Twelve Pima County residents are deciding whether Ronald Bruce Bigger stabbed a popular children’s eye doctor to death for $10,000.
Deliberations began Friday and are expected to resume Monday.
Their decision could settle who killed Dr. Brian Stidham on Oct. 4, 2004. Or, they could leave it an open question, and an open wound, for the popular doctor’s family and friends.
Last year, another jury took five days to find that Dr. Bradley Alan Schwartz, 42, conspired with Bigger, 41, to kill Stidham, 37. But it couldn’t reach a unanimous decision about whether Schwartz was directly responsible for Stidham’s death.
Schwartz is now serving a life sentence, with parole possible after 25 years.
Stidham’s family declined to be interviewed for this article, though it has talked about his life in the past. But as more than two years of investigation and trials possibly comes to an end this month, a childhood friend of Stidham’s agreed to talk about a man he considered a brother and remind people whom these trials have really been about.
That Stidham was the victim of a violent act was the opposite of the kind of person he was, those who knew him best say.
“I think maybe twice in all the years we knew each other I ever saw him get mad,” said Duane Propes, 40, who grew up with Stidham in Longview, Texas. “He would get loud, and his eyes would get real big when he was incredibly pissed. But other than that, he was just completely laid back, a real happy, happy guy.”
Propes fought a wind that tousled his trademark shoulder-length curly hair at the Verde Valley Fair in Cottonwood on May 4 with his band, Little Texas. He played bass and harmonized on one of the songs that made the band moderately famous.
Sure, I think about you now and then/ But it’s been a long, long time.
I’ve got a good life now, I’ve moved on/ So when you cross my mind
I try not to think about/ What might have been . . .
When Propes’ band mates wrote “What Might Have Been,” they meant it as a cry-in-your-beer, country breakup song.
But as Propes reminisced after the show, sipping on a bottle of Miller Lite and puffing on a small cigar, “What Might Have Been” also sadly echoed the stilled promise of his best friend’s life.
“Brian could have been a brilliant cancer research scientist,” Propes said, leaning against a truck outside a Cottonwood motel.
“He told me he went into pediatric ophthalmology because he didn’t want the phone to be ringing in the middle of the night,” Propes said, smiling. “And he just loved kids so much.”
Propes was an eighth-grader playing drums in the Judson Middle School band in Longview when he met rival Forest Park Middle School drummer Stidham.
“It took us by complete surprise that we got to be buddies,” Propes said.
Unlike Propes, Stidham was not a born musician.
“But he worked his tail off to be perfect, and by our senior year, he was all-state, and I was the alternate second chair,” Propes recalled. “I had to go sit in the audience and watch him with his mom and dad.”
With their friend Joe Little, the three teens had lofty ambitions.
“When we were freshmen, everybody knew Brian was going to be a doctor, Joe was going to be a lawyer, and I was going to be a musician,” Propes said. “It was in the cards, and that’s exactly what happened.”
As graduates of Longview High School’s class of 1985, Propes and Stidham moved to Nashville, Tenn. Propes enrolled at Belmont University and Stidham at Vanderbilt University.
After Vanderbilt, Stidham went to Harvard, while Propes and another Longview buddy, Porter Howell, co-founded Little Texas.
Stidham graduated from Harvard in three years and entered the residency program at Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas.
There, Stidham struck up a friendship with a pretty neighbor, Daphne Herding.
Propes knows exactly why Stidham was attracted to her.
“She’s gorgeous!” Propes said, grinning.
“No, you could tell that they fit. They meshed. They read each other’s minds,” Propes said.
“His heart, his sincerity was so appealing, so approachable,” Daphne Stidham has said. “He was easy to talk to and made me feel so good inside. I felt safe with him.”
In May 1997, Stidham and Herding were married in a garden ceremony.
“I used to tell him he had no flaws. He was the perfect son-in-law, the perfect husband,” his mother-in-law, Jung Ja Herding, has said.
The newlyweds honeymooned in Hawaii and moved to Indianapolis, where Stidham had a fellowship in pediatric ophthalmology and adult strabismus (eye misalignment, which would become his specialty).
The couple returned to the Lone Star State a year later when Stidham joined the faculty of the University of Texas in Houston.
In 2000, Stidham became a father when Daphne gave birth to Alexandre Brian. Their daughter, Catherine Elizabeth, was born in Tucson in 2003.
In 2001, Stidham answered an ad in a trade journal from Schwartz, who was looking for someone to take over pediatric patients at his ophthalmology practice. Stidham fell in love with Tucson the minute he arrived, his wife has said.
“He had never seen anything like the West, the cacti, the vibrant sunrises and sunsets,” Daphne Stidham has said.
“He fell in love with it and said, ‘Honey, we’ve got to come here. We’ve got to stay here,’ ” she said.
Propes wasn’t so enthusiastic.
“I don’t remember the exact words I said to him, but it was something like, ‘Dude, I’ve been there. Weird things happen there. I swear, there’s an aura of evil to it. I wish you would think about this,’ ” Propes said.
Stidham was undeterred.
“It’s a beautiful place,” Stidham told Propes. “I can live right there by the mountains and go hiking.
“It’s a great deal for me there,” Propes said Stidham told him. “The partner I’ll be working with is ultracool. He’s giving me the keys to the kingdom. It’s going to be great. I’m going to be doing exactly what I’ve always wanted to do.”
“He was such an optimist,” Propes said.
Stidham never spoke a mean word about Schwartz, Propes said, even when the Drug Enforcement Administration raided the practice just weeks after his arrival and Schwartz was indicted for prescription drug fraud a year later.
“Basically, he said that the guy he was working with got weird, and he needed to get out of the situation and do his own thing,” Propes said of Stidham opening his own practice in late 2002.
Schwartz once prided himself on hiring Stidham to treat children at his ophthalmology practice, but he grew to loathe Stidham and blame him for a professional downfall, prosecutors say.
Propes had hoped to reunite with Stidham in the fall of 2004, when his band was booked in a Tucson club.
“I was really looking forward to it,” Propes said.
But the gig fell through.
The next week, Stidham was stabbed 15 times and left to die in the parking lot of his medical complex.
After the shock of his best friend’s death wore off, Propes was filled with sadness for the people whom Stidham could have helped had he lived past his 37th year.
“I wonder how much good he could have done. That’s what generally makes me mad. My buddy was taken away from me,” Propes added.
On Friday, as Bigger’s jury’s deliberations began in Tucson, Propes performed with Little Texas in Albuquerque, N.M.. Today, the band is in Las Vegas for the Academy of Country Music Awards, promoting its upcoming comeback album, “Missing Years,” and reminding folks of the old hits.
We can’t go back again,/ there’s no use giving in.
And there’s no way to know/ What might have been.
Little Texas’ official Web site:
Little Texas’ official MySpace Web site:
Download or listen to “What Might Have Been” on CMT’s Web site: