A DEATH IN TELLURIDE
TELLURIDE, Colorado--There are stories so rich in converging dramatic angles that few readers are willing to spend the time to trace them to their conclusion.
That had been my first reaction to the long fratricidal war waged by the children of L.S. Shoen, 74, for control of the $1.2 billion U-Haul corporation.
The Shoen family saga is Shakespeare's King Lear in modern dress. It is television's Dallas and Twin Peaks combined.
For years, the anger and hatred dividing the family have fed on acts of treachery, deceit and brutality. This colorful melange came to a climax here in this ski resort town August 6 with the murder-for-hire of Eva Berg Shoen, 43. She was shot to death while sleeping in her bed.
It was the town's only murder in the last dozen years.
This is a tiny community set in a mountain hollow that derives its income from visitors who ski in winter and film buffs who come each Labor Day weekend to gawk at film personalities like actor Clint Eastwood, the French director Bertrand Tavernier and critic Roger Ebert. The hit of last year's festival was a two-hour premiere of Twin Peaks. The local paper has editorially compared the Shoen case with the murder of Laura Palmer in the television series.
One of the most popular films at this year's festival was Reversal of Fortune, starring Glenn Close and Jeremy Irons. It tells the story of the murder defense of slippery Claus von Bulow by attorney Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor.
The Shoen family battles would also clearly make a fascinating film.
It would center on L.S. Shoen, the eccentric family patriarch. It would demonstrate clearly how the woes of the family stem from the battle for wealth and power by Shoen's sons.
And it would not excuse the elder Shoen for setting the example as a monomaniacal hard driver who worked harder at creating his nationwide business than at being a father.
Shoen sired twelve children during three marriages. He insists now that his dream was only to create a personal monument by leaving the vast U-Haul holdings, first to his children and then to his grandchildren.
But that dream is now over for the elder Shoen.
"The company has been destroyed," he says in a phone conversation from his Las Vegas home. "It went from $4 billion to the point where I don't know what we could get for it now.
"But let me tell you one thing. We are far from having an unsolved murder. I have just discovered a new development so powerful that it explains everything to me." Shoen's life has been dedicated solely to accumulating large sums of money. It's easy to understand why he now believes money can buy a solution to this problem, too. The wonder is that he never could understand until too late that it would create his family tragedy.
Just who is the patriarch L.S. Shoen?
The old man was raised in the state of Oregon where his family had been farmers.
Kicked out of medical school in his third year for giving the answers to a test to a fellow student, he joined the armed services. His friends always called him "Slick." Shoen pioneered the self-trucking idea after World War II and developed it into the country's largest family-run business. His idea of using rental trailers to move families was a tremendous hit with returning veterans, who created a mass migration after being discharged from the service.
Shoen worked backbreaking hours to develop the company, traveling the country for weeks at a time and putting in sixteen-hour days.
slept in the cheapest motels and ate his meals at McDonald's.
Once, he was arrested in Houston at 2 a.m. for climbing over a fence to repair a damaged U-Haul truck.
In 1968, he moved the business from Ridgefield, Washington, to Phoenix. The company's headquarters are at 2727 North Central, a block south of Thomas Road.
Shoen was always a zealot about keeping down expenses.
On June 3, 1970, he called his top employees into his Central Avenue office. He placed an armed guard at the door to prevent anyone from leaving.
When he had everyone's attention, Shoen tossed $1,000 in mixed denominations of bills out the window. They fluttered down to Central Avenue where pedestrians began a mad scramble to recover the money.
"I wanted to make a point," he said. "I wanted them to realize that when an executive spends money on something that only makes him feel good, he might as well be throwing it into the street." He moved his family into a home on Tatum Boulevard that had been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and gave each of his sons sports cars on their sixteenth birthdays.
Married three times, his first wife bore him six children but succumbed to heart failure after thirteen years of marriage.
Shoen was 41 when he married his second wife, Suzanne Gilbaugh, the 23-year-old daughter of a neighbor. They were to conceive five more children.
During this second marriage, Shoen sent two of his sons, Sam and Mike, off to boarding school. Two more, Joe and Mark, remained at home with the stepmother.
Joe and Mark hated their stepmother. One day, Mark attacked her and beat her with his fists, leaving her helpless and bloody. "They hated her in a way that was unreal," the old man now recalls. She and Shoen were divorced in 1977 after nineteen years of marriage.
It was his third wife who bore L.S. Shoen his twelfth child.
The pairing of the brothers proved prophetic. Sam and Mike are still loyal to their father in the battle for control of U-Haul's and its parent company, Amerco.
Joe and Mark have become the enemy.
They were all bright students. Sam, the oldest, went to Harvard, where he earned not only an MBA but also a medical degree. Sam is his father's chief ally. It was Sam's wife, Eva, who was murdered here last month.
Heading the other side is Joe, the third-born son. He also holds an MBA from Harvard, as well as a law degree.
Each of the sons moved into the family business as officers, and the trouble began.
For a time, Joe and Mark went off on their own to start a printing company. But L.S. paid them $86,000 a year while they were gone, and it later was revealed that virtually all of the printing company's income came from business with U-Haul.
In 1986, Shoen gave his children more than 90 percent of the company stock as a gift. Skeptics point out that Shoen's actual motive might have been to dramatically reduce his own income-tax payments. L.S. succeeded in cutting his income tax dramatically. However, he didn't count on what happened next. The faction members headed by Joe and Mark showed their gratitude by calling a stockholders meeting during which they voted their father out of his job as chairman of the board. They charged that his business methods were old-fashioned and had the votes to make it stick.
"Listen to my advice," the old man said to his children at the meeting.
"You talk too long," said Joe, the leader of the dissident faction.
On March 4, 1989, there was another meeting in Reno, Nevada.
At this meeting, Mike, one of the sons allied to the old man, brought a tape recorder to maintain a record of the highhanded tactics used by Joe's faction, which now controls the company.
At this meeting, Bertram Miller of Dallas, Texas, a minor shareholder, stood up to make an observation:
"There's something wrong, gentlemen," he said to the two brothers who had assumed charge of the company. "You didn't start this company. You inherited it. I wonder if you are truly capable of running it." Mark Shoen glowered at Miller from the directors table.
"Shut up," he shouted to Miller. "Shove it up your goddamn ass." When the meeting ended, Mike was stopped on his way out. His brothers, Mark and Joe, demanded he turn the tape recorder over to them.
When Mike refused, he was beaten by Mark and Joe in full view of everyone.
"Mark was like Mike Tyson," says the elder Shoen. "Mike was down and Mark kept punching and punching." "Joe and Mark," said Sam Shoen, "are nothing but a pair of thugs." The beating at the stockholders meeting recalled the results of psychological tests that old man Shoen had ordered made on Joe and Mark in 1979 by Dr. Jerry Day, a Tucson psychologist.
"They are maturing into adults who are quite comfortable with power and are willing to fight for it. Their desire for power is absolute and insatiable. The more they have, the more they want." At present, Joe is president of the parent company and Mark is president of advertising and public relations at U-Haul.
L.S. Shoen, in the declining years of his life, lives in a modest home in Las Vegas. His pension has been stopped by his son, Joe, who charges, incredibly, that his father is disloyal to the company he founded.
There is little left for the old man to do but write letters demanding justice.
"People will say I was a fool for letting this happen," the old man says. "But I can't give up my fight. A thug should not be allowed to run a company." Two years ago, Sam Shoen and his wife Eva moved away from Phoenix and into a $400,000 house on Skunk Creek Drive, about four miles outside Telluride. They were seeking peace and safety.
They had enrolled their children in grade school up here to escape from the festering--and now deadly--feud that threatens to destroy the entire Shoen family.
The two-story Shoen house sits twenty feet below the level of the narrow gravel road and is surrounded by towering aspen and spruce trees. There are no streetlights on Skunk Creek Drive. There is no name or house number on the mailbox.
In order to find the Shoen home in the dark, the killer clearly must have studied the layout carefully in daylight.
I drove up and down Skunk Creek Drive for what seemed a long time before finding the house in which Eva Shoen had been murdered.
There is nothing about the place now that proclaims to a visitor that a hired killer gained entrance between midnight and 2 a.m. on August 6 and shot Eva Shoen to death while she slept alone in her bed.
Eva was a dog trainer who kept thoroughbreds on the premises. Normally, her six dogs would have discouraged intruders. But on the night of her murder, she had confined them to a "dog room." Their barking had disturbed the three young girls--two of Mrs. Shoen's daughters and her daughters' friend--who were watching television.
The children were sleeping downstairs. The dogs were in the basement. So no one heard the killer who entered the home carrying what the coroner said was a .25-caliber pistol, probably with a silencer attached.
Sam was obviously the hired killer's real target. But Sam had made an unanticipated auto trip back to Phoenix earlier in the evening because of business.
He had escaped death. He is left, however, with an aching wound that will never heal.
I climbed the wooden stairs to the second floor of the ancient San Miguel County Court house to find Sheriff Bill Masters. The sheriff, who heads a nine-man staff, has a small office at the rear of the building. He is currently heading the investigation into the August 6 murder of Eva Shoen.
"Sheriff Masters is out right now," said Lola Chesnut, his secretary, "and I don't expect he'll be back."
It was Friday morning.
"How about Saturday?" "Oh, no," she said, "Saturday's not a good day." "I don't suppose he'd be here Sunday?"
Mrs. Chesnut smiled. That was too obvious even to answer.
"And then Monday is Labor Day," she added. "That's a paid holiday." "Just what is it you want to see Sheriff Masters about?" she finally asked.
"I'd like to ask the sheriff about his investigation into Mrs. Eva Shoen's murder," I said. "Her husband, Sam Shoen, is a member of the family who owns the U-Haul company down in Phoenix. A lot of people are interested in the case.
"I understand the sheriff has been on the job ten years, but has never handled a murder case before. Everyone hopes he isn't over his head." The secretary bristled. She leaped at once to the sheriff's defense.
"Well, you don't have to worry," she said. "The poor man's working seven days a week and 24 hours a day on this case." I said nothing. It seemed to me that the sheriff must be thoroughly exhausted by now.
"If you want to get the latest news, I suggest you call Eileen McGinley. She's a public relations person here in town. The Shoen family hired her to handle all questions from the press." It's bizarre.
I have covered a lot of murders, but I don't remember a single one in which the bereaved family hired a public relations firm to deal with the press. There are other remarkable things about this case:
1. L.S. Shoen has contributed $50,000 to San Miguel County to cover the extra costs of the murder investigation to the county.
2. Members of the Shoen family, led by Eva's bereaved husband, Sam, have put up a $250,000 reward for the arrest and prosecution of those responsible.
3. The U-Haul corporation, now headed by brothers on the other side of the family feud, have hired a Phoenix private detective firm to help track down the killer or killers.
Old man Shoen doesn't trust the private detectives hired by his enemy-sons. "We made certain the police preserved any evidence before they were allowed on the premises," he says.
As you can see, this drama is far from over. The Shoen family saga is King Lear in modern dress. It is Dallas and Twin Peaks combined.
For years, the anger and hatred dividing the family have fed on acts of treachery, deceit and brutality. In order to find the Shoen home in the dark, the killer clearly must have studied the layout carefully in daylight.
"I understand the sheriff has been on the job ten years, but has never handled a murder case before. Everyone hopes he isn't over his head." I have covered a lot of murders but I don't remember a single one in which the bereaved family hired a public relations firm to deal with the press. "Their desire for power is absolute and insatiable. The more they have, the more they want.
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