The Money Pit

Angry customers say a Valley log home builder has stolen their dreams and pocketed their cash

Zenor says he never said that. He demanded the company stop using the false endorsement, which was also on its Web site. When he got no response from Lee, he appealed to the Web master and got the endorsement taken off the Internet.

Two other Great Bear customers, Lee and Debbie Atwood of Mesa, were at the top of the current "client testimonials" list on the Web site until early last month, when they found out their laudatory words were still being used to promote the company.

Lee Atwood said John Lee asked for a letter of recommendation when the Heber home Lee had built for him and his wife was nearly complete. They were pleased at the time, so they wrote a letter praising Great Bear.

Robert Zenor holds a "trust no one" sign he posted at his Payson cabin to commemorate his experiences with Great Bear Log Homes.Great Bear has a highly visible headquarters just off the Loop 101.Visitors to a May open house walk inside unfinished homes.Attractive ads in local publications give no hint of the company's legal and financial woes.Robert Zenor holds a flier he says contains a false endorsement from him.
Bruce Reade
Robert Zenor holds a "trust no one" sign he posted at his Payson cabin to commemorate his experiences with Great Bear Log Homes.Great Bear has a highly visible headquarters just off the Loop 101.Visitors to a May open house walk inside unfinished homes.Attractive ads in local publications give no hint of the company's legal and financial woes.Robert Zenor holds a flier he says contains a false endorsement from him.
Robert Zenor holds a "trust no one" sign he posted at his Payson cabin to commemorate his experiences with Great Bear Log Homes.
Kevin Scanlon
Robert Zenor holds a "trust no one" sign he posted at his Payson cabin to commemorate his experiences with Great Bear Log Homes.

"We believe the Great Bear Log Homes to be second to none in terms of construction quality and value," their Internet testimonial began.

But three years later, they are calling their experience with Great Bear "unpleasant." The Atwoods, whose cabin was featured on a billboard near Payson, say they have found hidden problems with their home and have had several disputes with Lee. They say they never realized their letter would be used on the company Web site and they recently got it removed.

Most troubling of a number of construction problems, they say, was a discovery made when they wanted to add on to their house. Most of their roof lacked protective black paper, which is supposed to be installed beneath the shingles to protect homes from leaks. Lee Atwood says the paper lined only the perimeter of the roof, so that a cursory check along the edge of the home wouldn't reveal the incomplete work. He says John Lee blamed the problem on a subcontractor. But the Atwoods and others say Lee always called the shots on the construction process.

The couple filed complaints with regulatory agencies but decided not to file a lawsuit against Lee or Great Bear because of the expense and irritation.

Others have come to the same decision.


More than 20 disgruntled clients, subcontractors and others involved with Great Bear met twice in 1998 and considered filing a class-action lawsuit against Lee, records and interviews show. But Zenor, who hosted one of those meetings, says given Great Bear's past legal record, trying to recoup some of their losses would be futile and cost more in attorneys' fees than the homeowners could recover in damages.

In May 1997, just days after Zenor gave the company $40,000 toward the construction of his cabin, Great Bear Log Homes and the Lees filed for bankruptcy in Phoenix, claiming no assets, no income and nearly $80,000 in debts. The case was closed without any money distributed.

Zenor was not listed as a creditor on that case, and construction of his cabin continued. Only two Arizona creditors were noted. One was the Preserve Investment Group, a company that had obtained a $20,000 judgment stemming from an incomplete construction job. (Interestingly, records show, notice of the default judgment was served upon John Lee on January 10, 1997, at a home and garden show at the Arizona State Fairgrounds, the same show at which Zenor first met Lee.)

The other local creditors in the Arizona bankruptcy case were Tempe teachers Ted and Candee Raper, who had paid the Lees $56,000 toward construction of a log home in Pinetop.

They lost the entire sum.

The Rapers already owned one cabin in the area and decided to have Great Bear build another cabin nearby for Ted Raper's mother. Candee Raper says she was impressed by Great Bear's display at a trade show, which had been held in the Valley before the company relocated here from California.

She talked to satisfied customers and received clean reports from the California offices of the Better Business Bureau and the contractors' licensing board.

Even after the company filed bankruptcy here, Candee Raper says Lee and his attorney promised them they would still get their cabin.

"We had the foundation done already," she says. "It sat there for three years. And he sat with our money."

Raper says after hearing nothing but promises and excuses over the years (the logs are on the truck, the logs got rained on), she and her husband just chalked it up as a loss. A friend who was a real estate lawyer looked over their case at no charge and told them they didn't have a chance against Lee, given the legal protection a bankruptcy affords. Raper says she didn't bother filing a complaint with the Attorney General's Office. She just figured she would only be incurring legal fees and generating paperwork if she decided to fight him.

"I figured it would be like throwing money down a rat hole and I had already thrown enough money down there," she says.

Still, Raper says, the decision she and her husband made just to cut their losses was not an easy one. "I was just sick for two years about it," she says.

Raper says she tried to get Lee to give her the money back or build the home. Once, she planted herself in a chair and glared at Lee while he entertained visitors to his booth at a WestWorld trade show. Another time, she threatened to buy a billboard warning other customers about him.

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