I Know Nothing
I'm doing a good job of being disappearing," LoDo artist Jorg "Peter" Schmitz says in lilting, German-accented English. He sounds proud of the accomplishment, and perhaps he should be. Schmitz is the man of the hour, the person whom everyone--including members of a Denver grand jury--wants to talk to. And so far, he hasn't said a word.
Schmitz's moment of fame came by accident. On St. Patrick's Day, the 34-year-old Schmitz was in the front seat of a speeding BMW that killed popular Rocky Mountain News columnist Greg Lopez. But rather than stopping to render assistance and take responsibility for the act, Schmitz and his millionaire pal, Spicer Breeden, raced off into the darkness. In the succeeding days, despite the men's silence, police were able to follow a trail that led them straight to Breeden's door.
Police, however, were hours too late--Breeden had shot himself in the head, preferring death to surrender.
Officers' belief that Breeden was at the wheel of the car when it struck Lopez's vehicle was shaken by the discovery of Breeden's suicide note--in a postscript, Breeden wrote that he hadn't been driving.
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It was two more days before Schmitz appeared, surfacing from his self-imposed exile just long enough to pose for a police photograph. Schmitz, however, has remained mum, avoiding the limelight, the cops and a grand jury that is meeting to investigate the accident. "I don't want to discriminate myself," he tells Westword during one of a series of telephone conversations that took place over the past two weeks.
Schmitz's refusal to speak about the Lopez case, as well as a lack of solid information about Schmitz himself, has only heightened curiosity about that fateful night--particularly after a witness came forward and swore to a district attorney's investigator that Schmitz confessed to her that he, not Breeden, had been driving.
The result has been a plethora of speculation and rumor in the media. Says Schmitz, "Everything that has been written about me is total crap. They're trying to dig up if I do drugs, if I'm gay. It's the funnniest thing. Anybody who knows me knows it's not true."
But with Schmitz, it's sometimes difficult to discern just what is true--in part due to his deliberate attempts to blur the details of his past and in part because of his exaggerated claims of fame and fortune.
His personal history, however, is more interesting than any piece of fiction. It begins with his German grandfather, whose own chief claim to fame came as an attorney defending some of the Third Reich's highest-ranking Nazis at the Nuremberg war-crimes tribunal.
Peter Schmitz was born in Germany on January 8, 1962, the youngest of two sons delivered to Dusseldorf machinery-shop employee Hans Schmitz and his wife, Ursula. Although the Schmitz family was not particularly well-to-do, Ursula had come from money; her father, Otto Kranzbuhler, had distinguished himself in wartime service to the Reich and was considered by his contemporaries to be one of the most learned attorneys in Nuremberg.
In 1946, Kranzbuhler was called to defend Grand Admiral Karl Dsnitz, whom Adolf Hitler had appointed to be his successor prior to the Fuhrer's suicide. Days after taking the reins, Donitz ordered Germany's unconditional surrender to the Allies.
Donitz was sentenced to ten years in prison as the result of his actions during the war. It came as a surprise; many people had expected he would be sentenced to death. Kranzbuhler got the credit for saving the life of the Grossadmiral.
Following his successful defense of Donitz, Kranzbuhler was retained by the family of another war criminal, industrialist Alfried Krupp, who was scheduled to appear before the tribunal in 1948. Krupp, who headed a family-owned munitions company, was accused of supporting the Nazis by producing armaments with slave labor. Historians estimate that Krupp used between 100,000 to 250,000 slaves in the company's 81 plants and factories and say that as the Allies approached, Krupp had the workers shipped to death camps in Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald in an attempt to hide his involvement.
The able Kranzbuhler again succeeded in obtaining a relatively light sentence for his client. Although Krupp was sentenced to twelve years in prison and ordered to surrender his huge fortune, he ended up serving only thirty months behind bars, and his fortune was returned to his family. Kranzbuhler later traveled throughout West Germany lecturing about the trial, which he called an American farce.
Peter Schmitz continues to remain in touch with his grandfather by phone and has visited with Kranzbuhler in Germany in recent years. But publicly, Schmitz denies the familial connection. During a recent conversation, Schmitz even pretended that he had never heard the name Kranzbuhler. However, Schmitz's grandfather, now approaching ninety and living near Munich, doesn't disawow the connection. "He's one of my grandsons," Kranzbuhler acknowledges. "He has been living for five or six years in the United States. I think he's had some trouble with motor cars. An accident."
Peter Schmitz was an unusual child. He claims he didn't speak until the age of five--the same age, he asserts, at which he sold his first painting to a gallery in Switzerland.
Despite his drive to become an artist, Schmitz's mother was loath to encourage his ambitions. "His mother, who was the main person in the household, did not want him to become an artist," Otto Kranzbuhler says. "His relationship with his mother was very good, very harmonious. But [Schmitz] had to paint. And he did."
Last February Schmitz told a reporter with the monthly LoDo News that he studied art in Odenwald, Germany, and learned still more under the tutelage of respected Austrian painter Gottfried Helnwein. (Arnold Schwarzenegger is a collector of Helnwein's art, which has been exhibited in museums throughout the world.)
Arguably, Helnwein's most famous painting is a takeoff of Edward Hopper's "Night Hawks," which is a photorealist picture of a late-night diner. In Helnwein's rendering, Hopper's nondescript cafe patrons have been replaced by James Dean and Marilyn Monroe.
But Schmitz has told friends that he--rather than Helnwein --is responsible for the majority of that work. "Peter told me he painted two-thirds of that," says John McGuigan, who owns LoDo's Enoteca bar and is a close friend of Schmitz's.
Most of Schmitz's solo works, however, portray more fanciful imagery: fairy-tale castles, for instance, which are something of an obsession with him. It may have been his stint with Helnwein that fed his preoccupation; Helnwein, says Kranzbuhler, lives in a castle in Rhineland, and Schmitz might have stayed with him there.
Schmitz himself told LoDo News that he once owned, and lived in, a castle. "When I first moved in," he told the reporter, "I had 64 rooms to myself. I ended up with thirteen rooms because I tore down so many walls."
Kranzbuhler, however, dismisses with a laugh his grandson's visions of grandeur. Peter, says his grandfather, has definitely never owned a castle.
Wherever he was living in Germany, Schmitz obviously was ready for a change. He arrived in the United States in 1988 and married Denverite Carrie Lynn Farland the following year in a ceremony in Santa Barbara, California. Their union was solemnized by a minister of Scientology, a religion that friends of the couple say both Schmitz and his wife then followed.
A day after Schmitz and Farland were married, Schmitz applied for conditional residency in this country based on his new status as the spouse of a U.S. citizen. The couple set up housekeeping with Carrie's parents in her childhood home, which looks out on Cheesman Park in Capitol Hill. Schmitz established an artist's studio in the Farlands' carriage house, and Carrie Schmitz gave birth to a daughter five months after taking her wedding vows.
Carrie Schmitz worked as an art consultant at the time, selling paintings and other works to businesses and collectors for a living. Those who know her say she had a wonderful way with people and was an excellent saleswoman. "And I know that she thought a lot of her husband's work," says another art consultant.
Frau Schmitz proved very good at marketing her Herr. Late in 1989, Schmitz hosted a showing of his work in downtown Denver. According to the LoDo News, the showing was organized by LoDo developer Dana Crawford, who was once a neighbor of the Farlands. Peter told the newspaper the show was a rousing success--"We expected about 200 people...1,800 showed up," he was quoted as saying. "We had police out there directing traffic."
The show, however, wasn't such a smash that Crawford can recall it with much clarity. And what she does remember doesn't jibe with Peter Schmitz's version. "I did not organize the show," Crawford says. "He and his wife put the whole thing together." Crawford says her only role was to allow the Schmitzes to host the event in an empty space in her then-new Edbrooke Lofts project.
And though Crawford attended the show and remembers a "good-sized" crowd, she doesn't recall a police presence. "If they were there," she says, "it might have been because [the Schmitzes] arranged for it."
Carrie and Peter moved to LoDo within months of the 1989 show, taking one of the first units in the Edbrooke, which was among the city's earliest loft developments. "We were the pioneers," says Gary Gilliard, a onetime Edbrooke resident and principal owner of the Art of Coffee in LoDo. "Peter leased his unit, and several of us were owners."
Gilliard had lived in Germany for a time, and he quickly "struck up a bond, language-wise" with his new neighbor. "He is from Dusseldorf," Gilliard says of Schmitz, "and I lived in a neighboring city, in Cologne." The two of them socialized often, attending barbecues with other Edbrooke tenants and making the circuit of new restaurants.
"Peter, it seemed to me, was just taking off, art-wise," Gilliard says. "It was my impression that he was trying to get established in the LoDo area, to get a market with the people who buy expensive lofts and who are glad to invest in the arts."
Gilliard himself began collecting Schmitz's works and now owns a handful of his pieces. "He does watercolors--beautiful stuff," Gilliard says. He also owns some of Schmitz's pencil etchings, which Gilliard commissioned for his cafe. "One particular piece I invested in is called 'Beethoven's Birthday,'" Gilliard says. "I went to his studio, and back in a closet he had this half-finished painting of a castle on a mountain. I told him, 'Put some life into this, and I'd be interested.' And so he put some fireworks in it."
Another friend from Schmitz's early days in LoDo is McGuigan of Enoteca, the upscale wine bar across the street from Union Station. Schmitz, says McGuigan, "is the quintessential artist. He's eccentric, but not eccentric in the way a non-artist might be; not like a woman who has thirty cats. He has that artistic temperament, where he can paint for 36 straight hours and then sleep for two days. He's very creative, very different."
McGuigan has a master's degree in art history and collects primarily nineteenth-century American art, but he made an exception when it came to purchasing Schmitz's work. "I really don't collect contemporary art," he says, "but I enjoy Peter and his artwork. He does almost photorealistic water colors and extremely precisionist pen-and-ink renderings and some abstract work. I've got several of his abstracts and a bunch of watercolors."
"Peter," McGuigan continues, "is a hopeless romantic, like Byron or Shelley--the pursuit of romance kind of thing. I like that aspect of his art, a throwback to the eighteenth-century romantic ideal. It's very European."
But art is a subjective thing. And Schmitz has more than his share of critics. "It's just dreadful stuff," says one collector. "Awful."
"It's just not to my taste," one local art consultant says diplomatically. "Bad Seventies record-cover art," says another.
"To tell the truth," says Joshua Hassel at the Mackey Gallery, "his art is not particularly good. We would not show it."
That's just fine with Schmitz--he prefers not to market his art through galleries, anyway. According to Denver artist and print-shop owner Mark Lunning, Schmitz "didn't like the local art scene; he felt he was above all that." But his primary reason for avoiding galleries was financial, says fellow artist and Schmitz pal David Uhl: Gallery owners take a big slice of a painting's selling price.
There is a way to cut out the middle man, Hassel concedes. "Sometimes people say, 'I'm a famous artist,' and they market themselves exclusively to rich people. And they meet people in bars and they manage to endear themselves to people with money."
By most accounts, that's precisely how Schmitz sold his work--by hobnobbing at parties and posh eateries and worming his way into the hearts and wallets of the trust-fund crowd. "He told me he specifically hung out with rich people so they would buy his art," Lunning says. "And he could find them."
Schmitz was engaged in one such sales quest roughly five years ago when he met up with the son of a long-established Denver family, an encounter the man says is forever etched in his mind. "I was invited to his house for cocktails and to see his art," says the man, who asks not to be identified by name. "I thought it was a social invitation, but it turned out to be a let's-try-and-sell-him-art thing, which was okay. It didn't offend me that much."
Although he declined to buy one of Schmitz's paintings, he says, he did agree to accompany a group of the artist's friends to a local restaurant. "It started out on an interesting level, because I had just returned from Germany, and I thought it would be interesting to talk about my trip," says the man. "But there was nothing I could say that was interesting to him, because he was very pretentious and always trying to one-up me.
"I told him that I'd stayed at a castle, and all of a sudden, he was an aristocrat. He was very pretentious about his background. Now, from my experience with the European elite, they don't tell you what they are--you figure it out. If they have to tell you that they're better than you are, it's phony."
Peter Schmitz tells anyone who will listen that he's a famous artist--"internationally known" is one of his pet phrases--and that he has clients in Chicago, New York, Tokyo and Paris. But those claims are generally disbelieved by those in Denver art circles.
Schmitz "was about as obscure and unknown in the art world as it's possible to imagine," says Westword art critic Michael Paglia. He isn't even listed in the Colorado art registry, which maintains a list of 1,650 artists throughout the state. (Artists voluntarily submit biographies and slides of their works to be included in the registry.) Nor does he appear in the Art in America annual, which carries 3,800 listings of museums, artists and galleries.
"He wasn't a cutting-edge artist or significant enough to be in the elite crowd of the art world," says Lunning. "I don't think he sold internationally, though he may have had clients from other places. I don't think his collectors' resume would be nearly as impressive as he says."
And if Schmitz's claims that he received $10,000 to $20,000 for his artworks are true, says a local art consultant, his curriculum vitae would have to contain some very impressive names indeed. "As a rule," says the consultant, "people who have collections really want to know what they're buying. They want to know if the artist's work is in museums or any major collections, if the artist has won any major awards and what shows he's been in.
"I suspect," she continues, "that [Schmitz] is not in that boat. Otherwise, there would be galleries trying to pick him up and show his work."
On the contrary, some gallery owners have made a point of avoiding Schmitz. "I met him once and instantly disliked him," says one owner. "I never saw his art and I never wanted to. He thought he was God's gift to mankind."
Still, Schmitz managed to give the appearance of never hurting for money or clients. He was generous to his artist friends, springing for drinks and dinners when they were just scraping by. Lunning suspects that Schmitz's ready cash came not just from his art, but from a trust fund. A source close to Schmitz attorney Larry Sather says Schmitz does have a trust fund and that it is managed by one of his uncles in Germany.
Since the Lopez incident, however, rumors of other, darker sources of income--namely, an alleged link to a cocaine ring--have come to light. "I've heard every rumor," says a former neighbor of Schmitz's, "but I've never seen him on drugs, and he never mentioned drugs to me."
Schmitz's and Breeden's names did surface peripherally during a major drug investigation conducted by Denver police. But the connection reportedly was so tenuous that investigators deemed it unworthy of pursuing. Schmitz denies using drugs.
Sometime after his marriage, Schmitz fell out of love with Scientology. "They say that people have implants in them so that their minds are different," Schmitz says of the religion. "They say they have the medicine and that they can cure you. Then they have you pay a fortune. And once you give them money, they never give it back."
However, Schmitz claims that he alone might be the only former member who has ever gotten his money back from the church. "When I said [Scientology] didn't do any good for me, I told them I wanted my $23,000 back," Schmitz says. "They're so sneaky, but I tricked them. I told them I went to a book auction and bought a book by [Ernest] Hemingway and that L. Ron Hubbard was a pre-owner. I told them I found a note inside the book that said, 'Ron, if you want to make a lot of money, start your own religion.' I told them, 'If you want it, give me my money back.'
"It worked," Schmitz continues. "They sent me the money right away. But I tricked them. There was no note."
"That's so much crap," says Deb Danos, director of special affairs for the Church of Scientology of Colorado. The story that Hubbard once said he started the religion to make money, she says, "has been picked up here and there by people opposed to the church." In fact, the tale is so widespread that a response denying its veracity appears on a church handout answering often-asked questions about Scientology.
Schmitz claims that his defection from Scientology had a price. His artistic mentor in Germany, he says, is still associated with Scientology and will no longer acknowledge his existence, nor will he discuss anything having to do with his former student. Schmitz chose not to divulge the name of his mentor to Westword, though presumably he is referring to Helnwein.
Schmitz's relationship with the church wasn't the only thing to suffer during the early Nineties: Carrie Schmitz left her husband in late 1993, taking with her the couple's two children, then aged two and four. She filed for divorce on February 18, 1994, the date of their fifth wedding anniversary.
For more than a year, court records show, Carrie Schmitz was uncertain as to whether she wanted a divorce or merely a legal separation. Two months after filing her initial petition for dissolution of the marriage, she asked that the request be changed to one for a legal separation. In March 1995 she asked that it be amended to a dissolution. The divorce was granted in May of that year.
The ordeal of divorce was apparently not made any easier by Peter Schmitz's handling of the situation. "[Schmitz] was unresponsive in terms of the dissolution proceedings," says Denver attorney Richard Bryans, who represented Carrie Schmitz in the divorce. "If we filed a paper, he would simply not respond." According to the case file, Peter Schmitz never retained an attorney and appeared in court only once, to argue that his child-support payments should be less than the $2,000 per month his wife wanted.
Although Carrie Schmitz told the court that her husband earned an average income of $8,000 per month in 1993, Schmitz testified that his income fluctuated wildly. He was ordered to pay $1,200 per month in child support. Carrie Schmitz didn't ask for alimony.
It was, according to Bryans and others, an acrimonious parting of the ways. In the months prior to the final decree, Carrie Schmitz told an old acquaintance that she had had a troubling marriage and a difficult divorce. And she expressed gratitude for her coming freedom.
"She left me with the impression that Peter was a loose cannon," says the man, who asks that his name not be used. "What I remember most about that conversation was that she said things had gotten really out of control with Peter, and that she had left, taken the children and cleaned up her life. I think it was an enormously painful episode in her life.
"The divorce itself was a very complicated situation," he continues, "because she had gotten more involved with [Schmitz's] family in Germany. They extended her a hand."
Indeed, after the couple separated, Otto Kranzbuhler stepped in to make sure that his great-grandchildren were provided for by establishing a trust in their names. The trust was designed for one purpose only: to purchase a home for the children. It was apparently a healthy sum of money--Carrie Schmitz, as trustee, subsequently bought a quarter-million-dollar home in Boulder.
According to Denver District Court records, Schmitz was to make his child-support payments through the court, not directly to his ex-wife. However, court records indicate that payments were never made.
The former Mrs. Schmitz declined to comment for this story.
Although Carrie Schmitz told people that she'd "cleaned up" her life after leaving Peter, her ex did not alter his lifestyle. He continued to move from loft to loft (he claims to have lived at fifteen addresses in LoDo) and haunted the same old bars--the Wazee Supper Club and McCormick's were two favorites. And he continued to hang out with a rich, fast crowd.
It was at a wedding several years ago in Aspen, says Denver interior-design-shop owner Kenny Mack, that he introduced Schmitz to Spicer Breeden.
Spicer Humphreys Breeden was heir to a Denver dynasty. His mother was the granddaughter of mining and banking magnate Charles Boettcher. And when she died, Breeden, through no act of his own, was worth $2 million.
The 36-year-old Breeden didn't work--he saved his energy for parties and his money for fast cars. He owned a Jaguar and a Porsche and even bought a $135,000 Ferrari Testarossa. When he got bored with one car, he'd buy another. Breeden racked up numerous speeding tickets and, in an incident that combined his love of cars with his love of partying, was once convicted of drunk driving.
Schmitz, too, had an extreme fondness for cars--he'd once owned an old Mercedes, and rumors had circulated in Denver that he was an heir to the Mercedes-Benz fortune. Uhl, however, says that isn't true. "Peter loves cars so much that he would have told me that," says Uhl. Schmitz himself had a clean driving record, though he apparently never bothered to get a Colorado driver's license. Records on file at the state Department of Motor Vehicles show only that Schmitz obtained a Colorado photo ID card in 1990.
Breeden and Schmitz were together again on St. Patrick's Day this year, though they hadn't planned it that way. Schmitz was trying out his charm that day, schmoozing a married couple in the hopes of selling them a piece of art. But when he failed to make the sale and Breeden showed up, the two of them ate dinner at a LoDo restaurant and then roared off in Breeden's 1995 BMW 540i around 7:30 p.m. A parking valet would later tell police that Breeden was at the wheel of the car. But a second valet placed Schmitz in the driver's seat.
Thirty minutes after Schmitz and Breeden left LoDo, a dark-colored BMW was seen weaving in and out of traffic along southbound Interstate 25, traveling at speeds estimated at up to 100 miles per hour. The BMW had reached the South Santa Fe Drive exit when the driver attempted to change lanes. Discovering that a car was in his path, the BMW driver then swerved into another lane, clipping a Toyota 4Runner driven by Greg Lopez.
Lopez, who was known for his sensitive profiles of the common man, was returning home from a movie when the BMW sideswiped him. Police said Lopez had no chance; his crippled Toyota rolled over three and a half times, killing him instantly.
Witnesses to the accident told police that the BMW pulled over momentarily, then sped off into the night. A red pickup truck, which had been following the BMW, did the same.
Shortly after 9 p.m., Schmitz and Breeden showed up at Enoteca in a different car. They had a couple of drinks and then left. Later that night, Breeden allegedly phoned Sydney Stone, a longtime friend, and told her that if the police came looking for him, she should tell them that he was out of town. By way of explanation, he reportedly told her that a friend had been driving his car and that he'd had "a bump-and-go" accident that caused another car to spin out.
In the absence of a suspect, Denver police accident investigators were left with little more than pieces of a broken grille, some paint marks and information that the car bore a personalized license plate on which to base their investigation. Initially, officers believed they were going to face the daunting task of tracking down every BMW that carried a personalized tag, because state motor vehicle records don't indicate a car's color.
But officers found that luck was on their side when a BMW dealer identified the paint marks as belonging to a car so rare and expensive that only three of them had been sold in Colorado. By Tuesday, detectives were hot on Breeden's trail.
Breeden, however, had no interest in giving himself up. Officers discovered his body late on the evening of March 19 in the basement of his home in Denver's Belcaro neighborhood. Breeden had barricaded the doors and windows, shot and wounded his faithful dog, Gambo, and then turned the gun on himself. In his blood were high levels of alcohol and cocaine derivatives. Nearby, police found a handwritten note in which Breeden willed the bulk of his fortune to Sydney Stone. But it was the postscript that threw the case spinning in another direction. "P.S.," Breeden wrote, "I was not driving the vehical [sic]."
It wasn't until two days later, while hundreds of people were attending a funeral mass for Lopez across town, that Schmitz--accompanied by attorney Larry Sather--finally showed up at Denver police headquarters. Schmitz allowed himself to be photographed but made no statement to officers.
He and his girlfriend, hair stylist Ingrid Pfennig, then vanished into the woodwork, giving rise to speculation that Schmitz had left the United States and returned to Germany.
Stymied by Schmitz's refusal to cooperate, Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter called for a grand jury investigation into the accident. Soon thereafter, Pfennig's mother, Maria Pfennig, told a DA's investigator that Schmitz had admitted to her that he was behind the wheel of the BMW when it hit Lopez's vehicle. Maria Pfennig declined to be interviewed by Westword.
Sather was furious when he learned that reporters had seen Pfennig's affidavit, which had been mistakenly left unsealed when filed with the court. Sather claimed the leak caused "irreparable" harm to the grand jury investigation, despite the fact, he told reporters, "that all the physical evidence and all the other witnesses place Spicer Breeden behind the wheel."
Chief Deputy District Attorney Lamar Sims, who is presenting the Lopez case to the grand jury, will not say if or when he plans to subpoena Schmitz. But even if he does, it will do little good. Sather says his client will not address the jury unless he is given immunity--a demand that the prosecution is unlikely to meet. Possible indictments against Schmitz could range from vehicular homicide to accessory to vehicular homicide or leaving the scene of an accident. The jury could also choose not to indict Schmitz at all.
Although the grand jury continues to meet to discuss the case, sources believe an end may be in sight. Sather himself believes that the jury will investigate the matter only through the first week in June.
While Schmitz maintains a low profile--he is said to be keeping a vigil beside the pool at the Westin Tabor Hotel--speculation continues about the reasons for his continued silence.
Some people believe that Schmitz refused to cooperate because of fears that his visa would be revoked. And revocation is a genuine possibility. Schmitz's divorce ruled out his ability to seek citizenship on the basis of marriage to a U.S. citizen, although he later applied for an extension based on employment in a field that few Americans could fill. (An Immigration and Naturalization Service official says Schmitz received the extension because of his claim that he was employed teaching German at a language institute.)
Schmitz's work-related extension expired in late 1994, however, and local INS officials say they are uncertain if his visa is still valid. Those officials say his status is presently under investigation.
Schmitz's supporters say their friend has been "villainized" by the media, though they don't provide an explanation for his inaction in the days after Lopez was killed. "He is such a lighthearted, easygoing guy," McGuigan says. "I really feel like he was in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"He's the greatest guy. He really is," adds Uhl. "He's really been caught in a bad situation."
Schmitz's former brother-in-law has even approached a local restaurateur about the possibility of hosting a benefit to raise money for Schmitz's legal defense. The restaurateur says he politely declined.
There is an element of self-pity in Schmitz's demeanor about the situation in which he now finds himself. "No one knows what actually went on but me," he says. "People forget that I lost my good best friend over it."
Schmitz does not mention the name of Greg Lopez.
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