Love, American Style
Jon Vaupel had been cooling his heels in a federal immigration detention facility in Aurora for three months when the guards finally told him to pack it up, that he was being released. What they didn't tell him was that he was being released to deputies from Adams County, where he would now face charges of attempted first-degree murder.
His intended victim? His American wife.
Throughout the '90s, Vaupel, a former race-car driver, would travel to the United States several times a year on business, buying exotic European and American sports cars and sending them back home to Australia. On Halloween 2000, at a dinner party in Manhattan, a mutual friend introduced him to Stacy Schwab, a blond-haired, brown-eyed former model and personal-fitness instructor. "She was every man's dream," Vaupel says. But he was going back to Australia the next day, and he doubted he'd ever see her again.
A few months later, though, the friend who had introduced them e-mailed Vaupel with the news that Schwab wanted to get in touch. They soon grew close through long-distance calls, and when Vaupel returned to New York in May 2001, the two went out for coffee and dinner dates. And then their relationship blossomed over a getaway weekend in upstate New York.
Vaupel was set to return to Australia in August but wound up with Lyme disease. Although Australian visitors are technically limited to ninety days in this country, the U.S. extended his visa waiver. But after 9/11, neither he nor Schwab wanted to stick around, and they split for Australia.
On March 22, 2002, Schwab's 39th birthday and shortly before Vaupel's 40th, the two became husband and wife. Within a few months, Schwab was pregnant.
The marriage had been rocky from the start, though, with Schwab drinking and arguments turning physical. One day, Schwab took off. Vaupel didn't even know she was leaving until she sent a text message as she boarded a plane for America, bound for Texas and her mother's house. Vaupel resigned himself to the fact that he'd never see his wife again, much less his child.
Then, in January 2003, a doctor told him that both Schwab's life and that of the unborn baby were at risk. Vaupel caught the next plane to the U.S. Since he'd overstayed the ninety-day limit without permission on at least one prior occasion, federal authorities had no obligation to allow Vaupel into this country, but still issued him a temporary humanitarian parole. Vaupel overstayed that one, too. And once he did, his status reverted to that of an alien without documentation -- an illegal immigrant.
Schwab gave birth to the couple's son on March 12. The baby was a month premature and delivered by caesarean section; mother and child spent the rest of March in a Texas hospital. Once Schwab and the baby were released and the family reunited, Vaupel petitioned the U.S. to become a legal, permanent resident. His spouse, a U.S. citizen, signed on as his sponsor.
In October 2003, with that petition still pending, the family moved to Denver, where Vaupel had a lead on a job. He was working at a transmission shop in March 2004 when he had his first run-in with the cops, who busted him for going 77 miles per hour in a 45 mph zone on South Wadsworth. He pleaded guilty to a lesser speed.
But the trouble was just beginning. His wife's drinking got worse in Colorado, Vaupel says, and she had no friends. One night that April, he came home and found Schwab drunk. When he tried to talk to her about not driving drunk, especially with their one-year-old son in the car, Schwab became enraged. She grabbed a soap dispenser by the sink and threw it at Vaupel's head. She smashed a glass of wine on the counter; shards of glass and splashes of wine hit Vaupel and the baby. Vaupel held the child with one arm and called 911 with the other while his wife tugged at the baby's foot.
Deputies with the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office arrived, and Vaupel told them what had happened. The remains of the broken wine glass were on the counter, the soap dispenser on the floor. Schwab confirmed the story and was arrested on two charges -- domestic violence and child abuse -- that were eventually pleaded down to misdemeanor harassment with a deferred sentence, as long as she completed a domestic-violence diversion program.
Vaupel says he welcomed his wife back into their rented home after she got out of jail, hoping the two of them could patch things up. "But it was never really the same after that," he adds. He began to suspect she was having an affair. He'd call home from the transmission shop and no one would answer -- but when he'd ask Schwab where she'd been all day, she'd say she had been home.
Then came the mysterious phone calls. When Vaupel answered the phone at night, the caller would hang up. He installed a caller ID system and hid it behind the computer to keep it a secret from Schwab. Still, whenever he called the mystery number, the person who picked up the phone would stay silent until Vaupel spoke, and then hang up.
When Vaupel asked his wife about the calls, he says, she told him that he'd better not give her any grief because all she had to do was make one phone call, and his ass would be on a plane back to Australia. (Asked for an interview, Schwab told Westword, "You really cannot call me; it's not wise," and then hung up.)
In May, Vaupel was stopped by the cops again, this time for driving under restraint, fictitious plates and failure to provide proof of insurance for his Ford Bronco. He told police that he had insurance on the couple's other car, a Cadillac, and thought it applied to the truck as well.
On June 13, 2004, it was Schwab who called the cops for a domestic disturbance. Vaupel was downstairs reading to his son when he heard a racket -- his wife throwing stuff around to make her call sound legit to the 911 operator, he says. When Jeffco deputies arrived, the baby was calm in Vaupel's arms. They left the house without making an arrest, but Schwab ran out after them. Then one of the officers followed her into the basement, where she showed the officer a blank Australian driver's license with a picture of Vaupel, as well as another license with a picture of someone else. Schwab told the deputies that Vaupel was selling fake Aussie licenses, birth certificates and business-registration cards, making up to $2,000 per falsified document. The deputies found a high-tech printer alongside the computer, as well as a laminator.
Vaupel told the deputies that he was just "playing around," and that it wasn't illegal to make fake documents in his homeland, just illegal to use them. They didn't buy it. Vaupel was taken into custody in Jefferson County, where he was charged with two felony counts of forgery, one felony possession of forgery devices, misdemeanor harassment and misdemeanor menacing.
When he bonded out two weeks later, his wife wouldn't let him back into the house. He moved in with a friend.
On July 2, Vaupel heard that his wife would be appearing in a Jeffco courtroom. She wanted to move to Texas with her son but would need permission to leave the state because of her deferred sentence. Vaupel got to the courthouse as fast as he could, but he was too late: Schwab had already gotten permission to leave.
Vaupel said the judge told him that the only thing he could do to try to stop her was file for a legal separation, which would make his wife subject to custody arrangements. Vaupel says he still thought they could reconcile, but he filed for separation anyway.
When he got back to his friend's house, the police were waiting for him: Schwab had called in a report that he'd been harassing her that morning. Vaupel told the cops that it was a lie, that if they called the courthouse, they would find out that he'd been there all the time. The deputies did, and Vaupel's alibi checked out.
When the deputies confronted Schwab about her call, she changed her story. She was confused, she said. "I don't know, I'm sorry," Schwab told the officers.
Vaupel had neighbors keeping an eye on the house. A friend told him that both a white BMW and a Toyota Land Cruiser had been parking there overnight. Another friend ran the plates for Vaupel. Both were listed as belonging to Mario Ortiz, district director of the Denver office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Vaupel hired a private investigator to get pictures of his wife and Ortiz.
Vaupel would soon see that name again. Later that month he learned that his wife had revoked her sponsorship of his petition to become a permanent U.S. resident. The revocation was confirmed with a letter to Schwab signed by Mario Ortiz.
In October 2004, Vaupel was back at the Jeffco courthouse, this time for a hearing on the June harassment, menacing and phony-document charges.
That's when his public defender, David Jones, told Vaupel that federal agents were there to take him into custody. "All of a sudden, and this is rare, you show up for court, your client is out on bond, and federal agents are waiting in the courtroom," Jones says. "Something was expedited. Those orders came down really fast."
The next day, at the federal immigration detention facility in Aurora, Vaupel received a formal deportation order. Because of his illegal status, he was facing an expedited removal and wouldn't even have a deportation hearing before a judge.
But then Vaupel's immigration attorneys went to the media with photos of Schwab and Ortiz, pitching the story of an immigration honcho deporting a man while having an affair with the man's estranged wife. Denver television picked up the story, as did newspapers here and in Texas and Australia.
Ortiz was "under federal investigation for allegedly having a relationship with the estranged wife of a man his agency is seeking to deport," the Rocky Mountain News reported on October 23, 2004.
In the midst of the media furor, Vaupel filed for a visa reserved for victims of domestic violence at the hands of U.S. citizens. "Stacy has punched me in the face, slapped me, shoved me, thrown objects at me and falsely imprisoned me," he said. "She has called me a plethora of abusive names, including, but not limited to: fucking dickhead, asshole, moron, stupid, deranged and demented, and fucking loser."
None of those seemed to support his claim that he was of good moral character -- a requirement before he could get a domestic-violence victim's visa. His felony charges in Jeffco didn't help, either.
But even when an illegal immigrant qualifies for expedited removal, the federal government won't deport someone with charges pending against him in this country. So in January 2005, Vaupel was transferred to the Jeffco jail to await prosecution on those charges.
Vaupel had lost a wife, but now he had a new mate. A cellmate.
Tattooed, 37-year-old Donald Sturm was no stranger to the system. Back in 1994, Sturm had been sentenced to eighteen years in prison for aggravated robbery. Out on parole, with time still hanging over his head, Sturm walked into a Key Bank in Colorado Springs on February 13, 2004, and handed the teller a note.
"This is a robbery. No bait bills, no dye packs, no alarms. I have a gun," the note read.
"More, all of it, give me the other drawer. I want everything. I know you've got more," Sturm told the teller as he filled a plastic newspaper bag with $4,489.
Less than a month later, Sturm walked into another Key Bank in Colorado Springs and handed a teller a note, then walked out the door with $5,179.
On July 16 of that year, he walked into a Compass Bank, also in Colorado Springs, with yet another note: "Just stay calm, this is a robbery, give me all of the money, no dye packs."
That heist netted Sturm $4,142.
A few months later, Sturm walked into a First Bank in Colorado Springs and asked to see the manager, then pulled out a knife and robbed the bank of $19,511.
On December 6, 2004, he walked into a Colorado Springs Credit Union just down the street from one of his previous heists. "God, it's fucking cold out there," Sturm said before sitting on the counter and sliding over, pointing a semi-automatic handgun at the teller. "I want everything out of your drawers."
The teller complied. "I hope you all die," Sturm said, as he left with $30,853.
Photos from the banks' surveillance cameras were released to the media, leading to several anonymous tips. Sturm was living with a woman who overheard him talking about a robbery on the phone; she told her sister; her sister called the Colorado Springs police.
Sturm was sent to the Jefferson County jail, which has a contract to bunk some federal prisoners.
Evicted from the home she and Vaupel had rented, Stacy Schwab was allowed to take their boy to Texas, where they moved in with her mother.
Meanwhile, Mario Ortiz had gone to Washington, D.C., one of ten people hand-picked by the regional director of Citizenship and Immigration Services to act as a special assistant to the new field-operations manager. Ortiz was to assist in citizenship policy development, "quite an honor," says Sharon Rummery, CIS spokeswoman.
Vaupel knew that his wife was not supposed to leave the Dallas area, but he suspected she was off in D.C. with Ortiz. He'd hired a private investigator before to snap photos of them together, but most of his money was gone.
But Sturm says Vaupel was looking for more than evidence: He was looking for a hit man to murder his wife and Ortiz.
Both agree that Vaupel gave Sturm a map to the house in Dallas, which Sturm would pass to Robert, a friend and former bounty hunter. Sturm said that when Robert got in touch with Sturm, he'd use the code words "Six Door" -- Sturm's nickname.
While Vaupel sat in jail, he heard that the district attorney wanted to make a deal with him, and the longer he waited, the better the deal became.
David Jones, Vaupel's attorney, didn't think prosecutors had enough evidence to convict Vaupel of forging documents, particularly considering that their key witness was Schwab, who had credibility problems. He was right: By February 2005, Vaupel's felony forgery charges, his misdemeanor harassment and his misdemeanor menacing charges were all dropped in exchange for a guilty plea to disorderly conduct.
"It's unusual in Jefferson County to get a plea bargain that's that disparate," says Jones.
With that case resolved, Vaupel was turned over to the feds once again. While in the Jeffco jail, he'd made a last effort to stay in the United States, filing a habeas corpus writ requesting a hearing to determine the legality of his detention. Vaupel already owed his immigration attorneys more than $27,000, and though they'd agreed to keep tabs on his petition to stay in the country as the abused spouse of a U.S. citizen, Vaupel was on his own with the writ.
As he left the Jeffco jail, Vaupel shook Sturm's hand and gave him some documents and photos that he asked Sturm to give to a deputy whose shift hadn't started yet. He also says he told Sturm to forget about the job he'd wanted Robert to do.
On March 30, 2005, a man showed up at the immigration detention facility in Aurora and asked to see Vaupel.
It was Aurora police detective Steven Stanton, going by the name "Robert."
Sturm had told his attorney that Vaupel had asked him to hire a hit man. The attorney told another attorney, who told the FBI, who told Aurora police, who sent Stanton to talk to Vaupel. During his 23 years as a police officer, Stanton has worn wires on countless drug busts -- but the concrete and steel of the detention facility are too thick to transmit through. So he stuffed a microphone in his ear and a tape recorder in his back pocket, and recorded his talk with Vaupel over a phone line through the glass wall that separated the two. Later, he transcribed the conversation:
Stanton: "Hey, man."
Vaupel: "Hey, how are ya."
"I'll be good. Um, Six sent me."
"Ah, yeah. Yeah, yeah. Six Door."
"Oh, yeah, how are ya, man?"
"I hear you have a job for me."
"How soon do ya need it done?"
"Um, now, not 'til, not for a couple, for, you know, I've got a couple of months."
"Oh, you do?"
"Okay. And I guess there's, uh, two jobs?"
"Ahh, yeah, well, I mean the (laughs) yeah, I spoke to him, uh, I spoke to him about um, one, and the second one, it's, it's, I don't know (pause) (inaudible) um, no, just the one."
"Okay, the female."
"Mm. Yeah. Yeah."
"But the male is a no-go, okay."
"Okay. No, really, because, uh, uh, too uh, too big a, too much of a problem."
"Well, the big thing was that he didn't know if you wanted me to, uh, it to be an accident."
"If you just wanted them to disappear. If you wanted (inaudible)."
Later in the conversation, the undercover cop told Vaupel that "sometimes it's easier if they're found, rather than just, they disappear off the face of the earth."
"Whatever you decide," Vaupel responded.
On April 20, "Robert" returned to see Vaupel again. This time he had a photo of Schwab, which he showed to Vaupel. "I just want to make sure that's the right person," he said.
"Uh-huh, uh-huh," Vaupel replied.
"So how soon do you want me to get this finished?"
"As soon as possible."
"Okay, I just, the last time you didn't want me while you were still here."
"No, no, no, no, no, no, actually it's even better"
On May 6, 2005, guards at the detention facility told Vaupel he was being released -- but as it turned out, he was sent straight to the Adams County Jail, where he later learned he was facing up to 48 years on charges of attempted first-degree murder as well as solicitation for first-degree murder. His bond was ultimately set at $250,000.
On March 13, the first day of his trial in Adams County District Court, Vaupel sat in a navy-blue suit he'd borrowed from the public defenders. He wasn't wearing handcuffs, but a squeak came from his pants every time he moved -- it was the restraint device designed to keep him from running.
In his opening, Senior Deputy District Attorney Christopher Griffin argued that Vaupel felt his wife had wronged him, mistreated him, caused his unfair incarceration and initiated a deportation effort against him. "Vaupel wanted that problem taken care of," he said.
Then Griffin told the story of how Vaupel had met Sturm, a bank robber and ex-con on his way back to the big house. He said that Vaupel had promised to help Sturm escape from prison in exchange for getting his ex-wife whacked. But instead, Sturm went to his lawyer with the murder-for-hire scheme.
In his opening, public defender Scott Evans talked about the bitter divorce and custody battle. Vaupel had hired a private investigator when he suspected his wife was cheating, and while in the Jeffco jail he wanted to do so again just to make sure that his wife was where she was supposed to be and that his son was safe. Evans painted Vaupel as a victim facing an expedited deportation initiated by Mario Ortiz, who was using his office to help his girlfriend get rid of her ex-husband.
Evans warned jurors that Sturm's crimes went back to 1993. He was facing the rest of his life in prison, and thought Vaupel was a snitch. Sturm figured he could kill two birds with one stone, Evans argued, ruining the snitch and helping his own case by faking a murder for hire and throwing federal employee Ortiz into the mix, so that the attempted murder would be a federal crime and Sturm could get some slack on his sentence in exchange for testifying against Vaupel.
"There was never any plot to kill anyone," Evans said. "This was all a concoction by David Sturm."
Sturm was the first prosecution witness. "He asked me to have his wife and her boyfriend killed," Sturm told the court. He said he was nervous, that he'd never testified before.
"That puts me in a great, great, amount of danger, but sometimes you have to do what's right," he added. "I'm definitely signing my life away right here, no doubt about it. When I get to the penitentiary, they'll kill me."
Vaupel had told him it was okay to kill Schwab in front of their child, because he was so young he wouldn't remember anything, Sturm said, but that was too much for even him to bear, so he went to his lawyer.
"So your motives here were altruistic," Evans asked on cross-examination.
"I don't know what that means," Sturm replied.
"Basically, being a do-gooder," Evans said.
"Yeah, I guess you could say that," Sturm agreed.
On redirect, Griffin had Sturm reiterate for the jury that his testifying at this trial could be taken into consideration at his bank-robbery sentencing -- Sturm had said the U.S. District Attorney had offered up to a 25 percent reduction -- but that it would still be up to the judge to decide how long he would sit behind bars.
"I would never, never make up something like this," Sturm told jurors.
Stacy Schwab was flown in from Texas to testify on the second day of the trial.
She started crying when Griffin showed her the map Vaupel had drawn to her house in Texas; she said she recognized the handwriting as Vaupel's. Then she identified the picture that undercover cop Steven Stanton had shown Vaupel at the immigration detention facility. The photo was taken the day Vaupel proposed to her, she said.
Schwab testified that she had withdrawn her sponsorship of her husband's immigration application, and although Ortiz had signed it, she said that she didn't know him at the time.
The next witness was Stanton.
Stanton told of meeting Vaupel at the detention facility, and classified the quality of the tape recording as "fair." But when it was played in the courtroom, there was a constant clicking and a lot of fuzz, and much of the talk was inaudible. The jury received the transcript of the tape prepared by Stanton, but the judge advised jurors to listen to the tape and to use the transcript as a fall-back.
"Through facial expressions and through his voice, it appeared to me that he understood what we were discussing," Stanton explained after the tape was played.
Vaupel had sounded excited when he told him he'd been sent by "Six," Stanton testified, and said that the job had been changed to one person, not two.
The tape from Stanton's second undercover conversation with Vaupel wasn't much better, although it had been made on a different recorder.
On cross-examination, Stanton admitted that the recorders shut off at low volume, so other things could have been said, words and even whole sentences spoken but not recorded.
While the word "job" was mentioned, words like "whack," "kill" or "murder" never were, Evans pointed out. And the "disappear" comment came from Stanton, not Vaupel.
The first defense witness was the Jefferson County sheriff's deputy for whom Vaupel had left the packet of papers at the Jeffco jail. He testified that Vaupel doesn't hear well, and that Vaupel had asked him about finding a private investigator to check on his son's well-being.
Next on the stand was a friend of Vaupel's who testified that while he was still in the Jeffco jail, she'd looked into getting him a private investigator, but that it was too expensive.
Vaupel was the last witness to take the stand.
"I did not want to get divorced. I loved my wife," Vaupel said, explaining that he'd filed for the legal separation only so she would have to stay in Colorado with their son.
He testified that he couldn't call the house in Dallas, and hadn't asked Texas authorities about his son because he was afraid it would violate the court order that he not contact Schwab. He'd tried to hire another private investigator to collect evidence against her, but he couldn't afford the $2,500 up front that was the best deal his friend had found, much less the additional $75 an hour. So he'd asked other inmates what to do, and Sturm had suggested his friend Robert, the former bounty hunter.
Vaupel testified that he was shocked, not excited, when Robert showed up at the detention facility. He said he was wary that Robert might have been an undercover cop trying to bust him for violating the court order that he not reach out to Schwab in any way. But he figured he'd hear Robert out, or at least try to. "There was a lot of things I couldn't hear through it," he said of the conversation. "The clarity was very difficult," Vaupel said of the conversations with Robert.
As for the "ten" that the two had agreed on for the "job," Vaupel said that "ten" could refer to "one thousand" in Australia, the figure he'd told Sturm he could afford for an investigation.
During cross-examination,Vaupel said that he'd originally wanted Ortiz followed, too, but changed his mind on that. He did not want a murder committed: "I never would've even dreamed anything so vile."
But Vaupel had a little trouble explaining what he'd said to Stanton when the undercover cop asked how Vaupel would get word that the job was done: "That's fine, I mean, I'm sure I'll find out."
In his closing argument, Griffin told the jury that there were two ways to look at this situation. One was a straightforward explanation of a hit man for hire. The second was a complicated story about how Vaupel had wanted a private investigator and misunderstood the whole thing. When there are two stories, the prosecutor said, the simple one is usually the true one.
"The simple solution here is that this is a murder for hire," Griffin told the jurors, pointing out that Vaupel had never said he didn't want his wife killed, and that Stanton had testified that he was 100 percent confident that Vaupel wanted Schwab dead.
As for Sturm, "he's a bad apple, he is, there's no getting around that," Griffin said. "And that's exactly the person Mr. Vaupel went to. What Mr. Vaupel did is as clear a case of solicitation as you can find."
In his closing, defense attorney David Beller talked about the facts of the case, "facts Hollywood could have written. And the hero in their facts is David Sturm, David bank-robber Sturm, David do-gooder Sturm, David federal-deal Sturm.
Soon after the jurors were sent off to deliberate, they requested the tapes that Stanton had made. Despite the defense's objections, the judge sent the tapes in.
After eight hours of deliberation that stretched into the next day, the jury came back with its verdict: Not guilty.
Until they heard the tape again, eight jurors had been ready to convict, says juror Rick Paulson. But after they listened to it, some changed their minds. "You can't hammer a guy into the ground on evidence like that," explains Paulson. "It's not that we all wanted to let him go. He was no angel and probably guilty of something, but they didn't prove it. There were words that were on the tape, but they didn't connect the dots."
On March 16, for the first time in seventeen months, Vaupel left a courthouse a free man. "For once, I have seen some justice in this system that has been so unjust," he said.
One of his first stops was the Westword office, where he vowed to take legal action against the federal government, Mario Ortiz and Adams County. And he talked about how Sturm had set him up. "It didn't strike me at the time, but now, he was just too friendly with me, he didn't want to sit and chat with everybody else, just me," Vaupel said. "But he got me to trust him; he was like my best buddy in there."
Vaupel's life on the outside didn't last long. The federal government still had a hold against him for being in the country illegally, but somehow that order was misplaced. When the feds and Adams County recognized the mixup, they tracked Vaupel down with the help of the Australian consulate -- and nine or ten agents, Vaupel says.
Once again, Vaupel is sitting in the immigration detention facility in Aurora. Because he overstayed his original humanitarian parole and has a history of overstaying the ninety-day limit, he would be subject to removal even if his then-wife hadn't withdrawn her sponsorship, explains Carl Rusnok, ICE spokesman. "Immigration and Customs Enforcement has a final order of removal for him -- and, as such, we can remove him as soon as we have travel documents," he says.
But the government could use prosecutorial discretion in this case, suggests Elizabeth Higgins, Vaupel's former immigration attorney. Vaupel's petition to stay in the country as a victim of domestic violence is still pending. Higgins says that her office recently got a call from the center that processes such applications to say that Vaupel's petition had been lost. It has since been re-submitted.
"Are we living in some Third World country where files disappear and people are imprisoned for a year and a half when the only crime they've committed is disorderly conduct?" Higgins asked in a letter to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Center. "Is this what happens to a potential immigrant who gives an immigration official a hard time? Why has there been no public report issued or conclusion to the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Professional Responsibility investigation? Where is the accountability?"
"There is an internal review on allegations of impropriety," CIS's Rummery says regarding the Ortiz report. "We have not seen a copy of it yet."
Meanwhile, Ortiz, who declined comment for this story, is back at work in Denver. Nearby, Vaupel is still behind bars.
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