Death of a Salesman
It was the dog that let them know something was wrong.
His neighbors knew Steven Wickliff would never allow his beloved golden retriever, Jake, to wander the streets. So when they noticed the animal had been running loose in their southeast Denver neighborhood, they called the police.
When the cops arrived on that evening last July, they found the glass patio door to Wickliff's townhome wide open and the dog waiting quietly in the backyard. Stepping inside, they discovered the 56-year-old Wickliff's body on the floor of the upstairs bedroom. He was dressed in a white Nike T-shirt, blue sweatpants and white tennis shoes, and his head and torso were covered with blood from a merciless beating. As police looked around the townhome for clues, they found a crack pipe and a plastic bag coated with cocaine residue.
Neighbors told police they'd been suspicious of the goings-on at Wickliff's townhome for some time. At all hours of the night, taxis would pull up and "kids"--they looked like teenagers to many of the elderly residents of the complex--would stream in and out of the townhome. They rarely stayed more than fifteen minutes, and when neighbors asked what they were doing there, they'd shrug their shoulders and say they worked for Wickliff.
What the neighbors didn't know was that the man bringing all these new faces into the neighborhood had also built much of the neighborhood. Steven Wickliff could walk out his front door, stand on the lush lawns surrounding the townhomes and look over the southeast Denver cityscape at projects he had created. Back in the 1980s Wickliff was one of the most prominent real estate developers in Denver, putting together deals for dozens of shopping centers, office buildings and apartment houses. He was Bill Walters's partner, and that made him a big-time player in his adopted hometown.
Walters was the financial wizard who rose to the top of the heap in the hectic Denver business world of the early 1980s. And though he and Wickliff went up the ladder together, they seemed to have little in common by the time they did a free-fall from the top rung. The men met as students at the University of Kansas, and when Wickliff followed Walters to Denver in 1978, he was savvy enough to know that huge amounts of money could be made in the coming real estate frenzy. Oil money was starting to flow into town, and Denverites soon found themselves gawking at movie stars in stretch limos who came to Denver for parties with energy-industry billionaires.
But the Dynasty years came to a crashing end, and Wickliff's life crumbled along with Denver's economy. In 1985 his marriage to college sweetheart Narka Marie Wickliff, a former Miss Kansas, ended after eighteen years. At the same time, Wickliff saw the value of his real estate holdings implode. In divorce documents filed in Denver District Court in 1985, Wickliff estimated his assets at $46 million and his liabilities at $42 million. As things went from bad to worse in Denver, Wickliff lost virtually everything. The collapse of the oil industry devastated the real estate market, as "for lease" signs multiplied and office buildings and shopping centers stood half-empty. Onetime hotshots like Walters were forced into bankruptcy and soon left town.
Unlike many of his former partners, Wickliff never declared bankruptcy. Rather than hiding behind the protection of Chapter 11, he paid back almost all the people he owed. While the disgraced Walters transferred assets to his wife and lived in luxury in a $1.9 million home in California, Wickliff lived modestly. With Denver's economy at a standstill, he headed for Southern California to try to rebuild his life.
What he found there was a financial and emotional roller coaster. He made another fortune and lost it, found friendship and acceptance, and even stepped into the boxing ring at age fifty to spar with the World Boxing Association super-middleweight champion. He also may have started the fatal dalliance with drugs that would bring his life to a violent end.
Today Wickliff's former neighbors in southeast Denver remember him bitterly, blaming him for bringing dangerous thugs onto their quiet streets. "He was a crack monster," says one neighbor. "He was running a crackhouse here."
Denver police say Wickliff wasn't dealing crack but was a heavy user who spent large sums of money on the drug. So far, no arrests have been made in his murder.
Despite the anger of his neighbors, many people loved and respected Steven Wickliff. His ex-wife and two children declined to be interviewed for this story. But his friends remember him as kindhearted and generous, someone who always had a joke to tell and always kept his word. They find themselves asking questions that remain unanswered. How could a man strong enough to seriously consider becoming a professional boxer be beaten to death? Why did someone so well-liked get involved with drugs? What sort of despair was hidden behind Wickliff's easy smile?
"I always found Steve upbeat," says Denver real estate investor Angelo Mariani, who worked with Wickliff in the 1980s and considered him a good friend. "He was always joking around. I have great difficulty understanding his depression and the other part of his life."
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."
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."
Wickliff went on to spar with Lyles and other fighters far younger than him. Goossen says Wickliff, who stood about 5' 11" and weighed 165 pounds, was in unbelievable shape for a man his age. "He was close to fifty, but he convinced me he could have been a professional fighter," says Goossen. "He was a tough, determined guy."
The passion for boxing that Wickliff and Goossen shared became the basis for a close friendship that extended into business. Goossen dreamed of establishing a high-altitude boxing camp in the Big Bear Lake area northeast of Los Angeles. Wickliff not only offered to help him find a suitable location, he also put up much of the cash for the venture. The camp, which opened in 1990 in a hangar at the Big Bear airport, has since become popular with many boxing superstars, including lightweight Oscar De La Hoya and heavyweight contender Riddick Bowe.
"If it weren't for Steve, Big Bear would not have happened," says Goossen. "It was Steve that got this rolling."
Wickliff even lived for a year with Goossen and his wife, Cindie. "I brought him into my family," Goossen says. "We hit it off like twins. Steve was a gift from God for us. He was a fun guy. We'd go out to dinner and have a beer, talk fights and have a great time."
Wickliff never did turn pro. But Goossen says his middle-aged protege was thrilled that he could beat fighters years younger than himself. "Steve said it was such a high to get to that point, and it was one of the happiest points of his life," Goossen recalls.
However, the business world was still throwing Wickliff suckerpunches. A $20 million shopping center he developed in the late 1980s near Los Angeles was successful, and Wickliff invested the profits in proposed housing developments in Malibu and Rancho Mirage. But by 1990 the California economy was reeling, as the end of the Cold War and the accompanying cuts in defense spending sent the local real estate market into a tailspin. Once again, Wickliff was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Once again, he lost everything.
His friends knew that the losses in California hit him hard. "He got down and worried about business," says Goossen. "I know it was the toughest experience of his life."
Ron Grothe saw Wickliff in 1990 and says the business failures had taken their toll. "We talked about it and had some spiritual conversations," says Grothe, who adds that he urged Wickliff to turn to the Bible for emotional sustenance. His friend, he says, told him he was reading the Scriptures for comfort. Grothe hoped that Wickliff had overcome the bad times. "I told him he had to pull up his socks and bootstraps and get going again. I think we were all cheering him on and thought Steve was back. But it sounds like something snapped."
Exactly when Wickliff was introduced to crack cocaine is unclear. But the boxing world has more than its share of drug users, and Wickliff wouldn't have had to look far for a supply. "There's a lot of fighters who do drugs," Goossen says. "They're street kids, the toughest guys in the world. The attitude is, 'Screw everyone. I'll do what I want to do.' Most of these guys have been in wars all their lives in and out of the ring. They've led tough lives dealing with things most people will never have to deal with."
Goossen knew Wickliff was doing drugs, but when he tried to talk to his friend about his cocaine habit, he encountered the same in-your-face bravado he'd seen in other fighters. "When we were training in L.A., he told me he'd done drugs the night before," he says. "I could have killed him. I said, 'It's your life, but you can't do what you want to do with drugs and keep doing boxing.'"
In 1992 a defeated Wickliff returned to Denver. While California's economy was still floundering, Denver's had made a strong recovery, and he told friends he was going to start over again. He went to work selling commercial real estate for Fuller & Company and was involved in several projects, including Greg Stevinson's Denver West retail development and a forty-unit townhome complex in Glendale.
After his return, Wickliff reflected on the ups and downs of the real estate market for the News. He told the newspaper he had no desire to become a high-powered developer again and that he simply wanted to live a modest life. "Timing is everything," he said of the real estate business. "You live with it and you die with it."
More than anything, Steven Wickliff wanted to be known as a tough guy.
Before he left California, Goossen had even tried to enter him in the Tough Man competition, a bare-knuckles brawl known for its savagery. "If I'd gotten him in that tough-guy competition, he would have won," Goossen says. "If he started something, he'd finish it. They would have had to kill him to win."
Wickliff was also working on his pilot's license in California, and Goossen remembers a flight from Big Bear to Santa Monica during which the plane his friend was flying was tossed about like confetti. "The wind was kicking the plane around," Goossen says. "Jake was hitting his head on the ceiling. I started to say my act of contrition. The first time I'd ever seen Steve scared in his life was when he got out of that plane."
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.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.