Fallout in the Family

Page 9 of 10

An hour after he hangs up on Westword, Monica calls to cancel a scheduled interview. In an earlier, brief conversation, she said she had trusted Mark at one time but no longer does.

Her court filings smack of her father's influence: They strongly imply that Mark held his parents in an evil grip for the past decade.

But in 1994, during a lengthy interview, the last one they gave any reporter (Westword had sought out Charlie and M.L. without Mark's knowledge), M.L. and Charlie showed no signs that they were suffering. They knew they were no longer in control of their own destinies and seemed grateful to Mark. Neither said much about any of their sons.

Mark blames his father's 1971 accident for much of the family's disintegration. With Charlie knocked out of action, the squabbling among the brothers intensified. Before that, Mark says, the boys all listened to their father and respected him. "Our heroes were our parents," he adds. The only one of the boys trained in geology, Mark says Charlie had refocused on his mining properties and probably would have uncovered another big strike of some sort if he hadn't been hurt.

Charlie himself blamed the accident on the government. "If the IRS hadn't seized me," he said, "I wouldn't have been out in the field."

The long IRS battle was the key, says Charlie's sister, Maxine, and now Charles Jr. may feel jealous and guilty "because Mark stepped in. They could have all helped. Now they'll do anything to heckle Mark."

Maxine herself is caught in the middle of the feud, and her name pops up in various court papers. "You pick up the phone, and you never know what you're getting into next," she says. "And I'm getting too old for this nonsense."

Maxine sees the whole situation as ineffably sad. "If we didn't have any money," she says, "we would have come out of this as a family. The boys hate each other. As their aunt, I'm right in the middle of it, and it just kills you off."

In some ways, of course, all that money did spoil the boys. Mark says his dad, himself so poor as a child, "wanted us to have everything he didn't have, and he wanted to live vicariously through us." There were incredible indulgences: a teenaged Charles Jr. flying to Hong Kong for a few days and blowing $12,000; Andy convincing his dad to buy him a $20,000 revolving bed in the Washoe Valley mansion.

Charlie thought the trust funds would be more than enough to give his sons a great running start. But Mark says Charles Jr. and Andy squandered theirs, and he and John spent theirs bailing out first their brothers and then their parents. Mark is bitter toward Charles Jr. and Andy, especially Andy, whom he describes as the most imaginative--but most destructive--of the four. Andy was a teen genius at spotting horseflesh and introduced the first Spanish-bred Arabian horses to the U.S. If the Steens' budding horse ranch hadn't been part of the government seizure, the Steens could have grown wealthy in that business alone. Andy also had an eye for the antiques business. But Mark also recalls having to shell out tens of thousands of dollars to pay off bad debts that the mercurial Andy ran up during a stint in Moab after the empire had collapsed.

"If not for the trust funds," Maxine says, "they would have gone out and built their lives instead of waiting for the court battles to end so they could get back to where they were. You can't live in those dream worlds."

The same longtime friend who says Charlie Steen was too trusting says the boys' being spoiled was inevitable. "It's a given," the friend says. "Who wouldn't be? When Charlie and M.L. got money, they did indulge their children. But does having been indulged have anything to do with the split? I don't know."

The reason this friend requests anonymity is for fear of being pulled into the black hole of the court battle. Still, the friend clearly sympathizes with Mark: "I hate to think what would have happened to Charlie and M.L. if not for Mark--whether it just fell to him or he chose to do it."

Mark walks like he's carrying the weight of the world. He swears that all he wants to do is get out from under the crumbled Steen empire. It'll take an outsider, perhaps the special administrator now in charge of examining the probate case, to decide if he can do that. Mark says that's okay with him. If he ever writes the Steen saga, Mark adds, he'll call it All the Misfortune That Money Could Buy.

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Ward Harkavy
Contact: Ward Harkavy