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I'm doing a good job of being disappearing," LoDo artist Jorg "Peter" Schmitz says in lilting, German-accented English. He sounds proud of the accomplishment, and perhaps he should be. Schmitz is the man of the hour, the person whom everyone--including members of a Denver grand jury--wants to talk to. And so far, he hasn't said a word.
Schmitz's moment of fame came by accident. On St. Patrick's Day, the 34-year-old Schmitz was in the front seat of a speeding BMW that killed popular Rocky Mountain News columnist Greg Lopez. But rather than stopping to render assistance and take responsibility for the act, Schmitz and his millionaire pal, Spicer Breeden, raced off into the darkness. In the succeeding days, despite the men's silence, police were able to follow a trail that led them straight to Breeden's door.
Police, however, were hours too late--Breeden had shot himself in the head, preferring death to surrender.
Officers' belief that Breeden was at the wheel of the car when it struck Lopez's vehicle was shaken by the discovery of Breeden's suicide note--in a postscript, Breeden wrote that he hadn't been driving.
It was two more days before Schmitz appeared, surfacing from his self-imposed exile just long enough to pose for a police photograph. Schmitz, however, has remained mum, avoiding the limelight, the cops and a grand jury that is meeting to investigate the accident. "I don't want to discriminate myself," he tells Westword during one of a series of telephone conversations that took place over the past two weeks.
Schmitz's refusal to speak about the Lopez case, as well as a lack of solid information about Schmitz himself, has only heightened curiosity about that fateful night--particularly after a witness came forward and swore to a district attorney's investigator that Schmitz confessed to her that he, not Breeden, had been driving.
The result has been a plethora of speculation and rumor in the media. Says Schmitz, "Everything that has been written about me is total crap. They're trying to dig up if I do drugs, if I'm gay. It's the funnniest thing. Anybody who knows me knows it's not true."
But with Schmitz, it's sometimes difficult to discern just what is true--in part due to his deliberate attempts to blur the details of his past and in part because of his exaggerated claims of fame and fortune.
His personal history, however, is more interesting than any piece of fiction. It begins with his German grandfather, whose own chief claim to fame came as an attorney defending some of the Third Reich's highest-ranking Nazis at the Nuremberg war-crimes tribunal.
Peter Schmitz was born in Germany on January 8, 1962, the youngest of two sons delivered to Dusseldorf machinery-shop employee Hans Schmitz and his wife, Ursula. Although the Schmitz family was not particularly well-to-do, Ursula had come from money; her father, Otto Kranzbuhler, had distinguished himself in wartime service to the Reich and was considered by his contemporaries to be one of the most learned attorneys in Nuremberg.
In 1946, Kranzbuhler was called to defend Grand Admiral Karl Dsnitz, whom Adolf Hitler had appointed to be his successor prior to the Fuhrer's suicide. Days after taking the reins, Donitz ordered Germany's unconditional surrender to the Allies.
Donitz was sentenced to ten years in prison as the result of his actions during the war. It came as a surprise; many people had expected he would be sentenced to death. Kranzbuhler got the credit for saving the life of the Grossadmiral.
Following his successful defense of Donitz, Kranzbuhler was retained by the family of another war criminal, industrialist Alfried Krupp, who was scheduled to appear before the tribunal in 1948. Krupp, who headed a family-owned munitions company, was accused of supporting the Nazis by producing armaments with slave labor. Historians estimate that Krupp used between 100,000 to 250,000 slaves in the company's 81 plants and factories and say that as the Allies approached, Krupp had the workers shipped to death camps in Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald in an attempt to hide his involvement.
The able Kranzbuhler again succeeded in obtaining a relatively light sentence for his client. Although Krupp was sentenced to twelve years in prison and ordered to surrender his huge fortune, he ended up serving only thirty months behind bars, and his fortune was returned to his family. Kranzbuhler later traveled throughout West Germany lecturing about the trial, which he called an American farce.
Peter Schmitz continues to remain in touch with his grandfather by phone and has visited with Kranzbuhler in Germany in recent years. But publicly, Schmitz denies the familial connection. During a recent conversation, Schmitz even pretended that he had never heard the name Kranzbuhler. However, Schmitz's grandfather, now approaching ninety and living near Munich, doesn't disawow the connection. "He's one of my grandsons," Kranzbuhler acknowledges. "He has been living for five or six years in the United States. I think he's had some trouble with motor cars. An accident."
Peter Schmitz was an unusual child. He claims he didn't speak until the age of five--the same age, he asserts, at which he sold his first painting to a gallery in Switzerland.
Despite his drive to become an artist, Schmitz's mother was loath to encourage his ambitions. "His mother, who was the main person in the household, did not want him to become an artist," Otto Kranzbuhler says. "His relationship with his mother was very good, very harmonious. But [Schmitz] had to paint. And he did."