Fallout in the Family

Eranium made Charlie Steen rich. But the fortune became too hot to handle.

The audience was stunned. Later, the dean who'd invited Charlie dashed off a letter to the faculty and students, saying that homecoming was a time of trying to promote peace and understanding in the world. The dean concluded: "I am sorry that I did not have the insight to get up at the time and refute the irresponsible abuse and blasphemy."

Charlie's response: "Was it lack of insight or lack of guts?"
He gave a spirited defense of his actions: "As for 'living with our fellow men in a peaceful, understanding world,' what sandpile have you buried your head in since you got out of college? We are living in a world in which two systems are locked in mortal conflict to determine which kind of a world our kids are going to inherit, a race which we shall have to work hard not to lose since our institutions have been turning out a majority of knuckleheads instead of men and women who are trained to think and weigh the issues of our society."

The El Paso fracas occurred only days before the legislative elections in Utah, where Charlie was a candidate for state Senate. He'd figured that as long as he was paying 85 percent of the property tax in Grand County, he might as well get into politics.

He won--and Salt Lake City was never the same.

Warned not to piss off the state's Mormon majority, Charlie went ahead and introduced a liquor-by-the-drink bill. It was defeated. He introduced a horse-racing bill. It was defeated. He tried to lower the legal age for purchase of cigarettes from 21 to 18. He failed.

"I then thought of introducing a head tax on virtue," he said at the time. His reasoning was that "quite a lot of money could be collected from those who couldn't furnish a signed affidavit that they neither smoked or drank."

Charlie had reason to be cynical: He could have made a fortune that way from his own colleagues in the Senate. During the legislative session, Charlie and M.L. lived in a big hotel suite, and it was crawling with drunken Mormons.

"We had lots of booze in our suite, and all the senators knew that," M.L. recalled. "I knew when it was two minutes after five every day because here would come this herd of Mormon non-drinkers dashin' in to get drunk. I got to the place where I hated every damn one of them. You'd get up in the morning, you know, and there might be five or six senators on the chair or off the chair or on a couch or on the floor. I couldn't even go get coffee in the morning without getting dressed, because I knew that they would be there. They knew they could get free booze there and not be seen by somebody from the church."

Charlie resigned shortly before his term ended. Utah's income taxes bothered him, so he and M.L. decided to move to Nevada. In 1961 they bought three Washoe Valley ranches outside of Reno, where they would build a mansion and run cattle and breed Arabian horses.

Charlie told a writer for Cosmopolitan: "What I liked best about Nevada was the protective coloration. In Moab, I was the only millionaire. In the Reno area, there were at least 130 others, some a lot richer than me."

They got to know the casino owners and continued to hang with celebrities. The Steens sold Wayne Newton his first Arabian, and the singer later brought a prospective bride to their house for their approval. M.L. was head of the Crippled Children's Association in Reno and got to meet such entertainers as Dinah Shore.

Charlie still had plenty of money, and he made more when he decided to sell the Mi Vida mine and the mill. Meanwhile, he had diversified his investments. He didn't want the security of tax-exempt bonds; that would have led to what he once called "the Three B Syndrome of bridge, bourbon and boredom." (That quote and some other Steen anecdotes come from the 1989 book Uranium Frenzy, by Raye C. Ringholz, and Maxine Newell's pamphlet Charlie Steen's Mi Vida.) Instead, he headed mining companies that were exploring for gold and silver in several states, as well as in British Honduras and Mexico. Along the way, he'd also invested in a dizzying number of ventures, including a pickle factory, a marble quarry, a copper mine and an aircraft factory. But the mining properties were his love: He just knew he had another big strike in him.

Although each of the boys was set up with a $500,000 trust fund, Charlie didn't exactly plan for his and M.L.'s own future. Except for the Washoe Valley mansion. They built a 27,000-square-foot marble house, with a 13,000-square-foot living room, a dining room surrounded by a moat and an indoor pool. They filled the house with plunder from their worldwide trips. In 1966, after three years of construction, they moved into the mansion.

Two years later, the lights went out.

One day in February 1968, agents of the Internal Revenue Service showed up at Charlie Steen's Reno headquarters and seized the building and its contents with no warning. It was a "jeopardy assessment": The IRS, concerned over a recent court case against Steen, didn't think Charlie would be able to pay his taxes.

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