The Trouble With Harry

Big dreams, big houses -- and a trail of lawsuits from here to Troublesome Gulch.

Sometimes the disputes bred more disputes, spreading beyond the parties to the attorneys in the case. A few years ago, Elder hired a Denver law firm to represent him in some grim litigation involving a disastrous stock deal with a former business associate. Elder's retainer check bounced, and the firm ended up suing him for nearly $30,000 in legal fees and costs. Elder hired another attorney to defend him against the first group -- and later sued that attorney, claiming he did a less than adequate job.

Elder was on the losing end of both cases. (The second was dismissed after Elder agreed to pay a modest amount toward his ex-lawyer's legal fees.) But nothing ventured, nothing gained. Harry Elder has never been one to walk away from a task simply because it's difficult.

The son of a career Army officer, Elder grew up in several places, from Puerto Rico to California to Virginia and Maryland. After college, he began working in a natural-foods store, then as an organic farmer. Eventually he moved to Denver and began supplying plants to fern bars and other commercial customers. That led to Country Fair Garden Centers, a successful chain of garden stores that Elder launched in the 1980s.

No stone unturreted: Harry Elder built and lives in this 
5,265-square-foot house, now titled in his brother's 
name.
Mark Manger
No stone unturreted: Harry Elder built and lives in this 5,265-square-foot house, now titled in his brother's name.
Price reduced: Harry Elder's Creekside home was 
once priced at $1.7 million. It's now listed at $949,000.
Mark Manger
Price reduced: Harry Elder's Creekside home was once priced at $1.7 million. It's now listed at $949,000.

He sold these garden centers in the early 1990s. By that point, he'd moved to a house on several acres on Troublesome Gulch Road, purchased in his father's name for $68,000. In 1995, at the age of 43, he married 26-year-old Julie Ralston, a divorced mother of one. The couple soon had two children of their own.

Elder became involved in Evergreen social and charity events. He brought his wife into his new business venture, selling Mexican pottery out of tents set up in high-traffic parking lots. He even set up a foundation, the Elder Foundation for Global Stewardship, with the lofty aim of promoting population control and solar energy. But the pottery business didn't fare as well as the garden stores, and the Elder Foundation operated sporadically before being dissolved in 2001.

Elder moved on to other challenges. Over a period of years, he and his father, now retired from the military and a stint as a real estate broker, acquired other lots and houses around Troublesome Gulch. Just outside of Kittredge and a short drive from downtown Evergreen, the area features a mix of pricey and funky; its most famous resident is former senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart, who owns gated property farther up the hill. But Elder saw great potential in the location -- and still does.

"Evergreen is a different market," he says. "It's kind of a Greenwood Village in the mountains. A lot of airline pilots live up here. Most of the new starts are a million-plus. People who've lived in town want to have more room, more of a Colorado experience, and they want to get away from the traffic."

In 1998, Elder and his father formed a company, Evergreen Custom Builders, to develop homes on the lots. Although Harry was in charge of day-to-day operations, many of the project's liabilities fell on his elderly father, who lived in the State of Washington. The properties were in John Elder's name, as were many of the loans and debts that followed.

At the start, there was a third partner in the company: Chris Johnson, an experienced local builder whom Elder had approached about serving as general contractor. Johnson says he agreed to "build some specs and split the profit," against his better judgment.

"I did a little diligence, checked around the community and found that Harry has a very tarnished reputation," Johnson says. "Everyone across the board warned me -- realtors, building officials, bankers, engineers. I thought with my integrity and my reputation, I could overcome it."

According to Johnson, the original plan was to build half-million-dollar homes on as many as ten lots, one at a time. But they'd scarcely begun on the first house, he says, when Elder announced that he'd obtained financing for a second property that needed to be started right away.

Johnson and Elder parted company four years ago, only a few months into the construction process. Johnson says he left after Elder took control of the construction loans and told him that Evergreen Custom Builders would pay subcontractors as the houses sold rather than when the job was done.

Remembers Johnson: "I told him, 'Harry, these subs become family. They're friends of mine. They live check to check. You can't not pay them.' The houses could wait months to sell; my subs would be starving, they'd be filing liens, they'd be dead. But he started taking care of the monthly construction draws and pulling invoices. I started getting phone calls from people who weren't getting paid. Then he started pulling my invoices. I let that go on for about a month and a half, and then I got out."

Johnson says the banks that issue construction loans don't always verify that the money is being spent on the materials and work that the loans are supposed to cover. "They only pay what they see," he explains. "If they see windows are installed, they would expect to get an invoice for windows. But they don't have a clue who's owed what. They're supposed to send out inspectors every thirty days, but they don't know what they're looking at most of the time."

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