Army Special Forces soldier Richard Lopez died of "severe cranial and cerebral trauma," according to the results of an autopsy performed Tuesday morning in Arapahoe County.
Steamboat Springs police Capt. Joel Rae confirmed the cause of death and said the investigation is ongoing. Investigators have identified and interviewed two men who were involved in the physical altercation in downtown Steamboat that led to Lopez's death, but no arrests have been made. Rae would not identify the two suspects.
Rae said the case is being investigated as a homicide, but that doesn't necessarily mean the suspects will face murder charges. Colorado law is very specific about the elements that make up charges such as murder, criminally negligent homicide and manslaughter, and last week's incident may not meet the criteria, Rae said.
"It is a possibility that when all is said and done, lesser charges could be filed," Rae said. "Appropriate charges in the end may be second-degree assault."
"It's a complete shame that anybody would die over a disagreement," Rae said. "And then you factor in that he was one of our country's soldiers, and what that individual has gone through over the last several years. To go through all that and come home and die is just a complete shame."
Arapahoe County Coroner Mike Dobersen said the full autopsy result won't be available for six weeks, but he provided some details about the nature of Lopez's injuries and the circumstances of his death.
"Basically he died from complications of severe head injuries," Dobersen said. "The injuries weren't immediately fatal, but what they do is develop over time. He also developed a really severe pneumonia as well.
"It sounds like he was hit in the face, then hit in the jaw, and had an unprotected fall to the back of his head. That was the severe impact."
Lopez's only injuries appeared to be to his head, Dobersen said, adding that he did not find evidence that Lopez had been punched or kicked during the assault.
"No broken ribs, no other broken bones, no big bruises or anything like that," he said.
Lopez's ex-wife told the Rocky Mountain News that she can't get over the irony and sadness of the soldier's death - from wounds outside a bar after suffering a severe beating.
Lopez was a survivor, serving in the U.S. Army Special Forces in Afghanistan, parachuting out of airplanes and battling back from being shot in the stomach in combat three years ago, said Shannon Boahn, who was married to Lopez for eight years.
"He'd just returned from Afghanistan," Boahn said of Lopez, who was assigned to a special forces unit at Fort Bragg, N.C.
He picked up his 16-year-old son, Nick from Jacksonville, Fla., on Christmas Day and flew out to Steamboat Springs to join his friends, Tim and Wesley Mottlau.
They had spent a great week together, and for their last night in Steamboat Springs the three adults went to the Tap House on Thursday night, Boahn said.
Wes Mottlau told her that the trouble started when Lopez and the Mottlaus played a Jimmy Buffett song on the jukebox.
"These other two guys didn't like the song and were giving them a hard time," Boahn said. "They put on a Kanye West song, and Richard, Wes and Tim were razzing them about the Kanye West song."
"Wes said that they were walking back to the car and the men were razzing them and Wes told Richard to just forget about it.
"But I guess Richard was responding back to the insults.
"The next thing they knew, Richard was over there on the ground. They think he slipped on the ice.
"Everyone was amazed that a Special Forces soldier could manage to die when he hit his head ... he just slipped and was unconscious."
But the story doesn't end there, she said.
"This one guy continued beating him when he was unconscious," Boahn said.
She said Wes Mottlau is about 6-feet 4-inches and weighs more than 200 lbs. "And he was severely beaten up just from being on top of Richard, trying to protect him from the blows."
"I hope they do all they can to put this person away," she said.
Boahn said she and Lopez had a good relationship, despite their divorce.
"He was a very good father," she said. "He and Nick had a very good relationship, even if they went several months without seeing each other. It was never awkward."
"Richard was very responsible, but also very fun-loving ... very young at heart."
The funeral will take place in California, Boahn said. She isn't sure of the date.
For the Rocky's version of the story, click here.