The last person to see Richard Rother alive was probably the young lover who stepped off the elevator around half-past midnight, heading for his girlfriend's place. This was Monday, November 9, 1998, on the top floor of the Bank Lofts, an apartment complex in the old U.S. National Bank building on 17th Street that offers high ceilings and a huge, empty central atrium.
Romeo saw him only for a moment --a dude in the stairwell, smoking a cigarette, waiting for somebody. Dark clothes, maybe a ponytail.
The next time anybody saw Richard Rother was fifteen minutes later. He was found crumpled on the atrium floor ten stories below, his skull shattered, his clothes spattered with blood and brain tissue. He'd died instantly, of course. A body falling from the top of the Bank Lofts would be hurtling at a rate of 96 feet per second--roughly 65 miles per hour--at the point of impact.
You have to wonder what was in his mind, those last few minutes. Was he thinking, Where the hell is Randy?--the man he'd come to see? Numbed by booze and pills, did he climb the railing across the hall from Randy Roberts's apartment and gaze down into the stillness of the atrium, tracing the dizzy pattern of white walls and window frames with no glass in them, until he was seized by inspiration? Or had he been planning it for hours, reading the caution sign over and over--THROWING OBJECTS OR LEANING OUT OF WINDOWS IS PROHIBITED--while gathering his courage for the great leap?
Three days before he died, Rother told a friend, "Denver's not going to forget me." If he'd hoped to make a spectacle of his death, he just missed the mark; a little more distance, and he would have crashed through the glass roof of the Brasserie Z restaurant in the center of the atrium, guaranteeing at least a ripple of media coverage from outraged gourmands. Instead he landed on a deserted gravel strip next to the glass canopy, and the feat didn't rate even a line in the morning newspapers. He died as he lived: obscure, a cipher, a nobody.
Yet in his own world, Richard Rother was a somebody. He was a picker, a calling that requires the aggressiveness of a bargain-basement shopper, the nose of a dumpster-diver and the sophistication of an art connoisseur. He made the rounds of flea markets, thrift stores, garage sales and estate liquidations, seizing the treasure amid others' trash and delivering it into the eager hands of dealers and collectors. Most of the deals would net him a few bucks--enough to pay the rent on his modest Cheesman Park apartment and keep him in generic cigarettes and cheap beer--but once in a while he would come across something for sale for ten or twenty dollars that he knew was worth thousands.
"Richard was a hound dog," says Joseph Bankston, owner of an antique store off Colfax. "He'd hit the thrift stores early in the morning, and he had a good eye. He found good stuff cheaply, and he could turn it over quickly. He was one of the best."
One deal after another, Rother built a life for himself as a picker. He was a few months shy of his fiftieth birthday when that life fell apart, thanks to two bad deals and one traumatic arrest for buying stolen goods, an undercover case engineered by the zealous crimebusters at the Denver Police Department's anti-fencing unit. Distraught and paranoid, his faith in even his closest friends demolished, he began to talk about killing himself. When the moment came, it took less than three seconds for him to put an end to it all.
The coroner's report lists the cause of death as "multiple fractures and internal injuries" sustained in a fall. Although no note was found, the fall itself was soon determined to be a suicide. The reasons for the suicide are not so easy to explain; they never are. But this is how Gisela Boderke, Rother's longtime friend and ex-girlfriend, sees it:
"Richard always had this feeling that his life just went wrong, that there was no way to turn things around," she says. "When the police came to his door, he felt this was the end. He got over so many things, but he was really very fragile, and the shock of being arrested--it was just too much."
Friends familiar with Rother's drinking problem and his private demons--he had talked about suicide before last fall--say they aren't entirely surprised that he took his own life. But they wonder why the police chose to spring an undercover sting on a small-time picker with a clean record; why they pressured him to buy supposedly "hot" merchandise when he repeatedly expressed reluctance to get involved in such deals; and why they came down on him as hard as they did--as if he were a master thief, a key link to a grand conspiracy, rather than the broken-down, alcohol-befuddled loner he clearly was. Rother's death, they say, says volumes about the DPD's gung-ho approach to undercover operations directed not at drug dealers but at people dealing in art and antiques.
"The whole intent of this cops-and-robbers game is to find a culprit when there is none," says Tom Rother, Richard's brother, a mortgage broker who lives in Laguna Beach, California. "This kind of thing doesn't produce someone in south Denver who's got a warehouse full of stolen stuff, but they don't care. My poor brother, in his social and physical dysfunction--it could have been somebody else, and they would have just handled it. But Richard lived a very closed-in life."
"It's not just what the police did, but the way they did it," Boderke says. "I really feel he should still be alive."
To understand what happened to Richard Rother, you have to know about picking and the people who do it for a living. Picking is the last great refuge of the indie and the garden-level entrepreneur, the goofball and the hermit, anyone who loves well-made things and despises the workaday world. It's an attic treasure hunt, a basement safari, a raid of the lost ARC, a fleecing of the flea market, an immersion in romance and squalor, with the elusive promise of a monster score wafting from the next aisle.
Feature this: The thrill of being the first one through the door at a one-day estate sale, scooping up a chrome fountain pen from the 1930s and a wafer-thin Patek-Philippe watch while all those clodhoppers behind you are still wading through the cheap ceramics. Or this: The kick in the gut that comes from excavating a path through a dusty back room in a secondhand store, past ratty Barcoloungers and foul-smelling naugahyde sofas, to unearth a perfect Platonic ideal of a chair, something glorious from Aalto or Eames or Noll, in need of varnish but intact. Or this: The heart palpitation that greets you at the bottom of a pile of very bad paintings, when a Birger Sandzen watercolor slips into your grimy hands, begging to be rescued from the crapola and displayed on some rich collector's wall.
Rother knew such joys and more. He loved picking. He lived by it, until they arrested him over a pile of dinged-up silverware. The stuff cost him $165 and everything that mattered.
The characters who populate the art and antique business come from all over, from the street to the penthouse. Rother was a fixture on the Denver scene for at least fifteen years, a regular at art openings and estate sales, but his career as a picker actually began much earlier, when he was growing up in Lansing, Michigan, in the early 1960s.
"He'd done this since he was a little kid," says Gisela Boderke. "He told me that when he was ten he'd go through the dumpsters and show off what he found."
Rother drifted into Denver in the 1970s, a twentysomething with strong opinions about movies and art but no particular ambitions. For many years, he worked as a waiter at the Petroleum Club and bought and sold objets in his spare time. When he lost that job in the mid-1980s over some long-forgotten altercation, he began to make the rounds of the yard sales and thrift stores on a daily basis, determined to survive by his wits. Notoriously frugal, his strategy was to spend as little as possible and sell as quickly as possible, even if keeping a piece longer might yield better offers.
"If he bought something today, he'd sell it today," recalls local artist Myron Melnick. "Thirty cents on the dollar--so the next guy could mark it up. He'd strap chairs to the top of his car and go all over town, trying to get rid of them."
Shortly after Melnick first met him, the picker horned in on a yard sale at Melnick's house. Rother began unloading items from his ancient, battered Volvo, all the while explaining that he had a few things he wanted to sell, too. "Before I could turn around, he'd sold everything he brought," Melnick says.
Rother concentrated on the sort of merchandise he knew best: modernist furniture, regional painters such as Sandzen, vintage watches. He researched obscure artists at the public library and made the sort of connections a picker needs to buy and sell a painting in a single day.
"It's pretty easy buying stuff," notes antique dealer Jay Razor, "but getting rid of it is another matter. You have to be choosey about what you buy, and you have to know where you're going to take the thing that afternoon to sell it. Richard knew what people were looking for. He used to buy primitive furniture for me and leave it in my driveway. Most of the time I'd buy it."
Rother's moods were as unpredictable as his business. He could be loud and abrasive, showing off his knowledge of art and his "new" pair of Italian loafers (no doubt purchased at a thrift store), or brooding and sullen.
"There were a lot of pickers who didn't like him," says one antique dealer. "His forte was standing in line in estate sales. It's very competitive. He'd try to get up to the front of the line, start talking to somebody, and then they'd open the door and he'd get in ahead of everyone else. People would see that and resent it."
Others say that Rother had a chronic case of seller's remorse--he was impatient to sell his haul and recoup his investment, but then he'd fret that he'd sold too cheaply. He frequently accused dealers of taking advantage of him, even if they were making only a modest profit on the deal themselves.
"I never made enough off Richard to make it worth dealing with him," sighs one Denver art dealer. "He was always bitching about how this guy or that one ripped him off, and then I'd hear he was saying the same thing about me behind my back."
Yet there was more bothering Rother than the price of a given deal. After a long day of hustling, he'd retreat to his apartment and work his way through a twelve-pack of Old Milwaukee. He never talked about moving up to the next rung of the business, maybe opening his own store; he never seemed to believe he was ready for anything but the next day of picking and beer. At one point he flirted with photography, taking arty pictures of desolate places--empty chairs in sidewalk cafes, deserted public spaces. But picking was his true vocation and drinking his release. When he didn't drink, he hardly said anything at all. Alcohol "smoothed him out a bit," says Boderke, made him almost sociable.
Boderke met Rother when she was working as a seamstress for vintage clothing stores. He encouraged her in her interest in making jewelry, and as her jewelry business grew she came to rely on his judgment and support. For a time several years ago they were lovers, but it didn't last; after a few days together, Boderke says, she found herself getting physically ill from Rother's steady consumption of cigarettes and alcohol. For the last eight years of his life they were close friends.
"Our friendship actually got better, and that's what I miss," Boderke says. "He knew what friendship was."
Rother confided secrets to Boderke that he rarely shared with anyone else. He told her about the loss of his mother, who'd died of health problems in her thirties, and about a father who rejected him. He hinted darkly at sexual abuse by a Catholic priest and other childhood disasters. The German-born Boderke had fled her own family years before because she didn't fit in ("I didn't fulfill my mother's expectations," she says simply), and she thought she understood. But when she suggested that these ancient wounds could be healed, Rother responded with a kind of weary fatalism.
"Richard was a good person, but he was in pain," Boderke says. "That's why he drank so much. I always told him, 'This pain and frustration that you have, you could really turn it around'--but I don't think he believed that. He talked about himself like he was an orphan that nobody wanted. He had a hard time letting go."
In some ways, the past loomed larger in Rother's mind than the present grind or the invisible future--as a certain Southern alcoholic writer once said, it wasn't even past. He was haunted by memories of friends who'd died, and he told Boderke that he could feel their presence on occasion, leading him to a big score.
"Sometimes he'd say this one or that one had guided him to find a particular piece," she recalls. "You couldn't talk to him about it, but he did seem somewhat magical at times, like everywhere he went something would turn up. He really believed in synchronism, that everything was a matter of timing."
No one knew better than Rother the importance of being in the right place at the right time. Last year everything seemed to be heading his way. He was consistently finding good merch cheaply, including paintings worth thousands of dollars, and he had the contacts to move it all quickly. But one day last fall his sense of synchronicity failed him, and he walked into an antique store called That Place at the wrong time.
Six weeks later he was dead.
Running a flower shop and antique business a few steps off East Colfax Avenue has given Joseph Bankston more than a passing appreciation of the varieties of street life. So when a swarthy, fast-talking stranger walked into his store, That Place, one afternoon last September, Bankston knew something wasn't right.
The man didn't fit. He was nicely dressed, but he was carrying a backpack loaded with a three-piece sterling silver coffee set. And he launched into this jive routine--spouting out, "How you doing, bro?" to Bankston, who is black--while seeming to know little about the set he was trying to sell. Bankston, who says he rarely buys merchandise from walk-ins, was immediately suspicious.
"You have ID and all of that?" Bankston asked.
"Oh, no, am I supposed to?" the man responded.
"Yeah, you have to have ID."
It was at that point that Richard Rother, who happened to be shooting the breeze with Bankston when the stranger appeared, inserted himself into the deal. He told the stranger that he needed ID to sell to Bankston--dealers are supposed to require identification from sellers they don't know and to record the purchases in a register book, to guard against buying stolen property--but "you just sell it to me, you don't."
The stranger asked Rother what he'd pay for the set. Rother explained that wasn't how it was done; it was up to the seller to set a price. The man asked for a hundred dollars. Rother offered fifty. The man wanted to know if Rother was going to turn around and sell the goods to Bankston. Rother said that wasn't how it was done, either, that he couldn't very well offer Bankston something he'd already turned down.
"Not saying that the person you got it from might be, uh, ya de da da, you know what I'm saying," Rother added.
"Ya de da da," the stranger said.
"Well, I mean, you know, it might be, might not be cool," Rother said.
"Oh it is, it's out of California," the stranger said. "You don't even have to worry about it."
The man said he should get more than fifty, seeing as how this was his grandmother's silver. Rother raised his offer to sixty-five, all the while complaining about the beat-up quality of the merchandise. Then the man blurted out a piece of information that should have prompted Rother to back off, just like Bankston, who was no longer a party to the conversation.
"See," the man said, "they screwed me on a will thing. So I just went over there, stole the son of a bitch from them, 'cuz they wouldn't give me my money, you know what I mean."
Rother acted as if he hadn't heard. "Sixty-five, that's my last offer."
He paid the man and loaded the set in his 1971 Volvo. The stranger said he had more silver to sell. Rother gave him his phone number and left.
The stranger headed downtown to the Denver Police Department's property bureau, where he had no trouble producing identification that indicated he was a detective named Richard Mumford. He logged in the $65 and a tape recording of his conversation at That Place as evidence. Then he checked the suspect's license plate and phone number and opened a file on Rother, Russell Richard, DOB 2-15-49.
Staffed by six officers, the anti-fencing unit of the Denver police is the oldest and largest operation of its kind in the state of Colorado. Over the past twenty years, the unit has made hundreds of cases against burglars and fencing operations, often by sending undercover cops into pawnshops, liquor stores, bars, flea markets and secondhand shops, offering supposedly stolen goods for sale. Detective Mumford estimates that he works from 25 to 30 such cases a year, many of which involve multiple defendants.
"Our main function is to go after the burglar and try to follow him to the fence," Mumford says. "However, we also get information from confidential informants that direct us to people who they say are buying."
If no informant is involved, an enterprising officer might try what Mumford calls "a cold hit"--strolling into a business without any introduction and proposing a deal. But the detective insists that his unit is selective about the people they target for sting operations.
"We don't go after the opportunist, someone who's buying maybe one thing," he explains. "We have to prove they're doing it. It can't be one sale, it's got to be three or four. The least we ever do is two.
"We don't just throw darts or open a phone book and say, 'Okay, let's try this guy.' The DA's office won't accept anything like that. We have to have prior information of some sort."
Yet there is nothing in Mumford's report to indicate that he had any information about criminal activity at That Place before he visited the shop last fall. Mumford says he was merely conducting a routine check to see if the owner was requesting identification of potential sellers as required by law. Bankston passed the test, but then Rother showed up--a wandering balloon, just waiting to be popped.
Bankston says he's still wondering why the cops decided to take a run at him. "You would think there'd have to be a history [of buying stolen goods] before they come around," he says. "Maybe one of the other stores, someone who doesn't like me, told them, 'He buys hot stuff.' But I've always been extremely cautious. I feel that the karma you put out is what you're going to get back. To have stolen articles would bring me bad karma."
Several dealers say that the notion of trying to ferret out a major fencing operation among Denver's modest antique stores is absurd. Most of the items that they buy pass through several hands before they ever see them, and unless the piece is particularly rare or unique, it may be impossible to trace its provenance. Unless the seller represents the item as stolen--an admission that only an undercover cop is likely to make--there's almost no way for an honest dealer to determine its purity.
"We're in a strange business," says one prominent South Broadway dealer. "I've been doing this for 25 years, and I've probably bought stuff that was stolen. But how do you know?"
"Most of the antique stores are very cautious about what they take in," adds Bankston. "They would not knowingly buy something stolen because they want to hold on to their businesses."
Antique stores aren't exactly high on the anti-fencing unit's list of places to try cold hits. Mumford says he can recall making only one other case involving an antique dealer in nearly seven years in the unit. The odds of making a big bust in the trade are even more miserable than they are for pawn shops.
"Very seldom do we ever get a pawnshop," Mumford says. "They don't care where it's coming from, but if they hear the word 'stolen' or 'boosted,' they won't buy it."
But that hasn't discouraged the unit from taking occasional shots at pawnshops or secondhand stores--or even used bookstores, a business unaccustomed to the sight of police officers. The stings are supposed to keep everybody honest, but they also create an opportunity for criminal activity that may not have otherwise existed.
Mumford believes that Rother may have trafficked in stolen goods before he bought the silver set last fall. After Rother's arrest, he says, "I started getting calls from people in the antique business, saying in their own words that he was a crook and this and that. But nobody would ever identify themselves."
But people who knew Rother well doubt that he ever crossed the line before. A picker who trafficked in stolen items would be shunned by dealers; when you're trying to move thousands of dollars in art with hardly a scrap of paper to authenticate the goods, the deal rests on your reputation.
"I'm positive Richard had never done this before," Bankston says, "because that would get out. No one would deal with him anymore."
Rother told several people that he had a "bad feeling" about buying from the stranger practically the moment the deal was done. By the time he figured out what was going on, though, it was too late. Mumford needed at least two sales to make his case, and he got them.
It's possible that Rother was drunk each time he did business with the police. His side of the taped conversations is so baffling at times as to suggest not simply nervousness but genuine confusion. Boderke says Rother usually started drinking late in the day, but other friends say he often started breaking open the beers by early or mid-afternoon.
"There were antique dealers who told him he was barred from their place after one o'clock because he was always lit," says Randy Roberts, a dealer who frequently bought furniture from Rother. "He was like one of those guys in Barfly--I've seen him at 6:30 in the morning drinking a beer."
Rother's first and second meetings with Mumford both took place after 2 p.m. Of the first, the encounter at That Place, Bankston says, "Richard might have had a couple of cocktails that day."
It's not official police policy to lure intoxicated people into committing crimes; but whether Rother was tanked or not, his willingness to make a second buy from the detective all but guaranteed his arrest. If he'd had any doubts about the legality of the first deal, Mumford made sure he understood what was going down the second time around.
A week after the encounter at That Place, Mumford called Rother at his apartment and asked him if he was interested in a 79-piece set of Gorham sterling silverware. Rother agreed to meet him in Cheesman Park that afternoon. They examined the merchandise at a picnic table.
"I get this shit all day long, man," Mumford boasted.
"Well, you can get it all day long," Rother said, "but I mean, it matters where it comes from, you know."
"Well, it's stolen," Mumford said. "But it's not from here, bro. You don't even have to worry."
Once again Mumford spun his tale of bringing in stuff from California, stuff that couldn't be traced, while Rother fidgeted and counted the spoons and forks.
"I don't even deal in this," Rother complained. "I've never done this before...I got a feeling I should stay away from this, to tell you the truth."
But Mumford pressed his bro to "make me a deal." Finally Rother offered him $100 for the lot. He shoveled the silverware into a black bag while Mumford began to babble about another silver set he was interested in selling.
"You look like a crook with the bag," Mumford said.
"We're all crooks," Rother replied.
"Huh, we're all crooks, I like that. Hey, I'll give you a call on some of that other shit."
Rother told several friends about the silverware. He didn't tell them what Mumford had said about it being stolen, only that he felt something wasn't quite right. They asked him what the hell he thought he was doing, messing with such stuff. To replace an entire set of Gorham sterling might cost around two grand, but it was hard to sell secondhand; he'd be lucky to get five hundred bucks for it.
"He asked me about the silverware, and I told him it sounded hot," recalls Randy Roberts. "I told him I didn't want anything to do with it. I told him what a dumb motherfucker he was for being so greedy. He tried to tell me he was just like a junkie, he couldn't pass up a good deal."
Boderke says Rother was consumed by conscience over the deal and couldn't stop talking about it. "He told me he thought it was probably hot, and I was naive," she says. "I said, 'Is that your problem? How do you even know?' But he knew he could get in trouble for it."
Two weeks after Rother bought the silverware, Mumford phoned him again. This time he wanted to know if the picker could "get rid" of a couple of gold coins for him. The phone conversation took place early in the morning, and Rother's rising alarm is evident in his questions about whether the coins came "from the same place" as the earlier goods. He agreed to meet Mumford in the park again, but half an hour later he called back to cancel.
"I don't like the risk involved," he said.
"Oh, fuck," Mumford said.
"You're probably, you know, cool," Rother continued, "but, you know, it's just like one of those things. I don't want to have anyone knocking on my door, you know."
Mumford pleaded for a final meeting. Reluctantly, Rother agreed to look at the coins. They met at the park at 11:30 a.m. Mumford was eager, almost desperate to sell, but this time Rother wasn't buying.
"Make me a deal on this," Mumford urged. "I don't want to be carrying it around, bud."
"I appreciate that," Rother said. "I don't want to be in a position--they catch me with that stuff, you know...I don't want to do it. I really don't want to do it."
"What about that other stuff, you want to check that other stuff out?"
"I'm really going to have to pass, sorry."
Mumford wasn't about to give up. How about a tea set? Wasn't there someone else his bro could steer him to? Rother was adamant. He had a "pretty good life," he said, and he didn't want "the worry of getting whacked." He told Mumford he would think about the deal some more, but it was apparent to the detective that Rother wasn't going to buy anything else and may have figured out that he was a cop. He waited for Rother to head back to his apartment, then gave the signal to arrest him.
Several police cars pulled up in front of Rother's apartment building. Rother would later say that five cops entered his apartment with guns drawn and told him he could either sign a consent-to-search form or stay there as a prisoner until they obtained a warrant. He signed the form.
"He said they acted like criminals," says Gisela Boderke. "They threatened him and threw him in a chair, and he knocked his head against a picture on the wall, and the glass broke. And they made fun of him, made fun of the paintings he had in his apartment."
Mumford says he was outside the apartment during the arrest and was unaware of any rough treatment. In any case, the police soon had further incriminating information to hold over Rother's head; the search of his apartment turned up $20,586 in cash, including more than $16,000 stuffed into the seam of a sofa. Much of it came from some recent big scores he'd made with paintings, but the cops didn't know that. They seized it all as evidence.
"It's not like he needed the money from those deals [with Mumford]," Roberts notes. "That same month he found a painting for $5 and another for $10, and he sold them for $4,500. Then he found a painting for $25 that was worth $5,000."
Taken downtown for booking, Rother gave Mumford a statement. He admitted buying the coffee set and the silverware and said he'd sold them for a total of $750 to a dealer on south Broadway; in other words, he'd made less than $600 profit from his dealings with the detective. (Much later, after Rother's suicide, the police would return most of the money seized at his apartment to his estate, holding back nearly $2,700--the appraised retail value of the "hot" silver, which was more than four times what Rother said he'd made off it.)
The anti-fencing unit sent an undercover agent to try to make a case against the dealer whom Rother said had bought the silver. The dealer threw the agent out of his store and threatened to call the police. He didn't deal with scammers and boosters; he only bought from legitimate sources. Reputable people. People he knew to be as honest as the day was long.
People like Richard Rother.
Being arrested devastated Rother. After he bonded out of jail, he began to drink more heavily than ever. In the final dozen days of his life, he gave away paintings and furniture and made coy comments about "checking out." He claimed that one of his closest business associates had betrayed him. Gisela Boderke was convinced that he was having a nervous breakdown.
"He was in this mode of giving things away," she says. "And he was so weak--he wouldn't eat anything. He was sure he was going to be evicted from his apartment, which he loved, and that he was going to prison."
He flew to California at the end of October to spend a few days with his brother and sister-in-law. Tom Rother tried to persuade him that the case was not as dire as he thought it was and that he should fight it in court, but Richard seemed to be on a downward spiral, almost unreachable.
"My brother had some other things that were bothering him, and this just tipped him over the edge," Tom Rother says. "He was just not attached. My energy is very abrupt sometimes; I see things for what they are, and I sometimes pound to get my point across. I'm very hurt by the way I treated him. I was not kind."
After driving his brother to the airport, Tom returned home to discover that Richard had raided some forgotten pill bottles, taking with him a supply of muscle relaxants. "They weren't real powerful, but if you took enough of them, they'd put you to sleep," Tom says. "He made remarks to me about suicide that last visit, but I didn't take it seriously."
Back in Denver, Rother's drinking increased--and so did his paranoia. He was now convinced that he hadn't been a random target at all. He told several people that he suspected Randy Roberts had set him up. Roberts knew where he kept his money, he said, and the cops had found it right away when they "searched" his apartment. And when he called Roberts after getting out of jail, Roberts said his lawyer had advised him not to talk to Rother.
"That just made him more paranoid," one friend says. "Why was this guy getting a lawyer?"
Roberts, who was out of town during Rother's final days and didn't return until weeks after his death, says he's heard a ton of rumors about his supposed involvement in the picker's death--a gossip mill fueled not only by the comments Rother made before he died, but by his decision to leap from right outside Roberts's apartment in the Bank Lofts.
"You wouldn't believe all the stupid crap I've heard," Roberts says. "The whole deal has cost me nothing but grief--and sadness that Richard would kill himself."
Roberts denies he was involved in Rother's arrest in any way. Police records confirm this, and Mumford says his unit had no information about the wad of cash in Rother's apartment prior to the search. Roberts adds that Rother was calling him in the middle of the night about his problems and that he came up with the comment about the lawyer "to get him off my back."
"I felt for him," Roberts says. "He was almost fifty years old, and I don't think he'd ever been in trouble before. But his case didn't strike me as such a big deal, and I didn't want to get sucked into this Peyton Place he was going through."
On Thursday, November 4, Rother dropped in on Myron Melnick at the artist's studio, seething with accusations against Roberts.
"He was quite upset," Melnick recalls. "He said, 'I'm going to prison, and look at me. I'm just a nickel-and-dime guy.'
"The whole thing didn't make sense to me. He was a small-time picker. He lived in a little apartment and drank cheap beer and smoked cheap cigarettes and got free drinks at art openings and bought his clothes from thrift stores. Why would anyone set him up?"
Rother insisted that the artist come back to his place to pick up a chair he wanted to give him. He said that it was time to "check out" and vowed that Denver wouldn't forget him. When Boderke dropped by to see Rother, Melnick told her that Richard was talking about killing himself.
"After Myron left, I talked to Richard," she recalls. "I told him that he should wait, that next week was going to be better. Just at the thought of it, I started crying. He said, 'Oh, well--I wouldn't know how to kill myself anyway.' But I think he said that to shut me up."
Too anxious to sleep in his own apartment after the police raided it, Rother spent Thursday night at Jay Razor's place, Friday at Boderke's, and Saturday at the apartment of his neighbor, Andrew Barron. All of them say that his mood fluctuated wildly over those three days. On Friday he was in better spirits; at his friends' urging, he'd hired an attorney, Daniel Smith, who advised him that the probable outcome of a first offense like his would be probation and a fine. That evening he went to two art openings. At one of them he chatted briefly with the artist Peter Max, whom he'd met years ago when he worked in a clothing store in New York.
But he was also drinking steadily and eating almost nothing. Jay Razor met him at a coffee shop for breakfast that weekend but couldn't persuade him to order any food. "I'm convinced that he'd made up his mind that it was over," Razor says. "I offered to bet him a hundred bucks that he wouldn't go to jail. He said he'd bet me one dollar. I was getting pissed off. He wasn't listening to reason from anybody."
In fact, Rother had bigger worries than the theft case. He apparently hadn't filed income tax returns for years, and he was certain that the IRS was going to wind up with the money that the police had seized, along with anything else he owned. And there were other horrors, too, worse even than the taxman--including the prospect that he would never be a picker again, that he'd lost his way in a world where a man was only as good as his word.
"He told me his reputation was shot in Denver," Razor says. "He said he couldn't go picking anymore, and people wouldn't buy stuff from him any more. He thought everyone in line at an estate sale would have heard that he'd been arrested."
Rother bought a bottle of Scotch on Saturday and was hitting it hard when he stayed at Andrew Barron's place that night. "He kept saying, 'I'm not going to jail,'" says Barron, an art collector who'd known Rother for years before they became neighbors. "I was thinking of dragging him to the hospital on Sunday and getting him committed. He was that far gone."
But when Barron awoke Sunday morning, Rother had already left. No one knows how he spent his last day, although the post-mortem toxicology tests indicate that he'd been drinking and gobbling his brother's pills. No one can say why he headed to Randy Roberts's empty apartment at the Bank Lofts that evening. No one knows how long he stood there, smoking and contemplating his doom, before he climbed the rail and jumped.
Someone from the Denver coroner's office phoned Melnick on Monday morning.
"They said they had his body, and they thought he fell," Melnick says. "I said, 'I think he committed suicide.'"
The service was at Fairmount Cemetery. Tom Rother played a Jimi Hendrix tape and gave a brief eulogy. Two of the deceased's oldest friends also spoke. They put his ashes in a box and put the box in the ground and threw dirt on it. Then they held a wake at the Mackey Gallery, with music by one of the deceased's favorite bands.
Richard Rother didn't get the last word, because he wasn't around. The words now belong to other people--the pickers who thought he might be guiding them from the spirit world, the dealers who appreciated his talent and those who put up with him because he made them money, his friends and enemies. They still talk about him.
Randy Roberts, friend: "Richard didn't trust people. He was cordial enough, but he didn't let people get close to him. I miss the dumb bastard, but I'm also really angry with him."
Richard Mumford, detective: "It really puzzles me that he committed suicide over a fencing case. I've never seen someone go to jail on a first or second offense."
Daniel Smith, attorney: "It struck everyone as odd. It didn't make sense that this type of case would trigger that type of reaction."
Tom Rother, brother: "Richard wasn't dishonest. But cops, when they're undercover, can be very aggressive. They coerced and badgered him. That's what they do. It ticks me off. There's a hell of a lot more they could be doing instead of going after people like my brother."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Jay Razor, friend: "You hear the craziest stuff about Richard. One guy told me he wasn't dead, he just got out of the country. Can you imagine? But there was always something mysterious about Richard. The first time I went to his apartment, I couldn't find his name in the building directory. It was some other name."
Gisela Boderke, friend: "He had a conscience. He got anxieties over anything that didn't feel right. Once, someone accused him of stealing a watch, and he took that very hard because he didn't do it. This was so much worse, and no one could make him feel better about it. I'd tell him, 'Look at all the friends you have.' And he'd say, 'What friends?'"
Myron Melnick, friend: "He was cheap. If the thrift stores started raising their prices, he'd complain. He'd get really bitter about that or about people who ran around doing what he did. If I got something good, he'd be real jealous: 'You shouldn't be doing this, you're an artist. It should have been me.'
"I miss Richard. I haven't gone into the stores since he died. I don't feel like going into those smelly places right now.