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County Supervisor Don Stapley made a killing on a shady development and sank the profits into a mansion. Then he told the tax assessor to value his estate at $863,000 -- while listing it for sale at $2.5 million.

"There are not a lot of documents for him to execute," Parker says.

Stapley's explanation does not score well on the proverbial smell test. But foul odors waft around many of Stapley's business dealings.

Supervisor Stapley voted in 1997 to spend $9 million to improve the Estrella Parkway leading to a Sun Chase Holdings development. Two months later, Stapley traded property in Pinal County to a Sun Chase affiliate in exchange for an Arcadia mansion.
Paolo Vescia
Supervisor Stapley voted in 1997 to spend $9 million to improve the Estrella Parkway leading to a Sun Chase Holdings development. Two months later, Stapley traded property in Pinal County to a Sun Chase affiliate in exchange for an Arcadia mansion.

It wasn't so with the county supervisor's forebears. The Stapley family has been prominent in East Valley politics and business since before statehood. Don Stapley's grandfather was a heavy-machinery distributor who made a fortune providing equipment for construction of Roosevelt Dam east of Phoenix. In the hallway outside Stapley's office is a photo of his grandfather riding with President Theodore Roosevelt en route to the dam's dedication ceremony. The family's stature is reflected in a major Mesa thoroughfare -- Stapley Drive.

In recent years, scandal has stalked the family.

When Don's brother, Jim Stapley, was a Mesa city councilman, he was accused of sexual harassment after he allegedly fondled a councilwoman during a helicopter ride. He was forced to resign on Halloween 1997 for a slew of questionable deeds, including allegations that he had impersonated a sheriff's deputy and a lawyer.

After decades in the East Valley, Don Stapley decided in 1997 to move his family to Phoenix, just a few blocks south of Paradise Valley.

"We actually visited the house three times and I kept saying that this wasn't "my house.' I had no intention of moving from Mesa," Stapley's wife, Kathy, is quoted as saying in the March 1999 issue of Phoenix Magazine.

During one visit to the Arcadia estate, the magazine reports, Kathy heard the "sound of bells chiming the hour from a nearby church. It reminded her of her teenage years spent living in Bavaria."

Kathy Stapley told the magazine "those bells probably clinched the house for me." The family purchased the sprawling, two-story home in October 1997 for a reported price of $900,000.

But those bells didn't prevent Kathy Stapley from taking the highly unusual step of relinquishing title to the property in July 1999. Her quit claim was filed at the same time her husband refinanced the estate with a $765,000 mortgage and after the couple had invested $400,000 to upgrade the home during the American Society of Interior Designers' showcase remodeling.

Don Stapley calls the quit claim a "strange deal."

Stapley says the loan officer told him it would be simpler to refinance the loan without his wife on the note.

"It had to do with some delinquent payments on credit card debt at Dillard's that was in her name," Don Stapley says. "Rather than having to explain that away," the note and the house were placed only in his name, he says.

Stapley says he filed papers recently that will restore his wife's ownership in the Arcadia estate. Kathy Stapley could not be reached for comment.

The quit claim is just one piece of the strange mosaic surrounding Stapley's acquisition of the Arcadia home, the ensuing major overhaul as a showcase property and subsequent marketing of the property for $2.5 million.

The saga began in June 1995, when Don Stapley agreed to act as a self-proclaimed "straw man" in a sham real estate transaction involving land near Maricopa County's San Tan Regional Park about 15 miles south of Apache Junction. The park is located in Pinal County, but is owned and operated by Maricopa County.

On June 26, 1995, a Stapley-controlled company called Arroyo Pacific Investment Incorporated signed a sales agreement recorded in Pinal County to purchase 40 acres for $80,000 from Bastante Incorporated. The agreement states that Stapley made a $16,000 cash down payment.

State records, however, show Stapley never made a $16,000 down payment on the land, writing a check on Arroyo's account to Bastante for only $8,000.

Records show that on the same day, Stapley sold the north half of the 40-acre parcel for $40,000 to Suzette Tyler. The sales agreement recorded in Pinal County states that Tyler made an $8,000 cash down payment to Stapley. Officials at the attorney general's office say there is no record of Tyler ever making an $8,000 down payment to Stapley.

Instead, assistant attorney general Michael Denious says, it appears that Tyler's father, Dixon "Duke" Cowley, made the down payment on Tyler's behalf to Bastante -- rather than Stapley's company, which had sold the land to Tyler.

Why would Cowley make a down payment on his daughter's behalf to Bastante for land purportedly purchased from Stapley?

The attorney general is alleging the payment was part of an illegal lot-splitting scheme masterminded by Cowley, who is an old friend of Stapley's. The state alleges in a complaint filed in March that Cowley engineered the purchase of the 200 acres, then executed a series of transactions to illegally subdivide the property into more than five parcels smaller than 36 acres.

State law requires developers to obtain a subdivision plan if they divide property more than five ways. Subdivision plans greatly increase costs to developers because they require approval from local governments and easements for roads and utilities. Developers can skirt the rule as long as they act independently and only divide their initial purchase into five or fewer lots.

So-called "wildcat" subdivisions can create major financial problems for municipalities because the land is often haphazardly developed without adequate services.

State Senator Tom Freestone, a Mesa Republican, has led an effort to strengthen state subdivision laws by limiting a single landowner to no more than three property splits.

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