Longform

Fallout in the Family

Page 7 of 10

When he woke up, he spoke Spanish, not English, and remembered his sons not by their names but as No. 1, No. 2 and so on. It took Charlie two and a half years to recover.

"He never did call me by name right after the accident," M.L. said. "It was very, very difficult for all of us, because he knew what he wanted to say but he couldn't say it."

Years later, though, both could laugh about it.
"He came up with some really funny things," M.L. said. "One time he came in the bathroom and he said, 'M.L., can you cut this hair right here with pliers?' And I said, 'I sure can!'"

"It hurt like hell!" said Charlie.
"And he said, 'Oh, dammit, you know what I mean. The scissors!' And another time he was out in the carport with one of our kids and he said, 'You know, we've got to get snowshoes for these cars.' Oh, we had a lot of laughs, even if they were at his expense!"

"Well," said Charlie, "I've had a sense of humor all my life. I laugh at myself even today."

And there was one big laugh yet to come--this one on the IRS. As it turned out, some of the bankruptcy court's appraisals of Steen's seized property were absurdly low and proved that he'd had the potential for at least one more big strike. Charlie's Mercur Mine in Utah was snapped up by Getty Oil for $83,000. Mark Steen says it later pumped out $150 million worth of gold for its new owner.

Mark Steen, now nearing fifty, is a driven person, much like his dad. His sense of humor, however, is about a thousand shades darker. "I've been in the sticky grip of the legal profession all my adult life," he says, sitting down for an interview in the Hotel Boulderado bar.

His view is that he stuck by his parents, while Charles Jr. and Andy deserted them. During the last few years of the fight with the feds, Charlie refused to even go to court, and Mark stood in for the Steen family. Lawyers came and went; there wasn't enough money to pay one set of attorneys to see the case through from start to finish. It was Mark who dealt with the changes, Mark who scraped together money to buy back Charlie and M.L's personal possessions from bankruptcy court in Nevada.

When the smoke finally cleared, the Steen empire had shrunk--but not exactly to nothing.

The Reno mansion is history; the family finally left it in 1975. But the Steens still own big chunks of land in Moab. And that little town is now one of the nation's mountain-biking capitals; it's booming with tourists. Some of the Steens' land is right along the main highway through town; another section is the only private holding on the popular Slickrock Bike Trail. Developed, the property is potentially worth millions.

In Boulder County, the Steens own the old Cash Mine and other gold-mining properties, which they call the Gold Hill Venture.

If there were family harmony, says Mark, the Steens would be millionaire land developers--or multi-millionaires. Even if the probate judge orders the properties sold at their current value, the combatants would be likely to walk away with a few hundred thousand dollars each, Mark says. But because the Steen offspring have been used to living large, they think in terms of millions, not thousands. So now they're spending all their time and remaining money in court.

The family began splitting into factions in the early 1970s. Charlie's words about "two systems locked in mortal combat" were prescient. The enemies were not nations, however, but brothers.

The fight is basically Charles Jr. versus Mark. Although John's not a player, he has sided with Mark. Andy, after spending some time on business ventures in Moab, is globe-trotting. Court papers sent to Switzerland come back undelivered, but Mark says he's sure that Charles Jr. is in contact with Andy.

Charles Jr. was once in charge of the Gold Hill Venture, which was a joint project with Gwen and Dick Fraser, old friends of the Steens'. When that deal fell apart, Charles Jr. left, and Mark moved to Longmont from Reno, taking over management of Gold Hill. But deal after deal continued to fall through; each side accused the other of sabotage. As the Steen sons tried to figure out ways to rebuild the empire, animosities deepened. Now relations are so contentious that investors have been scared away.

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Ward Harkavy
Contact: Ward Harkavy