By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
Sydney Stone, her broken right arm in a sling, pushes away her salmon salad, leans out of her chair on the patio of an upscale restaurant in Cherry Creek, and reaches for the chunk of Spicer Breeden's skull that she has just dropped on the floor.
It's obvious that the injured Stone can't reach the piece of the late millionaire's head that has fallen just out of reach inside a drainage grate. So a lunch companion uses a ballpoint pen to extract it, inadvertently sending the oyster-sized memento shooting across the floor like a skipped stone before it can be retrieved and returned safely to its owner.
If the other lunch customers on this weekday afternoon notice the bizarre scene being played out at the next table, they don't let on. And Stone, the self-described mother figure who stands to inherit the fortune that the 36-year-old Breeden left behind when he shot himself in the head on March 19, 1996, doesn't miss a beat. She accepts the skull fragment, which she found while cleaning the basement bathroom where Breeden took his life, cradles it in her palms and finishes making her point.
"Everybody loves to hear about someone rich and good-looking having something bad happen to them," she says. "But he was a human being, and this is part of his head right here."
It is a moment perfectly in keeping with the Breeden case, which has taken turns both tragic and preposterous almost from the moment a BMW belonging to Breeden clipped Rocky Mountain News columnist Greg Lopez's Toyota 4-Runner at an estimated 100 miles per hour last year, killing the popular newspaperman. That fatal "bump and go" on Interstate 25 has since spawned three court battles. All have made headlines, and all have involved Stone, a fifty-year-old seamstress and former model who has emerged as one of the most enigmatic figures in a case populated by unconventional characters.
Along with Stone, the cast includes Breeden, an heir to the Boettcher fortune who liked fast cars and trendy bars; his pal Peter Schmitz, the ponytailed German painter who was with Breeden in the BMW at the time of the accident and was later put on trial for vehicular homicide; Denver-area native Lopez, a journalist's journalist who reportedly shared forty beers with a friend the day before he died; Jennifer Chelwick, a friend of Breeden's who claimed he was so paranoid that he sprinkled corn flakes in his house to alert him to sounds made by possible intruders; and Schmitz defense attorney Walter Gerash, a dramatic barrister known for his courtroom bombast and beret.
"Everyone, myself included, is a lunatic," says Stone. "And damn, so many of them are so good-looking. You couldn't write this book. There are too many elements that are unbelievable."
And the story is far from over. Schmitz was acquitted of the criminal charges against him last week, but he still faces a lawsuit from Lopez's widow, Kathleen Bohland, who will have to meet a much lower burden of proof at a civil trial. Even as Schmitz's criminal case was winding down, the focus in the case was shifting to the struggle over money--most notably, Spicer Breeden's.
The roughly $500,000 that's left of Breeden's once-$2 million estate is less than many people imagined. But it's enough to fight over. And Stone, who sees Bohland and the Breeden family circling around the money that was left to her, is spoiling for a scrap. For Stone, who doesn't own a car and earns $20,000 per year doing custom sewing work for a Cherry Creek dress shop, Breeden's estate represents an escape route from a life of poverty. "I'm going to make a good rich person," she adds, "because I know how to watch pennies."
She also knows how to play rough. Last year Stone emerged victorious from a bruising probate struggle in which her attorneys took Denver on a guided tour of the Breeden family closet, presenting testimony about a litany of dysfunctional behaviors that included the drug use and sexual peccadilloes of Spicer Breeden's father. But even though a judge has formally declared her Breeden's legal heir, Stone hasn't collected a dime. The Breeden family has appealed the ruling naming her as the estate's beneficiary, and Bohland's wrongful-death suit names the Breeden estate as a defendant along with Schmitz.
Given the sordid tales of family strife that came out during the probate trial, the Breedens have their work cut out for them. Bohland, on the other hand, appears to be on firm legal ground. Legal experts say that, regardless of who was driving the BMW at the time of the collision, the estate will be held accountable under Colorado law by simple virtue of the fact that it was Breeden's car and he was present during the accident.
According to Denver public administrator R.L. Steenrod Jr., who's handling the estate pending the appointment of a permanent personal representative, the question to be determined at Bohland's trial won't be whether the estate will have to pay for Lopez's untimely death, only how much. That's why he's pushing for a negotiated settlement between Bohland, the Breedens and Stone. "To me, there isn't enough money to go around," Steenrod says--and a court fight, which the estate would have to help pay for, would leave even less for everybody.