By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Looking back, Tanya Becker realizes that she failed to heed a harbinger of what was in store for her.
She recalls that when Steve Hart approached her about a lease-purchase deal on her north Phoenix house, "I told him I was so glad that he was going to rent my house because I was worried about someone like in the movie Pacific Heights, where the renter doesn't pay rent and then trashes the place. I asked him if he saw the movie, and he said no. When I think back on it, he didn't look me in the eyes. . . . I should have taken that as a sign."
Instead, she saw in him an ideal tenant, a committed family man working for a company named Consumer Action Inc. "You hear the name of the company and you think he must have ethics," Becker says. "You know he's looking out for the common people. He seemed very honest."
Hart told Becker he had just been transferred from Oregon and would eventually buy her house, but he would rent until he could sell his home in Oregon and liquidate his assets.
Hart provided Becker with cashier's checks for the security deposit and the first month's rent, totaling $2,550. She was so taken with Hart that she signed a lease-purchase contract before he provided a credit history. The deal, according to Becker, was contingent on a good credit report, but she wasn't worried, at least not at first.
She began to worry when the credit report failed to materialize. All Hart would give her was a letter purportedly written by an officer of Consumer Action Inc. The letter--with a primitive logo and typesetting--stated that Consumer Action would advance Hart $100,000 if he was not able to sell his home in Oregon. The letter told him to "keep up the good work in the Phoenix area" and was signed by a Theodore Knox.
After Hart failed on several occasions to produce the credit report, Becker told him deal was off. She told him to come and pick up his checks.
Hart didn't see it that way. On August 15, 1993, Hart had the locks on Becker's house changed and moved in, anyway--in the middle of the night.
More than six months later, Hart and his family still occupy her home, and he hasn't paid any rent since September 15.
The effort to dislodge Hart and regain her house has been Becker's all-consuming mission. She and others who have had the misfortune of crossing paths with Hart--New Times interviewed dozens of them--tell of a man who almost defies description.
Every fiber of his ingenious being seems dedicated to portraying himself as an all-American nice guy and business wizard. In reality, he comes off as a cross between King Midas and the Artful Dodger: Nearly everybody he touches gets the shakedown.
"When somebody does such a good job of cheating you out of money, like this guy, it becomes personal," says Dennis Saban, owner of Saban Rents, who had to repossess a rental car from Hart in December.
When Hart needs a new place to live, he looks for pricey homes and out-of-state landlords, then hurls threats and employs bankruptcy and tenant laws to stay long after his rent checks, and his welcome, have dried up. Since coming to Arizona in August 1992, he's declared bankruptcy twice.
As it turned out, Hart had no home or assets in Oregon. The only things he left behind were mountains of debt, a failed pyramid scheme, unpaid employees--and curious investigators for the Oregon attorney general.
There are questions about Hart's fledgling business in Arizona. Hart claims that Consumer Action is a nonprofit fund-raising organization, but the Internal Revenue Service says the company does not have tax-exempt status. None of the organizations he claims as clients has heard of him. Nobody knows where Theodore Knox, Hart's admiring boss, can be found. But Hart's teenage stepson is named Theodore Knox.
Becker, a Vietnamese emigrant who is supposed to be living in Texas with her husband, instead has been in Phoenix for months, fighting to regain her home. She and her 3-year-old son, Joshua, sleep on the floor of her brother's apartment. Becker says she has paid more than $10,000 in legal fees, and is still making the mortgage payment on the house.
"I've spent a lot of money, all of my savings, and I've borrowed money to fight him in court. I continue to do so because that's the only thing that will get him out of my house, unless he finds somebody else like us to latch onto," Becker says.
Ryan Enders, who worked for Hart's failed business in Oregon, and who later won a civil suit against Hart, believes Hart should be punished. "But the system just doesn't work," Enders says.
But the system has worked. It's worked for Steve Hart.
@body:Steve Hart is a pleasant-looking man with a neatly trimmed beard and clear, blue eyes. He's short, about five-foot-five, but he looks every inch of what Tanya Becker saw when she first met him--an honest, hardworking man.
Hart and his wife, Barbara, have four children living with them. Two are hers from a prior marriage, and two are theirs, the youngest just months old. Two of Barbara Hart's other children are living with relatives.