MURDERED

October 21, 2005

A popular young doctor lay dead. The prime suspect: A fellow physician.

On a chilly Saturday morning last December, some 700 people walked together in cactus-studded Sabino Canyon Recreation Area outside Tucson. They were relatives, friends, and patients-children in the hundreds-of pediatric ophthalmologist David Brian Stidham, who had died two months before.

Organizers of the memorial walk chose this spot as a fitting place to honor Stidham, since the 37-year-old doctor loved to hike there with his wife and two small children. Surrounded by jagged mountains, full of birdsong, and inhabited by rattlesnakes, Sabino Canyon is a place of breathtaking beauty, but on that day, it was charged with immense sorrow.

In the three years he'd practiced in Tucson, the soft-spoken, reflective Stidham endeared himself to many, but not all. On the night of Oct. 5, 2004, someone stabbed him in the chest 15 times and fractured his skull, leaving his body face up on the parking lot near his office. His bloodstained Lexus coupe was recovered five miles away.

Lourdes Lopez, an ex-girlfriend of Schwartz, also had strong suspicions. Lopez informed a sheriff's detective that Schwartz had repeatedly told her before the murder that he wanted to see Stidham dead for leaving his practice and taking his patients. "It was like, 'I'm gonna f-----g get him,' " Lopez said. " 'That f-----g guy's gonna die.' "

More than that, Lopez told the detective, Schwartz outlined how the death would occur-he'd hire a hit man who'd make it look like a carjacking. Schwartz allegedly told other women similar things, but Lopez's account is all the more startling because she's a former deputy attorney with the Pima County prosecutor's office.

Schwartz and the alleged hit man await trial next February on murder-for-hire charges. Both have pled not guilty. For Schwartz, 40, a divorced father of three locked up on a $2 million bond, the case is the latest crash in a life wracked by drug addiction, three stints at rehabilitation, four malpractice suits, other legal battles, and-as others have observed-an undercurrent of seething anger.

Schwartz and Stidham, both described as brilliant, came to Tucson to preserve kids' vision-straightening misaligned eyes, treating scratched corneas, unblocking tear ducts. What follows is an account of the tragedy that engulfed them and their young families. Key figures declined to be interviewed or were unavailable, but the narrative emerges nevertheless in court filings, law enforcement reports and interview transcripts, and other government documents.

A doctor with a drug problem: "You've got to wake him up"

Born in Brooklyn, NY, Bradley Schwartz landed in Arizona when a Phoenix ophthalmology practice hired him in 1998 to open a Tucson office. After the one-year contract expired, Schwartz opened his own office less than 200 yards away. The Phoenix group sued him for, among other things, violating a restrictive covenant, which prohibited him from setting up shop no closer than three miles from its Tucson office in the first two years after he left.

The parties settled out of court, but not before allegations surfaced in documents filed by the Phoenix group about Schwartz's "obscene, abusive and belligerent behavior." They cite a message that he had left for an employee about a cancelled surgery: "I need to get the medical director that cancelled this and I'm going to rip that motherf----r an asshole as big as the Lincoln Tunnel."