Fallout in the Family

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

If there were family harmony, says Mark, the Steens would be millionaire land developers--or multi-millionaires. Even if the probate judge orders the properties sold at their current value, the combatants would be likely to walk away with a few hundred thousand dollars each, Mark says. But because the Steen offspring have been used to living large, they think in terms of millions, not thousands. So now they're spending all their time and remaining money in court.

The family began splitting into factions in the early 1970s. Charlie's words about "two systems locked in mortal combat" were prescient. The enemies were not nations, however, but brothers.

The fight is basically Charles Jr. versus Mark. Although John's not a player, he has sided with Mark. Andy, after spending some time on business ventures in Moab, is globe-trotting. Court papers sent to Switzerland come back undelivered, but Mark says he's sure that Charles Jr. is in contact with Andy.

Charles Jr. was once in charge of the Gold Hill Venture, which was a joint project with Gwen and Dick Fraser, old friends of the Steens'. When that deal fell apart, Charles Jr. left, and Mark moved to Longmont from Reno, taking over management of Gold Hill. But deal after deal continued to fall through; each side accused the other of sabotage. As the Steen sons tried to figure out ways to rebuild the empire, animosities deepened. Now relations are so contentious that investors have been scared away.

"No one in their right minds would come into a deal with us," says Mark.
In 1992, Moab held a big party to honor Charlie and M.L. Steen. The little red Jeep was there. It was a last public hurrah. But behind the scenes, things got ugly. According to Mark, Charles Jr. showed up uninvited, didn't talk to his parents, and was nasty and snarly. That, Mark says, finally prompted his mom to go home and rewrite her will.

M.L. and Charlie hoped that the third generation of Steens--their sons' children--would be able to work together. But after M.L. died last summer, the rift only deepened.

It took a while for Mark to even find the will. He says there's nothing suspicious about that; he just couldn't locate it. When he finally produced it, it was immediately challenged by Monica, Charles Jr.'s daughter, whom M.L. had loved and counted on to help mend the rift.

"When my mother died," Mark says bitterly, "I was grief-stricken. Monica was greed-stricken. She thinks there's some vast estate."

"She's really repaying her grandmother's love," Charlie's sister, Maxine, says of Monica. "M.L. would turn over in her grave if she knew what the grandkids are doing."

In her will, M.L. appointed Mark executor and left all her personal effects to him, John and her sister, Tera Wright. M.L. willed Charles Jr. exactly $1, "because of his role in the deliberate destruction of the Gold Hill Venture and the years of financial hardships and mental anguish that he caused his parents and relatives by his selfish ingratitude and dishonesty." Andy also got $1, for the same reasons; in his case, M.L. left out the word "selfish."

She didn't leave her shares in the family corporation, Mi Vida Enterprises, to any of her sons. Instead, she gave 30 percent to her sister Tera; 10 percent to Tera's daughter, Karla; 10 percent to Charles Jr.'s daughter Monica; 10 percent to Charles Jr.'s son Charles III; 20 percent to Andy's only child, Kirk, and 20 percent to Mark's child, Ashley.

Knowing that Mark would continue to take care of her husband, who now has Alzheimer's disease, M.L. left Charlie "such minimum share of my estate as shall be required by state law."

If there's anything left of the estate after the probate fight, that is. Already Monica has filed a blizzard of papers in Boulder District Court. Her father has chipped in with lengthy affidavits accusing Mark of all sorts of nefarious schemes, including duping relatives and plundering other estates. Mark denies doing such things and has added his own allegations that Charles III and Monica conspired to steal property, including expensive jewelry, that they claimed was owned by M.L. Mark points out that he purchased the stuff out of bankruptcy court years ago and "had given it to my parents for their use."

The court files include a particularly sordid scene, outlined in a police report filed by Mark, detailing a shoving match between Mark and Charles III's girlfriend last fall as the couple tried to leave M.L. and Charlie's townhome in Longmont with several loads of property. Also involved in the mess is Charles Jr.'s first wife, the mother of Monica and Charles III. And so is Kirk Steen, Andy's son, who lives in Reno. Originally a supporter of Mark, he has filed an affidavit saying that his uncle is not fit to be executor. Under M.L.'s will, if Mark is disqualified, Kirk would have a shot at becoming executor.

"Kirk believes that I sold some property for $350,000 and gave my mom $500," says an exasperated Mark. "I say, where's the deed? It didn't happen."

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