The Trouble With Harry

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

Reece recently obtained a judgment against Elder for the debt and related fees, but he says the way Elder operated, from "using his elderly father as a shield" to providing an array of addresses on different financial documents, may have discouraged other claimants. "Usually, when a new builder has an attorney coming after them, they try to deal with it," Reece says. "His strategy was to use his father to try to make it impossible for himself to get served."

A woman who rented one of Elder's older homes on Troublesome Gulch Road for several months says she was visited by process servers several times. They were looking for Harry Elder. "They were starting to think I was his girlfriend and I was hiding him," says Laura Vantine. "I had to explain to them that Harry lived up the road. They said this was the legal address he gave."

Vantine no longer lives on Troublesome Gulch. Elder is suing her, claiming that she failed to pay several months' rent. Vantine says the money was used, with Elder's approval, to make repairs on the house after the spring 2003 blizzard damaged the roof. Three months ago she obtained a temporary restraining order against Elder, claiming that he entered her house without prior notice at odd hours, sometimes with "bank people" or his friends, and that he tried to run her off the road "with his very large SUV." The order was never made permanent; Elder says that Vantine's claims are unfounded and that a witness has testified in court that he wasn't even driving the day of the alleged road encounter.

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

But tenant-landlord hassles are the least of the challenges on Elder's plate these days. Later this month, he faces a contempt hearing in probate court in the matter of the estate of John W. Elder. Almost two years after his father's death, Harry Elder -- the estate's personal representative -- still has not provided the court with an inventory of the estate's assets at the time of his father's death.

A court order to produce such an inventory yielded a one-page response from Elder, stating that the estate's properties have "been in foreclosures" or remain "unsettled," that there are no funds to pay bills, and that the cash balance of the estate is a negative $5,800. (Elder says he simply neglected to file the right form.) The filing made no mention of the properties transferred out of the estate and now in the name of Harry's brother, or how Elder expects to address a $346,000 claim against the estate by Ralph McVey, who'd loaned money to John Senior and foreclosed on a second deed of trust on one of the four big houses.

"If somebody can unravel all this, they're probably a better person than me," says Eric Pringle, McVey's attorney. Pringle declined to comment further on the case, other than to describe it as "intricate" and Elder as "a very interesting guy."

An interesting guy who builds interesting houses. On a rain-soaked morning on Troublesome Gulch, Elder conducts a tour of the two houses he and his brother redeemed from foreclosure, including the one he now occupies. They're good-looking homes, full of alder and maple and cherry and pine, with sinuous, curved staircases and lots of light and spacious views of the surrounding hills.

"I put a lot of love and effort into these," Elder says. "We built each property unique to the landscape. We tried to create an Old World feel that will give a lot of comfort and warmth. I think we accomplished that."

Standing on the back deck of his 5,265-square-foot home, Elder can look down on Troublesome Creek and the foreclosed Tudor he hoped to be finishing by now. He still has $10,000 in fixtures for the Creekside home sitting in his garage.

"I spent about four years designing that house," he says. "I had a designer out of Rochester develop the Tudor look, and I brought in an entire semi, 30,000 or 40,000 pounds, of natural stone. It's kind of a heartbreak, to tell you the truth, to see it every day.... People are angry about not getting paid, but I'm angry that I didn't get a chance to finish them all."

But Elder is a man who strives to take the long view.

"Someday," he says, "there will be four happy homeowners."

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