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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.

After he came back to Denver, Wickliff continued to talk to Goossen frequently. And in the months before Wickliff died, Goossen sensed that something wasn't right with his friend. "I know he was trying to talk to me about certain things, but he just couldn't quite talk about it," says Goossen. "There were things he said and I thought, 'I wonder why he asked me that?' He'd say, 'Larry, do you think I'm tough? Really tough?' I'd say, 'Yes, of course.'"

Wickliff even asked Cindie Goossen if she'd mind if he came back to California to live with them. According to police, he was planning to leave Denver the same week he was murdered. "He wouldn't come out and say, 'Larry, I'm in trouble, I need help,'" Goossen says. "But he'd say things that sounded weird, that didn't sound like Steve. He didn't want me to think he couldn't handle it. The one thing that bothers me is, I wasn't smart enough to think that something might be wrong."

Wickliff apparently kept his drug use hidden from Greg Stevinson and the other developers with whom he was working. But after his return to Colorado, his coke habit only worsened. In the spring of 1994 he was arrested on charges of possession after police in Parker spotted his car sitting by the side of the road in the middle of the night. The driver's-side door was open and the keys were in the ignition. "We found him laying down in a field," recalls Parker police sergeant Ron Combs. "He was really incoherent." Officers took Wickliff to the hospital, and the charges were dismissed after he agreed to enter a drug treatment program. The embarrassing incident never made the local newspapers.

Denver police say Wickliff was blowing huge amounts of cash on drugs before his murder. Wickliff's neighbors in southeast Denver, still in shock over the violence that invaded their quiet enclave of shade trees and bird-feeders, remember the constant stream of visitors to Wickliff's home. "There were people coming and going at all hours," says one neighbor who asked not to be identified. "You don't see stuff like that here. They were all black and all young and came at all hours of the night. They were real lowlifes. They were here for fifteen minutes, just long enough to buy."

Many of the residents of the townhome complex are retired, says the neighbor, and weren't streetwise enough to know what was happening next door. "The people here are old, and they're naive when it comes to drugs," she says. "They didn't understand what was going on, and they wouldn't know to call the police. Now they feel helpless. They think, 'Why didn't we do anything?'"

Denver police have a list of seven people who were frequent visitors to Wickliff's townhome, and they believe that at least one of those people is the murderer. Homicide detective Don Vecchi says the people Wickliff's neighbors saw come and go were mostly crack dealers. He adds that he has two prime suspects in the murder and hopes to make an arrest soon. "I think one person did the killing, but there might have been two or three people there," says Vecchi.

Wickliff's autopsy showed substantial amounts of benzoylecgonine--a breakdown product of cocaine--in his blood. The autopsy report also describes nearly a dozen cuts and abrasions on Wickliff's head. Denver chief medical examiner Thomas Henry believes Wickliff probably didn't die immediately from his injuries but would have died within an hour of the beating from bleeding and swelling around the brain. He also says the murderer or murderers probably used some kind of blunt instrument to beat Wickliff.

Wickliff was still in good enough shape to beat almost anybody in a fair fight, says Goossen. He thinks Wickliff must have been cornered by several assailants. "It wasn't one guy, that I can guarantee," he says. "They would have been dead themselves. I don't care if there were three guys or more--Steve could have taken them on. But most people won't fight hand to hand anymore--they're chickenshits."

After Wickliff's death, his son, John, who still lives in Denver, gave his father's treasured dog, Jake, to Goossen. The golden retriever now serves as a constant reminder of his good friend, says Goossen. Like so many other people who cared about Wickliff, Goossen has been thinking about all the things he could have done differently. If only Wickliff had left Denver a few days earlier, he'd be safe now in Big Bear. If only someone had known how serious Wickliff's drug habit had become, his death might have been prevented. If only Wickliff had asked his friends for help, it would have been gladly given.

But the small-town boy made good had survived in the real estate world without asking for anyone's help. And Goossen says his friend may have been too proud to admit how much trouble he was in.

"Steve never made any excuses for his life," Goossen says. "He never blamed anybody else for his problems. He lived his life the way he wanted to. The only ones he hurt were the people who loved him.

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