Claudine's Trial Is Over, but Spider's Grieving Family Is Bitter Over the Result
A year ago Vladimir and Frances Sabich had good reason to believe that they had done almost everything right. Their oldest child, Mary, had just enrolled in medical school. Steve, the middle child, was running his own construction company. The youngest, Vladimir Jr. (nicknamed “Spider” as a spindly child), had parlayed two World Pro Skiing championships into lucrative endorsements and a six-figure investment portfolio. Then, on a cloudless Sunday evening in late March, the family-album idyll ended in one nightmarish freeze-frame: singer Claudine Longet, gun in hand, standing over the body of her 31-year-old lover Spider in the bathroom of the house he had built in Aspen. “On the day of the funeral,” Vladimir recalls, “Claudine called and told us how sorry she was, how much she loved Spider. I wonder if she knows how we’ve been seething inside with rage and frustration.”
The passage of time has not helped. The 30-day jail sentence Longet, 36, received last month on a misdemeanor, “criminally negligent homicide,” has only refueled the family’s bitterness. Far from burying the past, the Sabiches harbor a persistent suspicion that the full truth has not been told. (Steve, 30, has called publications to express his anger over what he calls “a bungled investigation.”) The Sabiches have paid a private investigator a big fee to look into rumors of erratic misbehavior in Claudine’s past. “Justice has not prevailed,” says Vladimir, 62, a retired policeman partially disabled by a stroke (he stayed away from the trial on doctor’s orders). “I didn’t expect her to get a life sentence, but I did think the trial would provide the truth about the shooting and their relationship. This case has been a travesty.”
As evidence of incompetent investigation, the Sabich family points to the illegal seizure of Longet’s diary after the shooting. The lieutenant in the Pitkin County sheriff’s office responsible later resigned under pressure. The diary, which reportedly contained vivid accounts of Claudine’s affairs with Sabich and others, was ruled inadmissible in court. So were tests, also taken illegally, of Claudine’s blood and urine. “There was cocaine in her bloodstream,” says District Attorney Frank Tucker. The DA admits that the jury’s decision to convict Longet of a misdemeanor rather than a felony probably was due in large part to the loss of the diary and tests. “That evidence was critical,” Tucker says.
The family is further confounded by Longet’s testimony that the gun had accidentally misfired while Spider was showing her how to use it. They claim there were no other fingerprints but Claudine’s on the .22-caliber Luger-type pistol. “There has to be an effort to get the bullet in the chamber with a push-and-pull cocking motion,” says Spider’s father. “You can pound one of these guns on the floor as hard as you want with the safety off and it won’t misfire.” (Tucker says he extracted from Longet in court the only admission he needed—”that her finger was on the trigger.”)
To the family’s complaint that evidence of increasing tension in the Spider-Claudine relationship was developed poorly, Tucker says her state of mind was also irrelevant to the charge. “Least is always best in this business,” he says. “If I had discussed these other facts, I might have lost control and confused the case.”
The Sabiches’ closeness as a family was strengthened early by the isolation of their home in the little mountain town of Kyburz, Calif., where the parents still live. As three of only seven children in the local elementary school, the Sabich offspring learned to ski the slopes of the Sierra Nevada during Christmas vacations that lasted 10 weeks. Summers were spent hunting, fishing and rafting. When knee injuries sidelined Steve as a competitive skier at the University of Colorado, he began to help Spider train. “We’d raise hell together in Boulder,” Steve recalls, “and sometimes get in fights together.” They even dated the same girls.
Spider and Claudine participated in the high life of Aspen, but his father denies reports that Spider developed a heavy taste for cocaine and marijuana. “He said he tried both,” says Vladimir, “but added he truthfully didn’t get anything out of it.” When injuries began plaguing Spider’s pro career in 1973-74, “he had to train harder and be more dedicated than most,” Vladimir continues. “After all, he broke his leg seven times. Do you think he could stay in condition and mess with drugs?” It didn’t surprise his parents that Spider remained close-mouthed last winter about his impending split from Claudine. “Spider never liked complainers,” his mother says.
Frances Sabich, 64, who runs the local post office, didn’t break down and cry for months after her son’s death. Like her husband, she did not go to the trial. Mary, now 33, stayed in Reno, where she attends the University of Nevada medical school. “I went to Aspen for a week after the trial and met Claudine for the first time,” Mary recalls. “She was in Spider’s house when I arrived. We asked her to pack her things and leave.” Claudine left and a few days later the Sabiches sent over her belongings by van.
The family’s most immediate grievance now is with the sentence, which Vladimir considers “nothing more than a parking ticket.” As Steve explains their public airing of these misgivings: “A harsh sentence on Claudine won’t bring him back, we know that. But we want to make sure he comes out of this okay.” It is a non sequitur that somehow follows eloquently from their disorienting sense of loss. “A friend of mine who had lost two sons came to the funeral,” Vladimir recalls, “and I asked him, ‘Jesus Christ, how do you ever get over this?’ He said, ‘You don’t.’ I sure think he is right.”