The Long, Strange Trip of the U-Haul Family : L. S. Shoen Once Dreamed of Starting a Family Dynasty. But Now the Business Is Sliding, and the Family Has Been Rocked by Murder.
‘EXCUSE ME. My mom--I woke up, she’s dead on the staircase.”
The dispatcher at the San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office wasn’t sure she’d heard it right. The voice on the line was that of a little girl, whimpering something about her mother.
“She’s dead on the staircase! There’s blood, OK?”
“What is your name?”
“Bente Shoen. I live in the Ski Ranches--in a big log house. There was blood on the bed. Please send somebody.”
“OK. You said she’s not alive now?”
“I can’t tell,” the girl sobbed. “Please send somebody.”
The call came into the red-brick courthouse in Telluride on Aug. 6, 1990, shortly after seven in the morning. It wasn’t the sort of call the dispatcher had come to expect--not in Telluride, the most secluded of Colorado’s mountain resorts. In the summer, the town’s population drops to fewer than 1,200 people, and locals tend to leave their Victorian homes unlocked while they’re out. It’s not a place where a child is likely to wake up and find that her mother has met a violent, baffling death.
That was how Sheriff Bill Masters would come to describe what happened to Bente Shoen’s mother: baffling, unlikely, outrageous. That morning he arrived at the Ski Ranches--an affluent development tucked among thick stands of aspen on a hillside above the town--to find a few neighbors and passersby gathered outside the $400,000 Shoen home. Inside, the body of 44-year-old Eva Berg Shoen lay at the top of the stairs leading to her bedroom. She had been dead for hours, shot in the back by a .25-caliber pistol.
There was no sign of forced entry, burglary or sexual assault. The family’s six dogs had been confined to the basement that night after complaints about their obstreperous barking, and the three children staying in the house--Bente, 10, her brother, Esben, 7, and a visiting friend--hadn’t heard a thing.
The bizarre nature of the circumstances wasn’t lost on Masters, a short, sturdy Coast Guard veteran who had been Telluride’s sheriff for 10 years. This was his first homicide investigation--and he was dealing with an intruder who had slipped past dogs and sleeping children, apparently used a weapon equipped with a silencer and escaped unseen. In Masters’ eyes, the killing was beginning to look like a professional job.
But who would want to kill Eva Shoen? A native of Norway, she had arrived in Telluride from Phoenix two years earlier with her second husband and their children. By all accounts, she was a shy, athletic woman whose life revolved around her family and her collection of show dogs. She didn’t appear to have any enemies.
Yet Masters didn’t have to look far for a possible lead. Eva may not have had enemies, but she had married into a family feud of staggering proportions. Her husband, Samuel W. Shoen, 45, was the oldest son of L. S. Shoen, who had created a product as familiar to the American consumer as Coca-Cola and Kleenex--the U-Haul trailer. Trained as a physician, Sam Shoen had abandoned medicine after his first year of residency to help his father run the family business. He had abruptly resigned in 1987 and had since joined his father and several siblings in an acrimonious series of court battles seeking to wrest control of U-Haul International from two of his younger brothers, Edward J. (Joe) Shoen, 41, and Mark Shoen, 38.
Sam had left Telluride on a business trip only hours before Eva was shot. Contacted by phone at his Phoenix residence, he immediately flew back to Telluride, went into hiding with his children and offered a $250,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of his wife’s killer.
Within days, a swarm of reporters had descended on Bill Masters’ pantry-sized office, asking questions about the slaying and its possible connection to the Shoen feud. “We have no suspects and no motive,” Masters told them. “We are not focusing on a particular individual or a particular corporation.”
But Masters wasn’t ruling anything out, either. In the next few weeks, he and his deputies made several trips to interview executives at U-Haul’s corporate headquarters in Phoenix--too many trips to suit Joe and Mark Shoen, who soon hired their own investigators to look into the murder.
Masters didn’t think he had to point a finger at anyone. The Shoens were already doing that themselves. And they were pointing at each other.
LEONARD SAMUEL Shoen picks his way through the blizzard of correspondence and legal briefs strewn across the makeshift office in his modest Las Vegas home. He props his bare feet on the edge of his cluttered desk, snatches up an oversized paperback and snorts as he thumbs through it.
The book is “You and Me,” by L. S. Shoen, the upbeat memoirs of the man who showed America how to move itself. It is the story of a work-obsessed entrepreneur who parlayed a $3,000 investment into the billion-dollar U-Haul empire. It is also the story of his sprawling family--five marriages, 12 children. Photographs of the children growing up alternate with photos of the developing product line, trucks and trailers fresh off the assembly line, right up until 1980, when the book was published.
“Looks great, doesn’t it?” L. S. Shoen asks. “Doesn’t everything look great to you?”
He puts the book aside and runs his hands through his thinning white hair. “We had a magnificent organization,” he says. “It was a going machine. Now it’s just a shadow of what it was.”
When L. S. Shoen talks about his “going machine,” it is sometimes difficult to tell if he is referring to his family or his company. The two are tightly bound together, like the photographs in “You and Me,” images of a receding dream. A U-Haul trailer sits in the patriarch’s driveway, but it isn’t nearly big enough for the load he carries on his stooped shoulders. At 74, he has the haunted look of a man who has survived a plane crash and is waiting for the next messenger of disaster to knock on his door.
In 1986, L. S. was unceremoniously booted out of his company by his own children, to whom he had doled out 94% of the stock in Amerco, U-Haul’s parent corporation. He has since seen his grandiose plans for Amerco toppled and dismantled; he has watched, thunderstruck, as his children have cursed each other and come to blows at shareholders’ meetings; he has even had his lifetime employment contract canceled by his son Joe on grounds of “insubordination.”
In recent years, L. S. has made a second career out of trying to fathom the war between the Shoens. In long, ruminative letters to his sons and daughters, he has attributed the discord to bad genes, “spoiled brat syndrome,” the corrupting influences of power and greed, and his own folly in distributing the stock among sharply competing siblings. But since Eva’s murder, L. S. has come to regard the situation as much worse than even he had imagined. He is now tormented by the suspicion that someone in or close to his family has blood on his hands.
Six weeks after the murder, L. S. fired off a letter to Amerco’s board of directors, which includes four of his sons. “Gentlemen,” he wrote, “you cannot but realize that Sam was to be murdered. That Eva was not to be the victim . . . that this murder had its impetus from the environment created by those in control of Amerco who held the belief that if Sam were out of the picture all would be well.”
The letter was the first salvo in a media campaign that prompted Joe and Mark Shoen to file a libel suit against their father and their brother Michael, an attorney, claiming L. S. and Michael have made false and defamatory statements that suggest Joe and Mark might have been involved in the murder. In L. S.'s case, the statements have focused on Joe’s stability. In a series of interviews with reporters, he has said that he believes that Joe, Amerco’s president and chairman of the board, is “probably psychotic.”
Accusations of mental illness are nothing new in the Shoen family feud. For years, Joe Shoen and allied family members have suggested privately that their father is suffering from manic-depression. Then, less than two weeks after Eva’s murder, a “friend of the family” faxed an anonymous press release on the subject, titled “U-Haul Founder Needs Treatment,” to a Los Angeles Times reporter, apparently trying to discredit L. S. before he could go public with his charges.
L. S. admits to a history of treatment for depression but denies that he’s ever been diagnosed as manic-depressive. Although he once studied to be a doctor, he readily acknowledges that he doesn’t have the expertise to psychoanalyze his family. That hasn’t stopped him, though, from devouring current medical literature on sociopathy and peppering his letters with references to his sons’ “personality disorders” and his own “co-dependent behavior.”
“L. S. has to find a reason for all of this,” says ex-wife Suzanne Gilbaugh Anderson. “And he’s had just enough medical school to be dangerous.”
U-Haul’s founder has never offered any proof that members of his family were involved in Eva’s murder. Yet he has continued to push two theories of the crime: one that suggests that Joe or Mark hired the killers, and one in which someone allied with the brothers and U-Haul management decided to eliminate Sam--what L. S. calls a “A Murder in the Cathedral” situation, referring to the T. S. Eliot play about the assassination of Sir Thomas Becket. Either way, he says, “I believe one or both of these sons are indirectly responsible for Eva’s death. . . . I hope and pray that I’m wrong, but that’s what I believe.”
Mark Shoen, the president of U-Haul, has denounced his father’s theories about the murder as preposterous, but L. S. is hardly alone in suspecting a link between the murder and the fight over U-Haul.
“I think the most likely scenario by far is that I was the target,” says Sam Shoen. “My father is very well informed and very well motivated, and I know he loves (Mark and Joe). At a minimum, I’m certain that my wife’s death was a direct result of the environment created by the seizure of control of U-Haul by my brother Joe.”
ONE POINT, at least, seems beyond dispute: The internecine warfare over U-Haul is a far cry from what L. S. Shoen had in mind when, fresh out of the Navy, he began building trailers on a ranch in Washington in 1945. An Oregon farmer’s son, nicknamed Slick for his ability to wheel and deal, L. S. had already tried his hand at several hit-and-miss ventures (motel operator, a string of barbershops, medical school) before turning to the one-way-rental business. In two years, he had a network of U-Haul dealerships at service stations along the West Coast.
Old acquaintances remember Slick Shoen as a fast-talking dynamo who frequently took to the road himself to inspect and repair trailers, surfacing in backwater towns with little more than a smile, a toothbrush and a change of underwear. His tightfistedness was legendary.
“I’ve seen him and his first wife, Anna Mary, sit down and order a meal--one plate and two forks,” recalls Bert Miller, one of U-Haul’s first regional vice presidents. “Damnedest fight you ever saw who was gonna get the most.”
Anna Mary Carty, L. S.'s college sweetheart, was a devout Catholic. Although doctors had advised her not to have children because of a heart condition, she had six in the space of a dozen years--Sam, Michael, Joe, Mark, Mary Anna and Paul--and helped run the business.
By the late 1950s, U-Haul dominated the trailer-rental market nationwide and was starting to rent trucks. Yet L. S. had never shed a gnawing fear that the entire shebang would collapse overnight. Beginning in 1952, he and his wife established a labyrinth of trusts and investments in the names of their children, including outright gifts of stock. One day in 1957 he told Anna Mary he couldn’t believe things were going so well. That night, at the age of 34, she died of a heart attack, leaving L. S. with six young children and an intimation that his kind of success didn’t come cheap.
“It was always there in my mind,” he says now. “When Anna Mary died, I thought maybe we had paid the price. But we hadn’t.”
BILL MASTERS SOON discovered what it was like to investigate a murder in the Shoen family. It was exhausting.
The first problem was money. Masters’ annual budget for “investigation"--an emergency fund available for dope buys, travel or other extraordinary circumstances--amounted to $500. Over Masters’ objections, L. S. Shoen donated $50,000 to the county. Masters argued that the donation would create the impression that “my department is working for one side of the family,” but county officials were satisfied that the offer came with no strings attached and took the money.
Masters also had to contend with what he regarded as “disinformation” being spread to reporters by U-Haul’s private investigators, notably Jon Sellers, a former Phoenix homicide detective and part-time country singer. Sellers was quick to poke holes in Masters’ description of the slaying as a “quasi-professional hit”; no hit man, he said, would shoot a victim once in the back with a small-caliber pistol. His own theory, constructed with little assistance from the sheriff’s office and trumpeted in a U-Haul press release, suggested that Eva’s death was the result of a “bungled hostage-for-ransom attempt.” According to Sellers’ information--admittedly second-hand--Bente Shoen had said there were men at the house demanding money hours before the murder, and a phone call was made to the home from Sam’s residence in Arizona shortly before the shooting.
Both statements are false, Masters insists. “The whole scenario is just ludicrous,” he says. “Sellers has really caused us to lose a lot of ground in our investigation. He’s tried to discredit the investigation, which discredits us in the eyes of witnesses we are trying to interview, and apparently for no reason other than to get some headlines. I can’t think of what else the motivation is, unless he’s trying to screw up the investigation for his clients.”
“That’s total bullshit,” Sellers snaps. “No one buys me.”
Still, the prospect of hidden agendas on both sides has clouded the murder investigation almost from the start. Representatives of U-Haul have suggested that L. S. and his allies are attempting to use Eva’s death to obtain some kind of “leverage” in the family lawsuits. And Sam Shoen wonders why the company would issue a press release concerning a post-midnight phone call he never made--unless the intention was to shift suspicion away from people at U-Haul and onto himself.
“It’s another red herring,” he sighs. “My wife gets murdered and her bloody body gets left for my kids to find--and these people try to imply that I killed her. That’s the level these folks operate on.”
Bedeviled by family intrigues and conspiracy theories, Masters has declined to endorse L. S.'s suspicions or to speculate on the motive for the murder. His official position is one of poker-faced neutrality. “I represent one person, and that’s Eva Shoen,” he says. “She was a citizen of mine, and I’m going to solve this case.”
Yet the $250,000 reward offer has generated fewer tips than the sheriff had hoped, and Masters’ brisk tone can’t dispel the prospect of a long, possibly futile quest. Six months into the investigation, he says he still has “a lot of ground to cover” and is receiving help from other law-enforcement agencies in Colorado and in Arizona. His office now devotes an average of 40 hours a week to pursuing leads--the equivalent of one deputy assigned full-time to the case.
Mark Shoen predicted an arrest would be made by mid-September. But as that deadline passed, Masters found cooperation from Amerco dwindling. At the company’s insistence, official interviews with employees are now conducted with an Amerco attorney or private investigator present. According to Masters, one U-Haul executive has even “threatened to have my deputies arrested.”
Jon Sellers believes the sheriff’s deputies would fare better by devoting more time to other leads rather than “interviewing and re-interviewing people at U-Haul.”
“All they seem to want to do,” he complains, “is investigate Shoens.”
FUELED BY CHEAP gasoline and postwar America’s growing mobility, U-Haul in the 1960s became the uncontested giant of self-moving. By the end of the decade, L. S. Shoen had moved his corporate headquarters from Portland to Phoenix and reorganized his empire under the banner of the Amerco Family Companies. He had also nearly doubled the size of his own family and was running out of stock.
A year after Anna Mary’s death, L. S. married Suzanne Gilbaugh, a 23-year-old graduate student whose parents lived around the corner from the Shoens. In addition to coping with Anna Mary’s brood, Suzanne soon had five children of her own--Jim, Sophia, Cecilia, Theresa and Katrina. In 1967 the entire brigade moved to the Tatum House, a cavernous Frank Lloyd Wright creation in Paradise Valley, Ariz.
The expanded Shoen household had little in common with the Brady Bunch. L. S. was frequently away on business, piloting his Cessna to check on business across the United States and Canada, and his wife had little help raising his willful children.
“One time I asked him about rules for the house, and he told me, ‘I don’t think there are any rules in the prisons today,’ ” Suzanne recalls. “You try to run a house like that. It was total chaos.”
Sam and Michael had been sent off to boarding school early in the marriage, leaving Joe and Mark, the two oldest children still living at home, locked in a tug-of-war with their stepmother. Mike Shoen remembers returning home for summer vacations, only to be greeted by a torrent of complaints about Suzanne. Joe and Mark held secret meetings to discuss what to do with “the bitch"--talk that Michael, at least, never took seriously.
“They lived in what I thought was a very unreal world,” he says. “My feeling was, ‘I’ve got to get out of this.’ ”
L. S. tried to make up for his long absences and the loss of Anna Mary by rewarding his children with sports cars, Ivy League educations and jobs. In 1973, Joe, by then a Harvard MBA, joined Amerco’s board of directors. He was soon followed by Sam, who had graduated at the top of his class in medical school but decided, at his father’s urging, to “give business a try.” (Sam went on to earn his own Harvard MBA, while Joe went to law school.) Michael became the head of U-Haul’s legal department. L. S. kept changing their job descriptions, trying to fashion a workable “team"--at one point L. S. was CEO, Joe was U-Haul’s president, and Mark and Sam oversaw West and East Coast operations, respectively--but the frequent reshufflings only seemed to stir resentment among the brothers, much of it directed at Sam.
“Joe told me once that he and Mark were angry with Sam because he would never go against his father,” says one Amerco executive. “He would sit in the group and discuss things they thought should be done, and then he would side with his father. But I always felt that Sam was the only one of the boys who understood that their father had built the company.”
THE TURMOIL at the top couldn’t have come at a worse time for Amerco. Following the Arab oil embargo of 1973, which severely reduced the number of service stations available as rental outlets,L. S. had embarked on an “economic development plan” that would establish 1,200 company-owned U-Haul centers. The plan also called for massive diversification, including a full-service van line and rentals of storage units, party furniture, heavy equipment, motor homes, even video equipment and tapes. L. S. and Joe didn’t see eye-to-eye on the plan, and the enormous scale of it daunted even some of the founder’s supporters.
Amerco’s bid to build all-purpose rental emporiums had scarcely begun when the founder’s personal life fell apart. In 1977, Suzanne divorced L. S.--at his request. (“Basically, he said he could not be married and run the business,” she explains.) The couple squabbled over the settlement, and when L. S. promptly asked Suzanne to remarry him, she refused. L. S. went on a matrimonial binge. In one day he married and divorced the mother of his 12th child, Scott, born in 1974. A fourth marriage lasted three months. Fighting incapacitating depression, L. S. was hospitalized for two weeks in 1978 and emerged on a regimen of antidepressant drugs. He met his current wife, Carol, at an est seminar in 1979.
That same year, L. S. retained Jerry Day, a Tucson psychologist specializing in “stress management,” in an effort to resolve the sniping and shouting matches among his sons at Amerco. After a series of individual- and group-counseling sessions, Day sent L. S. a report that was blisteringly critical of Joe and Mark and their “insatiable” desire for “absolute power.” “It is impractical to expect the struggle to lessen as long as there is a close working relationship between Joe and Mark and the rest of the group,” Day wrote.
Contending that its information is flawed, U-Haul’s attorneys have successfully prevented Day’s report from being admitted into evidence in one of the lawsuits now swirling around the company. Day, however, has defended his analysis as “chillingly accurate” and recently had the opportunity to expand on his 1979 assessment of Joe Shoen in a deposition: “Bellicose, obstinate, stubborn, controlling, power-seeking, combative, confrontive. Enjoys that. Likes it. Intimidates.”
These days, L. S. pores over the Day report like a Bible student with his King James. He has highlighted Day’s recommendation that “L. S. should allow the full consequences of their behavior to befall Mark and Joe. They should not be protected from financial pain or boredom or unfulfillment or vocational limbo.” In the margin he has scribbled, in large, shaky letters: “I DID NOT DO.”
In fact, L. S. did everything in his power to keep his sons in orbit around Amerco. Although Mark and Joe resigned from the company within weeks of each other shortly before Day’s report was completed, their father kept them on the payroll at executive salaries for two years and set them up with a company that grossed millions annually in printing business with U-Haul. And he continued to make overtures to them to return to the business.
When Joe and Mark did return, it was on their own terms. In the mid-1980s the wheels began to come off L. S.'s going machine. Competition from Ryder cut sharply into Amerco’s earnings, and the expansion plan had sent the company’s debt soaring to more than $500 million and produced layoffs. Equally significant, L. S. had yet to deliver on a promise to pay dividends on his children’s thousands of shares of stock. Mark, who had lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in bad investments since leaving U-Haul, was particularly vocal about the lack of dividends.
Arguing that his father had overreached himself, Joe was able to obtain the backing of a majority of his siblings for a change in leadership. L. S. learned of the coup only days before a 1986 shareholders’ meeting. After a flurry of mediation, a compromise emerged: L. S. would retire; Joe would replace him as chairman of the board, and Sam would stay on as president.
Several of the Shoens who initially supported Joe’s ascension have since come to side with Sam and L. S. in their litigation against the company. “People voted (for Joe) for vastly different reasons,” says Michael Shoen, who left U-Haul’s legal department several years ago. “My position was that my father had gone too long without any reasonable review of his power. . . . Lo and behold, we entered a brave new world, and it was just like Aldous Huxley’s world--it was hell.”
THREE MONTHS LATER,the war within U-Haul had another casualty--L. S.'s chosen successor, Sam. His relationship with Joe and Mark had not improved in the founder’s absence. Visitors to the 11th floor of the U-Haul Towers in Phoenix were astonished to find Amerco’s president ridiculed and cursed by his brothers; on at least one occasion, a vice president had to physically restrain short-fused Mark from attacking Sam.
“The decision to leave was traumatic, but it was actually an easy decision to make,” Sam says now. “Joe had very convincingly demonstrated his hate and contempt for me, as well as his commitment to making my job impossible. We had weekly 12-hour board meetings, which he called; it took me a day to prepare for a board meeting, and a day to recover from it.”
With Sam gone, Joe had a free hand to implement a “back-to-basics” plan that he claimed would revitalize the company. The plan involved replacing the aging fleet with 50,000 new trucks and discontinuing much of the costly diversification his father had begun, a process that led to the firing of thousands of employees--many of them longtime friends of L. S. Shoen.
L. S. went ballistic, launching a campaign to remove Joe from power that persists to this day. His family letters became diatribes, arguing that Joe’s strategy amounted to selling off assets to show profits. (Amerco has paid almost $7.5 million in dividends over the past three years; however, the company’s debt is now $750 million.)
Sam moved his family to Telluride and began to explore ways to “maximize the liquidity” of his stock, in order to free himself from U-Haul. Michael, Mary Anna and several other siblings joined in that effort, leaving Joe and Mark with three key supporters--Paul, Jim and Sophia.
The skirmishes between the two sides escalated at a dizzying pace. L. S. received a cryptic letter from Joe informing him that his $400,000-a-year “lifetime contract” was being terminated--unless he could prove he was mentally ill, in which case he might still qualify for disability income. Sam had to respond to an anonymous complaint to the Arizona Board of Medical Examiners that accused him of being a violent drug addict and psychopath who had overmedicated his father; the inquiry was soon dropped. (“My brother Paul told me he filed it,” says Sam. “And my brother Joe told me he was aware of it.”)
The pivotal events in the Shoen feud occurred in one frantic week in the summer of 1988. The bank trustee who voted 14-year-old Scott Shoen’s stock agreed to side with L. S.'s group, giving the “outsiders” a total of 4,000 more shares of stock than the “insiders"--enough to execute a written-consent action that could unseat Amerco’s present board of directors. But before the action could be finalized, Joe caught wind of the scheme and took preemptive measures. In a move admittedly designed to “change the math,” Amerco’s board of directors issued 8,099 shares of treasury stock to five key employees, including members of the board, giving their faction a bare majority. Because none of the five could afford to pay cash for the stock, then valued at more than $20 million, Joe borrowed more than $750,000 from his children’s trust funds for the down payments and accepted notes for the balance. L. S.'s group dubbed the new stockholders the “Golden Five” and filed suit challenging the transaction.
U-Haul’s attorneys have argued that the shares were issued to protect the company from a hostile takeover and certain destruction; the outsiders’ attorneys seem incredulous that a majority of the shareholders could be regarded as a “hostile” force. Four of the Golden Five have since sold most of the contested shares back to the company, reaping an estimated profit in excess of $2 million, a windfall that could be wiped out by an adverse decision in the lawsuit.
That kind of money, L. S. theorizes, might be worth protecting, might be worth killing for; it is one of the principal elements in his “Murder in the Cathedral” scenario. Company spokesman Harry Deshong, an executive vice president and one of the Golden Five, flatly denies that anyone at U-Haul had anything to gain by Eva’s death. The accusation is not only absurd, he says, but responding to it puts the company in a no-win position. “I can assure you,” Deshong says, “that all of this negative press has had a serious negative impact on the employees of this company.”
The stock litigation has yet to go to trial, but it has already spawned a series of related lawsuits that has cost Amerco and the individual litigants millions. L. S. unsuccessfully challenged the conservatorships of Joe’s and Mark’s children; Amerco has sued L. S., Michael, Sam, Mary Anna and their spouses (including Eva) for an alleged $30 million in damages to the company; and, of course, L. S. has sued Amerco over his termination and has been sued for libel. The outsiders’ attorneys claim the Amerco suits are intended to economically cripple their clients. Joe has compared the litigation to having a foot afflicted with gangrene.
Anger over the litigation also contributed to a violent outburst at a 1989 shareholders’ meeting in Reno, tape-recorded by Michael. On the tape, Mark Shoen can be heard snarling profanities at Sam and taunting Michael about his German in-laws (“Your father-in-law killed little Jews, didn’t he?”). According to several witnesses, the confrontation ended with Michael being pummeled by Mark and Joe. Michael displayed his bruises in a photo in the Arizona Republic and filed misdemeanor battery charges against his brothers. After dealing with a gantlet of Shoen attorneys and gathering vastly contradictory accounts of the incident, the Reno city attorney’s office dropped the charges. Both sides have denied being the aggressors in the affair.
Despite their legal setbacks, the outsiders felt that they had cause for celebration last summer. Paul and Sophia were reportedly rethinking their involvement in a voting-trust arrangement with Joe, Mark and Jim, a circumstance that could lead to a shift in the balance of power. But then Eva’s murder demolished whatever semblance was left of family life.
“When Eva died,” recalls Suzanne, “I got a call saying, ‘Joe, Mark, Paul, Jim, Sophie and you are not invited to the funeral.’ I’ve been not invited to several things, but this is the first funeral.”
Last fall, Amerco held its annual shareholders’ meeting in Tonopah, Nev. A U-Haul press release announced that Joe Shoen was looking forward to the meeting and “a possible reconciliation” with the outsiders. But the terms of Joe’s rapprochement, as delineated in the proxy ballots sent to shareholders, were hardly conciliatory.
The board of directors’ proposals included staggered elections of the board (four years each for Mark and Joe), a ban on written-consent actions by shareholders, a 400-1 stock split, and the authorization of an additional 25 million shares of stock--all measures that would strengthen the hand of current management. No one at Amerco would say how the additional stock would be used, but the outsiders feared the worst: a final dilution of their voting power.
As it turned out, the outsiders never had a chance to respond to Joe’s offer. At the Tonopah meeting, Amerco’s chairman appeared with two non-Shoen board members and read from a prepared text, declining to respond to questions from the floor. He announced that he had already received enough proxies to approve all the proposals on his agenda, and that everyone could go home.
Distressed, one minor shareholder interrupted Joe’s speech repeatedly. “Mr. Chairman, I’d like to ask a question,” he said. “I’m asking to be recognized. I want to be recognized. Do you understand? I’m your father. My name is Leonard S. Shoen, and I’d like to--"
Joe ignored him. When he was finished, he rushed through a door at the back of the room, followed by his two lieutenants. The entire debacle lasted less than 10 minutes.
Sam Shoen didn’t attend the meeting. He hasn’t spoken to any of the Shoens employed by Amerco since before Eva’s death. No longer in hiding but still keeping a low profile, these days he divides his time between his hospital consulting business and his children. He is also a frequent visitor at the sheriff’s office in Telluride. (“He wants an answer so bad ,” says one of the clerks there.)
“It’s impossible to overstate the emotional trauma my kids and I have experienced,” he says. “The natural death of a loved one doesn’t even register on this scale. My mother died when I was 12 years old; that was a traumatic experience, but it’s nothing alongside this. I’m attempting to help my children recover and will do the best I can to raise them to be gentle, honest and courageous--like their mother.”