Collision Course

They were going nowhere fast.
After almost two full days of jury selection--sifting through questionnaires, quizzing prospective jurors about their feelings regarding the media, suicide, alcohol, bad art--the opening arguments in the Peter Schmitz trial began late Tuesday.

At this rate, the jurors who survived the cut (although Denver County Judge Andrew Armatas was booted out early Monday afternoon, inexplicably, a Denver Post editor made it onto the jury) will begin deliberating Schmitz's fate on St. Patrick's Day.

Exactly one year after Greg Lopez died, his Toyota 4-Runner forced off I-25 by an expensive, speeding black car.

In the intervening months, other crimes, other deaths have pushed their way onto the front pages, replacing a twisted tale that eleven months ago seemed as bizarre as local news could get. Lopez, a Denver native and a talented, popular Rocky Mountain News columnist, was dead. Two days later, the owner of the expensive black car, Spicer Breeden, another young Denver native, was dead--by his own hand as Denver police surrounded his house in the Belcaro neighborhood. Breeden left behind a hastily written will and a note: "I was not driving the vehical." He shot his dog, then shot himself in the head.

The dog lived. Breeden did not.
After that, the investigation shifted to another young man who had been in the car that night: Peter Schmitz, a German artist who lived--and partied--in LoDo.

Following a grand jury investigation, Schmitz was charged with vehicular homicide. For his defense attorney, he hired Walter Gerash, the colorful Colorado institution who'd been the focus of a Lopez profile--and a man who'd once told reporters he would never represent Lopez's killer.

The prosecution will argue that Breeden's "dying declaration" rings with truth. Gerash will argue that Breeden's last note was just his last attempt to fob off responsibility on another--in this case, his innocent client, who is guilty of nothing more than being a friend and failing to go to the police immediately with what he knew.

And late Tuesday afternoon, as the sun slanted through the courtroom windows, Gerash began fighting for Schmitz.

Gathered in the audience were dozens of listeners. A few rejected jurors, who wanted to know what they'd be missing. Lawyers, who wanted to hear the arguments. Journalists, who wanted to make the five o'clock newscasts. Friends of the three men. And family--including one baby.

This trial will spill a story of ambition, alcohol and expensive, speeding black cars. But it is also a story of family.

In fact, it may be the first trial in local history to have a historian in residence. Phil Goodstein has written numerous books on Denver; he's also authored an as-yet unpublished biography of Walter Gerash. This month he's in court to see Gerash in action--but also to provide background material when the defense needs it. "Get me a page on the Boettchers," Gerash ordered as he headed into chambers Monday. Goodstein complied, and the Boettcher family made an appearance in Gerash's opening.

Breeden represents a sorry end for the Boettcher line. That's one point--perhaps the only point--on which both the prosecution and the defense can agree. The great fortune amassed by Charles Boettcher, an emigrant from Prussia, did not buy much happiness for his family. He was an adulterer who bought the Brown Palace so he could set up his mistresses on the top floor; his son was a misfit (but enough of a chip off the old block to also install girlfriends in the hotel); his daughter married Al Humphreys, scion of another old Denver line (one haunted by suicide)--and their daughter, Spicer's mother, married Vic Breeden. "In the tree of Boettcher legacies...where people don't have to struggle," Gerash told the jury, "Vic Breeden became a victim of drugs and alcohol, and the same thing happened to Spicer Breeden. He had no job...except being the Playboy of the Western World."

His client, Peter Schmitz, met Breeden through his art, Gerash says. Breeden was a patron; Schmitz was a "hardworking artist...a gifted artist." An artist so gifted that his attorney was inspired to offer the jury comparisons with Picasso and Diego Rivera (although a heavy-metal-fantasy airbrush artist might be more on the mark). A native of Germany, Schmitz has worked hard to make it as an artist both here and abroad, Gerash says--although it could not have hurt to meet the niece of Temple Buell, patriarch of another prominent Denver family. Schmitz married her and ultimately moved to Denver, where he pursued his career as an artist and, not incidentally, kept his driving record clean. Gerash mentioned that several times.

But he did not mention Schmitz's grandfather, a well-to-do lawyer who defended Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg--and is still alive to defend his grandson to reporters.

Greg Lopez, too, has a family--a loving family whose bank accounts may not have been as big but whose roots stretch just as deep into Denver history.

During his opening argument, prosecutor Gerald Rafferty traced how the lives of those three men had intersected one night. On St. Patrick's Day 1996, Breeden wanted to party, and he wasn't about to take no--"It's amateur night in LoDo," one friend told him--for an answer. He hooked up with Schmitz at the Chop House, where they had a few drinks and asked the waitress to "come party with us." The two then picked up Breeden's car--an expensive black car--from Morton's valet and took off up 17th Street.

Life in the fast lane put them on a collision course with Lopez.
Just who was behind the wheel of that black car will be the crux of the trial. But other things are not in doubt. After Lopez was forced off the road, Breeden and Schmitz returned to LoDo, in another car, and went to several bars, including the Chop House. There, Rafferty says, they told the waitress they'd returned. It was time to party.

Goodstein's most recent book, The Seamy Side of Denver, outlines how raucous life was in lower downtown a century ago. But it's nothing compared to a night now when people want to party. Given how LoDo has changed, Goodstein may have to issue a revised version. And the Schmitz trial--complete with the Breeden/Schmitz bar tour--should rate at least a chapter.

Family and ambition flow through this story, and so does alcohol. To combat all the stories about Schmitz partying, Gerash promises to bring up Greg Lopez's early celebration, at the Denver Press Club the day before St. Patrick's. (If you want to drink anonymously, do not do it at a reporters' hangout.) Lopez and his friend Rich Maes, a former journalist, had forty bottles of Guinness--a stout, Gerash told the jury helpfully.

And then they called their wives to come and take them home.
Maes never imagined that 24 hours after their celebration, his friend Greg would be dead--killed by that speeding black car. And he never could have dreamed that their toasts to friendship would become the subject of court testimony.

At Lopez's funeral, Maes could say only one thing about their time together. "I must be the luckiest guy in the world," he said. "Because I got to spend Greg's whole last day with him."

If Greg Lopez were writing the story of his own life and death, he would try to find an uplifting angle. Actually, he would not have to try--he'd just hang around the people he was writing about long enough for something interesting, and most likely something good, to rise to the top. His story would have a happy ending.

And his story does, although this jury is not allowed to hear mention of it: Baby Calla Lopez, born seven months after her father's death.