The Mystery of Pai

He came. He saw. He bought a mountain. But can Lou Pai make peace with his neighbors?

"The most passive person, if you push him enough, he's going to turn around and bite you," says Andrés Montoya, a rancher who had a heated standoff with one armed Pai employee last year. "These people are definitely pushers."

Most of all, locals puzzle over Pai's long-term plans for la sierra. The new owner has never met with the community to discuss his goals, preferring to visit privately with sympathetic county officials, one of whom has relatives on Pai's payroll. He has given only one interview about the ranch since he bought the place -- a few bland comments about the "very beautiful piece of property" that ran in the Denver Post more than two years ago. (Through his Denver attorney, Pai declined Westword's request for an interview.)

Yet in many ways, Pai's actions are speaking for him. Good fences might make good neighbors, but in Costilla County, as Calvin Trillin once noted in the New Yorker, "a man sometimes owns only the land his neighbors acknowledge that he owns."

Denver attorney Jeff Goldstein has pursued locals' 
claims to the mountain in court since 1981.
Q Crutchfield
Denver attorney Jeff Goldstein has pursued locals' claims to the mountain in court since 1981.
Land-rights activist Maria Valdez at a recent protest.
Land-rights activist Maria Valdez at a recent protest.

Soon after the protest ended, Costilla County Sheriff Roger Benton received a call from a Pai employee complaining that protesters had strayed across the fence line. "It was probably a couple of kids taking a leak," Benton muses. "They claim they had video cameras rolling. They're looking to jump on everybody and anybody."

Benton says he has no problem enforcing the rights of private property owners, but he also views the tactics of the ranch's security people, such as taking down license-plate numbers of peaceful protesters, as "provoking."

"Their opinion is they pay a lot more taxes than anybody else, and they need all the law enforcement they can get," he says. "If it's a legitimate call, of course we will respond. But we do the same for everyone. Their attitude could mellow out a little bit."

He came in the back way, as cautious men often do.

In the summer of 1999 a man brought a flat tire for repair to a service station in Amalia, New Mexico, just a short drive along a back road from the Colorado border. The station's operator, Manuel Martinez, fixed the tire and soon became acquainted with the owner of the vehicle in question: Lou Pai.

"He was a nice guy, real easy to talk to," Martinez recalls. "There aren't many people I can't get to talk. We talked about the weather, stuff like that. He was friendly enough, but he didn't volunteer anything."

Pai came through Amalia several times over the next few weeks. Sometimes he brought his son and daughter with him; sometimes he was with men who seemed to know a lot about surveying or forestry. Martinez had a two-bedroom apartment that he rented for as much as $75 a night during ski season, and Pai's entourage took the place on several occasions. Martinez gathered that Pai had some interest in real estate in the area, but he had no idea of the scale of the purchase his guest was contemplating.

"I didn't know he'd bought the property until afterwards," he says.

In fact, Pai already had substantial holdings in Costilla County by the time Martinez met him. In 1997, a company called Jaroso Creek Ranch purchased 23,800 acres of the Taylor Ranch, the southern third of the property, for $6.9 million in cash and a swap of land in Texas valued at $2.6 million. Pai's name did not appear on the incorporation papers filed with the state, although his sister, Sue Pai Yang, a New Jersey attorney, was listed as one of Jaroso Creek's officers.

Two years later, around the time Pai was traveling regularly through Amalia, another company, Western Properties Investors, purchased the remaining 53,800 acres of the Taylor spread for a reported $13 million. Pai's representatives have since acknowledged that both Jaroso Creek and Western Properties are "owned by members of the Pai family," with no outside investors. Two other Pai-controlled entities, Beaver Dam Ranch and BYT Enterprises, have been engaged in buying up other small parcels in the county.

Months after the sale of the ranch was completed, Martinez was hired by a subcontractor to work a bulldozer on a cleanup crew on Pai's new spread. But he never ran into the king of the mountain again. He remains impressed, though, at how close to the vest Pai played his cards. The man didn't seem all that interested in ranching, he recalls, even while he was negotiating the purchase of one of the largest ranches in Colorado.

"I see a lot of people who have money to invest," Martinez says, "and they don't always know what they're investing in. I don't think he was a farmer or a rancher at all. But he hired the right people to do the right things for him."

Doubtless Pai had his reasons for keeping a low profile during his reconnaissance, renting a room in Amalia rather than causing a stir in San Luis. He was keenly aware that the ranch he was buying had a colorful history -- too colorful, as far as the previous owners were concerned -- and had been the center of considerable emotion and litigation for generations.

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