Cold-Blooded Killing

An excerpt from Toxic Rage: A Tale of Murder in Tucson

Bradley Alan Schwartz and Ronald Bruce Bigger were both convicted of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and Bigger was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Dr. Brian Stidham. Schwartz was sentenced to life with parole possible after 25 years and Bigger was sentenced to life with no parole possible.

From the start, this was a murder case filled with twists and turns—and the ensuing years since the trials took place have had their share, too. With both defendants still maintaining their innocence, their appeals are still being played out in the Arizona court system. ...

It's Schwartz's newest request for a new trial that contains the most explosive claims. In his second (post-conviction relief appeal), Storts argues that there's newly discovered evidence that shows in the months leading up to Stidham's death, Lourdes Lopez was trying to hire a hit man to kill Brad. If true and if Brad's team had known about this evidence at the time of the trial, Storts could have used it to impeach Lourdes's testimony in March 2006 that was crucial to prosecutors' case of conspiracy to commit murder, the one count that jurors reached a verdict for.

"The very crux of the 'conspiracy' charge was provided by the testimony of Lourdes Lopez," Storts says in the PCR.

Brian Stidham fell in love with Tucson the minute he came to town. A young and talented eye surgeon, he accepted a job with another eye surgeon to take over the pediatric patients.

"It's a beautiful place," Brian told a friend. "I can live right there by the mountains and go hiking. It's a great deal for me there. The partner I'll be working with is ultracool. He's giving me the keys to the kingdom."

Brad Schwartz, the doctor who hired Brian, was only too happy to turn over the pediatric practice. Ambitious and possessing surgical skills few in the country had, Brad was also a troubled man who struggled with relationships, sobriety and his temper.

Within a year of Brian's arrival in Tucson, the medical relationship would be severed by Brad's personal troubles. Brian broke away from Brad's practice to start his own. Rumors abounded within the medical community that Brad was incensed and considered Brian's departure a betrayal. Rage grew within him and even drew a wedge between Brad and his fiancée, Lourdes Lopez, a former prosecutor whose career was shattered because of Brad.

Three years after Brian moved to Tucson, his life ended in an empty, darkened parking lot. The next morning, everyone wondered who would have killed such a nice fellow. Lourdes, who had seen Brad's toxic rage toward Brian, feared she knew.

Her fears weren't enough to save Brian Stidham, but would they be enough to catch his killer?

On the morning of Oct. 6, 2004, in Tucson, Lourdes Lopez was getting ready for work and listening to the news on the radio when she heard about a murder that occurred overnight. Her heart skipped a beat. Throughout her law career as a prosecutor and now criminal defense attorney, she wasn't unfamiliar with the situation of hearing about a heinous crime on the news and then having the case land in her lap. But this was different. What few details were being related over the radio concerned Lourdes. They, too, were all too familiar. A man was found dead in a medical complex at First Avenue and River Road the night before. His Lexus was missing. While the report didn't mention the victim's name, Lourdes knew in her now deeply troubled heart that she might have known him.

"Please God," she whispered to herself. "Don't let it be Brian. Just let it be some other poor person."

Lourdes's fears weren't just sympathy for someone who had just been killed, but terror that she knew the killer—a man she almost married. He had spoken often of wanting to have his rival killed ... could he possibly have carried out his evil wish? Lourdes remembered countless times over the past two years that the threats had been made and the countless times that Lourdes dismissed them as ranting of a man pushed to his limits. Brad Schwartz, the man Lourdes had broken off her engagement to just months ago, couldn't have had Brian Stidham killed, she reasoned. But the more she told herself that, the more she remembered his lies, lies that led to the doom of their relationship and, perhaps, Brian Stidham's life.

Tucson, for all of its worldliness as a metropolitan center pushing a million residents, still thinks of itself as a small town. There may be drive-by shootings in certain parts of town that don't garner much attention, but this murder was different. It was at a midtown medical complex off a busy street where thousands drive each day. This murder topped all of the newscasts that day and was a front-page story in the afternoon daily, the Tucson Citizen. Lourdes couldn't shake the fear that she thought the murder victim was Brian and that Brad had ordered his death somehow. Lourdes tried to go about her normal business that day. She was working as a criminal defense attorney, but she'd spent years at the Pima County Attorney's Office as a criminal prosecutor.

That's what she was doing when she met Brad Schwartz, who saved her foster daughter's eyesight, and began an on-and-off affair with him. Lourdes spent the morning of Oct. 6 in depositions downtown, but as she was heading back to her office that afternoon, she got the idea to call Brian's office. Maybe Brian wasn't killed, she thought. Maybe she's just overreacting. It was just an eerie coincidence that Brian had an office in that medical complex and drove a Lexus, right? Lourdes dialed Brian's office, pretending to be a parent who needed to make an appointment to see Dr. Stidham and hoping against all odds that the person who answered the phone would happily make that appointment.

Instead, Lourdes heard a glum voice at the other end of the line.

"There's been a tragedy. Dr. Stidham has been killed."Lourdes froze. This couldn't be happening. This doesn't happen in Tucson. To her. To people she knows. There have been many twisted turns in Lourdes's life, but this was just too bizarre to be true, right? How could someone she had loved so much that she wanted to convert to Judaism and marry have someone killed?

If the victim had been anybody but Brian, Lourdes would never have thought Brad had anything to do with it. Her mind raced. If Brad did do it, and her gut told her he had, would he remember all the times he threatened to kill Brian in front of her?

While media reports about Brian's death questioned why anyone would want to kill such a nice, popular children's eye doctor, behind the scenes suspicion was building quickly around Brad Schwartz and his resentment following Brian's departure from the practice in 2002. Joanna Brenning, who was engaged to Dr. Mark Austein, Brad's friend, called 88-CRIME with her suspicions. Another woman who was seeing Brad around that time, Kim Seedor, also called the anonymous tip line. Perhaps the person who felt this tension building up around Brad more acutely than anyone else was Lourdes Lopez. In the days following Brian's murder, Lourdes struggled with the notion that someone she had loved dearly could be a cold-hearted killer. When the burden became almost too much to bear, she called her good friend, Paul Skitzki, a former colleague from the Pima County Attorney's Office. Paul was living with Nicki DiCampli, also a prosecutor. Lourdes and Nicki were the best of friends, but in her emotional state, Lourdes now wanted Paul's quiet reasoning over Nicki's compassionate friendship. Lourdes often turned to Paul when she needed someone to calm her down.

Lourdes was right to call Paul. She knew what his reaction would be before she even called him, however. She knew that he would urge her to call law enforcement with her suspicions. She knew that she should. But she needed a gentle nudge in that direction. Perhaps she was hoping that Paul wouldn't think she needed to tell the world about her terrible secret, about the times that she heard Brad say that he hated Brian, that he wouldn't kill Brian himself, but that he would hire someone to kill Brian and make it look like a carjacking to throw off suspicion. Perhaps if Paul just consoled her, and told Lourdes that the idea that Brad would actually follow through with such statements was ludicrous, then Lourdes could lay her suspicions to rest.

"Lourdes, you've got to tell them about this," Paul said, with urgency in his voice. "You know what you have to do. You used to be a prosecutor. You know how this works."

"I know, I know," Lourdes said, crying. "But, um, what if they already know? What if they already suspect him, I mean, what if he told someone else, too, about these things, and they've already gone to the police?"

"I wouldn't be surprised," Paul said. "But it still doesn't matter. Lourdes, you know him better than any of us. I'd like nothing more than to turn him in myself, you know how Nicki and I feel about him. But it's not our call. It's yours. You've got to call them, Lourdes."

"I know, I know," she whispered.

The most anticipated witness of Brad Schwartz's trial for first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder was Lourdes Lopez. Before the trial, Pima County Superior Court Judge Nanette Warner ruled that jurors could not know that Schwartz was indicted in federal court on prescription drug charges. On the stand, though, Lourdes testified that she resigned from the Pima County Attorney's Office because she knew that she and Brad were going to be indicted in federal court. Prosecutor Richard Platt had not told Lourdes about the ruling on the federal charges because, he said, it was hard getting to Lourdes because she had several attorneys representing her. Lourdes said she knew she wasn't supposed to say how her ex-husband died, but nothing about the federal case. Schwartz's attorney Brick Storts once again asked for a mistrial, which was denied.

Lourdes testified that Brad was angry when Brian left the practice. "He was upset because Dr. Stidham left him when he needed him the most. Brad had told me he wanted Dr. Stidham to die. He used an expletive, 'That guy is going to die.' Do you want me to say exactly what he said? Exactly what he said was that 'This fucking guy is going to die.'" But Lourdes also said she never took the threats seriously. "He is a doctor. He's been given a gift. He's supposed to preserve life. He took an oath to do that. He's a very good father. He had everything to live for. He would never throw everything away because of anger, no."

Reprinted by permission from Toxic Rage: A Tale of Murder in Tucson, published by WildBlue Press. Copyright © 2018 by A.J. Flick. All rights reserved. Published by WildBlue Press