Falling From Grace

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.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast