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.
Other attorneys involved in the case, though, aren't confident that an agreement can be hammered out. The main reason for their skepticism is the defiant Stone, who says she'll end up in "a basement apartment in Commerce City" if she comes up short in the legal struggle and so has nothing to lose. "I come with my own baggage, and I acknowledge it and apologize for it," she says. "I also know that everything was left to me, and I'm going to fight for it."
Sydney Stone's name surfaced publicly in the Breeden case soon after police broke down the doors of the young trust-funder's home in Denver's quiet Belcaro neighborhood last March and found him in his basement bathroom, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. His trusted dog, Gambo, lay beside him, sporting a bullet wound of his own; the stoic chow would later be trotted out at Breeden's memorial service wearing a bandage around his neck. Atop a pile of papers scattered across Breeden's stainless-steel desk, police found a handwritten note that read, "I want everything I have to go to Sydney Stone." In a misspelled addendum, Breeden added, "P.S. I was not driving the vehical."
Those weren't his only dying declarations, just the most relevant. Before taking his life, Breeden took the time to scribble a whole series of messages, many of them trivial housekeeping instructions. "Broken Toilet--Do Not Use!" said one note. On the door to the bathroom where he shot himself, Breeden tacked the message, "To Anyone Concerned, Do Not Open This Door Until Room Has Been Cleaned Up!" In another missive, Breeden took the time to warn that a ceiling fan shouldn't be turned on because it had a short in it. Gerash has suggested that the notes prove that Breeden wasn't thinking clearly in the moments before he died. But Stone, who helped manage Breeden's day-to-day affairs, says they make perfect sense: Just as he had for years, she says, "he was letting me know what to take care of."
Though the note naming Stone as Breeden's beneficiary was quickly made public, Stone lay low in the months following his death. She surfaced only when she was called as a prosecution witness in the Schmitz trial, and by then she had plenty to say. Ironically, her penchant for blunt talk--she calls Lopez a "drunk driver," citing the often-overlooked fact that he was legally impaired at the time of the crash--hasn't endeared her to many members of the media. Stone has even expressed a kinship with Gerash, whom she engaged in a test of wills on the witness stand. When Gerash claimed that she wanted to frame his client in order to protect Breeden's estate, Stone sardonically called him "Walt" and dismissed his suggestion that Breeden bribed her to lie to the police by declaring, "No, Mr. Gerash, I lie on my own pretty well."
"Walter is as mean as me," says Stone with grudging respect.
Her description of herself as a polished liar was hardly a legal masterstroke for Stone, who can expect to be reminded of the comment if she is put under oath in the pending civil case. "People's opinion of me has always been a low priority," she says with a shrug.
Stone, who was contacted by police investigators soon after Lopez's death because the BMW was registered at her address, initially told them Breeden was out of town. She defends her decision to throw police officers looking for Breeden off the scent. The officers wouldn't tell her which accident they were talking about, she says, and Breeden had specifically denied having anything to do with the Lopez case during a phone call he made just after the Sunday night crash. "I asked him point-blank, 'Was it that Lopez accident?' and he laughed and said, 'God, no, Sydney,'" she says. "I was totally relieved. He disarmed me." Breeden would have killed himself even if she had ratted him out, says Stone, only he would have gone to his grave knowing she had betrayed him.
As anxious as Gerash has been to tarnish Breeden's reputation, Stone has been determined to defend it, a crusade she has largely waged alone. In testimony at both the probate trial and Schmitz's criminal case, witnesses claimed that Breeden had grown so paranoid in his last year of life that he thought the FBI was spying on him through his television set and believed that Peter Schmitz was the Unabomber. Stone calls the stories ludicrous--including one claim that he jammed clothes hangers in his ceiling to ward off intruders. She notes that while she was cleaning Breeden's Belcaro home, she discovered why one clothes hanger was rigged up on a closet ceiling--so Breeden could reach the light switch.
Stone also did a slow burn during the Schmitz trial while Gerash produced evidence of Breeden's life as an aimless spendthrift. The rich kid didn't work, ate out almost exclusively, collected Playboy magazines and lovingly compiled photo albums of his luxury cars, the attorney pointed out. "Walter made a big deal about girls and cars," Stone complains. "He was doing that class-consciousness thing with the jury--'If you're beautiful and rich, you must be bad.' I hate that."
Gerash isn't the first person to discover that Stone isn't easy to rattle. In 1992 federal prosecutors in Denver charged her with conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance in a case in which one of her two sons, University of Colorado chemistry major Damon Forbes, was accused of selling a prescription anti-depressant to fellow students ("The Whiz Kid Walks," November 25, 1992). The government dropped the charges before that shaky case could go to trial, but only after Stone made life miserable for the Drug Enforcement Administration agents who raided her rental home in Cherry Creek, screaming at the men for a solid hour and accusing them, among other things, of having "plumber butts."
The 1992 case was memorable for the almost pathological disdain for authority that Damon Forbes had inherited from his mother. When he was arrested on the drug charges, he handed officers a "Get Out of Jail" card from a Monopoly game and asked if they would let him go. He later infuriated jailers by asking if the officer who had arrested him was a mongoloid. The boy "always had a big mouth," Stone commented at the time. "He gets it from me."
Allegations of drug use also have played a role in the Breeden case, and the links to Stone have been drawn just as tenuously. Spicer Breeden had a history of substance abuse, and his autopsy report showed he had used cocaine in the hours before his death. That, coupled with Stone's intimate yet platonic ties to Breeden, has led to speculation that she served as his drug connection. It is an assertion Stone has fended off by citing her own preternatural physique: Nobody could abuse drugs, the svelte blonde once asserted on camera, and still look as good as she does.
"I had a mother aspect with him and a sister aspect with him, but it wasn't sexual, it was just loving," she says of the younger Breeden, whose mother died when he was thirteen. "He had expressed admiration for me because I was feisty. I was kind of a he-girl who could get things done."
Stone has a history of doing things her way but has rarely seemed to profit from the experience. She worked her way through Michigan State University as a model in the 1960s, adorning the revolving stages at Detroit auto shows. In 1976 she moved to Aspen, rented an apartment and established what would become a familiar pattern: earning very little income, but positioning herself to rub elbows with society's elite.
Stone says she designed the dresses that actress Claudine Longet wore during her nationally publicized trial for shooting skier Spider Sabich and sewed the bride's and bridesmaids' dresses for rocker Jimmy Buffett's wedding. After moving to Cherry Creek in 1979, she befriended many of the wealthy residents in the tony neighborhoods around her small rental house. During his 1992 criminal case, Damon Forbes described a strange coming of age: taking babysitting jobs for attorneys and businessmen who lived in nearby mansions while there sometimes was no food in his own house.
Stone met Breeden in 1981 through mutual friends, and the two slowly developed a relationship based at least in part on her willingness to take care of mundane chores Breeden didn't want to be bothered with. In 1985, for instance, Breeden purchased two adjoining homes on Detroit Street in Cherry Creek, including the one where Stone and her boys were living. Not long afterward, Stone began helping him hire handymen for the properties.
"I'm not a girl who's taken care of by men," says Stone. But her arrangement with Breeden had its rewards. The heir to the Boettcher fortune lowered her rent by $75 a month after purchasing her rental house, she recalls, and reportedly once contemplated turning his two Detroit Street homes into a fourplex and giving her one of the units outright. "I guess he wanted to take care of me for the rest of my life," she says, choking back tears.
Stone returned the favor by taking what she calls a motherly interest in Breeden, whose chaotic family life had left him emotionally unstable. About the time Breeden purchased her rental unit, she says, she attempted to set him up with one of her girlfriends, Deborah Cowan. Breeden and Cowan stood her up when she set them up on a blind date, she says, but they wound up meeting each other and falling in love anyway. The two wed in 1986, after signing a pre-nuptial agreement under which Cowan agreed to receive $75,000 in cash should the marriage fail. Stone served as the maid of honor and sewed the wedding dresses for Cowan's court. As a present, Spicer Breeden gave her a matching set of Louis Vuitton luggage.
After the wedding, Breeden briefly moved to San Francisco with his new bride and asked Stone to help keep an eye on his Belcaro home. She says she took over full-time management of the Detroit Street properties at about the same time and also allowed Breeden to begin registering his cars at, and having his mail delivered to, her Detroit Street address. Stone claims such arrangements are common among the wealthy as a way of preserving privacy. "What pissed me off was, they said in court this was a sign of paranoia," she says. "The very thing he was criticized for is very normal in certain segments of our population."
Breeden's marriage to Cowan ended in an amicable divorce, and Stone says that following the dissolution of the marriage, she served as a confidante for both Breeden and his ex-wife. In fact, she says she first met Peter Schmitz when Cowan asked her to help her get rid of a Schmitz painting Breeden had purchased for $5,000 and given to her as a gift. Cowan didn't like the "cowboy picture with balloons in the background," says Stone and, afraid to hurt Breeden's feelings, asked Stone if she could track down the artist and exchange it for something more attractive.
"I found Mr. Schmitz to be a perfect gentleman who returned phone calls and took care of business," says Stone. She notes that Schmitz told her at the time he wasn't hanging out with Breeden anymore because his friend was using drugs and alcohol. Breeden, she says, made the same comment about Schmitz. She didn't see Schmitz again, Stone says, until she ran into him outside a motions hearing in his criminal case. "He came up and introduced himself and said he was sorry to be meeting under such circumstances," she adds. "He was a perfectly lovely man."
Breeden later found out about the return of the painting through a mutual friend, says Stone, and went into a funk. "He said, 'I sent that painting from the heart,'" she recalls. Breeden was still carrying a torch for his ex-wife, says Stone, but his hopes of a reconciliation were never realistic. She says she asked Cowan to let Breeden down easy before he pursued his dream of a rapprochement any further. About three weeks before Breeden's suicide, Stone says, Cowan called and, when her ex-husband didn't answer, left a message on his answering machine telling him she was involved with another man. Breeden, Stone adds, was crushed. Prosecutors last week told the Schmitz jury that Breeden may have killed himself because he was depressed over his failed romance--not because he was feeling guilty over the death of Greg Lopez.
The tug-of-war over Spicer Breeden's estate began even before his funeral, and the first two players didn't even know the man.
Because Breeden's note leaving his possessions to Stone contradicted a will he had prepared in 1991, the estate fell under the control of Steenrod, one of whose duties as public administrator is to serve as a caretaker for disputed inheritances. But in a March 26, 1996, letter to police chief Dave Michaud, Steenrod complained that his office hadn't been informed of the conflict over the will until three days after the suicide. Because of the delay, Steenrod told Michaud, he and his investigative staff arrived at Breeden's home that afternoon to find Breeden's father, brother and sister "residing in the residence while they were getting ready for the funeral."
"I was then presented with the unpleasant task of having to ask the family to leave the residence and, after some initial resistance and telephone calls to various attorneys--and finally the intervention of the decedent's father--we were able to accomplish their reluctant departure that evening," Steenrod wrote. "My investigative staff then went through the residence in a superficial fashion and noted that there was no wallet, that there were three empty boxes for Rolex watches in a closet, and that a number of expensive paintings had been removed from the walls and stacked in a bedroom." Steenrod added that after the family left, his staff put the paintings in "protective storage," rekeyed the locks and hired a professional security firm to install an alarm system.
Steenrod later got back the property the family members had removed from the residence and sent letters to their attorneys stressing that they were not authorized to drive any of Spicer's cars. But in his letter to Michaud, he chided the police for not alerting his office sooner--a tip-off, he noted, that might have helped avoid the ugly confrontation with the family, which, according to a later billing statement from Steenrod, descended into an argument with Breeden's sister during which the public administrator "insisted she leave" her brother's home.
Since that time, the struggle over Breeden's estate has been a three-way affair involving Stone, the Breedens and Bohland. The fact that Stone lied to the police about Breeden's whereabouts led a probate judge to deny her motion asking to be appointed the estate's personal representative. That means that Steenrod's office has retained control over the estate, setting the stage for an ongoing conflict with the self-confessed "itchy and bitchy" Stone, who says that "right from the beginning, Steenrod decided he was in love with" Lopez's widow. As early as last May, for instance, Steenrod provided Bohland's attorney, Raymond J. Lego, who was Lopez's best friend, with an inventory of the Breeden estate. Bohland and her attorneys "want the entire estate with Spicer as the passenger," Stone complains--and they now know exactly what to ask for in any future proceedings. Of Steenrod's decision, she says, "We have to remove emotion from our administration."
Stone also has clashed with Steenrod over her claim that his law firm is frittering away Breeden's remaining assets by charging the estate more than $33,000 to date for services that range from packing up his belongings to getting the lawn mowed at the Belcaro home. The attractive brick house only recently went on the rental market after sitting vacant for nearly a year, allegedly because the district attorney's office and Gerash weren't through gathering evidence. "What is this, the O.J. trial?" asks Stone. "If you haven't finished with the evidence in ten months, that says something about your case."
Stone, who says she broke her arm when she fell off a ladder while cleaning the Belcaro home, notes that she has worked dozens of free hours getting the house ready to rent. And she and Steenrod's staff have repeatedly butted heads in the process. Stone complains that one of Steenrod's assistants purposely refers to Breeden's dog Gambo as "Gumbo," and she has questioned the lawyer's handling of phone bills and hiring of expensive carpenters to repair the doors knocked down by police. "Sure, they're little amounts," she says of the disputed charges, "but you'd stoop over to pick up sixty dollars." Stone adds that Charles Boettcher, the "Dutch farmer" who accumulated the fortune partly inherited by Breeden, would have, too.
Reached at his law office, Steenrod declines to comment on Stone's specific complaints. But he notes that all of his fees must be approved by the court before they are paid. Stone, he adds, "has every right" to scrutinize his handling of the estate.
And despite Stone's grumbling about his stewardship of the home on Belcaro Drive, Steenrod has clearly paid careful attention to at least one estate asset: Stone's rental house on Detroit Street. Steenrod recently proposed raising her rent from $625 per month to $1,200 per month to more accurately reflect market values. "It is a $1,200 house," Stone acknowledges. "But this is punitive."
The trial in the Bohland civil suit against both the estate and Schmitz has been set for July 28. And until then, the wary dance over Breeden's estate apparently will continue. Stone has asked the probate judge to appoint a new personal representative to replace Steenrod. But that appointment appears unlikely, and even if it happens, the court won't approve any financial disbursements until the claims of Bohland and other creditors have been addressed. In the meantime, Spicer Breeden's fortune will continue to dwindle. Among the claims now pending against the estate are $137,000 in legal fees sought by Stone's attorneys. Bohland's lawyers have reacted to the request with dismay; in a March 17 response filed with the probate court, attorney Lego said the fees should be disallowed because they were incurred on Stone's behalf, not the estate's.
"Of course I'm in it for the money," replies Stone, who notes that she sewed the decorative pillows that Breeden had under his head when he shot himself. So is Bohland, she says, noting that Lopez's widow has already turned down a $250,000 settlement offer from Breeden's insurance carrier. So are the Breedens. "Would I be a more noble person," she asks, "if I said, 'Oh, go ahead and take it, and Greg is gonna rise from the dead and Spicer is gonna rise from the dead?'"
Stone says she still fantasizes about saving Breeden, racing from Cherry Creek to Belcaro in time to avert his suicide. It may seem "a little bit macabre" that she saved the piece of his skull found in the basement, she admits. But she says she held on to the fragment because it's the one piece of Breeden she has left after a year of chaos. Adds Stone, "I kept it because so much of this case has been like a bizarre bad movie."
Stone, who at Breeden's memorial service was seated alone with her boys at a table for ten, says she regrets not being able to offer a proper eulogy for her friend. She bristled when Breeden was cremated and his ashes sprinkled near the Boettcher mansion on Lookout Mountain where he had lived as a boy. Her friend, she claims, wanted a burial and a grave marker, as evidenced by his reference to those items in his 1991 will.
In her fantasy, Stone says, she offers to pay the Breeden family's $2,000 catering bill from the memorial service. In return, the family gives her Spicer's ashes. Then she inters them at Fairmount Cemetery, under a marker bearing the simple inscription "A Boy and His Dog."
It is an image that gives Stone a measure of comfort, even though the "boy" was a 36-year-old man who has since been reduced to ashes, and his dog is still alive, entrusted to a longtime friend and hardly ready to be buried with his master.
Stone pauses for a moment as she reflects on the scene. "Isn't that romantic?" she asks.
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