Citizen Staff Writer
Stories by A.J. FLICK
The lives of three men converged tragically on a still evening last month in midtown Tucson.
One was, according to many accounts, a well-respected, well-liked children’s eye doctor whose adventurous spirit thrived in the town he never wanted to leave.
Another was an eye surgeon whose drug addiction derailed his personal and professional lives.
The third was a loner who has spent the last two years in trouble with authorities for mostly petty offenses.
The first was brutally slain, and the others sit in jail, accused of killing him in a murder-for-hire plot.
Regardless of whether Dr. Bradley Alan Schwartz and Ronald Bruce Bigger are convicted of killing Dr. David Brian Stidham, the three will forever remain linked by the events of Oct. 5.
Victim’s wife: ‘He’d do anything for children’
David Brian Stidham fell in love with Tucson the minute he arrived in the fall of 2001.
“He had never seen anything like the West,” said Daphne Stidham, 36, his widow.
“The cacti, the vibrant sunrises and sunsets. He fell in love with it and said, ‘Honey, we’ve got to come here. We’ve got to stay here,’” she said in a telephone interview yesterday.
“He loved every day in Tucson. He loved Sabino Canyon, Mount Lemmon.
“That’s when he said, ‘The most beautiful things in life are free – love and family and nature.’ ”
Daphne Stidham shared her husband’s love of Tucson, as well as his desire to settle down after five years of marriage.
“Our mission was to die there,” Stidham said.
Little did either know how painfully short Brian Stidham’s life in Tucson would be.
Brian Stidham was born in Longview, Texas, and christened David according to family custom. His ambition led him to Harvard Medical School, where he graduated in June 1993. He immediately joined the internal medicine department at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas, where a year later he switched to ophthalmology.
In 1995, he met a neighbor, Daphne Herding, who was studying for a master’s degree in business administration. They became early morning running partners and shared long evenings sipping Japanese sake and talking.
“His heart, his sincerity was so appealing, so approachable,” Daphne Stidham said. “He was easy to talk to and made me feel so good inside. I felt safe with him.”
Two years after they met, Brian and Daphne were married in a simple garden courtyard wedding that diplomatically sidestepped their mixed heritages. Brian’s father is Baptist and his mother Jewish; Daphne’s mother is Catholic and her father Lutheran.
After a Hawaiian honeymoon, the couple moved to Indianapolis, where Brian worked in Indiana University Medical Center’s ophthalmology department. A year later, they yearned for Texas, so Brian took a job as close as he could to Dallas and joined the faculty of the University of Texas in Houston.
The Stidhams’ first child, Alexandre Brian, was born in 2000 in Houston, Daphne said. The new parents wanted a better environment to raise children, which led them in October 2001 to Tucson, where their daughter, Catherine Elizabeth, was born last year.
The children’s eye doctor loved all kids, his wife said.
“He’d do anything for children,” she said. “If an emergency call came in at 2 in the morning, he’d say, ‘I don’t mind. It’s for a kid.’
“He had such a calming effect on those kids. The office was so child-friendly.”
For his birthday this year, she said, he had colorful hats with cartoon figures made to go with the medical staff’s scrubs to make the children more comfortable.
“He said, ‘I’m the only physician who gets to go to work like this. I don’t have to wear a tie that chokes my throat or a belt that squeezes my waist. It’s a privilege to work like that,’” she said.
Daphne Stidham spoke on the condition that she not be asked questions directly related to Dr. Bradley Schwartz, who is accused of ordering Stidham’s death; Ronald Bruce Bigger, who is suspected of being the hit man; or the case in general. She asked that her location also be withheld for her family’s safety.
According to court documents, Brian Stidham joined Schwartz’s Arizona Specialty Eye Care practice on Nov. 1, 2001.
In September 2002, Schwartz was indicted in U.S. District Court in Tucson on 77 counts alleging he used friends to illegally obtain Vicodin, a strong narcotic, and Ritalin, a stimulant, for his own use.
The Arizona Medical Board ordered that Schwartz be evaluated for chemical dependency at a treatment center and then receive treatment in a program for impaired physicians in Illinois.
A month after Schwartz’s indictment, Stidham incorporated his own practice, Pediatric Ophthalmology and the Center for Adult Strabismus, according to the Arizona Corporation Commission’s Web site.
By the time Schwartz returned to Tucson from Illinois on Valentine’s Day 2003, Stidham’s practice was up and running.
Stidham’s life ended around 7:30 p.m. Oct. 5 as he left his office at 4741 N. First Ave. following a lecture to University of Arizona medical students. He was 37.
He was stabbed 17 times and suffered a fractured skull.
“His approach to life was to enjoy each day,” Daphne Stidham said. “Monday was not any worse than Friday. ‘Hump Day’ doesn’t mean the week is done with. Enjoy every day.”
That’s a lesson Brian Stidham’s family is trying hard to accomplish – without him.
Said to be angry after Stidham took patients
Dr. Bradley Alan Schwartz eagerly moved to Tucson in September 1998, but he found a medical community reluctant to welcome him, according to a woman who helped him set up an office for Phoenix’s Arizona Pediatric Eye Specialists.
“APES is a powerhouse of physicians, great surgeons, subspecialized surgeons,” said Kerri Delorme, who was assigned to help Schwartz by APES’s founder, Dr. Michael Pachtman.
“So here is a semismall community of doctors and eye surgeons being invaded by the big, bad APES. They weren’t very receptive, but Dr. Pachtman handled it well and went forward with the office.
“In the meantime, we had Dr. Schwartz out there in the community ruffling feathers left and right. Very, very aggressive, wanting to meet and talk to them all. Why? To make his presence known.”
Schwartz, 39, graduated from the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in Rochester, N.Y., on May 26, 1991. Four days later, he wed Joan Samuels in Cedarhurst, outside New York City.
After interning at a hospital in Connecticut and a residency at a Virginia hospital, Schwartz trained and then worked at hospitals in Pittsburgh.
In 1998, the Schwartzes left Pennsylvania, and he signed on with APES.
In Tucson, he accumulated a string of traffic citations, including several for running red lights.
Schwartz’s time with APES lasted a year and ended with a lawsuit that was settled out of court.
Before his contract with APES expired, Schwartz incorporated his own practice, Arizona Speciality Eye Care, on Aug. 24, 1999, according to the Arizona Corporation Commission’s Web site.
He has since been sued at least four times by former patients and parents of patients in Pima County Superior Court. At least three lawsuits remain unresolved.
In 2001, Joan Schwartz filed for a divorce, which was final in January 2004.
Schwartz and David Brian Stidham began practicing together in the fall of 2001.
Within a year, a federal grand jury indicted Schwartz on 77 counts of illegally obtaining prescription medicine.
As a result, the Arizona Medical Board ordered Schwartz into drug treatment. Schwartz entered Cottonwood de Tucson, followed by a residential program at Rush Behavioral Health Impaired Physicians Program in Illinois.
Schwartz called Delorme from Rush.
“He portrayed it like a country club,” she said. “It didn’t sound like he was taking it very seriously.”
In 2002, Schwartz was cited for shoplifting after allegedly taking a shirt out of a mall store without paying. That charge was dropped in Tucson City Court.
Schwartz called Delorme again after he returned to Tucson in February 2003 and found that Stidham had started his own practice.
“He said, ‘I came back, and all my patients were gone,’ ” Delorme said. “He was angry.”
Later that year, Schwartz was cited with a girlfriend, former county prosecutor Lourdes Salomon Lopez, on assault and disorderly conduct charges after a spat at a convenience store. The charge was dismissed.
In September 2003, Schwartz told the medical board that he had been sober for two years.
Attorneys involved in medical negligence cases against him said they’ve tried to document whether Schwartz was impaired by drugs while he operated on their clients but haven’t found proof.
Schwartz has countered those claims in at least one lawsuit by submitting urine tests ordered by the medical board showing he tested negative for drugs days before and days after an operation.
But in October 2003, the medical board ordered that Schwartz get more drug treatment, including attending a 12-step program.
According to deputies’ reports, Schwartz told friends he met Ronald Bruce Bigger, whom he is now accused of hiring to kill Stidham, in Narcotics Anonymous.
Another report said Bigger was referred to Schwartz for follow-up care after being beaten in September.
Deputies’ reports said Schwartz and Bigger were seen at a Thai restaurant the night Stidham was killed. A witness told detectives that after dinner, Schwartz drove Bigger to an ATM and later checked him into a hotel, using his own credit card.
Schwartz denies having anything to do with Stidham’s death.
According to reports released this week, Schwartz told Tucson police Lt. Wendell Hunt, who was dating a woman who worked in Schwartz’s office, that he would have been foolish to jeopardize a career that was back on track.
“Schwartz stated that he wanted to show … that he was back,” the report states.
Schwartz also told Hunt that he did not begrudge Stidham for treating pediatric patients, because “there was more money to be made in cosmetic surgery,” a report states.
Ten days after Stidham was slain, Schwartz and Bigger were arrested. Each is charged with first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder. Both have pleaded not guilty.
“He’s obviously upset that he’s been incarcerated for a crime that he adamantly denies,” said Michael Piccarreta, a high-profile lawyer who represented Schwartz on the federal drug charges and plans to help Schwartz’s court-appointed attorney, Brick P. Storts, on the murder charges.
“He’s mystified by the Sheriff’s Department claim to a motive,” Piccarreta said. “He’s concerned that by focusing on him to the exclusion of others, that the real culprit or culprits will never be apprehended.”
Suspected hit man no stranger to police
Ronald Bruce Bigger joked about his rumpled appearance in a Pima County Jail booking photo, telling photographers during a recent court hearing that he’d love to erase that image.
The mug shot also became a topic of conversation 1,900 miles away at Indiana’s LaPorte County Courthouse, where Bigger, 38, is no stranger.
“He was not a skinny guy the last time we saw him,” said Bob Schuster, chief probation officer for LaPorte County. “He was stocky and had a round face. When we saw the Tucson photo, it was like looking at two different people.”
“It did indicate drug use,” said LaPorte County prosecutor Kim DeWitt, who handled several cases against Bigger.
“He was a con man. He would try to come across as a highly intelligent person. He liked himself a lot.”
Bigger filed for bankruptcy in South Bend, Ind., in 2002, and his legal troubles began to mount.
In August 2002, he was charged with forgery and check fraud in LaPorte County Circuit Court, followed a month later by a theft arrest in nearby Michigan City, on Lake Michigan.
In October, a warrant was issued for his arrest for not showing up on the forgery and check fraud charges. Later that month, he was arrested in both Michigan City and LaPorte for check fraud and forgery.
Bigger visited Arizona in 2003 and was cited on traffic charges in Apache Junction that June, listing an Oro Valley address.
Court records show he spent much of that year going back and forth between Indiana and Arizona, even though Indiana courts had prohibited Bigger from traveling outside the state, Schuster and DeWitt said.
“To us, he was a thief,” DeWitt said. “He was an arrogant young fellow. There was a cockiness, an annoyance about him.”
Records don’t show many personal attachments to Bigger, except for a family who wrote the court to plead for leniency after he stole money from them.
“Every time he came to court,” Schuster said, “he appeared by himself.”
Bigger was charged with possession of marijuana in Pima County in 2003.
Court records show him back in Tucson a month before Tucson doctor David Brian Stidham was killed, this time listing a Scottsdale address. On Sept. 4, Tucson police arrested him on a charge of assaulting a man at an East Side convenience store. When Bigger was picked up later that night, using the alias Bruce Wright, he was “mumbling incoherently,” according to reports. Witnesses at the store said Bigger’s attack was unprovoked.
He didn’t show up in court to face the assault and disorderly conduct charges.
Four days after that arrest, he told police he had been beaten by two men who had burst into his apartment.
A Sheriff’s Department report suggests Bigger may have met Dr. Bradley Schwartz, who is accused of hiring Bigger to kill Stidham, soon after that, when Bigger was referred to Schwartz for follow-up care after that incident. Other reports state that Bigger and Schwartz met at Narcotics Anonymous.
Also after the beating, Bigger was cited for possession of drug paraphernalia after Tucson police pulled over a car he was a passenger in.
Bigger and Schwartz are in the Pima County Jail. Both have pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder.
They are scheduled in court Dec. 23.
Widow wondered: Life still worth living?
By A.J. FLICK
The widow of a pediatric eye surgeon questioned whether life was worth living after his brutal slaying last month.
“I felt like I could not cry anymore,” Daphne Stidham, 36, said yesterday. “Like I couldn’t raise my family by myself.”
David Brian Stidham, 37, was slain Oct. 5.
Daphne Stidham said she intends to be as active as she can in the prosecution of the case.
Stidham agreed to be interviewed to thank Tucsonans for their support following the murder. (For Daphne Stidham’s complete statement, visit www.tucsoncitizen.com.)
Photos of Brian Stidham, who preferred to use his middle name, wearing a dress shirt and tie don’t depict the outdoorsy, adventurous man she married, Daphne Stidham said.
Camping clothes from Summit Hut were more his style, she said.
Friends and colleagues have initiated fund-raisers for her and her children, Alexandre, 4, and Catherine, 1. Specialists such as Stidham earn a good living, but he owed on loans taken out to open his own practice two years ago, she said.
On Dec. 4, Dr. Mary Cochran will head a walk supported by Tucson Medical Center at Sabino Canyon – Brian Stidham’s favorite place – where a plaque will honor his memory.
Daphne Stidham, who moved out of state after her husband was killed, said she is seeing a psychiatrist to deal with her grief and draws comfort from her husband’s friends and family, as well as Pima County’s Homicide Survivors.
Alexandre is doing well in school, Stidham said. Baby Catherine is doing her best to keep her mother occupied.
Stidham said her husband spent every spare moment he could on weekdays with his children and took them on bicycle rides on Saturday mornings so she could relax.
“Entire weekends were devoted to the family,” Stidham said. “That’s what I’m going to miss the most.”