By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
There are peaceful uses for atomic energy, and then there's the Steen family, blown apart by the biggest uranium bonanza in American history.
Shreds of memories and court documents now litter the landscape of what started out as one of the century's most inspiring success stories.
Charlie was the indomitable miner, Minnie Lee (or M.L., as she liked to be called) his vibrant, strong wife. Both were quick-witted Texans who came armed with quips and quotes. In the Fifties, the faces of their four boys--John, Charles Jr., Andy and Mark--smiled at the nation from the pages of countless magazines and newspapers. They were all heroes for helping win the Cold War.
And they'd done it through hard work, out in the wilderness, suffering extreme hardship.
It was a true rags-to-riches story.
Years later, it was back to rags. The Cold War ended, but the battle between the Steen boys was just beginning.
When M.L. Steen, long suffering from emphysema after a lifetime of smoking, died last summer, one chapter of the family's history closed. Her death, unfortunately, opened another chapter, this one radiating back-biting and bitterness and laid out in court documents filed in the brothers' dispute over her will.
M.L. was the best storyteller in the family and kept her sense of humor after the most trying of times. She needed all of it to deal with the awesome power of uranium--and the fallout from the fortune it created.
Charlie Steen, a Depression-era kid with no money and a quick mind, chased a dream. "He always thought he would find something," recalls his sister, Maxine Steen Boyd, now 76. She can still picture her older brother looking for butterflies and lugging around big books when he was only eight or nine. "We used to call him 'Dr. Dolittle,'" she says. "My, he was a fast reader. But I always teased him about not having much common sense."
Adventure was in his blood. Maybe he also inherited a lack of business acumen: His father had been a Texas oil wildcatter who made and lost $100,000 before he was 22. Eight years later, the wildcatter married a fifteen-year-old girl named Rose and fathered Charlie and Maxine. The marriage collapsed after four years, and the kids grew up with a succession of stepfathers. The first, Lisle, was killed in a construction accident. Young Charlie later worked summers for the company where Lisle had worked; that company also helped finance his education.
At John Tarleton Agricultural College in Stephenville, Texas, Charlie was smitten by geology and by a handsome, tall brunette named Minnie Lee Holland. A 130-pound prematurely balding guy with glasses, he was deceivingly wiry and ornery.
Charlie's poor eyesight kept him out of the military, so when M.L. enlisted in the Navy--she was one of the first WAVES--he went to South America, armed with a 1943 geology degree from the Texas School of Mines.
He found work in Bolivia and in Peru, where he mapped out a gas field that still serves Lima. But Charlie didn't want to follow orders--he wanted to strike it rich. He was fired for insubordination and was proud of it.
M.L. returned from the war with a bad back and a small monthly disability pension, intending to finish her education at Hardin-Simmons College in Abilene, Texas. Then one day Charlie showed up and said, "Let's get married." Six weeks short of a degree, she left school and cast her lot with him. They started making babies immediately, and Charlie took a job in Chicago. Once again, he was fired for insubordination.
That was when Charlie Steen's dream coincided with the government's. Uranium was the wonder ingredient fueling both dreams.
The United States needed uranium--not just to fend off Russia, but potentially for peaceful uses here in America. The first uranium had been mined in the nineteenth century near Central City, then shipped to Europe to color ceramics; that vein eventually petered out. Marie Curie went to Moab, Utah, in search of uranium ore from which to extract radium. Yellowish carnotite ore, a source of low-grade uranium, was known to occur in shallow deposits in southeastern Utah's Morrison Formation, as geologists called it. But the processing cost for carnotite was too high to make it attractive to big mining operations, despite the fact that radium was worth $120,000 an ounce even back in the Twenties. A grayish-black sludge called uraninite, or pitchblende, was far purer than carnotite, but no one had found much of it.
Uranium's real allure lay in its destructive power--and that's how a market for it finally developed. During World War II, U.S. scientists desperately needed uranium for their secretive Manhattan Project's atomic bombs. Unless they could find a local source, they would have to import it from the Belgian Congo. They found they could squeeze some uranium out of the tailings of vanadium mines (that metal, used in hardening steel, often occurred with uranium), so they began processing tailings in western Colorado, near Uravan.
When peacetime came, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission mounted a publicity campaign to attract treasure-hunters to the Four Corners, hoping someone would find a rich stash of uranium. A wave of people armed with newfangled Geiger counters joined the hunt.
Charlie Steen liked that idea. He was a trained geologist; he ought to be able to find it before a bunch of amateurs could.
In 1950 the Steens scraped up enough money to buy a red Jeep and a trailer, and Charlie headed to Dove Creek, Colorado, near the Utah border, to start his search. He had just a drill and his knowledge of geology; he couldn't even afford a Geiger counter. Two months later, when the youngest boy was old enough to travel, M.L. and the whole brood joined him. The family had next to no money, and Charlie bagged wild game to put food on the table.
With winter approaching, Charlie was advised to get out before he was snowed in, so he hauled the family over to Utah, north of Moab to a place called Yellow Cat Wash, seventeen miles from a spot in the road called Cisco, where about thirty people lived. The Atomic Energy Commission had called the area "barren of possibilities," but Charlie didn't think so.
Although she was living in the wilderness, M.L. never seemed stranded, recalls Sue Brown, now a Denver health-care executive. When the Steens moved to Yellow Cat, Sue was a five-year-old girl living in Cisco; her mom was justice of the peace and her dad worked for the railroad. The families hit it off. "I remember their little red trailer," says Brown. "My mother and I would go visit, and I'd go rock hunting with the boys. They were very poor, obviously."
But M.L. was a valuable resource. "She was a well-educated woman who used correct grammar," says Brown. "And she inspired me to go to college. I spent a lot of time sitting with her, talking about art and literature."
When they talked to each other, M.L. and Charles, as M.L. always called him, mused about striking it rich.
"It was like dreaming," M.L. recalled for Westword more than forty years later, sitting with Charlie in their modest townhome in Longmont. "We had a dream, as Martin would say. And I believed anything that Charles said. I don't care what it was."
"She wasn't smart back in those days," Charlie cracked.
"Anything he told me, I believed," she said, "and he said, 'We will be rich.'"
At the time, M.L. was raising four boys on nothing in the middle of nowhere, hauling water, sewing Bull Durham tobacco bags into quilts, scraping together eight cents to buy tobacco for her and sweets for the boys. Still, she was ecstatic about life with Charlie. "He's really wonderful," she wrote to a friend, "and if we never have money, I'm rich with him."
The other miners thought Charlie was nuts. Charlie just knew there were underground reservoirs of uranium on downslopes, thousands of feet behind the rims where most prospectors focused. In April 1951, in a place called Big Indian Wash, he staked out a dozen rectangles, each of them 600 feet by 1,500 feet. He gave each claim a Spanish name as a tribute to his South American mining days; one was Mi Vida.
But when he returned to Yellow Cat Wash to tell M.L. the hopeful news, he found out that his mother had suffered a heart attack in Texas, so he took the three older boys and headed to Houston on a bus. He left M.L. behind with baby Mark--and a shotgun to guard the drill and their few belongings.
While Charlie was in Houston, M.L. struggled on. Sue Brown remembers hearing one harrowing tale that M.L., a masterful raconteur armed with a Texas twang, repeated often. "It was in Yellow Cat, and Mark was a baby and they were out of food," recalls Brown. "She was really on her own. So she started off in the little red Jeep and ran into a bad sandstorm. She got stuck."
M.L. bundled Mark up and walked through the storm until someone picked them up.
"When she told the story," Brown says, "she gave all the details--she needed cigarettes and the kid needed food. Always self-deprecating. But she was a very strong woman. That was one of the reasons Charlie loved her."
Love, however, wouldn't buy repairs on the Jeep, which had to be towed. This time the Steens were really out of money, and Charlie's mom, Rose, had medical bills. So the family hitched up the trailer and moved to Tucson, where Charlie had found work as a carpenter.
After a year, though, he was itching to get back to his claims. In April 1952 the family packed up again and headed back to Utah.
"When we left Tucson," M.L. recalled, "we had $350, because Charles had sold our trailer. And of course we had to save the money to use it for drilling. So we stopped at Bluff and spent the night there. The kids all slept inside the Jeep, and Charles and I slept on mattresses we put down on the ground. The next morning, I had pneumonia. By the time we got to Cisco, I was unconscious, and this lady we didn't know at all put me in her car and took me to a hospital in Fruita, where I spent the $350 that we got out of the trailer."
Sue Brown's mom pitched in and took care of the kids, coming over to the Steens' tarpaper shack in Cisco with beans and cornbread. She fed them and she bathed them. "They helped us without dreaming that they would be repaid," said M.L.
After M.L. recovered, Mama Rose decided to pitch in. She backed her son with some money and set up a cook tent at the Mi Vida claim. Charlie got a four-mile road scraped out to the site, scrounged a better drill and began to burrow. He was looking for a bed of yellow carnotite, which he figured would be about 200 feet down. On July 6, only five feet short of his goal, the drill rod broke. Charlie had been pulling out some strange, blackish cores from the hole, but no yellow carnotite. Frustrated, he threw one of the cores in the back of his Jeep and returned to Cisco. The next morning, he stopped at Buddy Cowger's gas station to refuel for a trip to Grand Junction. Buddy was fooling around with a Geiger counter and Charlie told him in jest to run it over the blackish core in his Jeep. The needle jumped, and the Geiger counter unleashed a flood of static. It was uraninite.
Charlie grabbed the core and tore off on foot for the shack. He ran smack into M.L.'s clothesline and nearly broke his neck. Before she could scold him for dumping the baby's diapers into the mud, Charlie started yelling, "We've hit it! We've hit it! It's a million-dollar lick!"
The strike was rich beyond even Charlie Steen's dreams. Yes, he had found a thick vein of uraninite, worth millions. He hurried out and staked more claims in the area, under the names of friends and family members. As he continued drilling, he hit a pocket of yellow carnotite, just as he had predicted. That was worth millions more.
"It was $100 million before it was over with," Charlie would later say. "And that was a lot of money in those days." It was the biggest uranium strike in U.S. history.
The rush was on.
Sleepy Moab woke up. As Charlie Steen, the Uranium King, established a big uranium mill there, other miners descended on the area and also found fortunes. Hundreds of miles away in Salt Lake City, speculators, hucksters, grifters and grafters--along with some legitimate folks--set up a market in uranium penny stocks that created a slew of paper-money millionaires. Reporters flocked to Utah to cover the boom--and the Steens were the perfect subjects. Feisty Charlie, dressed in his familiar khakis, looked like an average guy; some people compared him to TV's Mr. Peepers. His wife and four young boys--and their Dalmatian, Butch--were eminently photogenic.
Charlie and M.L. were barely past thirty, young enough to see the world and live the good life. They had the money to do anything they wanted.
"We enjoyed spendin' it, because that's what money is made for," Charlie remembered.
With the money came new friends, as well as access to the rich and famous. Charlie was flooded with requests from people they'd never heard of.
M.L. was in a state of shock.
"I had a very difficult time dealing with people," she recalled. "The first three years we had money were very hard for me. I had never been anyplace, I'd never had anything, you know? And to be able to buy more than two dresses was just--I just couldn't understand it. I knew there was enough money to do it, but I was just overcome by it. I didn't have very many friends, and I didn't want very many. There were just a few that I really liked and I wanted to be with and I had fun with, and the rest of the people I just shut off. People came like flies and, oh, I just got to the place where I hated everybody. We were never alone."
M.L. didn't forget her old friends, such as Sue Brown's family. But with some of the people they'd known in hardscrabble places like Cisco, things were different.
"We didn't change," M.L. said. "Let me tell you. We didn't change. The people around us did. People that we had known forever suddenly became very different with us. Didn't want to hurt our feelings. I don't know, I can't explain it. I think most people were intimidated. And we didn't do anything except have money to cause that. We did not change in any way except that we were able to dress and buy and do and go and so forth."
They did a lot of the "so forth." Charlie bought a new red Lincoln. He had his raggedy size-twelve boots bronzed. He had their old gas lantern gold-plated. The Steens bought a yacht, the "Minnie Lee." They bought airplanes. They flew their laundry each week to Grand Junction for cleaning. If Charlie wanted better reception on his TV, he would have his pilot take him up with the set to circle the city. He gave land to Moab for schools, built churches and a subdivision, put other people's kids through college.
For themselves, Charlie and M.L. erected a modernistic, tri-level, six-bedroom, six-bathroom house high above Moab with a glorious view of the desert and mountains. The clock on the mantel was set at 5:05 p.m. It was always cocktail hour.
After first boning up on art books, they visited the Louvre. In fact, says Sue Brown, "they took Europe by storm."
And Africa. And South America. And the rest of the world.
"Yeah," M.L. recalled, "we were jetsetters before there were any jets."
They took the boys with them, too. But they also yanked them out of the overcrowded, understaffed Moab schools and sent them to military school in Texas for their education.
And Charlie continued to work. He wanted to find more, do more. He flew to New York, L.A. and Chicago for business meetings. He still spent time in the field, but he increasingly found himself surrounded not by rocks, but by lawyers and accountants.
Others had their hands out, too. Maxine Steen Boyd says her brother is "the most honest person I have ever met." But she adds, "We were not raised as businesspeople."
Charlie still tried to get by on handshakes. Although cantankerous, he also was generous. And he believed every hard-luck story he heard.
"I've always had a good sense of character," M.L. recalled. "I can tell in a very short while. But Charles just loved everybody. All they had to do was pat him on the back and tell him how great he was and say, 'Can you let me have about $50,000, Charlie?' He loved them all."
Grinning, Charlie added, "I was taken by all of them, too."
"He was entirely too trusting," says a longtime friend of the Steens who asks not to be identified. "He created a number of millionaires. He believed what people told him, and it isn't possible to do so.
"Charlie wouldn't have survived ten minutes in the business world today. By no means was he dumb. But he was trusting of people who didn't deserve it."
Lots of people partied at the Steens' expense. On one anniversary of Discovery Day, a crowd of 8,000 descended on Moab for an all-day celebration. And the house on the hill was the scene of numerous get-togethers, often with bands playing poolside while guests oohed and aahed over Utah's beautiful sunsets. One night the company filming Warlock--Hollywood crews often shot Westerns in the area--was invited to the Steens' for an already scheduled party. Director Edward Dmytryk warned the cast and crew not to drink because they had to start work at five the next morning.
"Well, they all came, including Dmytryk," M.L. recalled. "But the only one who drank was Henry Fonda. That, Dorothy Malone told me, was because he was so established as a great actor that even Dmytryk was very cautious around him. So ol' Hank got stoned out of his mind, and I went upstairs for something--I went into the kitchen, I don't know what for--and he and two or three other people were sitting at the kitchen bar, and he fell on the floor, just flat on his back. And he just laughed! I said to him, 'Oh, hey, you should have let your stuntman take that fall.' And he just laughed some more. God, he had the most beautiful blue eyes I've ever seen. But whenever I think of him, he's lying on the floor, just laughing."
Charlie and M.L. both knew how to laugh, too, but Charlie's ornery side flared up often. He may have been trusting, but he was also very opinionated. And cocky as hell.
In November 1958 he was invited back to the Texas College of Mines to receive the Outstanding Student Award at the homecoming banquet. The school was now called Texas Western College, and Charlie just couldn't accept that.
"I know the proper way in which to accept this award," he told the sizable crowd. "I am expected to say 'thank you' and sit down. However, inasmuch as I did not seek this award, and as Dean Thomas reminded me last night that I was the only son of a bitch he knew who had made a career at being one and was a success as a result, you need not expect the proper response."
Charlie then laced into the El Paso Chamber of Commerce and the university administration for changing the character of the school from a mining college into a more general liberal-arts institution. He derided some of the courses in the college catalogue, like baton twirling and public relations, and sarcastically suggested a few more, including "Beer Guzzling, a course in how to chug-a-lug beer out of a gallon pitcher without getting a permanent crease on the bridge of your nose."
Saying he rejected "the badge of the neither-fish-nor-fowl institution that now exists in El Paso," Charlie added, "this son of a bitch previously mentioned at 39 years of age is a living legend of the uranium boom that he helped create, a boom that raised the U.S.A. from a 'have not' nation to a number-one position in uranium reserves of the world. Whether he dies a multi-millionaire or a broken-down, ragged-ass, prospecting tramp, his place in the mining history of our country is secure. History, if true, will show he graduated from the Texas College of Mines."
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.
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.
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."
Forget about that trademark Steen loyalty. Mark derisively calls his brother "Charles the Fat" and defends himself vigorously. He points to a 1954 American Magazine article about M.L. by Denver journalist Bill Hosokawa, titled "Faith Is Her Fortune," that describes Charles Jr. as a "husky towhead of 6 and a half" and that says "Mark, at 3 and a half, shows every sign of having inherited his mother's steadfast loyalty."
Now Mark says Charles Jr. wants the potentially lucrative Moab property. "And they want to scorch my earth," he adds.
An administrator has been appointed to sort through the charges and countercharges. "We're just putting a bunch of lawyers' children through college," says Mark.
During their search for uranium, Charlie and M.L. lived through tough times--but nothing this ugly.
Charles Jr., now living in Buena Park, California, won't discuss the situation in detail. "I know there is another will," he says, before adding, "I have no public comment to make." Asked when he last saw his dad, he replies, "Did you hear me? Goodbye."
An hour after he hangs up on Westword, Monica calls to cancel a scheduled interview. In an earlier, brief conversation, she said she had trusted Mark at one time but no longer does.
Her court filings smack of her father's influence: They strongly imply that Mark held his parents in an evil grip for the past decade.
But in 1994, during a lengthy interview, the last one they gave any reporter (Westword had sought out Charlie and M.L. without Mark's knowledge), M.L. and Charlie showed no signs that they were suffering. They knew they were no longer in control of their own destinies and seemed grateful to Mark. Neither said much about any of their sons.
Mark blames his father's 1971 accident for much of the family's disintegration. With Charlie knocked out of action, the squabbling among the brothers intensified. Before that, Mark says, the boys all listened to their father and respected him. "Our heroes were our parents," he adds. The only one of the boys trained in geology, Mark says Charlie had refocused on his mining properties and probably would have uncovered another big strike of some sort if he hadn't been hurt.
Charlie himself blamed the accident on the government. "If the IRS hadn't seized me," he said, "I wouldn't have been out in the field."
The long IRS battle was the key, says Charlie's sister, Maxine, and now Charles Jr. may feel jealous and guilty "because Mark stepped in. They could have all helped. Now they'll do anything to heckle Mark."
Maxine herself is caught in the middle of the feud, and her name pops up in various court papers. "You pick up the phone, and you never know what you're getting into next," she says. "And I'm getting too old for this nonsense."
Maxine sees the whole situation as ineffably sad. "If we didn't have any money," she says, "we would have come out of this as a family. The boys hate each other. As their aunt, I'm right in the middle of it, and it just kills you off."
In some ways, of course, all that money did spoil the boys. Mark says his dad, himself so poor as a child, "wanted us to have everything he didn't have, and he wanted to live vicariously through us." There were incredible indulgences: a teenaged Charles Jr. flying to Hong Kong for a few days and blowing $12,000; Andy convincing his dad to buy him a $20,000 revolving bed in the Washoe Valley mansion.
Charlie thought the trust funds would be more than enough to give his sons a great running start. But Mark says Charles Jr. and Andy squandered theirs, and he and John spent theirs bailing out first their brothers and then their parents. Mark is bitter toward Charles Jr. and Andy, especially Andy, whom he describes as the most imaginative--but most destructive--of the four. Andy was a teen genius at spotting horseflesh and introduced the first Spanish-bred Arabian horses to the U.S. If the Steens' budding horse ranch hadn't been part of the government seizure, the Steens could have grown wealthy in that business alone. Andy also had an eye for the antiques business. But Mark also recalls having to shell out tens of thousands of dollars to pay off bad debts that the mercurial Andy ran up during a stint in Moab after the empire had collapsed.
"If not for the trust funds," Maxine says, "they would have gone out and built their lives instead of waiting for the court battles to end so they could get back to where they were. You can't live in those dream worlds."
The same longtime friend who says Charlie Steen was too trusting says the boys' being spoiled was inevitable. "It's a given," the friend says. "Who wouldn't be? When Charlie and M.L. got money, they did indulge their children. But does having been indulged have anything to do with the split? I don't know."
The reason this friend requests anonymity is for fear of being pulled into the black hole of the court battle. Still, the friend clearly sympathizes with Mark: "I hate to think what would have happened to Charlie and M.L. if not for Mark--whether it just fell to him or he chose to do it."
Mark walks like he's carrying the weight of the world. He swears that all he wants to do is get out from under the crumbled Steen empire. It'll take an outsider, perhaps the special administrator now in charge of examining the probate case, to decide if he can do that. Mark says that's okay with him. If he ever writes the Steen saga, Mark adds, he'll call it All the Misfortune That Money Could Buy.
Long after they had lost their fortune, M.L. and Charlie considered themselves very fortunate. They'd had a good life, one filled with adventures. And they continued to see old friends, including the ones who'd stood by them in the early days.
"They both feel they'd do it all again," says their longtime friend. "And Charlie would laughingly say, 'And I'd make some of the same character-judgment mistakes.'"
When she spoke with Westword four years ago, M.L. declared, "I've had the best life I think of any woman I've ever heard of, although I've had some hard times. I suppose that I would rather to have had those good times--I don't know how to say this: If we're having to pay for it now, that's okay. I would rather to have had them than not."
Charlie and M.L.'s easy repartee and fierce loyalty to each other continued until the end.
"Whatever success I am--or was--I give her credit," Charlie said.
"Yeah," said M.L., "he gives me credit, but he doesn't know that for sure. He might have made it without me."
"I disagree with that," said Charlie. "I know I suffered brain damage, but I remember it that way."
"You remember it that way, huh?" replied M.L. "Well, that's nice."
"They can take the memory away," added Charlie, "but they can't take the experience away, that's what I'm trying to say. Actually, I think you should do the story on her rather than me, because she's more interesting than I am."
At that, M.L. turned to Charlie and said, "I have never found anything!"
Charlie grinned. "You found me," he said. "And I found you.