By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
Stretched thin by a string of dubious investments, Charlie was stuck. He didn't have big cash reserves, and he sure as hell couldn't drill new mines to generate cash flow with his offices padlocked and his papers seized.
That May, Charlie filed for Chapter 11 protection in federal bankruptcy court. It would take eleven arduous years for the Steens to settle with the federal government.
"It was culture shock," recalls the Steens' longtime friend. "There was a lot of bitterness. You lose a lot of freedom and independence. You're immediately impoverished, living in a big house with no electricity and no groceries. It was an immediate about-face. You don't take that without bitterness. But you come to the point when you accept it to survive, to keep from being sick every day."
The friend recalls asking M.L. whether they'd salted away money in a Swiss bank account. M.L. replied, "This is America. We didn't think we had to."
M.L. was "pretty well devastated," the friend says. "Charlie was devastated, too, but he was able to muster the need to fight back."
Charlie Steen, who'd enabled the government to buy uranium much more cheaply than it could have imported it, already had paid the government $30 million in taxes.
"He had saved the American taxpayer in excess of $2 billion and made us a world power," M.L. said.
None of that mattered.
Charlie's lawyers sorted through the complex case and offered a settlement of about $480,000. The government wanted $4 million. Charlie wanted to fight. While negotiations dragged on, the government allowed the Steens to live in their mansion, but they were denied the funds to run it. At one point, they were eating beans by candlelight after the power had been shut off.
Charlie simply had to make one of his mining ventures work, and so he went back out into the field.
Working at a drilling site in California in 1971, he suffered another major hit. The drill smacked Charlie in the head. He was rushed to a hospital, where he had life-saving brain surgery and then lay in a coma for 33 days.
When he woke up, he spoke Spanish, not English, and remembered his sons not by their names but as No. 1, No. 2 and so on. It took Charlie two and a half years to recover.
"He never did call me by name right after the accident," M.L. said. "It was very, very difficult for all of us, because he knew what he wanted to say but he couldn't say it."
Years later, though, both could laugh about it.
"He came up with some really funny things," M.L. said. "One time he came in the bathroom and he said, 'M.L., can you cut this hair right here with pliers?' And I said, 'I sure can!'"
"It hurt like hell!" said Charlie.
"And he said, 'Oh, dammit, you know what I mean. The scissors!' And another time he was out in the carport with one of our kids and he said, 'You know, we've got to get snowshoes for these cars.' Oh, we had a lot of laughs, even if they were at his expense!"
"Well," said Charlie, "I've had a sense of humor all my life. I laugh at myself even today."
And there was one big laugh yet to come--this one on the IRS. As it turned out, some of the bankruptcy court's appraisals of Steen's seized property were absurdly low and proved that he'd had the potential for at least one more big strike. Charlie's Mercur Mine in Utah was snapped up by Getty Oil for $83,000. Mark Steen says it later pumped out $150 million worth of gold for its new owner.
Mark Steen, now nearing fifty, is a driven person, much like his dad. His sense of humor, however, is about a thousand shades darker. "I've been in the sticky grip of the legal profession all my adult life," he says, sitting down for an interview in the Hotel Boulderado bar.
His view is that he stuck by his parents, while Charles Jr. and Andy deserted them. During the last few years of the fight with the feds, Charlie refused to even go to court, and Mark stood in for the Steen family. Lawyers came and went; there wasn't enough money to pay one set of attorneys to see the case through from start to finish. It was Mark who dealt with the changes, Mark who scraped together money to buy back Charlie and M.L's personal possessions from bankruptcy court in Nevada.
When the smoke finally cleared, the Steen empire had shrunk--but not exactly to nothing.
The Reno mansion is history; the family finally left it in 1975. But the Steens still own big chunks of land in Moab. And that little town is now one of the nation's mountain-biking capitals; it's booming with tourists. Some of the Steens' land is right along the main highway through town; another section is the only private holding on the popular Slickrock Bike Trail. Developed, the property is potentially worth millions.