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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.

Like many of the players in Denver's real estate world, Mariani was stunned by Wickliff's murder. Mariani invested millions in several of Wickliff's projects, and the men became friends after Wickliff returned to Denver from California in 1992. Mariani would have Wickliff over for Italian meals at his home, and they went to Colorado Avalanche games together. "Unless he was the best actor in the world, I had no indication he was depressed," Mariani says.

But Wickliff's grisly death has led Mariani to conclude there must have been another, secret side to the warm, optimistic man he remembers. "You can track someone for years and have one impression of him," he says. "But people sometimes live two lives."

Denver was the city that changed Steven Wickliff's life. It's where a man born into poverty became a multi-millionaire, a master developer who brought his dog to business meetings and closed big-bucks deals with a handshake. With a cheerful, effusive personality and a reputation as someone who could be trusted, Wickliff rose as quickly in the early 1980s as the skyscrapers transforming downtown Denver.

Those were the years when massive new developments were announced almost every other day. People flocked to Denver and subdivisions spilled out onto the plains, creating a demand for grocery stores, dry cleaners and restaurants. That was where Wickliff came in. The smooth-talking Midwesterner had an expertise that would take him far in the burgeoning suburbs: He specialized in strip malls.

Wickliff got his start in real estate working for the Kroh Brothers Company, a Kansas City firm that was once one of the leading developers in the Midwest. With a law degree from KU, Wickliff was able to negotiate his own deals, and he rose quickly at the company. "He was charismatic," says longtime friend Ron Grothe, whom Wickliff hired at Kroh Brothers in 1971. "We were constantly amazed how he'd get in situations he had no background in, but he handled it brilliantly. Everyone wanted to do business with him."

Grothe remembers Wickliff talking about his hardscrabble upbringing in Fremont, Nebraska, a small town outside of Omaha. Wickliff told friends he didn't live in a house with an indoor bathroom until he was eight years old. The family later moved to Wichita, where Wickliff went to high school.

The drive to succeed that Wickliff would show over the course of his life may have come from those early years of poverty. He worked his way through college, graduating from law school in 1966. After finding success in real estate, Wickliff put up the seed money that helped his father start a small retail business. Friends remember Wickliff as being generous with his newfound wealth but determined to make even more.

"I can remember him saying, 'When I make my first million, I'm going to quit,'" Grothe recalls. "Then he said, 'When I make $3 million, I'll quit.' Then he said, 'Once you get on that treadmill, it's hard to get off.'"

Wickliff realized that the automobile-dependent suburbs of American cities were ideal for a novel type of shopping center, the strip mall. "We didn't have all the strip shopping centers then," Grothe says. "Steve was a pioneer in that area." Typically, Wickliff would anchor a new strip center with a grocery store, then lease space to other retailers. It was a concept that quickly leapfrogged across the country.

A talent for picking winners helped Wickliff rise in the corporate pecking order at Kroh Brothers, and his intuitive sense for where business was happening prompted him to move to Denver in the late 1970s. He thought he could make millions in the boomtown at the foot of the Rockies, and he was right.

Wickliff's knack for befriending other ambitious people paid off when he hooked up with his old college friend Bill Walters. The two men shared a love for big deals and real estate razzle-dazzle, and they knew Denver was waiting to be conquered. The next few years wouldn't disappoint them.

Walters became the biggest developer in metro Denver, and Wickliff was a partner on many of his most important projects. "Those two guys developed a significant amount of Aurora," says former Aurora mayor Dennis Champine. "They developed the Ramada Renaissance Hotel and the surrounding office buildings. I still remember the press conferences we held to announce those projects. There were a lot of people in play, but none bigger than Bill and Steve."

Putting together a large-scale development is enormously complicated, requiring financial backing, government approval and public relations know-how. Together Walters and Wickliff were able to create some of the highest-profile developments in Denver's southeast corridor. They built the Cherry Creek Place I-IV office towers in Aurora and the International Athletic Clubs in Aurora and Denver. Wickliff personally developed sixteen shopping centers, most of them anchored by a Safeway or King Soopers store, and Walters was a partner in four of those deals.

"I always felt good when a project came to us and Bill and Steve were involved," says Champine. "You could count on them. If they said they were going to do something, they did it."

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