The panicked whisper instantly shook BJ Baldwin.
“BJ! BJ! BJ!” Tori Nonaka hissed quietly as Baldwin’s eyes darted back and forth in search of his distressed girlfriend.
Seconds earlier, Nonaka had been standing next to the driver’s side door of Baldwin’s black Porsche. Now, from where Baldwin was standing on the passenger side of the vehicle and slightly behind it, Nonaka was nowhere to be seen.
As Baldwin’s concern escalated, movement caught his attention. Two figures were approaching from the northeast through the shadows of the parking lot. And quickly.
Turning back toward his car, Baldwin finally spotted Nonaka as she stood up from the driver’s seat, where she had been hidden from his view. His relief was short-lived. Nonaka’s eyes met his in the midst of a full-out ocular scream. Something was very wrong.
Baldwin whipped back toward the approaching figures just in time to see two men burst into the soft amber halo beneath the nearby pole light. The men were large — Baldwin estimates the man in front was about 6 feet, 4 inches tall and 270 pounds with an athletic build and the guy behind him was about 6 feet, 2 inches and 200 pounds. Their faces were obscured by the tightly cinched hoods of their dark sweatshirts, and they were moving fast — almost speed-walking at this point — aimed directly at the only car in the entire parking lot: Baldwin’s Porsche 911 Turbo S.
Then Baldwin saw it: what appeared to be a .45-caliber 1911 in the lead man’s left hand. The gunman held the black pistol in front of his body and pointed it directly at Nonaka as he approached. Slowing his gait as he closed within 15 yards, the man flashed the gun toward Baldwin, cracking a wicked smile.
“What’s good?” he sneered.
Beating the Odds
In that moment, the circumstances were stacked against Baldwin. Fortunately, the Las Vegas native is no stranger to performing in high-stakes situations and flipping the odds in his favor.
Known to racing fans as “Ballistic BJ Baldwin,” the 40-year-old president of Baldwin Motorsports has built a career as an extremely successful off-road truck driver. He’s a three-time Southern California Off Road Enthusiasts (S.C.O.R.E.) series champion and two-time Best in the Desert Racing Association (B.I.T.D.) series winner. The long-distance endurance off-road driver won the prestigious Baja 1000 in back-to-back years in 2012 and 2013, a feat made even more noteworthy by the fact that he was behind the wheel for the entire distance of both races: 1,121 miles in ’12 and 883 miles in ’13.
Baldwin, whose father is a World Series of Poker champion turned casino executive, is also known for his flashy persona outside of his truck. Behind natural swagger and a magnetic personality, the No. 97 Monster Energy truck driver has built an impressive social media imprint — nearly 1 million followers on Instagram and more than 440,000 on Facebook. And he has pushed the boundaries of what a career in off-road racing entails by tallying millions of views on truck racing videos on YouTube.
“For whatever reason, people think I’m interesting,” Baldwin confessed.
Much of that appeal can likely be attributed to his candidness. Whether it’s on social media or in person, Baldwin seemingly operates with no filter whatsoever. Through his social media channels, especially Instagram, his fans are given impressive access to his racing career, social life, personal reflections and time spent with his family, as well as his favorite non-driving pursuit: shooting. Baldwin is a passionate supporter of the Second Amendment, lifelong shooter, devoted firearms collector and longtime concealed carry permit holder.
Training Never Ends
Beginning as a child, Baldwin participated in an array of self-defense training, including wrestling, boxing and several other martial-arts disciplines. He began defensive firearms training about 15 years ago, but his passion for pistol training skyrocketed after the birth of his son 12 years ago and again after the birth of his daughter eight years later.
“I don’t ever want to be in a situation where something happens and I wasn’t proficient enough or smart enough or intelligent enough or quick enough to be able to deal with it in a fashion that may preserve their lives and their safety,” Baldwin confided.
He spends hundreds of hours a year training with some of the top firearms instructors, military specialists and competitive shooters in the world, including his girlfriend. Nonaka is a former Team Glock competitive shooter with more than 20 national and international pistol championships to her name, including two United States Practical Shooting Association (USPSA) national titles.
Baldwin’s self-described “obsession” with improving his defensive tactics skill set, especially his draw speed and accuracy — and the natural balance between those two factors — has led to an impressive resume of completed courses and a diverse set of skills. He trains with experts across the country in disciplines like low-light scenarios, force-on-force scenarios, problem-solving scenarios, vehicle tactics, sim-round training, room clearing, defensive rifle training and more. Baldwin gives his fans firsthand glimpses into these training experiences through his social media channels.
Baldwin was checking those social media accounts and responding to emails on his phone in the early morning hours of Wednesday, April 22, 2020, as he stood outside the passenger door of his Porsche.
A self-described “night owl,” Baldwin usually eats dinner around 8 or 9 p.m. and doesn’t go to bed until 1 or 2 a.m. Earlier that night, he had an argument with his father that was still weighing heavily on his mind. After the dispute, Baldwin sat down to write a letter to his dad to help clear the air.
Three hours after starting the email, Baldwin looked up and realized it was after midnight. Since he hadn’t eaten dinner yet, he decided to take a much-needed break, but there was nothing he wanted to eat in the house, and most fast-food restaurants, even in Las Vegas, were already closed. Nonaka mentioned that In-N-Out Burger, a favorite guilty pleasure of the couple, was open until 1 a.m., so they hopped into the Porsche and headed for the closest location: 9610 W. Tropicana Ave.
Baldwin pulled into the drive-through lane at approximately 12:50 a.m. and placed his order — two Double-Double burgers with whole grilled onions and a large pink lemonade with extra ice. Sticking mostly to his home during the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak, Baldwin had been battling cabin fever for weeks, and his anxiety was elevated further by the still-unresolved disagreement with his dad. When he noticed that several people were dining in their cars in the In-N-Out Burger parking lot, it seemed like a great way to extend this brief escape.
“It was nice to get out of the house,” Baldwin reflected.
Time to Take Off
After finishing their meals and in no rush to get right back home, Baldwin and Nonaka opted for some fresh air around 1:30 a.m. The restaurant is in a “good part of town,” Baldwin noted, and the views aren’t bad either, at least as far as a parking lot goes. The landscaping is well-kept and includes several palm trees. In the daylight, visitors can even look down Tropicana Avenue to the west and see a piece of the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area mountain ranges in the distance.
About 15 minutes after Baldwin and Nonaka stepped out of the car, an In-N-Out employee approached the couple and asked them to move the vehicle. It’s restaurant policy to make sure all vehicles are out of the lot before employees lock up and leave for the night. Baldwin pulled his car approximately 60 feet away into the immediately adjacent strip mall parking lot and parked directly underneath a pole light in front of a financial business, positioning the vehicle perpendicular to the painted spaces and facing south. The pair hopped out again. Baldwin stood to the rear of the vehicle on the passenger side looking out into the parking lot while Nonaka stood outside the driver’s side door facing the same direction. They both went back to their phones.
Baldwin, who has long made it a habit of regularly checking his surroundings, looked up and surveyed the parking lot as the last four or five other cars began filing out. Several of the light posts that dot the lot were on timers and had recently gone dark. Baldwin could still see most of the paved area from his vantage point, but some pieces were now obscured in darkness.
Just about time to take off, he thought.
Joseph Smith was already having an eventful day by the time he saw Baldwin and Nonaka standing outside a Porsche on the other end of an otherwise empty parking lot at approximately 1:50 in the morning.
The 43-year-old tried to buy a firearm at a gun store located in the strip mall the previous morning, according to a Las Vegas Review-Journal article that cited Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department reports. Joseph Smith’s brother, Kevin Smith, 40, reportedly told police that his brother was upset when the transaction was denied. And, later that day, Joseph came back to throw rocks at the gun store’s front windows. In a statement the following day, LVMPD Lt. Ray Spencer noted that several of the gun store windows were broken.
Kevin Smith told police that he and his brother left the area at that point but returned later on foot, according to the Review-Journal story. Spencer noted in his statement that Joseph Smith lived in the apartment complex across the street from In-N-Out Burger and that the brothers were seen leaving the apartment and crossing the street.
“Kevin had a feeling Joseph was going to do something stupid but denied knowing what,” the police report reportedly stated.
There is no way Joseph Smith could have known just how stupid that something would be.