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An Eye for an Eye

Produced By Ian Paisley, Lourdes Aguiar and Joe Halderman

This broadcast originally aired on Oct. 27, 2007. It was updated on July 8, 2008.

When 37-year-old Dr. Brian Stidham was found murdered in the parking lot outside his office on Oct. 5, 2004, it sent a chill through Tucson.

Stidham had been stabbed 15 times.

At first glance, the well-known and respected pediatric eye surgeon appeared to be the victim of a random crime. "What I knew was that Dr. Stidham had worked that evening. Did not come home at his regular time. His wife didn't know what had happened to him. And his vehicle, his 1992 Lexus, was missing," explains Detective Jill Murphy.

Born and raised in Longview, Texas, Stidham was the only son of Joyce and Mack Stidham.

Asked to describe her son, Joyce tells correspondent Peter Van Sant, "Oh, wonderful. Kind, considerate, always made people around him feel at ease, very hard worker, hard studier, very unpretentious."

After graduating with honors from Harvard Medical School, Stidham began his career in Dallas, where he met his wife, Daphne.

In 2001, Stidham got an offer to move to Tuscon to work alongside one of the finest eye surgeons in the country. Stidham and his wife visited, fell in love with the beauty of the region, and decided to take the offer.

Stidham's sister Andrea says her brother was looking forward to the move. "This was a dream job to him, absolutely," she tells Van Sant.

The dream job was with a practice called "Arizona Specialty Eye Care," where Stidham teamed up with a renowned surgeon named Bradley Schwartz.

Office manager Laurie Espinoza says it was a very successful business, and growing. She says in 2001, Dr. Schwartz's practice was pulling in more than $1 million a year. "We would have seen anywhere between 40 to 60 patients a day. People were having to wait a month just to have a surgery. And he finally said, 'You know what? We're going to have to add another partner.' And that was Dr. Stidham," she remembers.

Stidham's impact was immediate. "He really connected with some patients. And the patients loved him right away," Laurie remembers. "And they were a great team together."

But Laurie says the doctors had a different approach. "Dr. Schwartz was the type of doctor that came in every morning bright and early. And he would have his jacket and his tie on. And Dr. Stidham would come in dressed in just, you know, like a golfing outfit," she remembers.

Nearly a year into the job Stidham decided to start his own practice. Friend and colleague Dr. Joe Miller remembers when Stidham began seeing patients at the new office. "And he was doin' well. He had a good location. And patients were comin' to see him in droves," Miller recalls.

As his practice continued to expand, so did Stidham's family: Daphne gave birth to a daughter in August 2003. "He was so happy out here, in his marriage, with the children, they just had their little girl, they were getting ready to build their dream house," remembers his mother, Joyce.

But those dreams were shattered in October 2004.

Asked how Stidham's wife Daphne reacted to the news her husband was dead, Det. Murphy says, "She, according to the detectives there at the scene, she had already asked them, prior to them even telling her, that her husband was dead. If he had been shot. If he had died. So that was kind of an unusual response."

And this investigation was about to get even more unusual: asked what Daphne was doing that night, Murphy says, "She was looking over an estate planning document."

"Did that make them suspicious?" Van Sant asks.

"Yes, it did," Murphy says.

Just hours after the murder of Dr. Stidham, his wife Daphne was ruled out as a suspect after questioning by detectives. But the case took an unexpected twist when they asked Daphne a routine question: did her husband have any enemies?

"She told them that the only person she could think of, the only person that disliked her husband, was a man by the name of Dr. Bradley Schwartz," Murphy recalls.

Murphy initially discounted the comments. After all, Schwartz and Stidham hadn't worked together in almost two years. "I thought there was no way. There's no way a doctor's gonna hold a grudge for two years. Then just seemingly out of the blue attack," she says.

Besides, Murphy had already developed a theory of the crime: Stidham had been ambushed in a violent carjacking. "I think it was very, very fast. It didn't give him a moment to react. He wasn't able to fight back," she says.

The crime scene yielded few clues. There was no murder weapon or bloody fingerprints were found at the scene.

But in less than 24 hours, there was a break in the case when investigators found Stidham's Lexus just six miles from the crime scene. "There was blood on the outside of the vehicle. There was blood on the inside of the vehicle," Murphy explains.

News of the murder generated a slew of tips to police. One of them came from one of Schwartz's ex-girlfriends. "She told us that Dr. Schwartz had confided in her that he hated Dr. Stidham. And that he wanted to see Dr. Stidham six feet under," Murphy says.

But why would Schwartz want Stidham dead? Murphy's team began an intensive investigation that soon discovered that Schwartz was having problems long before Stidham arrived. "He was having marital issues. He was having affairs," Murphy says.

According to office manager Laurie Espinoza, Schwartz, who was married with three children, had developed a wandering eye. "If patients came in he would tell our techs, 'Here comes a GLM' - good looking mother. And if there was a good looking mother, the techs knew to give them extra time," she recalls.

Espinoza believes Schwartz had affairs with at least 50 different women and sometimes even had sex in his office. "I would put my ear to the door. And I'd say, 'Oh my Gosh. Here he goes again,'" she remembers.

As her investigation continued, Murphy got a call from yet another woman, Lourdes Lopez, an assistant district attorney and a single mother who met Schwartz when her daughter became his patient in December 2000.

"And there was this guy who looks like Doogie Howser. Who's about ready to, you know, do major surgery on my daughter. And I thought, I asked him. How old are you? Do you know how to do this? And he laughed. And from then on I thought he was very charming," Lourdes remembers.

She admits she fell in love with the Schwartz.

But while she was falling for the doctor, he was falling apart. "When I would go in the morning he'd be sound asleep in front of the office. Sound asleep. Late for surgery," Laurie remembers.

By 2001, Schwartz claimed to be suffering from chronic back pain and had become secretly addicted to Vicodin; his chronic pain problems soon became Laurie Espinoza's. She says Schwartz had her fill the prescriptions.

Asked how many pills, Laurie tells Van Sant, "I would say at least 200 pills or more."

Lourdes knew about Schwartz's use of painkillers but says she never knew he was addicted; she even let him fill two prescriptions under her name.

Asked if he was getting high off these painkillers, Lourdes says, "Not as far as I could tell. As far as I could tell it was helping him with his chronic root canals. And his spinal surgery."

In November 2001, Schwartz was juggling both his worsening addiction and his booming medical practice. That's when he hired Stidham.

But just four weeks after Stidham's arrival, armed agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency raided Schwartz's office.

"I was afraid for what was going to happen to Brad. So I didn't tell the DEA agents what I knew," Lourdes admits.

Asked why she lied, Lourdes tells Van Sant, "To protect him. He's going to lose his license. Oh my God. And I know better. I'm a prosecutor. I'm a smart girl. They'll find out."

But the lies didn't protect anyone: nine months after the DEA raid, both Schwartz and Lourdes Lopez were indicted for their roles in the prescription drug scam. Dr. Schwartz had his medical license suspended and was ordered into a drug rehab facility; Lourdes lost her job at the district attorney's office. Both agreed to plea bargains that would keep them out of jail.

Asked why she didn't confront Schwartz about being used to obtain prescription drugs, or why she didn't walk away from the situation, Lourdes tells Van Sant, "Because I was stupid. As simple as that sounds, I was stupid. I believed him. I believed in him."

After the Schwartz indictment, Stidham gave 30 days' notice and made plans to open his own practice.

"What does Dr. Schwartz think of the fact that his employee, Dr. Stidham, has now made the decision to leave. To start his own practice?" Van Sant asks Lourdes.

"How dare he?" she recalls. "The only reason this guy has any patients? Anybody knows about him? Is because I brought him here."

But before Stidham was able to quit, an enraged Brad Schwartz called his office manager Laurie, from rehab. "He goes, 'Just fire his ass. Fire his ass. I want him fired.' I said, 'I'm not going to fire him. You fire him,'" she remembers.

"Dr. Schwartz was incensed. He was angry. He felt that Dr. Stidham was taking patients. And Dr. Schwartz was, he was powerless to do anything about it, because he was unable to practice," says Det. Murphy.

By all accounts, Schwartz's life was in turmoil. His wife filed for divorce and he was broke.

Almost a year would pass before the medical board returned Schwartz's license. In August 2003, he set about the slow process of rebuilding his practice.

Dr. Joe Miller says he was taking the steps he needed to take. "He was doing, by all reports, reasonably well. Patients were going to see him. He wasn't using drugs," he explains.

All along, Lourdes stuck by Schwartz, and in January 2004 the couple became engaged. But she says their happiness was marred by his obsession with Stidham. "His tone was, 'I hate that guy. I hate him,'" she remembers.

As the case gained momentum, Murphy says the focus shifted to Schwartz.

But her investigation was about to hit a major roadblock: Schwartz had an ironclad alibi the night Stidham was murdered: another woman, named Lisa Goldberg, said she was with him.

Months before Stidham's murder, Lourdes - tired of his cheating and lies - broke off her engagement with Schwartz. Now, the murder made her think her ex was also a killer.

And she was not alone in her suspicions.

Lisa Goldberg, who says she met the doctor on an online dating site, had gone out with Schwartz only five times. But by that fifth date she knew something wasn't right. It was Oct. 5, 2004, the night of Stidham's murder.

"We were at dinner at a Thai restaurant and he got a phone call. And he asked if I minded if he had a friend join us for dinner," Lisa remembers.

The "friend" was introduced as "Bruce," an acquaintance from Schwartz's days in rehab. "The first thing he does is order a glass of wine. And I found that to be very strange. And he looked like he was on drugs. And that's the moment when things started clicking in my head," Lisa remembers.

Their date, along with Bruce, continued after dinner. First, they stopped at an ATM, and then a series of stops in search of a hotel room.

Asked why they were going to hotels, Lisa says, "'Cause Brad is going to give Bruce a room for the evening."

It didn't make any sense to Lisa, but she didn't become suspicious until Schwartz called her the next day with the news of Stidham's murder. "He said it very matter of factly. He said, 'Did you hear what happened last night?' And I said, 'No.' And he said, 'My partner was killed.' And my heart sunk. And I can't describe what I went through when I heard that," she remembers. "I confronted him. I asked him if he did it. And he said, 'How could I have done it? You're my alibi.' And I hung up the phone."

That's when Lisa called police. When Murphy heard Lisa's story, a light went on. "Some of the witnesses that came forward had told us that Dr. Schwartz had said that he would not have committed the murder himself. That he would have someone do it for him," she explains.

Murphy wondered if the man in the restaurant could be the hired killer. She subpoenaed Schwartz's cell phone records, hoping that information would lead her to Bigger. Instead, it led her to a convenience store.

"What's so significant is that this store is across the street and just about 400 feet north of the murder scene," Murphy explains.

Records show Schwartz called the payphone minutes before the murder. "When we came here we talked to a woman by the name of Jennifer Dainty. She was a clerk in the store at that time. And she described a man who had come in that night who was acting very agitated," Murphy says.

"I was working that night. A gentleman came in, wearing scrubs, walked around the store looking for something," Dainty recalls. "Plus, he used the phone. Nobody ever uses the phone."

The man was described as wearing light blue surgical scrubs, looking like a doctor. But Murphy says that man did not look like Schwartz.

Dainty's description of the man in scrubs was a turning point in Murphy's investigation. It linked curiously to something Lisa Goldberg had told her: a bizarre question Schwartz had asked "Bruce" at the dinner.

Asked what Schwartz had said to the man, Lisa says, "How did the scrubs work out?'"

"That particular phrase became a very important part of this case," Murphy says.

Murphy believed the man in scrubs at the convenience store was the killer. But was he the "Bruce" who joined Goldberg and Schwartz for dinner?

"Dr. Schwartz wanted to have an alibi at the time of the murder. Therefore we wouldn't be able to pin it on him. So we needed to find Bruce," Murphy says.

Detectives looked for a connection to Schwartz and caught a break when one of his employees gave them a name: Ronald "Bruce" Bigger, a former patient. Bigger had a record and a mug shot detectives could show to the store clerk.

"She immediately picked him out as being the man in scrubs that was in her store the night of the murder," Murphy explains. "We are putting together a case where we're saying a doctor hired a hit man to kill another doctor."

Hotel surveillance video captured Schwartz and Bigger looking for a room, which according to Murphy, was a small part of the payoff.

But Bigger checked out by the time Murphy started looking for him. And now she was worried he might be going after a new target - Lisa Goldberg.

Goldberg says investigators were concerned for her safety because she was the only person that could identify Bigger at that point.

Det. Murphy had to find Bigger. Was he on the run? Would he kill again? "So we had a lot of concerns about, 'What was this man capable of? What is he willing to do to get out of this?'" she recalls.

Ten days after the murder, investigators captured Bigger hiding just outside of Tucson. Later that night, police slapped the cuffs on Schwartz. He had been at home in bed with yet another woman.

Both men were charged with murder and conspiracy.

For Lourdes, it was a relief until she got a phone call. "And it's Brad, and I'm thinking to myself 'Is this a sick joke?' Because they just arrested him," she recalls.

Calling from a cell phone in the interrogation room, Schwartz begged his former lover to be his lawyer, but she told him she couldn't help him.

As Det. Murphy prepared for trial, she was learning a lot more about Schwartz's past. "There was a man by the name of Danny Lopez that Dr. Schwartz had approached," the detective says.

Danny Lopez, Murphy says, was Lourdes' ex-husband.

Lourdes introduced her ex-husband to Schwartz. Soon the two began having secret conversations.

"Dr. Schwartz gives your ex-husband $5,000. What do you think that money was for?" Van Sant asks Lourdes.

"I have no idea. I suspect it was for nothing good," she says.

But Murphy couldn't question Danny Lopez because he was dead, murdered during a drug deal months before Stidham's murder. But police from that case gave Murphy Lopez's wallet and inside was a bombshell: a picture of Stidham and Schwartz's business card.

"The information in Danny Lopez's wallet told me that he had actually tried to hire somebody else to kill Dr. Stidham previous to October of 2004," Murphy says.

Murphy's investigation had unearthed a lethal pattern of manipulation that would soon be presented at the separate murder trials of Schwartz and his alleged hit man, Bruce Bigger.

The two men would be up against a woman beyond their control, known for her intimidating style: prosecutor Sylvia Lafferty.

On the first day of Schwartz's murder trial, Lafferty took center stage. "The defendant was an angry man. His anger turned into a grudge. And his grudge festered into an obsession," she told the court. "Who was to blame for the defendant's fall from grace? And, in the defendant's mind, the person to blame was Brian Stidham."

Defense Attorney Brick Storts III said the state's case was weak. "I submit to you that once you follow the timeline and once you say show me the money, once you talk about dealing with time of death, you will then make the conclusion that this case is exactly what reasonable doubt is all about."

One by one, former patients and lovers of Dr. Schwartz took the stand. "That he'd be happy if he was six feet under," one woman testified.

"He told me how much he hated him and how the office was secluded and there was nobody there and he told me that it would be a perfect place to get rid of somebody," another woman testified.

All eyes were on Lourdes Lopez as she took the stand. "I think even at that second he was hopeful that I was just going to walk away. That I was going to get up and leave and not say anything," she says.

But the former assistant D.A. was about to use Schwartz's own words against him. "Brad had told me that he wanted Dr. Stidham to die," she testified. "And excuse me -- he said, 'That [expletive] guy is gonna die."

"It would be done like a robbery or a carjacking. That Brad wouldn't do it himself; that he'd have somebody else do it," Lourdes told the court.

And prosecutors said Bigger, a drifter with a drug habit, was someone else Schwartz could manipulate. "I think he honed in on that like a smart bomb. He had certainly the ability to detect weakness and neediness in others. And I think he certainly did that with Mr. Bigger," Lafferty said.

The state believed Bigger killed Stidham shortly after the doctor set his office alarm at 7:26 p.m. Then they say Bigger took off in Stidham's car, drove six miles, and dumped the car.

What did Bigger do then?

"Leaves the car, walks across the parking lot into a Denny's restaurant. And from that pay phone, calls Dr. Schwartz, who's having dinner with a lady friend," Lafferty told the court.

The prosecution presented bank surveillance video from the day after the murder showing Schwartz cashing a $10,000 check. Schwartz made a call on his cell phone, calling Bigger's hotel.

"It's one of those great moments," Lafferty said. "Because earlier in the day, there had been three calls from Bigger to Schwartz from the hotel. 'Where is my money? Where is my money? Where is my money?' Now this is the call saying, 'I've got your money.'"

And two of Bigger's drug buddies testified that shortly after the murder, the usually struggling drifter was living large.

But defense attorney Brick Storts argued that Bigger's sudden windfall of cash had nothing to do with a payoff from Schwartz. "There's never anybody that's ever said they saw him give him anything. So there's nothing that connects Dr. Schwartz and any money he got with Mr. Bigger," Storts told the court.

And Storts had his own opinion of the state's theory of a man bent on revenge. "Hog wash. Just that simple," he said. "Because when this homicide happened, Dr. Schwartz had gotten his license back. His practice was well on the upswing. He had been drug-free for over a year and a half to two years."

Storts said the cops got it all wrong, and should have been focusing on Dennis Walsh, a convicted carjacker who had been known to use a knife. "And what was interesting about Mr. Walsh is that he was involved committing these events, these crimes, in and around the medical complex where Dr. Stidham had his office," Storts argued.

But the judge dealt a blow to the defense, allowing only limited testimony on Walsh.

"Why shouldn't we believe that Dennis Walsh is the man behind this murder?" Van Sant asks Lafferty.

"Well because DNA excludes him for one thing," she replies.

Throughout Schwartz's murder trial, Stidham's family sat in disbelief. "They had warned us there'd be photos, and I was prepared for that. But when they took his wallet out of the evidence bag, I mean I just gasped. Seeing a tangible thing that was my brother's. That's what got me," Stidham's sister Andrea remembers.

But it's the lack of tangible evidence on Bruce Bigger that Brick Storts zeroed in on: if Bigger stabbed Stidham, why wasn't there any blood on him? "Not one drop of blood or any other evidence of any violent crime is seen on Mr. Bigger," Storts pointed out.

The state made its case not on blood evidence, but on a partial DNA sample they said Bigger left on the radio knob of Stidham's stolen Lexus. "Had we not found the DNA in the car, this might have been the perfect crime," Lafferty said.

The state's expert testified that the odds of the DNA belonging to someone other than Bruce Bigger are overwhelming -- one in 20 million.

But in a dramatic turn of events, a defense expert forced Lafferty to concede that the math was wrong.

"If the DNA is now called into question, maybe Bruce Bigger's not involved. Maybe the jury now has reasonable doubt for a not guilty verdict," Van Sant remarks.

"Well, that's not exactly how that works out because even a defense expert could not exclude Bruce Bigger. The issue was about numbers," Lafferty says.

Storts attacked the very heart of the state's case: the timeline that Stidham died shortly after setting his office alarm at 7:26 p.m. His expert said Stidham may have died after 9 p.m.

"If that's the case, Mr. Bigger couldn't have been the killer. Because he was with Dr. Schwartz, with Lisa Goldberg," Storts said.

"If Dr. Stidham wasn't dead by 9 p.m., what was he doing? He didn't go back into his office. The alarm wasn't undone and reset. He made no cell phone calls," Lafferty pointed out.

Storts said his client was only guilty of having a big mouth. "Because Dr. Schwartz was a boar and talked about things that he had no business shooting his mouth off about and liked to apparently have quite a stable of female acquaintances, that doesn't make him a murderer."

Schwartz never took the stand. After nine weeks of trial, closing arguments began.

"He wasn't successful at first...but he kept on trying like a homicidal energizer bunny he kept going and going and going until he found Danny and when Danny died he kept going and going and going until he found Bruce," Lafferty claimed.

"The state has not met their burden to prove Dr. Bradley Schwartz guilty beyond a reasonable doubt," Storts argued.

The jurors took their time and deliberated for days. When they reached their decision, it was a surprise for both sides: the jury was hung on the count of first degree murder. But Schwartz was found guilty of conspiring with Bigger to murder Stidham

Four weeks later, Schwartz, the once prominent doctor who threw it all away because of a misguided sense of revenge, was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

But it's little consolation to Brian Stidham's family and all who have been touched by this tragedy are haunted by the "what ifs."

Bruce Bigger, the hired killer, was convicted and is serving life in prison with no chance of parole.

Bradley Schwartz is appealing his conviction.

The Arizona State Bar disbarred Lourdes Lopez.

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