Death of a Salesman

Denver real estate developer Steven Wickliff could take a punch from the world's best boxers. But he couldn't beat crack cocaine.

It was the dog that let them know something was wrong.
His neighbors knew Steven Wickliff would never allow his beloved golden retriever, Jake, to wander the streets. So when they noticed the animal had been running loose in their southeast Denver neighborhood, they called the police.

When the cops arrived on that evening last July, they found the glass patio door to Wickliff's townhome wide open and the dog waiting quietly in the backyard. Stepping inside, they discovered the 56-year-old Wickliff's body on the floor of the upstairs bedroom. He was dressed in a white Nike T-shirt, blue sweatpants and white tennis shoes, and his head and torso were covered with blood from a merciless beating. As police looked around the townhome for clues, they found a crack pipe and a plastic bag coated with cocaine residue.

Neighbors told police they'd been suspicious of the goings-on at Wickliff's townhome for some time. At all hours of the night, taxis would pull up and "kids"--they looked like teenagers to many of the elderly residents of the complex--would stream in and out of the townhome. They rarely stayed more than fifteen minutes, and when neighbors asked what they were doing there, they'd shrug their shoulders and say they worked for Wickliff.

What the neighbors didn't know was that the man bringing all these new faces into the neighborhood had also built much of the neighborhood. Steven Wickliff could walk out his front door, stand on the lush lawns surrounding the townhomes and look over the southeast Denver cityscape at projects he had created. Back in the 1980s Wickliff was one of the most prominent real estate developers in Denver, putting together deals for dozens of shopping centers, office buildings and apartment houses. He was Bill Walters's partner, and that made him a big-time player in his adopted hometown.

Walters was the financial wizard who rose to the top of the heap in the hectic Denver business world of the early 1980s. And though he and Wickliff went up the ladder together, they seemed to have little in common by the time they did a free-fall from the top rung. The men met as students at the University of Kansas, and when Wickliff followed Walters to Denver in 1978, he was savvy enough to know that huge amounts of money could be made in the coming real estate frenzy. Oil money was starting to flow into town, and Denverites soon found themselves gawking at movie stars in stretch limos who came to Denver for parties with energy-industry billionaires.

But the Dynasty years came to a crashing end, and Wickliff's life crumbled along with Denver's economy. In 1985 his marriage to college sweetheart Narka Marie Wickliff, a former Miss Kansas, ended after eighteen years. At the same time, Wickliff saw the value of his real estate holdings implode. In divorce documents filed in Denver District Court in 1985, Wickliff estimated his assets at $46 million and his liabilities at $42 million. As things went from bad to worse in Denver, Wickliff lost virtually everything. The collapse of the oil industry devastated the real estate market, as "for lease" signs multiplied and office buildings and shopping centers stood half-empty. Onetime hotshots like Walters were forced into bankruptcy and soon left town.

Unlike many of his former partners, Wickliff never declared bankruptcy. Rather than hiding behind the protection of Chapter 11, he paid back almost all the people he owed. While the disgraced Walters transferred assets to his wife and lived in luxury in a $1.9 million home in California, Wickliff lived modestly. With Denver's economy at a standstill, he headed for Southern California to try to rebuild his life.

What he found there was a financial and emotional roller coaster. He made another fortune and lost it, found friendship and acceptance, and even stepped into the boxing ring at age fifty to spar with the World Boxing Association super-middleweight champion. He also may have started the fatal dalliance with drugs that would bring his life to a violent end.

Today Wickliff's former neighbors in southeast Denver remember him bitterly, blaming him for bringing dangerous thugs onto their quiet streets. "He was a crack monster," says one neighbor. "He was running a crackhouse here."

Denver police say Wickliff wasn't dealing crack but was a heavy user who spent large sums of money on the drug. So far, no arrests have been made in his murder.

Despite the anger of his neighbors, many people loved and respected Steven Wickliff. His ex-wife and two children declined to be interviewed for this story. But his friends remember him as kindhearted and generous, someone who always had a joke to tell and always kept his word. They find themselves asking questions that remain unanswered. How could a man strong enough to seriously consider becoming a professional boxer be beaten to death? Why did someone so well-liked get involved with drugs? What sort of despair was hidden behind Wickliff's easy smile?

"I always found Steve upbeat," says Denver real estate investor Angelo Mariani, who worked with Wickliff in the 1980s and considered him a good friend. "He was always joking around. I have great difficulty understanding his depression and the other part of his life."

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