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Family Feud Weighs Down U-Haul : Power struggle: Founder L. S. Shoen calls his daughter-in-law's death an 'assassination.' His allegation demonstrates the ferocity of the dispute between some siblings and the man who started the trailer rental business.

September 04, 1990|MARTHA GROVES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TELLURIDE, Colo. — In the early hours of Aug. 6, Eva Berg Shoen, 44, was shot to death with a .25-caliber pistol as she slept in her deluxe log home, set amid aspen and spruce trees outside the rustic, 1880s-vintage ski town of Telluride.

Investigators were stumped. The shooting smacked of a professional hit. But why, nervous townspeople wondered, would anyone kill this pleasant, blonde, Norwegian-born woman who had moved with her family to the area for its small-town atmosphere?

Her father-in-law, Leonard Samuel (L. S.) Shoen, who founded the U-Haul truck and trailer leasing empire in 1945, called it an "assassination." He suggested to authorities that the killing might be related to a long-running family feud over control of the company, which has close to $1 billion in annual sales. The San Miguel County Sheriff confirms that family members have mentioned the feud as a possible motive and says his department is looking into it.

Shoen, 74, noted that Eva's husband, Dr. Sam Shoen, happened to be away, in Phoenix, the night of the murder. Sam, embroiled in the family dispute, resigned as U-Haul president three years ago. Some people here wonder if the killer might have meant to murder Sam instead of Eva.

Investigators refuse to say if they have any hard evidence linking the murder to the Shoen family dispute, although they have had long interviews with L. S. as well as Shoen family members at U-Haul headquarters in Phoenix and asked extensively about it. But the mere fact that such allegations have been bandied about demonstrates the ferocity of the feud that has gripped the founding family of trailer rentals.

The wild and woolly battle has pitted sibling against sibling--of which there are a dozen, by three different mothers--and some of these offspring against the eccentric patriarch.

In recent years, the two sides have duked it out in the boardroom and the courtroom--and literally at last year's annual meeting, where, family members allege, some of the brothers came to blows.

The murder, in fact, occurred as the factions were readying for a trial set to begin Sept. 10 in Superior Court in Phoenix. Because of the slaying, the proceedings have been postponed until Feb. 5.

That lawsuit, filed by U-Haul International and its parent company, Amerco, contends that L. S. Shoen, his son Sam, daughter Mary Anna, son Michael revealed confidential financial information about the company to outsiders. The suit also claims the group secretly plotted a takeover, possibly with the intention of selling the company to outsiders, and slandered the company, with the result that its credit rating was reduced. It seeks $30 million in damages. Eva Shoen herself was not an Amerco shareholder and wasn't actively involved in the dispute, observers say.

The seeds were sown years ago for this bitter battle of money, power and ego.

L. S. Shoen grew up in Minnesota and Oregon, one of seven children whose father got involved in an array of ventures, including an unsuccessful stint at farming. After high school, L. S. worked as a barber to put himself through premedical studies at college. His friends there called him "Slick."

During the first month of his senior year, he was expelled for answering in class one day for his lab partner. He then became a Naval officer trainee. But he contracted rheumatic fever and spent the rest of World War II in bed, plotting a business he hoped to start: trailer rentals.

After a medical discharge, he took $5,000 in savings and began buying and building trailers. In the beginning, he and his wife, Anna Mary Carty, painted and stenciled all the vehicles themselves.

Driven to succeed, Shoen spent weeks on the road, developing a network of dealers and repairing trailers. He often clambered over dealers' fences in the middle of the night to get to broken-down vehicles. Postwar America took readily to this new service, and the company boomed.

"The first day we rented a trailer, I set my sights on a 1,000 trailers, and when we got a 1,000 trailers on the road I wanted 10,000," Shoen wrote in "You and Me," a 1980 book that is an odd fusion of family history, corporate philosophy and inspirational quotes from such figures as Napoleon, Shakespeare and Kahlil Gibran.

Shoen encouraged his growing staff with homespun management formulas such as E x KH=R (energy times know-how equals results). He was not above grandstanding. "You and Me" contains a newspaper account from June, 1970, of how L. S. once threw $1,000 in cash from the 11th floor of Amerco's offices as a lesson to underlings on wasteful spending.

After his first wife died, leaving him with six children, Shoen married the 23-year-old daughter of a neighbor, who bore five children. They divorced, and he married again and had another child.

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