TRIAL AND TERROR

"Here's how I felt about it," Steve Bisbee, the lawyer, was saying.
He was talking about his role in the biggest trial of his career. He was also talking about a period of more than a month during which some who wanted him to lose kept threatening every day to kill his wife.

"You remember those old Western movies where the guys with the black hats ride into town? The marshal figures all the leading businessmen will step forward to back him, right? But then, as he walks down that dusty main street to face the bad guys, he gets a sinking feeling down in the pit of his stomach.

"He can see all the substantial citizens out of the corner of his eye. They aren't getting their guns to help him. What they're doing is pulling down their shades, so they won't have to see what happens to him next.

"Well, that's exactly how I felt during the final weeks of the U-Haul trial, or Shoen v. Shoen, when I was representing Dr. Sam Shoen. Each day a new threat was made to murder my wife, Mari. Whoever it was who wanted to stop me from rendering effective counsel to my client kept attempting to get to me by terrorizing her.

"And there was nobody to whom I could turn for help. I feared for our lives. I also feared causing a mistrial in the case."

The stakes were awesome. Steve and his co-counsel, Gil Shaw, eventually won a judgment of $1.4 billion against Joe and Mark Shoen of U-Haul.

"In addition to the threats on my wife," Bisbee recalls, "there were repeated attempts to poison my dog, vandalize our home and our car.

"Finally, they set the house on fire while Mari and the kids were in it. Luckily, they got out without injury. But the house was destroyed. The damage was $200,000. I was in the judge's chambers at the time the fire started, preparing for final arguments in the Shoen case."

Steve Bisbee is 46 years old, married and the father of two boys, Matthew, 13, and Michael, 4. A native Arizonan, he served four and a half years as a naval flight officer, got an advanced degree in business from Thunderbird International and then a law degree from ASU.

He worked as an attorney in the Maricopa County Public Defender's Office, went into private business for several years and then turned back to private law practice in 1991. With his dual experience as a lawyer and a business executive, he meshed perfectly with his client, Dr. Shoen, who was the former president of U-Haul.

What has come to be known as the U-Haul case is really a long and festering family feud that pitted family patriarch L.S. Shoen and his oldest son, Sam, against two other sons, Joe and Mark, who had usurped control of the billion-dollar international company, which has its main headquarters on Central Avenue here in Phoenix.

The Shoen family is one of the richest in Arizona. But it is not politically powerful. Its long record of internecine warfare has dissipated the ability of business observers to take it seriously.

So when Steve Bisbee took on Dr. Sam Shoen as a client in the case to win back control of the U-Haul company, he had to understand that it was going to be difficult. It was a case in which anything could happen, given the smoldering emotions of the contending parties.

For example, something that could not be mentioned in open court was the recent murder of Dr. Sam Shoen's beautiful Norwegian wife, Eva. She had been shot to death in their ski chalet in Telluride, Colorado, in August 1990.

Relations between the family factions were so savage that L.S. Shoen, the father, had gone on national television and pointed his finger at his own sons, Joe and Mark, and accused them of being responsible for his daughter-in-law's murder.

On October 12, 1992, L.S. Shoen appeared on Hard Copy in a segment headlined: "Father accuses two of his sons of murder." During the interview, L.S. said, "I'm convinced the murderer was someone that was close to either my son Joe or my son Mark. . . . I am convinced either one or both of them, directly or indirectly, are responsible for this."

When Joe Shoen learned what his father had said about him, he filed a libel suit. It is pending.

This is the situation Steve Bisbee entered when he undertook to represent Sam Shoen in the lawsuit against his brothers Joe and Mark in Superior Court before Judge Thomas Dunevant III in September of this year. He understood going in that nothing about it would be easy.

Some lawyers have a persistent dream. They spend many of their waking moments fantasizing about the one big case of their careers. They chase after it like Captain Ahab pursued the white whale. Privately, they wonder about themselves and how they will perform when the legal stakes reach the highest point.

These thoughts occur to every lawyer despite his or her level of skill. Even the most naturally gifted worry if they will pass the ultimate test.

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