One day last week, LoDo artist Jorg "Peter" Schmitz accompanied his girlfriend, Ingrid Pfennig, on a shopping trip to the Cherry Creek Mall. "He was trying to get her to buy all these slutty things," says an employee of one trendy clothing store. "When she hesitated, he told her, 'You should live on the edge more often.'"
Less than 24 hours later, Schmitz found himself way out there: He was arrested and charged with vehicular homicide in the death of prominent Rocky Mountain News columnist Greg Lopez.
Living on the edge is something of which Schmitz has firsthand knowledge--specifically, he has developed a reputation for drinking, drugging and domestic disturbance. Even the father of Schmitz's so-called "best good friend," Spicer Breeden, claims that Schmitz was a barnacle who clung to Breeden for his access to money and cocaine.
The German-born painter's relationship with Pfennig has been so volatile, in fact, that members of her family say they fear for her safety. And sources confirm that Denver police have been called to Schmitz's home at least twice as a result of arguments between the two.
The picture of Schmitz as a thrill-seeker with an explosive temper stands in sharp contrast to the one of the "gentle and warmhearted" person his friends drew for Judge John McMullen during a bond-reduction hearing for Schmitz last week in Denver District Court.
Which picture is more accurate became a matter of public interest after the March 17 hit-and-run death of Lopez, who was killed instantly when his Toyota 4Runner was clipped by a speeding BMW that witnesses estimated had been traveling at speeds as high as 100 mph ("I Know Nothing," May 31). The car stopped briefly before speeding on its way .
Two days later, as police closed in on the car's owner, 36-year-old Spicer Breeden, the wealthy Denverite took his own life. He left behind a handwritten suicide note in which he bequeathed all his wealth to a friend. In a postscript he added, "I was not driving the vehical [sic]."
It was another two days before Schmitz--thought to be a passenger in the car--showed up at police headquarters to have his photo taken. He would not grant an interview to investigators, who then turned to a grand jury.
Police arrested Schmitz at his LoDo loft on June 5, about twelve hours after the grand jury found cause to indict him. Jurors had met in a specially called secret session to bring the charges, primarily because prosecutors feared that Schmitz might flee the country. His bond was set at $500,000.
Schmitz's bond was reduced to $50,000 at a hearing June 6, but even after posting it, he was not a free man; he was instead turned over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service because his visa status is in doubt.
Although questions remain about whether Schmitz is a legal resident, Westword has learned that the INS has had trouble keeping its Schmitz file straight. In particular, it appears that Schmitz's file may have been mistakenly combined with that of a New Jersey man with a similar name, leading to reports that Schmitz had asked for a visa so he could teach at a language institute.
The real Peter Schmitz apparently generates enough confusion. At Schmitz's bond hearing, numerous friends claimed that he was a kind man who wouldn't hurt a fly. But that hasn't been everyone's experience. Ingrid Pfennig's family has seen a far different side of the man.
And Breeden's father, Vic, saw still another side of Schmitz--he characterizes him as a leech taking advantage of a deeply troubled man.
The idea that Spicer Breeden was suffering from paranoia and might have been chronically mentally ill is a topic that even now divides his friends and will likely become the subject of serious infighting when his will is probated.
For the past three years, says Vic Breeden, he and his daughter tried to get Spicer psychiatric help; they believed he was manic depressive. "He thought people were following him and tapping his phone," Breeden says. "We tried to talk to him about it, and he wasn't interested. You can't make a 36-year-old do anything. I tried for three years. There was nothing I could do for him.
"My feeling is that the accident didn't have much to do with his suicide. It was coming. The accident didn't cause it. It was there, waiting."
That's why, Breeden says, he does not harbor any resentment toward Schmitz. "My son's the one that took the gun," he says. "Peter's just a fool."
Pfennig's family takes a harsher view.
Schmitz took up with Pfennig--an exotic-looking, 29-year-old hair stylist of Peruvian descent--about two years ago. It proved a volatile combination--both have fiery tempers, say acquaintances, and they argued frequently and broke up almost as often. Pfennig has complained to friends and family members about Schmitz's verbal abuse of her, and family members say they believe Schmitz has physically abused Ingrid in the past.
Pfennig was in the midst of a breakup with Schmitz in January 1994 when police first logged a domestic-disturbance call involving the couple. Pfennig had asked her mother to help her move her things out of Schmitz's LoDo loft, and when Maria Pfennig arrived, there was blood on the floor. Another family member called police.
Schmitz reportedly told the officers who responded to the 911 call that it had all been a misunderstanding and that someone had merely stepped on pieces of broken glass. Pfennig's family, however, says the story was a coverup and that Schmitz assaulted Ingrid, leaving bruises.
One year later, in January 1995, police were again called to Schmitz's home. This time, however, Schmitz was calling to complain about Ingrid. She was stomping around, shouting and making noise at 3 a.m., says a source, and Schmitz was afraid he would get kicked out of his rented loft. Schmitz's fears were based on past experience; some former neighbors of his from the Edbrooke loft project remember him for his loud and rowdy ways.
Schmitz's partying took on legendary status in certain parts of downtown Denver. "You can't go to a single bar in LoDo and not hear tales about the prodigous amounts of alcohol he could put away," says a police source. "And everywhere you turn, someone is bringing up the subject of Peter and drugs."
Spicer Breeden's dad is one such person.
The relationship between Schmitz and his son was very simple, says Vic Breeden: "When you do drugs, you need a buddy. Peter was Spicer's buddy. I don't think they were good friends. His really good friends came to the funeral. Peter was [around] because Spicer bought him drugs and booze."
Schmitz, says Breeden, was little more than a hanger-on. "My son had the money," says Vic Breeden, "and Peter hoped Spicer would open doors to some prominent Denver homes so he could sell his paintings. But I don't think he ever did."
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Spicer did buy at least one of Schmitz's paintings for his ex-wife, says Spicer's old friend Ken McSpadden. He paid $15,000 for what another friend describes as "a painting of a cowboy with hot-air balloons floating in the back." (Breeden's ex returned the painting because she didn't care for it.)
Some of Schmitz's friends who have continued to stand by him are placing blame for the entire incident on Spicer Breeden. "One thing I will say," says artist David Uhl, "is that you've got to keep everything in perspective; you have to understand the players involved.
"Spicer was not somebody I associated with; he pulled bizarre stunts and he was paranoid. Before anyone makes a judgment, you need to know Spicer's character--he was off the deep end.