Anniversary of Sabich murder remembered by family, friends

by Bob Burns
Special to the Sports Server (March, 1996)

Billy Kidd remembers Spider Sabich for the way he made being a ski racer seem like the most exciting thing in the world. In fact, Kidd's fellow Olympian had a way of making everything seem like the most enjoyable thing in the world -- whether it be spending the night in a French jail on New Year's Eve or taking a rental car out on the Grand Prix course in Monte Carlo and living to tell about the early-morning time trial.

"Spider could make going to the grocery store a great adventure," Kidd said.

His friends all have similar memories, of the how the party didn't start until the dashing skier showed up. Women, kids, competitors, sponsors -- they all gravitated to Sabich, a two-time world professional champion with an alliterative name and dazzling smile.

For the most part, however, Vladimir "Spider" Sabich is remembered not for his spirited life but for his sensational death.

Twenty years ago on Thursday (March 21), Sabich was shot and killed in the bathroom of his Aspen, Colo., home. His live-in girlfriend, singer-actress Claudine Longet, was convicted of criminally negligent homicide, a misdemeanor.

Longet -- a former Las Vegas showgirl and ex-wife of singer Andy Williams -- spent 30 days in jail. She still lives in Aspen, where she is married to her former defense attorney.

The trial preceded O.J. Simpson's by nearly two decades, but those who lived through it in Aspen see many parallels. Both were media spectacles, and both offered an eager public glimpses into lifestyles of the rich and famous. Simpson and Longet hired high-powered defense teams -- and got off easy, in the minds of many.

Sabich's life became almost trivialized by his death. "Saturday Night Live" ran a skit in which skiers crashed coming down the hill to the sound of gunshots. "Uh-oh. He seems to have been accidentally shot by Claudine Longet," Jane Curtin would say to Chevy Chase.

Sabich's circle of family and friends closed ranks, wanting to preserve their own memories. His younger brother, Steve, a construction executive who lives in Auburn, Calif., with his wife and two teenage boys, turns down interview requests from "Hard Copy" once a year.

"Spider was a special guy," said Jim Ellsworth, a classmate at Silver Fork Elementary in Kyburz, Calif., who served as a pallbearer at Sabich's funeral. "I think it's a shame to boil it all down to one thing he couldn't avoid."

An upbeat man by nature, Steve Sabich says a day doesn't go by when he doesn't feel bitter about what happened that spring afternoon in the log-and-stone chalet he had built for his brother four years earlier.

"It's a shame, because Spider accomplished so much in his life," he said. "Claudine accomplished only two things -- marrying Andy Williams and getting away with murder."

* * *

The question of whether the gun went off accidentally in Longet's hands or whether she fired a single bullet into his abdomen because their relationship was about to end persists to this day.

"I've always known she shot Spider Sabich and meant to do it," said Frank Tucker, the district attorney who prosecuted the case. "She was an over-the-hill glamour puss, and she was not going to lose another man. Andy Williams had already dumped her, and she was not going to be dumped again, thank you."

Longet was 34 at the time of the shooting, Sabich 31. She and her three children from her marriage to Williams had been living with Sabich for nearly two years. They met in 1972 at a race in Bear Valley, Calif., when he was at the peak of his trade.

"It was like the nuclear fusion, the moment they met," said Jim Lillstrom, a publicist for World Pro Skiing who became close friends with Sabich and Longet. Lillstrom recalled one of their first weekends together, in Steamboat Springs, Colo.

"Spider and I were having a beer when his eyes got as big as saucers," Lillstrom said. "A wine glass hit him in the chest and shattered on the floor. He said, 'Lilly, I think Claudine wants to talk to me."'

There was no shortage of excitement in Aspen, a restored mining town featuring some of the best skiing in North America. Sabich enjoyed relaxing in the cafes and bars dotting the narrow streets of what already was becoming a haven for Hollywood types. Aspen's most prominent skier flew in and out of the small airport in his twin-engine Piper Aztec.

It was a lifestyle far removed from his small-town origins, but Sabich always had a certain worldliness about him. Jimmy Heuga remembers battling Sabich for the same girl. Heuga was 14 years old, the girl 12. Spider was 11, a formidable competitor even then.

"I became aware of Spider then," said Heuga, a Truckee, Calif., native who won a bronze medal in the slalom in 1964. "I was a little envious of him."

Sabich started skiing at the age of 5. By her best guess, Frances Sabich figures her three children -- Mary, Spider and Steve -- broke at least 15 bones combined.

"We had someone in a cast every winter," said Frances, who lives with her husband, Vladimir, in Colusa, Calif.

The son of Croatian immigrants, Vladimir Sabich flew B-25 bombers for the U.S. in World War II and spent a year in a Siberian camp after being shot down over the northern part of Japan.

The Soviets allowed him to escape once they declared war on Japan, and he returned to Sacramento, Calif. In 1945 the Sabiches named their first son Vladimir, but he was never known by anything other than Spider.

"He was a long baby, but he had no flesh on him," Vladimir said. "He was all skin and bones. I said, 'Geez, he looks like a spider."'

Vladimir and Frances moved from Sacramento to Kyburz in 1950. The handful of kids who attended Silver Fork Elementary -- a one-room schoolhouse to this day -- went to class in the summer and skied in the winter. The Sabich children competed for the Red Hornet team at Edelweiss, a popular hill that closed down in the early 1960s.

The Kyburz kids sometimes hitched rides up the highway in Vladimir's patrol car. There was a Catholic church across the road from Edelweiss where Spider and Steve served as altar boys on Sunday mornings before strapping on their skis.

After a brief fling with high school football -- "The way he played football, he was only going to get hurt," Vladimir said -- Sabich accepted a skiing scholarship to the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Bob Beattie was the coach, and his skiers included Sabich, Kidd, Jimmy Heuga, James "Moose" Barrows and Ni Orsi -- Olympians all. Steve Sabich also went to Colorado on a ski scholarship, but a knee injury ended his career prematurely.

"There were two things interesting about Spider," Beattie said. "He had a great sense of humor and a lot of flair. He was a great-looking guy, very spirited. But he also majored in engineering when he came to Colorado. His mind worked very thoroughly, as an engineer's would. He had these two opposite sides to him."

Kidd and Heuga won Olympic medals in 1964, pioneering a breakthrough for the U.S. men's team in the European-dominated sport. Sabich's shot at Olympic glory came four years later. The top Americans spent the latter part of 1967 training in France, and a dispute over the bill in a fancy restaurant on New Year's Eve landed Sabich and Kidd in a Grenoble jail.

"It was an adventure," Kidd said. "We were in pretty good spirits that night."

Less than two months later, Sabich finished fifth in the Olympic slalom. The race was marred by fog and mist that greatly limited visibility.

"It was so foggy, we never saw Spider," Vladimir says. "We heard him go by, but we didn't see him."

While in France for the Olympics, Vladimir Sabich bought a .22-caliber pistol -- an imitation of a German luger -- as a gift for Steve. Eight years later, that same gun wound up killing his other son.

* * *

Sabich left the U.S. ski team in 1970 to join Beattie's pro circuit. He was the perfect ambassador -- photogenic, colorful and articulate. He was also unbeatable, or so it seemed in 1971 and 1972, when he achieved his greatest results.

The competition wasn't as strong as it was on the World Cup circuit, but Sabich finished first in the first pro race he entered and won nine of 18 events in 1972. He earned $50,600 that year, when his combined income from prize winnings and endorsements exceeded $150,000.

One of those 1972 wins came at Bear Valley, the Alpine County resort where Sabich met Longet. Women found Sabich irresistible, and the French-born entertainer was no exception.

"Spider was a babe magnet," Steve Sabich said. "Just catching his overflow was fine with me."

Dede Brinkman, a longtime friend who has lived in Aspen since 1970, explains the attraction she and other women felt toward Sabich.

"He was so charming and very sexy," Brinkman said. "It was the same type of charisma you see in movie stars."

Sabich moved from Boulder to the Aspen area in 1971. The home that Steve Sabich built for his brother at a cost of $90,000 in neighboring Starwood is now worth approximately $3 million. The beams came from an old aerial tramway the brothers tore down.

Those were heady times, what with the view, the skiing and the nightlife. Kidd and several of Sabich's contemporaries downplay his widespread reputation as a partier, but his brother doesn't.

"Spider smoke, drank and did whatever all of us did," he said. "Let's not forget, those were the '60s and '70s. But I also remember grabbing a bunch of poles and setting up courses when there wasn't anyone else on the mountain at Snowmass. He'd do his 25 runs. A lot of people who'd see Spider out partying didn't see him doing those 25 runs. He was serious about his training."

The relationship between Sabich and Longet gradually soured, according to testimony at the trial, and he issued her an ultimatum to move out. His racing career had been going downhill since he suffered a compressed vertebra in the final race of the 1973 season at Aspen Highlands.

Sabich had been visiting Beattie when he headed home in the late afternoon of March 21, 1976. Longet had spent the morning skiing and the afternoon drinking in a local bar. Sabich was getting ready to take a shower and go out that evening -- apparently to see another woman -- when he was shot in the abdomen and bled to death on the way to the hospital.

It was unseasonably cold that evening, with the wind blowing and a full moon out. Brinkman remembers it well.

"The airport here has a curfew, but they waived it when Andy Williams came flying in during the middle of the night," Brinkman said. "Money walks. That was true from the get-go."

* * *

Longet testified that the gun discharged accidentally as Sabich was showing her how it worked. The prosecution charged her with reckless manslaughter, but the jury of seven men and five women convicted her on a lesser charge of criminally negligent homicide, a crime that carried a maximum sentence of two years in jail and a $5,000 fine.

District Judge George Lohr sentenced Longet to 30 days in the Pitkin County Jail, which she served three months later, following a Mexican vacation.

The prosecution's case was hurt by a ruling that Longet's personal diary was seized illegally the night of the shooting. Blood tests that reportedly showed drugs were in her system that afternoon were also disallowed.

Her defense team -- which included Los Angeles attorney Charles Weedman and Aspen lawyer Ron Austin, who left his family and married Longet -- provided testimony from a ballistics expert who said there was so much grease in the firing mechanism of the gun that it could discharge without the trigger being pulled.

"When I saw the way the district attorney's office was handling it, I guess it was hard to be surprised by the verdict," Beattie said. "I was the first witness, and the hardest question they asked me was my name."

Tucker, the district attorney, left office in 1978 after being convicted of fraud and embezzlement. The charges were later overturned, but Tucker was disbarred and has never practiced law again. He now runs a mortuary business in Montrose, Colo.

"The whole case was bungled very badly, but we don't a lot of murders in town," Brinkman said. "We had Ted Bundy, and he escaped."

Indeed, that was a rough period for the Aspen Chamber of Commerce. Six months after the Longet verdict, serial killer Ted Bundy escaped from the same Pitkin County Courthouse, jumping out of a window from the second floor of the 19th-century building.

Austin declined a request to be interviewed for this story. His wife has never discussed the case publicly after signing a confidentiality agreement that led Sabich's parents to drop their $1.3 million civil suit against her.

"I wasn't looking for money," said Vladimir Sabich, who is 80 and in failing health. "I just wanted the truth. I kept her from publishing a book. Let's not talk about it."

Of Sabich's friends, Lillstrom has remained the closest to Longet. He believes the shooting was an accident.

"I've come up with nine million theories as to what kind of accident it was, but I can guarantee you it was an accident," Lillstrom says. "A terrible, terrible accident."

Sabich's memory lives in a framed display at the Hard Rock Cafe in Aspen. There is also a Spider Sabich Ski Racing Arena on Snowmass Mountain. If it seems strange that Longet chose to stay in Aspen, Steve Sabich sees nothing particularly surprising about it.

"Aspen is one of the places she'd be allowed to live," he said. "They make a business of minding their own business."

But Brinkman resents Longet's presence, even if she seldom appears in public.

"I'd feel better if this woman wasn't walking around, living an elaborate lie," she said. "It was one of the greatest tragedies I've endured in my lifetime. I'd feel better if there was some retribution."

Tragedy struck the Sabich family again in 1988, when Mary died of brain cancer. She was a doctor, just 45 years old. She is buried next to her brother in Placerville, Calif.

"I don't know how my parents have handled it," Steve Sabich said. "The only thing we can do is take the positive, high road and make sure Spider is remembered for his accomplishments rather than as a victim. He was no victim. He was a very strong guy."