TRIAL AND TERROR
"Here's how I felt about it," Steve Bisbee, the lawyer, was saying.
He was talking about his role in the biggest trial of his career. He was also talking about a period of more than a month during which some who wanted him to lose kept threatening every day to kill his wife.
"You remember those old Western movies where the guys with the black hats ride into town? The marshal figures all the leading businessmen will step forward to back him, right? But then, as he walks down that dusty main street to face the bad guys, he gets a sinking feeling down in the pit of his stomach.
"He can see all the substantial citizens out of the corner of his eye. They aren't getting their guns to help him. What they're doing is pulling down their shades, so they won't have to see what happens to him next.
"Well, that's exactly how I felt during the final weeks of the U-Haul trial, or Shoen v. Shoen, when I was representing Dr. Sam Shoen. Each day a new threat was made to murder my wife, Mari. Whoever it was who wanted to stop me from rendering effective counsel to my client kept attempting to get to me by terrorizing her.
"And there was nobody to whom I could turn for help. I feared for our lives. I also feared causing a mistrial in the case."
The stakes were awesome. Steve and his co-counsel, Gil Shaw, eventually won a judgment of $1.4 billion against Joe and Mark Shoen of U-Haul.
"In addition to the threats on my wife," Bisbee recalls, "there were repeated attempts to poison my dog, vandalize our home and our car.
"Finally, they set the house on fire while Mari and the kids were in it. Luckily, they got out without injury. But the house was destroyed. The damage was $200,000. I was in the judge's chambers at the time the fire started, preparing for final arguments in the Shoen case."
Steve Bisbee is 46 years old, married and the father of two boys, Matthew, 13, and Michael, 4. A native Arizonan, he served four and a half years as a naval flight officer, got an advanced degree in business from Thunderbird International and then a law degree from ASU.
He worked as an attorney in the Maricopa County Public Defender's Office, went into private business for several years and then turned back to private law practice in 1991. With his dual experience as a lawyer and a business executive, he meshed perfectly with his client, Dr. Shoen, who was the former president of U-Haul.
What has come to be known as the U-Haul case is really a long and festering family feud that pitted family patriarch L.S. Shoen and his oldest son, Sam, against two other sons, Joe and Mark, who had usurped control of the billion-dollar international company, which has its main headquarters on Central Avenue here in Phoenix.
The Shoen family is one of the richest in Arizona. But it is not politically powerful. Its long record of internecine warfare has dissipated the ability of business observers to take it seriously.
So when Steve Bisbee took on Dr. Sam Shoen as a client in the case to win back control of the U-Haul company, he had to understand that it was going to be difficult. It was a case in which anything could happen, given the smoldering emotions of the contending parties.
For example, something that could not be mentioned in open court was the recent murder of Dr. Sam Shoen's beautiful Norwegian wife, Eva. She had been shot to death in their ski chalet in Telluride, Colorado, in August 1990.
Relations between the family factions were so savage that L.S. Shoen, the father, had gone on national television and pointed his finger at his own sons, Joe and Mark, and accused them of being responsible for his daughter-in-law's murder.
On October 12, 1992, L.S. Shoen appeared on Hard Copy in a segment headlined: "Father accuses two of his sons of murder." During the interview, L.S. said, "I'm convinced the murderer was someone that was close to either my son Joe or my son Mark. . . . I am convinced either one or both of them, directly or indirectly, are responsible for this."
When Joe Shoen learned what his father had said about him, he filed a libel suit. It is pending.
This is the situation Steve Bisbee entered when he undertook to represent Sam Shoen in the lawsuit against his brothers Joe and Mark in Superior Court before Judge Thomas Dunevant III in September of this year. He understood going in that nothing about it would be easy.
Some lawyers have a persistent dream. They spend many of their waking moments fantasizing about the one big case of their careers. They chase after it like Captain Ahab pursued the white whale. Privately, they wonder about themselves and how they will perform when the legal stakes reach the highest point.
These thoughts occur to every lawyer despite his or her level of skill. Even the most naturally gifted worry if they will pass the ultimate test.
The questions are universal. Will I be fully and properly prepared? Will I have the energy? Can I muster a courtroom presence that will convince both judge and jury my client's cause is just? What if I somehow crumble under pressure?
Add to this one more element and you have a heart-stopping melodrama. And Shoen v. Shoen had it.
Steve Bisbee, 46, with a wife and two kids depending upon him, passed his test.
Let Bisbee tell you what happened to him and his family:
"My role as a lawyer in the trial was to make sure that Dr. Sam Shoen's testimony came across forcefully to the jury. He had been head of the U-Haul company and had worked alongside his father for years. He had the insight and ability to explain to the jury what his brothers had done to usurp the company.
"He was on the stand for several days, and his testimony was superb. It was every bit as vital as the testimony given by his father, who had founded the company.
"My wife, Mari, was present in the courtroom during Dr. Sam's testimony. She left during the noon break to go to our home on McCormick Ranch in Scottsdale.
"That afternoon, I remember it was Thursday, September 1, she received the first phone call.
"`Hi,' a man with a pleasant voice said. 'Is Steve there?' 'No,' my wife said. 'Can I take a message?'
"`Tell him to watch his back,' the caller said. Then he hung up the phone. That night there were several more phone calls. Whenever Mari answered, the caller hung up.
"Friday afternoon, at 1:30 p.m., the same caller was on the phone again:
"`Hi. Did you give Steve my message?'
"`You're messing with the wrong people,' my wife said, and hung up the phone.
"Later that afternoon, my wife went out to pick up the mail. There was a message inserted into a plastic advertising flier bag. It was made from letters cut out from magazines. The message was 'He's waiting. What I will do I have done in the past.'"
The reference to the murder of Eva Shoen in Telluride was unmistakable.
"An hour later," Steve recalls, "the family dog was severely drugged. The dog had eaten from a piece of ham with a pill inserted that had been thrown into the backyard of our house. I called the Scottsdale police that night and filled out a report.
"On Saturday, I was home when the mailman came, and I went out to pick up the mail. In it was another message in an envelope with my name on it. The envelope had been placed in the box, not mailed. The message read: 'Brotherly love. Look out. Paying the price.' The mailman took the letter with him to turn over to show U.S. postal inspectors. We were told they would contact us, but they never did."
The intimidation continued over the weekend.
"On Sunday," Steve says, "I went to pick up the Arizona Republic from my driveway. While reading it at breakfast, I noticed that on page A16 there was a headline which read: 'How bleak will it be? Dems fear worst.' But the words had been altered so that they read 'fear the worst,' and below that was written, 'Bitch.'
"Later that morning, our dog was drugged for a second time. Numerous pieces of meat had been thrown over the backyard fence. There was also a plastic bag with a message. It read: 'HI KIDS, BYE DOG.' I filed a supplemental report to the Scottsdale police.
"That night we had our family over for a barbecue for Labor Day. Despite the presence of a large number of people, we later found another cutout threat. It had been placed on the front doormat and it stated: 'I'll be seeing you.'
"The following day was Labor Day and I stayed at home. Sometime around noon, a hole was cut in our bathroom window screen. The following cutout message was inserted between the screen and window: 'A Mother's instinct is to protect her young. See Mother. See Mother run.'
"In midafternoon, my wife answered the phone because I was out for a few minutes. 'Hi, Mari,' the caller said. 'Is Steve ready for tomorrow?' My wife hung up.
"On Tuesday, I went into court and notified Judge Dunevant about what had been happening.
"Mari came to court again to observe the trial. When she went back to her car, which was parked in a garage across the street, she found that someone had written on the steering column the following message: 'Go Home Bitch.' Carved in the front seat with a pen was the message: 'You're not listening, Mari.' That night, she found an article circled with a black felt pen in her home-delivered copy of the Scottsdale Progress. The headline was, 'This will take a long time. We will all be dead.'
"On Wednesday, Mari did not go to court. Around noon, someone threw a rock, smashing our bedroom window. Wrapped around the rock was a woman's picture with features similar to Mari's. She filed a police report at once. Later, she went outside the house to find the following scribbled message: 'Widower Steve.'
"The following morning was Thursday. Mari stayed home again. At about 9:40 a.m., the same caller was on the phone again. 'We miss you in Room 904. You're like family,' he said. He was referring to the number of the courtroom in which Shoen v. Shoen was being tried.
"Now Mari knew that someone was watching her every move.
"That afternoon the terrorism was escalated. Someone stuck Mari's small purse, that had been stolen from her car, through the bathroom screen. Inside the purse, which had been slashed, was a family photograph. My wife's picture had been cut out.
"On Friday, Mari spotted a young man at the bathroom window. He ran away, and I just happened to be arriving home. Later, I found a paper clip at a side window where someone had tried to open window locks. There was also a butcher knife left by the back gate. Finally, there was some writing on the front door which said: 'We're just getting started.' Once again, we filed another police report.
"On Saturday, we found a portion of a blue towel taken from Mari's car stuffed between the bathroom window and the screen. On the towel was a message: 'Then there were three.' Red paint was smeared on the bathroom window screen, and a pair of bent scissors was found thrown up against our side door. The police came and took photographs."
Sunday, the harassment took a turn that might possibly give police a lead in their investigation.
"While I was out in the yard," Steve says, "they called again. They told Mari that she should tell me 'to warn Greenberg.'
"Mr. Greenberg was a witness we had called. . . . He was coming to town on Monday for testimony on Tuesday, and I had not told anyone about his coming other than the trial counsel for Joe and Mark Shoen . . . "On Monday, a rock was thrown through our bedroom window, narrowly missing Mari. Wrapped around the rock was my wife's hair clip that had been taken from the car. A message read: 'Goodbye sweetheart.' Another police report was taken by Scottsdale police.
"Tuesday, Mari found an envelope card on her car windshield. Inside was a condolence card expressing deep regret for her loss. Later, there was a phone call urging her to watch Channel 3. They were doing a special on the O.J. Simpson murder.
"On Wednesday morning, Mari drove to Walgreen's. While she was inside, someone let the air out of two tires. There was a message written on the whitewall of one tire: 'Gotcha.'
"Later that same morning, Mari received a call from someone claiming to be an administrator at our son's school. She said our son was missing. It took Mari several frantic phone calls before she could ascertain it was a cruel hoax.
"On Friday, our phone lines were cut, and it was necessary to buy cellular phones to maintain contact with the outside world. For the rest of the day, there was a series of drive-by sightings of the house by two men in a car driving at high speed. These continued throughout the afternoon.
"On Saturday, several strange cars were spotted parked in the neighborhood with the motors running. The telephone company came to repair the lines.
"On Sunday, while I was at the law office preparing for Monday's trial proceedings, the phone lines at my house were cut again.
"Nothing happened on Monday. The phone lines were repaired.
"Then, on Tuesday, Mari got a call discussing life insurance for women. The same voice that had been taunting Mari for days came on again. 'Take this seriously,' the voice warned and hung up.
"Several days went by, but on Thursday, Mari discovered a message on the outside phone-line box. 'Miss us?' it read. "On Friday, September 23, our phone lines were cut for the third time. Also, a message was pushed through the back screen door on the patio. It was a headline about the O.J. Simpson trial. However, it had been changed to read: 'A trial about Eva.'
"This was the day when my clients hired a private investigator to document the activities around our home. He worked for four days and then quit, saying that he was receiving late-night 'hang-up' calls.
"We were in the final week of the trial and the incidents continued.
"On Wednesday, September 28th, Mari left the home to pick up my son. When she returned, she found a large hole in the patio screen. Someone had written on a metal door: 'You will never be safe again, EVER!' The word again was written in red with red droplets coming down from it. Another police report was made.
"Thursday, Mari received another call from the familiar voice. He asked her what the names Don Erickson, Sam Shoen and Steve Bisbee all had in common. He told her to ask Sam. He told her the answer was 'Blowin' in the Wind.' I later learned from Sam Shoen that Don Erickson was Eva's first husband, and that the song 'Blowin in the Wind' was played at Eva's funeral. Later that day, we found a message written on our fence. It said: 'Eva-Mari.'
"That night someone hopped over the fence and wrote in chalk the word 'DIE' in three places. He also poured granuline chloride to make the message 'SAM.'
"On Friday, someone wrote the message in the backyard: 'Does D.S. remember Porter? All good mothers must die early.' Also written down were the dates of the deaths of Anna Marie Shoen, Eva Shoen and October 1994, the date for Mari's death.
"I confirmed with Sam Shoen that the initials D.S. in the message stood for Dennis Saban, whose house was set afire by an arsonist named Steve Porter more than ten years ago. The night before Porter was to testify in court, he was murdered in the bathroom of a downtown bar called Lil's Convention Center.
"Early that evening, Mari got another call. This time he said, 'You're the next Steve Porter. It'll be painless.' Later, someone jimmied out two windows in the house.
"Saturday, I rushed to my office to get some things I needed for trial on Monday. While Mari was in the back of the house, someone got in through the front and unscrewed the deadbolt locks, and all the phone jacks in the house except one went dead.
"Sunday afternoon, my wife's notebook was thrown over the fence and more threats on Mari's life were written. A final line boasted: 'You know I can fucking do it!'
"In the early evening, the final phone jack in the house went dead. The Scottsdale police came to take another report.
"On Monday, we discovered that someone had tried to break in by . . . kicking in a back patio screen.
"The following day, Tuesday, smoke was detected in the master bedroom. Someone had stuffed wadded-up paper in the window which had been boarded up to protect ourselves against thrown rocks. Another police report was filed.
"It came to a conclusion on Wednesday, October 5th," Bisbee recalls, now speaking with great weariness.
"I was in chambers with Judge Dunevant and the other lawyers in the case, preparing for final instructions to the jury. A secretary came in insisting that I must answer a call. I knew at once it must be serious. It was. My house was on fire.
"I left at once and it took me a half-hour to reach my house on McCormick Ranch. The firemen had arrived in minutes, but the roof went up, and there was nothing they could do but protect other houses in the neighborhood.
"But Mari and Matthew and Michael were safe. Whoever had set the fire had done so by setting the trees ablaze that were next to the house. The blaze quickly spread to the eaves, and nothing could be done to stop it. We lost everything except some children's toys. But Mari was safe."
The jury never learned anything about these events, and U-Haul officials denied any connection to the fire.
"Police haven't even questioned anyone at U-Haul," said Richard Amoroso, an attorney in the U-Haul legal department. Last week, U-Haul offered a $200,000 reward to anyone who could provide information about the harassment of Steve and Mari Bisbee.
But Bisbee never faltered. He won his big case. After deliberating only a few hours, the jury awarded Dr. Sam Shoen and his father, L.S. Shoen, $1.4 billion.
Bisbee and his wife and children are now living in an apartment. They have an unlisted phone number. It will take months for the house to be rebuilt.
Since the trial, there have been no more threats.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.