The Trouble With Harry

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

Coenen disagrees with Elder's assessment of his work. Many of the problems, he insists, had to do with Elder's evolving grand vision of what he was building and his poor relationship with the people actually doing the job.

"I lost a friend over it," Coenen says. "He's a nice guy, but he's a wannabe builder, and he didn't realize what it entailed. That the banks let him do that is amazing. He should have done one house at a time and try to sell that."

By the spring of 2002, Elder's dream was teetering on the brink of an abyss. None of the four homes had undergone final inspection, and lenders were threatening to foreclose. In a deposition taken by one of his creditors, Elder estimated that his company had spent $4 million building the homes, money borrowed from banks in his father's name. He stated that Evergreen Custom Builders had produced no income in four years of operation. And although he was a licensed real estate agent, Elder said that he'd never sold a house or received any income from that line of work.

caricature by Matt Collins
Persistence: Troublesome Gulch builder Harry Elder.
Persistence: Troublesome Gulch builder Harry Elder.

"So what money do you use to live on?" the creditor's attorney asked.

"My father lends me some money to live on," Elder replied.

At the same time, Elder was going through what one judge described as a "high-conflict divorce" from Julie, his wife of seven years. Money wasn't the chief point of contention -- Julie had signed a prenuptial agreement. Still, the case produced several confusing claims concerning Harry Elder's assets and net worth. One financial statement claimed no income and a negative net worth; a subsequent affidavit indicated average monthly income of $2,600 and monthly expenses and debt payments totaling more than $49,000.

But Elder's financial situation was about to change dramatically, thanks to a windfall from an unlikely source. It arrived, strangely enough, on the heels of sad news -- the death of his 84-year-old father, the titular head of the Elder real estate empire.

Harry Elder speaks fondly of his father as an active participant and guiding force in the construction of his dream homes. "My father built these houses," he says. "It was my father who owned the property. I was a third partner in the company that built them."

Other people say that it was John Elder's good credit, not the man himself, that played an active role in the project. By the time construction began, the elder Elder was an octogenarian who used a walker and was exhibiting symptoms of what Harry would later describe as Alzheimer's disease. "His father was hardly ever in the picture," says Chris Johnson.

Many documents connected with the Evergreen Custom Builders partnership list John Elder as a resident of Troublesome Gulch, and frustrated process servers occasionally tried to find him there. But other documents indicate that he was a resident of Washington until the last few months of his life. Although he visited Evergreen now and then, he didn't move in with Harry until late 2001.

The following spring, the Hartford Life Insurance Companies issued a $2 million life insurance policy on John Elder, naming Harry Elder as the beneficiary. Despite his cash-flow problems, Harry managed to put together the $50,000 premium due every three months, enlisting his brother, also named John, in the effort. Harry Elder says that he was concerned about protecting the family's stake in the project. The policy had been in the works for years, he adds, and his father had no trouble passing a required physical.

But several people who became acquainted with John Senior in his final months say they're amazed that Hartford issued such a large policy, given his frail and sometimes disoriented state. In a deposition taken in May 2002 by one of his creditors, he struggled to recall the elusive names of places and people, including his own son. He was confused about his role in Evergreen Custom Builders and insisted that the newly constructed homes were Harry's doing and belonged to Harry.

"He was the designer and the realtor and the seller," John Elder said. "If you want to see some really great houses, go look at them. They're up in the little city of -- it's a well-known recreational area."

"Do you remember doing anything with respect to these properties in Colorado, building the properties or anything else?" the creditor's attorney asked.

"I don't know," John Elder replied. "I don't remember."

He died at his son's home on Troublesome Gulch Road on September 29, 2002. Harry Elder told responding officers that he'd found his father lying in bed, unconscious and not breathing. He said his father had hurt his knee in a fall a week before but hadn't seen a doctor since his physical ten months earlier. The Jefferson County Coroner's Office filed the event as a natural death due to heart disease; Harry Elder says he requested an autopsy, which showed evidence of advanced Alzheimer's. A few weeks later, Hartford issued Harry a check for $2,058,425.82.

According to John Elder's will, Harry was the sole beneficiary of his estate, including all of the Colorado properties in his name. The arrangement was challenged in probate court by Harry's brother, John, who filed a claim against the estate, arguing that he'd contributed to his father's life-insurance premiums, mortgage payments and other obligations. But the Elder brothers soon settled their differences; many of the properties that were formerly titled in John Senior's name are now in the name of his son John.

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