By Matthew Hendley
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"I think it is very important that we have proper planning of the private land we have in this state," Freestone says. "There must be some assurances for proper right of way, water and utilities."
The lot-splitting created by Cowley and his partners threatens to burden Pinal County with heavy expenses. Pinal County placed a moratorium on building permits on the 200 acres subdivided by Cowley and his associates. Pinal County Manager Stanley Griffis has sent several letters to the state Real Estate Department alleging that Stapley was involved in illegal lot-splitting.
"Illegal land splits, such as the Stapley properties seem to be, create a myriad of problems for county government and citizens residing in the general area," Griffis wrote the Real Estate Department in 1997.
There is little doubt that Stapley abetted the alleged illegal lot-splitting. Cowley, the state alleges, needed Stapley to appear to purchase 40 acres and then sell half of the land to his daughter in order to circumvent the subdivision requirements.
"It was basically designed to appear that Stapley was purchasing the whole 40 acres from Bastante; that's why he needs the affidavit with the $16,000 down payment," Denious says.
When asked by New Times why he recorded a sales agreement that falsely stated he made a $16,000 down payment, Stapley denies that such an agreement existed.
"That is false," he says.
When Stapley was given the opportunity to review the sales agreement, Stapley's attorney, Marlan Walker, intervened in the interview and told Stapley not to answer any questions concerning the Cowley matter.
"You know what, Don? I don't want to rehash this," Walker says.
The state contends that Cowley may have brought Stapley into the deal because of his political position.
"In an informal interview, Cowley stated that he "thought he was doing a favor for a politician,'" according to pleadings filed last month by the attorney general's office. Cowley, who did not return a call seeking comment, renounced that statement in a subsequent deposition.
Records show Stapley subdivided his 40 acres five ways -- 20 acres to Cowley's daughter, and his remaining 20 acres into four five-acre parcels. Suzette Tyler subdivided her land into four five-acre parcels.
Soon after the land was subdivided, Stapley began listing the property, which he purchased for $2,000 an acre, for $7,000 an acre. He sold off one parcel for $35,000 before Pinal County planning officials got wind of the lot-splitting frenzy and began pressuring the state Real Estate Department to investigate.
In October 1996, former deputy real estate commissioner Ed Ricketts sent a scathing letter to Stapley accusing him and Tyler of illegal lot-splitting by chopping the 40-acre parcel into eight pieces.
Stapley and his attorney responded by demanding a personal meeting with Real Estate Commissioner Jerry Holt. Normally, the real estate commissioner, who makes final decisions on cases brought before the department, would not meet with the target of an investigation because, according to Holt, it would "taint" his ability to make an impartial ruling.
Nevertheless, Holt met with Stapley and Walker at a restaurant to discuss the case in November 1996. The crux of Stapley's position, according to state records, is that Stapley only wanted to buy 20 acres and agreed, at Cowley's request, to purchase 40 acres and then immediately sell half to Tyler. Although he describes Cowley as a longtime friend, Stapley says he didn't know at the time that Tyler was Cowley's daughter.
Therefore, according to Walker, Stapley was not directly involved in Cowley's alleged scheme to illegally subdivide the property.
A week after the meeting, Holt issued a statement recusing himself from making the final decision on the Stapley case. Instead, Holt relegated "all authority to act in this matter to Edwin J. Ricketts, deputy commissioner."
Walker readily admits he despises Ricketts, claiming Ricketts is a racist and a Mormon basher. Both Walker and Stapley are Mormons.
Ricketts resigned as deputy commissioner in early 1997 after he allegedly made racist comments during a meeting at the attorney general's office, an allegation Ricketts denies.
"The guy was essentially thrown out of office for his racist activities against a number of people, including Mormons," Walker says in an interview. "I have nothing good to say about the guy."
Ricketts declined to comment on the Stapley matter or Walker's accusations. Since leaving the Real Estate Department, Ricketts has become known as an expert on illegal lot-splitting.
But controversy over Ricketts allowed Walker to cast the entire Real Estate Department investigation into the illegal lot-splitting on and adjacent to Stapley's land as a witch hunt.
"I believe this fiasco, that the Department of Real Estate calls an investigation, has been motivated by prejudice, politics and jealousy," Walker wrote to the Real Estate Department in February 1997. Walker asked that the investigation be turned over to the attorney general.
Walker also demanded that the department issue a "public apology" for the way it handled the investigation.
Walker got what he wanted.
The attorney general's office assumed the investigation in March 1997 and earlier this year filed a complaint against Cowley, Tyler and others involved in the initial 200-acre purchase and subsequent subdividing sales -- everyone, that is, except Don Stapley.
The case was settled on May 26 after Cowley, Tyler and others signed a consent decree admitting they violated state subdivision laws and agreeing to pay $92,500 in fines.