The Money Pit

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

The Lees and their company are also known for their delay tactics. Records indicate customers and attorneys frustrated by the lack of cooperation from the Lees once a problem arises find only more obstacles in court. Great Bear has been accused of dragging out the pretrial process, filing last-minute requests for more time and being less than cooperative in sharing information.

In four different depositions, John and Carolyn Lee and Patricia Jones consistently testify -- under oath -- that they can't remember pertinent details. In the depositions, the trio comes across as extremely hazy on the details of their business transactions, failing to remember or recognize contracts, identify signatures or remember receiving money or signing promissory notes. (Jones also did not answer a request for comment.)

John Lee demonstrates an almost comical lack of knowledge when it comes to basic questions about himself and the operation of his business.

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.

In a February deposition, Lee was nearly stumped by the first question -- a request to state his name and address. He got his name right, answered with an address, then backpedaled. "I don't recite that very often. I think that's it. Been through this before. I should know somebody's going to ask me. Fountain Hills. We'll try that. I'm trying to think what might have my address on it."

He later gave an inconclusive answer when asked whether his company was formally called GBH Inc. "I think so, yes. Great Bear Homes, Inc., I believe that's it, yes."

He was also unclear what position he holds with the firm. "President, secretary and whatever else I have to be -- to be legal. I forget what it was. But that's me."

The Lees have also made a habit of not cooperating with -- or paying -- their own attorneys. Two lawyers from separate firms have bowed out of several cases, saying the Lees won't assist or pay them. One Great Bear attorney filed his own lawsuit against his former clients to try to recoup $20,000 in legal fees. That case is pending.

Rasmussen and others say constant legal delays and the turnover in Great Bear lawyers serve to jack up court costs for their opponents. People are faced with choosing between continuing to shell out money to fight Lee or just end the case in the easiest way, settling for less than they believe they deserve.

Rasmussen says he was facing bankruptcy himself trying to defend himself against the Lees while seeking to recover thousands of dollars spent finishing and fixing his log cabin.

Adding to his legal bills were extra costs incurred as a result of the Lees changing attorneys three times. The Lees never paid their first two attorneys (prompting them to quit the case); Rasmussen says he had to pay his own lawyer $200 an hour to bring each new Great Bear attorney up to speed.

Rasmussen's case settled in March, one year after Great Bear had sued him and he countersued. It was more like a truce than a victory for either side.

Great Bear did not win the injunction it sought preventing Rasmussen from talking about his complaints with regulators or others. Neither did it get monetary damages the company claimed Rasmussen should pay.

Rasmussen received $20,000 (the maximum allowable) from the state Registrar of Contractors' recovery fund designed to reimburse homeowners damaged by licensed contractors. But the payoff was a pittance, Rasmussen says, compared to the $65,000 he spent in attorneys' fees.

In a motion asking a judge to reconsider his refusal to award attorneys' fees in a separate case, Phoenix lawyer Barry Reiss says the Lees' behavior drove up legal fees for his clients as well. Not only did they force the couple to sue by refusing to return their deposit on a home never built, the Lees refused to consider settlement, and "delayed and delayed and delayed" the pretrial process by not cooperating with standard requests for information.

Lawyers and customers also find themselves frustrated over the company's frequent name changes. Since coming to Arizona, the firm has been known as Great Bear Log Homes, Great Bear Homes Inc. and GBH Inc. The spin-off contracting company has been known as Log Creations and Log Creations Inc. Lee operated under at least three additional company names in California. Plaintiffs suing the firm face defense motions claiming they've sued the wrong entity, that another incarnation of the business really contracted with the customer.

Attorneys allege this is part of Great Bear's scheme. Cary Forrester represented a Nevada firm whose two-story million-dollar log home in Colorado was held up for months while the unfinished top half of the home -- the only portion of the house to be built by Great Bear -- sat at Great Bear's construction yard. The Nevada firm got a court order seizing the partial home after Great Bear threatened to dispose of it. But then it faced lengthy proceedings in which the wrong-defendant argument was used.

Lawyers also suggest the Lees have used bankruptcy courts as a way to avoid paying their bills. In California, for example, the Lees had filed for liquidation in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 1995. But the Pipers filed a complaint in that case, alleging the Lees should not be allowed to avoid paying them a debt they say was incurred fraudulently.

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