The Trouble With Harry

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

Friend, are you tired of living in a crackerbox? Do you dream of a mansion on a hill?

Does that dream include stately stone turrets, wraparound porches, vaulted ceilings, a home theater, and a family room the size of an airplane hangar, suitable for the toddling heirs to your estate? Do you wallow in real estate brochures that repeat lulling phrases -- new standard of luxury, dramatic stone entryway, hand-hewn logs, expansive views, custom cabinetry, knotty pine details, distinctive residence, exclusive collection-- like a hypnotist's spiel? Do you find yourself cruising by dazzling mountain properties that aren't even on the way home?

What's that? You don't have the money for one of these seven-figure beauties?

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

Pshaw. A thousand times pshaw.

Forget about paying retail. Build your dream home yourself. Well, maybe not by yourself -- you can get fine craftsmen to do it, experienced masons and carpenters and plumbers and what-not. And you can use other people's money and other people's credit to finance the project. Maybe build three or four hulking spec homes while you're at it, promising to pay everybody back when the homes sell -- or the day after never, whichever comes first.

Colorado's troubled luxury-home market is no place for the timid. But for the few, the bold, the highly motivated, opportunity abounds. If you're a truly visionary builder, you know how to get the job done. How to get work out of trusting subcontractors and stall payment indefinitely. How to get appraisals and bank loans for amounts far, far above what the county says the property is actually worth. How to brush off liens, foreclosure actions and fuming creditors like dandruff off a fine silk suit. And finally, how to take the fruit of your labors to market.

You think this takes big buckets of money? Think again. What it takes is something much more basic. Call it will, desire, gumption, cojones.

Or call it persistence. Whatever else his critics might say about Harry Elder, a custom builder of multimillion-dollar homes in the Evergreen area, they all marvel at his determination.

"I am shy, but I have imagination," Elder told a psychologist who was preparing a report in Elder's divorce proceedings a few years ago. "I am a persistent guy. I am strong-willed."

Elder's persistence has produced four sprawling houses in the hills outside of Kittredge. It's also resulted in a long trail of lawsuits and complaints of shabby treatment, with enough plot twists and intrigue to supply a TV courtroom drama for an entire season.

Former employees and business associates describe Elder as a smart, beguiling entrepreneur with a knack for drawing others into his formidable projects. Some say his dream of erecting high-end homes on the aptly named Troublesome Gulch Road simply got out of hand; others say he's used the legal system to keep creditors at bay and has burned people who invested their time, money and talent in his dream.

"Harry charms everybody," says one source who worked closely with Elder on the four homes. (Several former Elder associates requested anonymity, expressing concerns about ongoing litigation.) "I kept going with his promises because he talks a good game. But he was really lying to me."

Elder, who lives in one of his homes on Troublesome Gulch that has been listed at $1.5 million, blames the project's checkered history on financing problems and unreliable helpers. The economic downturn of 2001-'02 hammered the luxury market hard; many of his lenders went under, replaced by less sympathetic banks. As Elder tells it, the problem was compounded by unscrupulous business associates and subcontractors who did unacceptable work or delayed the project. It was because of these multiple catastrophes, he says, that two of the homes have been lost to foreclosure. Three years after the homes were first advertised for sale, they've undergone a series of changes of title. But not one has sold to a disinterested buyer.

"We started construction when we had a very aggressive market," Elder says. "When 9/11 hit, the brakes went on. Some of the banks went out of business. It became a little bit difficult to continue. But the market in Evergreen is becoming robust again.

"With the homes that got refinanced, there were quite a lot of people who got paid. Some people settled, and some people did less than great work. When you're dealing with four major homes and the banks pull the rug out from under you -- it's not like there's one answer as to what happened."


There is, of course, more than one version of who Harry Elder is and how he came to build the big houses. There's the version Elder himself has told, the story of a hardworking, self-made businessman who earned a fortune in the garden-center business, fell in love with the Colorado mountain lifestyle and set out to share the love by building these extravagant homes.

There are other versions circulating around Evergreen -- stories about strained friendships and unpaid bills, about a man striving to project prosperity despite stunning setbacks. And there is another kind of story told in nearly two decades' worth of court records scattered around the metro area, in which Elder is listed as a defendant in dozens of lawsuits seeking money for alleged services rendered or contracts unfulfilled. Many of the cases were later dropped or settled; in some instances, Elder prevailed. The sums involved aren't huge (most of them are county court cases), but the pattern is clear: bundles of cash promised, denied, shifted, fought over -- and finally abandoned to the legal winds.

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.

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."

Although he claims Elder still owes him thousands of dollars, Johnson has put the partnership behind him. He doesn't like to talk about Harry Elder, he says. "I don't want to even remember it," he sighs. "This was the worst experience of my life, other than getting cancer."

Elder disputes Johnson's account of their partnership. He denies any plan to withhold payment from subs -- "people were paid all the way through," he insists -- or pulling invoices from the draws submitted to banks. Johnson persuaded him to build the homes all at once, he says, claiming that it would save money in the long run. And he insists that, taking into account the high costs of mountainside construction, the houses were planned as million-dollar properties from the start.

"Chris Johnson hurt the project quite a bit," Elder says. "He got paid too much money up front and left the project high and dry. He brought in people who were questionable, and we recovered some money from them in court."

But sources involved in the construction process after Johnson left say that complaints about non-payment continued. Some workers soldiered on because of the promise of more jobs to come, after the first houses sold and the rest of the lots were developed. Others left. "People weren't respecting Harry because he wasn't paying," says one Evergreen contractor.

Several workers say they thought they were building homes that would sell for between half a million and a million dollars; the homes have since been advertised at prices ranging from $1.3 to $1.7 million. One source familiar with the Evergreen real estate market says that Elder had them wildly overpriced, particularly for one- to three-acre lots on a road known for eccentric neighbors and older houses.

"Harry wanted things to be very, very nice," says the source. "Well, you have to use your brains and not overbuild. Because he owned so much property up there, he thought everybody was going to love it up there. People loved the houses, the way they looked, but they didn't want to put that kind of money into that area."

Don Coenen was one of the craftsmen Elder hired to make things very, very nice. Elder gave him a personal check for $10,000 to purchase marble for the master bath and steam room in Creekside, a 4,900-square-foot Tudor on Troublesome Gulch. But then Elder kept asking for grander alterations in the marble work, he says, and Coenen paid for additional supplies out of his own pocket.

"Most of my jobs are a handshake, basically, but I learned from this whole experience about that," says Coenen, whose company, Donco Tile, has been in business for fifteen years. "I got a little suspicious toward the end of the job, seeing all these notes from other workers about not being paid. I thought, 'He's a friend, he's not going to screw me' -- so I finished the job and handed him the bill. I kept calling him, and he said, 'I'm looking for some money for you.' I sent him a bill every month for a year and a half."

Coenen had met Elder years before and had even invited him to his wedding. He later sued Elder and settled before trial for $6,000 -- about half of what he was owed, he says, and far less than the job would have cost another builder.

"With attorneys' fees and all, I ended up settling for about 25 cents on the dollar," he says. "In a normal house, the marble work I did would have been $25,000. But I just wanted to get that negativity out of my life. For a personal friend to do that, I had a hard time figuring out how he'd be sleeping at night."

Coenen says Elder once asked him what he thought Creekside would sell for. Coenen guessed eight or nine hundred thousand dollars. "He said, 'No, one seven,'" Coenen recalls. "He's dreaming. Granted, Gary Hart lives up there, but he lives way back behind the gate."

The prices Elder originally placed on the homes are double -- and, in some cases, almost triple -- the actual value of the homes as calculated by the Jefferson County Assessor's Office. Elder says the county is "two or three years behind the market" in its valuations. The prices listed in old brochures touting the four homes don't reflect the economic downturn since 9/11 and may be "soft," he says, but he doesn't consider them out of line with the Evergreen luxury market, particularly given the wealth of custom details in each home. Creekside, for example, was built with tons of hand-carved stone from Mexico and includes a handsome, SUV-wide wooden bridge across the creek. (The investors who took over Creekside, once listed at $1,695,000 before going through foreclosure, are now asking $949,000 for the property.)

"The value of the home is in the eye of the beholder," Elder says. "It's what the buyer is willing to pay."

Many of the conflicts with his subcontractors were due to the fact that several of them, including Coenen, didn't perform up to expectations, he adds. "We asked him to redo some work, and he refused to do it," Elder says. "He cost the project a tremendous amount of money. How can you get fully paid for a job that took longer than it should have and wasn't a good job to begin with? We settled for a figure that worked out for him and for me."

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.

"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.

News of Harry Elder's inheritance raised hopes among his creditors that their claims might finally be addressed. But Elder had other plans for the insurance money, including rescuing his dream homes from foreclosure.

"People are so angry that he got away with this, and then he absolutely thumbed his nose at us," says one lien-holder. "When he had money to pay back these little people, he bought back property instead."

Elder points out that the mountain of debts incurred in the course of building the four homes, disputed or not, weren't his personal liability; they were debts of his father's estate. The insurance money, on the other hand, belonged to him; it wasn't an asset of the estate. Still, he says, he tried to do the right thing for everybody involved, despite a difficult market and once-friendly lenders who'd been taken over by strangers.

"Never did I think that the banks that were funding these things would basically evaporate on me," he says. "The banks stopped funding the loans, and the project came to a halt. I got no correspondence for over a year from the people who bought the construction loans. They hadn't sent any billing statements. When my father passed way, there weren't any funds in the estate to make any payments."

The failure to keep current on the loans opened the door to foreclosure actions. While Elder was fighting desperately to close that door, he was also stringing along subcontractors and others, according to Janel Wiese, a nanny who worked in Elder's home for several months last year.

Wiese says the job of looking after Elder's children soon evolved into acting as a personal assistant as well, helping to direct workers on the big houses and arranging for payment. "He was never on time with payment," she says now. "I had worker after worker coming to me, saying, 'Harry didn't pay me' or 'His check bounced.' He had collection people calling constantly, calling for him and his father. They didn't know his father was deceased. There was mail he wouldn't open for months. Harry didn't seem to be bothered by it."

Elder was frequently absent. "He told me he wasn't paying certain workers because he didn't feel they did the job he wanted, even though he was never there to make decisions," she says. "These workers did what they thought he wanted, but he'd get another week of work from them and then not pay them. He was very blatant in letting me know he was going to do that."

Wiese testified on Elder's behalf in his divorce trial. Later, however, she wrote a letter to the opposing counsel claiming that she'd been manipulated and deceived by Elder. "When I made clear my intentions to leave his employ for breaching all agreements, I saw a side of Harry Elder I had not seen until that time," she wrote. "Harry Elder accused me of being an extortionist, a danger to his family and children, and threatened to press charges against me for sexual danger to his children. These things were said because I was asking him to live up to our agreements and compensate my salary loss with severance pay.

"Harry did not want me to quit, did not want to pay, and did not want to lose control. He blatantly told me he had only to make accusations to ruin my reputation."

Elder denies Wiese's allegations. He says she was fired because "she had done some things that were against the law," but he declines to elaborate. "We no longer felt she was safe with the children," he says. "I don't want to go into detail."

Wiese, who describes herself as a "high-end nanny" who's worked all over the world, says she never did anything improper, much less illegal, while in Elder's employment. "I was a very good nanny for him," she says. "I took over the whole house. That was part of the problem. He was never there. He didn't hold up any of his end. I had to bring the police when I went to get my things because I was afraid he would say things that weren't true."


Thanks to some canny negotiations, the Elder brothers were successful in prying two of the four new homes from the predations of foreclosure. With the cash infusion provided by Harry's insurance money, they were able to pick up the notes on the properties at a discount and refinance. Both homes are now titled in the name of John Elder; the sale price of one is recorded as $1.5 million, the other as $1.3 million. But that doesn't mean John Elder actually brought $2.8 million in cash into the deal; both homes now carry new, hefty mortgages, one for a million dollars, the other for $585,000.

Harry Elder says he paid off tens of thousands of dollars in mechanics' liens on each property to obtain the new loans. (Not every subcontractor who claims to be owed money bothers to file a lien or to pursue the matter through the foreclosure process.) He says he had every intention of doing the same for the other two homes his company built.

But the fate of those two houses is now one of the central issues in tangled litigation between Elder and Ashcroft Homes, an Englewood-based builder of half-million-dollar homes. The case, which revolves around a failed effort by Elder to purchase the notes on the other two houses, has produced some stinging rhetoric on both sides.

One of Ashcroft's subsidiary businesses involves acquiring non-performing loans from other lenders and reselling them. According to Elder, Ashcroft officials approached him about the two notes, part of a portfolio of loans that the group was seeking to buy from an Ohio mortgage company.

"My intention was to try to recover the loans and finish the properties," Elder says. "If I had been able to buy the notes, we would have done exactly as we did with the other two -- buy the home, put the additional funds into it and pay off the liens. I worked with Ashcroft for nine months. It wasn't a pleasant experience."

Elder says he "got interested in the company" and agreed to loan Ashcroft $250,000. In return, Ashcroft agreed to help him acquire the notes on his properties and gave him the option of purchasing stock and entering other business ventures with the company. But the deal fell apart, he says, when Ashcroft failed to pay back the loan, then acquired the two notes and sold them to other parties -- despite the fact that Elder paid a $50,000 deposit to help secure the notes.

"The homes got foreclosed, and the contractors got foreclosed, too," Elder says. "I don't have any interest in those homes now other than the agreements I had with Ashcroft. And they didn't live up to their agreements."

Both Elder and Ashcroft Homes say they were damaged by the deal they made, each claiming the other breached the agreement. Ashcroft has been drubbed in the business press recently over reports of unpaid subcontractors, mounting liens and cash-flow problems that have kept the company from closing on several home sales. Joe Oblas, Ashcroft's executive vice president, says many of the company's difficulties are directly related to the deal with Elder. The collateral provided for Elder's loan to the company included deeds of trust on numerous Ashcroft properties that Elder has refused to release, he says, tying up company assets.

"All this comes down to one stupid phone call, one big mistake," Oblas says. "We called this guy because we were interested in acquiring the notes and wanted to know what he was doing with the properties, what our borrower was going to look like if we owned the paper."

Oblas says Elder came to his office and represented himself as a prosperous man who'd "sold a bunch of nurseries and made millions." He said he wanted to fulfill his father's "legacy" by finishing the homes on Troublesome Gulch and wanted to invest in Ashcroft Homes.

"The guy comes off as charismatic as the day is long," Oblas says. "A big teddy-bear type. Very soft-spoken. Nice guy."

Oblas says it took months to wrangle the portfolio of loans from the Ohio company at a favorable price. At that point, Elder demanded that Ashcroft sell the notes to him for less than the company paid for them; made numerous other demands at odds with the agreements the parties had signed; and tried to hold hostage the properties Ashcroft had offered as collateral on his loan.

"Once we got the notes, he stopped releasing our properties," Oblas says. "We've had homes with buyers that can't close. We've had homes with liens that can't be paid. It's clobbered a huge amount of our assets, and when you try to explain to somebody how this happened -- you've got to be a scientist to explain Harry Elder."

Elder says Ashcroft should pay back his $250,000 loan if it wants clear title to its properties back. Oblas says his company would like nothing better than to be clear of Harry Elder.


Dennis Polk, Elder's attorney, describes his client as a well-meaning businessman whose financial travails stem from unfortunate timing and economic forces beyond his control.

"There are huge pitfalls whenever you start a construction project," Polk notes. "Dealing with the trades is always a problem, and the overall issue of time in construction is always problematic -- even more so with luxury homes in a mountain environment. Building luxury homes on a spec basis is different than building a custom home for somebody. That's where the wiggle and the waggle happens in this."

If he had it to do over again, Elder says he would have chosen his partners more carefully. "To me, it boiled down to having a good, honest general contractor to lead the deal," he explains. "You're only as strong as your weakest link."

His creditors and their attorneys tend to view the matter differently. "His use of the legal system points out some real holes in the system," says Joe Reece, who sued Elder on behalf of a company that provided fireplaces for the big houses. "Here's a $5,000 debt, and he tries to make it inefficient for anyone to go after him."

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.

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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