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None of this is commonly known in the Valley.
Indeed, consumers who don't search through court records would be hard-pressed to discover the firm's past troubles. A member of the Better Business Bureau, Great Bear has a satisfactory record there, meaning complaints filed over the last three years have been addressed by the firm and that the number of complaints is not higher than what would be considered normal for the industry. The nature and number of those complaints can be learned only through a subpoena, a bureau spokesperson said. The bureau is a private, nonprofit organization whose files are not public record, she said.
A check with the state Registrar of Contractors reveals no disciplinary problems with John Lee or Great Bear because they are not registered contractors. If the company merely builds materials for the home, it doesn't need to be licensed. Some customers allege Lee is bending the law here. They say he has not only built Arizona homes in the past -- a fact he has admitted under oath -- but he is erecting houses, not just making materials, on the company's site.
The license revocation of Log Creations, which is a contractor, wouldn't turn up during a search under John Lee's name. His wife, Carolyn, and the couple's partner, Patricia Jones, are listed as the officers of Log Creations Inc. And Carolyn Lee is listed as the owner of Log Creations, according to Secretary of State records.
Even a call to the state Attorney General's Office wouldn't raise any red flags. Neither the company nor Lee has ever been sued or prosecuted by the office. Spokeswoman Pati Urias says the office is prohibited by law from revealing even that it has received any complaints about a company before a public action -- like a civil or criminal complaint -- is filed.
So while lawyers for customers, suppliers and associates of the firm have been waging legal and regulatory battles behind the scenes, potential clients continue to be drawn to Great Bear and the promises it makes.
The last time the company held an open house at its Indian reservation locale, Valley skies were overcast and the weather was hot and muggy. Lured by a newspaper ad that asked "How do I get my Log Home in the Cool Pines?" a steady stream of visitors drove down a dusty road on that May weekend, past horse corrals and a rodeo arena, to the Great Bear Log Homes headquarters.
Some who flocked to the site were obviously well-heeled, driving convertible sports cars and new SUVs, and some were more middle class, arriving in older model cars, vans or trucks. Potential customers entered the corporate office -- two trailers configured in an L-shape -- then went out the back to find a mock log cabin porch.
There, they nibbled on fresh fruit and homemade brownies and sipped cold water out of Great Bear Log Homes bottles. A chef barbecued meat for sandwiches nearby. Relaxing in a high-backed, rustic chair, a teenage girl pointed to a large color photo of a log home nestled in a forest.
"I want that one, Dad," she said.
Visitors were handed colorful brochures that included a romantic history of John Lee and his love of log home building. It emphasized the dream of owning a log cabin but gave no hint of Lee's past or present troubles.
In corporate handouts and on the company Web site (greatbearloghomes.com), Lee says he became enamored of log home construction in his native Canada. He says he watched his Swedish stepfather build a log house with an ax like in "the old country." Later, his biography says, he observed another builder construct a log home in his bare feet so as not to mar the wood. Lee has built homes for more than 30 years, he says, and adds an ingredient his grandmother put in her bread: "a little piece of my heart."
Several people describe Lee as a likable fellow who projects this down-to-earth image while he sells cabins. One described him as a "teddy bear"; another says he and his wife are more like hicks. But they all agree this warm and fuzzy persona changes when Lee is challenged or crossed. They say he has a temper and a confrontational nature that makes disgruntled customers want to steer clear, even if it means abandoning their complaints against him.
Before moving to Arizona, John Lee built log homes in Canada, then northern California. A chapter in a 1986 book, Stone, Log and Earth Houses, profiles Lee and describes in detail his careful construction of a log home for an El Dorado County, California, family. The book says Lee had to fix problems made by an unlicensed contractor and it says Lee got his general contractor's license in time to make the needed corrections on the cabin. (A check with California records shows Lee was not licensed until 1988.)
While the book gives a glowing review of Lee's techniques -- the same ones he uses in Arizona -- other public documents show Lee and his wife were having financial problems for years in California.