TUCSON, Ariz. – Dr. Brian Stidham (search) was still in his surgical scrubs when a pair of janitors found him stabbed to death in the parking lot outside his practice, his Lexus gone.
Was it robbery? A carjacking? Nothing that ordinary, investigators say.
Instead, they say, it was a hit set up by another doctor with whom Stidham was once in practice.
The alleged motive: professional jealousy.
Stidham and Dr. Bradley Schwartz (search) had had a falling-out after Schwartz's career was nearly destroyed by drug charges and Stidham went off to form his own practice. According to interviews, court papers and investigators' reports, Schwartz had seethed for months over his downfall and had talked constantly about wanting to kill Stidham.
Schwartz, 39, and the patient he allegedly hired to carry out the October slaying, 39-year-old Ronald "Bruce" Bigger (search), are jailed on murder charges and have pleaded innocent. Prosecutors said they have not decided whether to seek the death penalty.
Around Tucson, where most ophthalmologists know one another, members of the medical community are stunned.
"A lot of people understood that Brad Schwartz was unstable to some degree," said Dr. Steven Cohen, a Tucson ophthalmologist and Stidham's friend, "but nobody thought he had the ability or the instability to take it to that level — to take it to the level of murder."
Schwartz and Stidham began working together in 2002. Both were in their 30s, married fathers and specialists in pediatric ophthalmology, but otherwise they were an odd couple.
Schwartz came across as cocky. He was "quick and reactive," even when a diagnosis was tricky, said former girlfriend Lourdes Lopez. By 2002, he was the most successful pediatric ophthalmologist in town, "the king of the hill," Cohen said.
But he was no longer interested in pediatrics. He wanted to perform plastic surgery. So he hired an associate — Stidham.
Stidham was soft-spoken and cautious, according to Lopez. He came to Tucson from Houston to work for Schwartz because he was looking for a slower pace of life and a place where he could enjoy the outdoors, Cohen said.
"He was one of the gentlest human beings you would encounter, so it was just a perfect match for him to be taking care of children," Cohen said.
Just as Stidham was settling in, Schwartz's life began to come apart.
Schwartz went into drug rehab and was indicted on federal charges of illegally prescribing thousands of doses of Ritalin (search) and generic Vicodin (search) for his own use. Lopez, then a county prosecutor, was also indicted. He was also sued for malpractice, accused of disfiguring patients while under the influence.
Last December, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy. He managed to stay out of prison. But he was humiliated, forced to check in with probation officers and submit to drug testing. For 10 months before the charges were resolved, he was unable to practice medicine at all, and only recently had he gone back to work.
Stidham, meanwhile, had gone into practice for himself. He did not take charts or patients from Schwartz's office, but with Schwartz's practice shuttered and his addiction now disclosed, patients quickly followed Stidham, Cohen said.
"If you have a physician who is excellent, who is compassionate, who is brilliant and who is humble, that combination is going to make you very successful," Cohen said. "People loved him. There was no reason not to love him."
Schwartz, though, resented Stidham for taking his role in the community, for being "the new guy, who everybody loves and trusts," Lopez told investigators.
"He was losing money, and he was ashamed, and he was upset, and he was angry, and he ... repeatedly told me that he was going to kill Dr. Stidham," Lopez told investigators. "I never thought he would actually do it."
In fact, Schwartz said he was going to kill Stidham at his office, Lopez said. "It was gonna look like a robbery or carjacking," she said.
On the evening of Oct. 5, Bigger — clad in blue scrubs — was seen in a convenience store across the street from Stidham's office. He made five quick calls and left a short time later, the store clerk recalled.
Around the same time, Stidham locked up his office and went into the parking lot. There, someone stabbed him 17 times. It would be hours before anyone would find him.
Four miles away, Schwartz was dining at a Thai restaurant with a woman he had met through an online dating service. Someone would be joining them for dinner, he told his date. Bigger, who arrived by taxi, was an odd character — not someone a doctor would socialize with, Schwartz's date later recalled thinking.
But they had dinner and then left the restaurant around 9 or 10 p.m.
"How did the scrubs work out?" Schwartz asked Bigger as they drove, according to Schwartz's date. Her name was blacked out in reports released by authorities.
Investigators have not said what Bigger was supposedly paid.
After Stidham was found dead, some — including Lopez — immediately suspected Schwartz. And two days after the slaying, the woman Schwartz had dined with got a call from him. A doctor was murdered, he told her. "Remember," Schwartz allegedly said, "we were at dinner together."
To police, Schwartz denied any involvement. He said he didn't know who would want Stidham dead, and no one deserved that.
Bigger's attorney declined to be interviewed. Brick Storts, Schwartz's lawyer, said the case is built mostly on second- and thirdhand information. "There's a strong possibility that Dr. Schwartz isn't involved," he said.