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.

Don Kortz, Wickliff's former boss at the Fuller & Company real estate firm in the 1980s, remembers a man with a gift for the real estate business. "Some people have a knack for doing something," Kortz says. "Steve had the ability to look into the future and see what people would want. He was very good at figuring that out."

Wickliff eventually would hold financial interests in strip malls from Colorado Springs to Westminster. He also owned part of the Denver Tower and 1700 Grant buildings downtown, the Union Square office building and Doubletree Hotel in Lakewood, and large parcels of land in Cherry Hills Village and Jefferson County.

Just how successful Wickliff had become was spelled out in his 1985 divorce agreement. Narka Marie Wickliff, who listed her occupation as "actress" in the divorce papers, received alimony of $10,000 per month for eight years, as well as the couple's $542,000 home in Cherry Hills Village, membership in the Cherry Hills Country Club, a Mercedes-Benz and a Jeep. Wickliff also agreed to provide $2,000 per month in child support for his children, Stephanie and John, and to pay for private-school tuition, college expenses and summer camp.

In an affidavit, Wickliff estimated he earned $37,500 per month. Besides the home in Cherry Hills, the couple owned a $435,000 home in Vail, a $118,000 apartment in Aspen and a $435,000 house in central Denver. Because of Wickliff's extensive investments and financial partnerships, splitting the couple's property was a knotty undertaking.

In a 1992 interview with the Rocky Mountain News, Wickliff blamed the divorce on his high-pressure lifestyle, "where you were on the go from dawn to dusk." He told the newspaper he had been overwhelmed by his financial success. "I think for a lot of people, it's hard to handle that sudden wealth," he said. "Especially if you're like me and you came from nothing."

Just as Wickliff's marriage fell apart, Denver's economy also disintegrated. The collapse of the oil industry made Denver's boom look like a hallucination, and it was an especially bad trip for real estate developers like Wickliff. As bankrupt companies abandoned office buildings and retail stores closed all over town, those who had gone heavily into debt to finance commercial projects saw their paper fortunes disappear.

Bill Walters had financed his empire with massive loans from Silverado Banking, the notorious savings and loan at which he was also the biggest single stockholder. He eventually defaulted on $106 million in loans from Silverado, costs that were ultimately paid by taxpayers. He declared bankruptcy and moved to Southern California, where he moved into a sprawling home whose title, conveniently, was in his wife's name. He was subpoenaed to testify before Congress and became a poster boy for the nation's savings and loan scandal.

Wickliff had also borrowed huge amounts of money to bankroll his assorted ventures. But in contrast to Walters and many other Denver real estate hustlers, Wickliff never declared bankruptcy. He sold virtually everything he owned to pay his debts, making good on his promises. "When the market hit the skids, he met all his obligations," remembers Mariani.

In his dealings with his friends, Wickliff tried to stay upbeat, vowing to rebuild his life and his fortune. But some thought the divorce from Narka, who remained in the Denver area and later remarried, was more painful than Wickliff let on. "Those of us who knew him when he was young were shocked by the divorce," says Grothe. "But Steve always bounced back from things."

Like thousands of people before him, Wickliff decided to start over again in California. While Denver had bottomed out, the Southern California real estate market was booming in the late 1980s. Wickliff thought he could get in on the action, and he viewed the Golden State as a place to pursue long-deferred dreams. For him, that meant becoming a professional boxer in his late forties.

A big part of Wickliff's California fantasy actually came true: He got in such good shape that he was able to spar with Frankie Lyles, the WBA's super-middleweight champion. But the dark side of California life--most starkly embodied by the state's thriving drug culture--also entered his world.

The man who would become one of Wickliff's best friends remembers the day the Denver developer strode into his Los Angeles gym, eager to jump into the boxing ring. "I thought, 'Who is this cocky son of a bitch who thinks he can fight?'" says Larry Goossen, a longtime California boxing coach and promoter. "But the more I was around him, the more I got to like him." Wickliff started coming to the gym almost every day. In between putting together real estate deals, he was determined to get into the best shape of his life. He had boxed for years; business associates still remember how he set up a small boxing gym in the basement of his Denver office at 1700 Grant Street. But Wickliff wanted to be more than an amateur--he wanted to step into the ring with some of the best boxers in the world.

"He trained for six months and kept saying, 'I want to spar,'" recalls Goossen. "I threw Steve in the ring, and the first round, he got popped in the head. The next day he got back in the ring and kicked the guy's ass."

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