By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Burns got himself a suit and began cold-calling throughout Coolidge. He would visit trailer courts and knock on doors and announce: "I can get you out of here and get you into something nicer. Wanna do it?" And who wouldn't want to do it? And the deals went down. And by age 21, he had made his first million.
He moved north toward Phoenix. He took an old banker out along the south side of South Mountain, described his vision and got a $29 million loan. He began the planning for The Foothills.
He assembled a massive information-gathering, brochure-creating marketing machine within Burns International. And the power of this machine manifested itself in one of Burns' favorite sales pitches:
"If I can answer all your questions, then you'd have no reason to say no."
The deals were all good. Everything seemed to work. Investors came to him wanting to ride his wave. Projects sprang up around Arizona. He opened offices in London and Los Angeles. He befriended a cavalcade of wealthy and powerful Arizonans. And he befriended Ronson, and they soon began discussing the vast acres west of Phoenix. It was tens of thousands of acres of cheap land near one of the fastest-growing cities in America. Ronson was intrigued.
Burns idolized Ronson, associates say, and hoped to one day work into his "inner circle." Ronson had risen from the tough streets of London to become one of the richest businessmen in Europe.
Burns bought a flat in London and an estate outside London. Europeans were better educated, more civil, he'd tell friends.
Friends began hearing hints of a British accent in his voice. Burns hired a butler. He began giving away solid gold cuff links.
When he wasn't absorbing British culture, Burns worked relentlessly, sometimes spending his days and nights riding around town in a limo making deals on his cell phone.
Through powerful friends such as attorney Joe Martori, Burns began meeting Arizona statesmen such as Barry Goldwater and Frank Snell. Here was a man who, through work, vision and savvy, rose from nothing to greatness. He became a poster boy for Reagan-era deregulation, an economic policy of loose money that allowed great men of little means to manifest their greatness. Goldwater, Snell and other luminaries soon served on Burns' "board of advisers."
If Burns was turned down for a loan, bank officials would receive calls from the old-guard powers of Arizona.
Burns read incessantly, including the biographies of great men. He slept little, often calling subordinates in the middle of the night with ideas. He kept a tape recorder with him at all times to capture his thoughts.
"Through his whole life, he has been doing business in his head 24 hours a day," one of Burns' longtime friends says. "Doing deals is his lifeblood. If he's doing deals, he's alive and having fun."
In 1983, he met Paige Phillips at a party in California. She had been Miss Alabama and the 1981 Miss America runner-up. He showered her with gifts and kept asking for dates and finally she relented. And in 1984, at 22, she became Paige Burns.
She asked him to give up the limousines. She told him he was being pretentious.
Still, he held lavish parties at his 14,000-square-foot mansion in Paradise Valley and invited all of Arizona's power brokers.
By the 1986 election, he was one of the largest campaign contributors in Arizona.
"We didn't discriminate between Democrats and Republicans," says one employee. "We gave to anyone with a vote."
"He spared no expense to impress those he needed to impress," one associate says.
But close associates say Burns didn't enjoy the parties much because he didn't feel comfortable in groups. He is brilliant one-on-one, friends say, he is stilted and average talking to groups.
"It was weird," one says. "The magic would sort of disappear the larger the group."
And two ex-employees and a longtime friend say Burns, contrary to what onlookers might have believed, did not at all need to be the center of attention.
"The thing that set him apart," one friend says, "was that unlike about every rich guy I've known, Robert didn't want personal glory. He didn't crave attention, he didn't crave adoration, he didn't crave sycophants. In this way, he was very down-to-earth."
A few houses down from the Burns home lived ex-hockey star and real estate investor Hudi Bell, who had managed to pick up thousands of acres through massive land swaps with the BLM.
In 1986, Bell came to Burns and several others with an offer.
The year before, the federal government had been in a bind. Land was needed in northern Arizona for Navajo families dislodged by the Navajo-Hopi land dispute.
So the government worked a deal with rancher Glen Spurlock. In exchange for two Spurlock ranches in northern Arizona, the Bureau of Land Management would give Spurlock 15,000 acres west of Phoenix -- in Sun Valley.
Spurlock quickly sold the land to Bell for $678 an acre.
Then Bell acquired an adjacent 40,896 acres -- appraised at $29 million -- in another government land swap. He quickly began selling off the land in Sun Valley for as much as $2,900 an acre.