with unprecedented regular-season success throughout Alford’s stay, but never erased that big looming asterisk of never getting to a Sweet 16. Alford has only won five tournament games in 18 seasons as a head coach, but endeared himself to the community with lip service.

He talked about New Mexico as a destination, not a pit stop, and backed that up by staying put even after his name surfaced as a potential suitor at Missouri and Kansas State. Then, when Lobo fans least expected it, he quietly slipped in the knife.

This, he said, is “the toughest decision that I’ve had to make, maybe ever. That’s because of how much I love this place — UNM, Albuquerque, New Mexico, the fans, the entire set up has been amazing. It really came down to making a decision to have an opportunity to go to UCLA. It’s the pinnacle of college basketball.

“It goes back to the four letters: it’s UCLA.”

You can make the argument that New Mexico has more upside than UCLA, a program whose image has been battered by defections and a paucity of postseason success.

It has missed the NCAA tournament twice the last four years and seen players flee for and sign with other programs, including New Mexico, which landed Drew Gordon, and more recently, Mountain West Player of the Year, Kendall Williams. The Bruins fan base isn’t as rabid, either, and Pauley Pavilion was routinely not at capacity in 2012-13.

New Mexico, by comparison, has four Mountain West Conference titles the last six years and has a turnkey facility and the some of the nation’s most manic fans.

Alford called the decision a “leap of faith.”

Perhaps more appropriately, lack of faith from some fans might have compelled Alford to reconsider. Maybe he felt he had reached his glass ceiling at New Mexico, and rather than risk overstaying a season too long,  like he did at Iowa, he bolted. Say what you will about Alford, he has impeccable timing.

And, apparently, enough swagger to convince UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero that the Bruins aren’t in for what became the acceptable norm at New Mexico.

“I’m about building programs — not teams, not seasons, but programs,” Alford said. “Nobody understands pressure any more than I do.”

“He’s not the kind of guy that will shy away from what UCLA. basketball is all about,” Guerrero said. “He’ll handle the expectations with dignity, with understanding and with class.”

Exactly the way he handled his exit at New Mexico.

Avilucea is a former staff writer for the Santa Fe New Mexican and a freelance journalist based in Albuquerque, N.M.

Alford’s UNM days went from gracious to graceless