Snakes in the Office

Copperheads invade a local real-estate company, but former employees say the biggest snake of them all is their ex-boss.

Those who worked for the real-estate brokerage Blake & Davis say Steve Peterson was always a bit off-kilter. They recall their former boss's habit of locking his office door whenever he left his desk — even for a quick trip to the bathroom. They remember him taking his computer tower home with him each night and locking it securely in the trunk of his car. Rarely, they say, did he ever make eye contact and, although he owned the company, Peterson was a guaranteed no-show at the annual holiday party.

Still, it wasn't until recently that Peterson's behavior became even more mercurial. Among the most inflammatory accusations current and former employees level at Peterson is that he bugged the Blake & Davis phone lines and installed hidden cameras and microphones to eavesdrop on them. More recently the 38-year-old Peterson is alleged to have hired a private-detective firm to trail staffers. Odder still are claims that he may have planted venomous snakes in the office as a way to further intimidate his subordinates.

Once known as an exclusive firm that catered to high-end clients buying and selling homes in some of the tonier suburbs of St. Louis, industry insiders say Blake & Davis is today a shell of its former self. The company has offices in just Clayton and Chesterfield after shuttering its Webster Groves, Town & Country and St. Charles branches. As recently as 2005 Blake & Davis boasted more than 140 sales agents. Today those numbers have dwindled to fewer than 50, according to the company Web site.

Jennifer Silverberg
Is this the grin of a successful businessman or a snake-releasing psychopath? Steve Peterson's former employees say it's the latter.
Jennifer Silverberg
Is this the grin of a successful businessman or a snake-releasing psychopath? Steve Peterson's former employees say it's the latter.

In the past year Peterson has sued at least five former employees on grounds that they stole company trade secrets and violated terms of their non-compete agreements when they moved on to other real-estate firms. In turn, ex-agents have filed suits against him, claiming he withheld paying them their commissions. Creditors, too, have joined the fray, suing Peterson for back rent and other delinquent bills.

On December 7 St. Charles County prosecutors will try Peterson on charges of domestic assault in the third degree for allegedly strangling and biting his wife, Kathy Kilo Peterson, in July 2005. In divorce filings, Kathy Peterson also charges her husband and his sister, Laura Peterson, with conspiring to defraud her of some $1.8 million in funds she brought into the marriage.

Peterson calls the allegations outrageous and says he's confident he'll win any and all legal challenges.

"They're just making waves, and to the extent they want to continue to blow smoke, the courts will deal with that," says Peterson, who commented only briefly for this story before referring all questions to his attorneys. "With respect to the employees at Blake & Davis, these charges are just another opportunity for them to do what they can to harangue people."

But Blake & Davis employees say they couldn't possibly make up anything as bizarre as the time they spent working for Peterson. Last month Marilyn Gibson, who until recently served as manager of the company's St. Charles office, filed a three-page restraining order in St. Charles County Circuit Court. She charged that Peterson "harassed, intimidated, stalked and terrified me" throughout August and early September.

Gibson declined an interview for this story, but her complaint backs the assertions of many other former Blake & Davis employees.

"This was supposed to be a small, quiet real-estate company," says one former staffer. "Steve Peterson turned it into a made-for-TV horror flick."

On August 15 of this year Marilyn Gibson arrived at work only to find that someone had rifled through the contents of her office. Still, she reports going about her normal routine that Tuesday morning. Halfway through her 10 a.m. meeting with sales agents, the office receptionist burst into the room to announce that something had slithered into her office. Soon the entire office staff was peering nervously at a foot-long snake staring up at them from behind a garbage bin.

"We were just shocked," recalls Karen Lupo, a former agent who witnessed the event. "When none of the male employees would get near the thing, I decided to do it myself."

Using a pair of salad tongs she found in the break room, Lupo coaxed the reptile into a cardboard box and deposited it outside on the lawn. "It was hissing at me when I let it go," she recalls.

But if Blake & Davis employees were alarmed when the snake was in the building, Lupo says they became even more disturbed when they realized the serpent was not a garter snake — as first suspected — but a venomous copperhead whose bite can be lethal.

"From that moment on," says Lupo, "we were petrified as to what else we might discover in the office."

The creepy occurrences would not be limited to inside the office walls. Someone, they say, was watching them as they came and left the building. On August 19, just days after the copperhead scare, Gibson reports the first of many encounters with the man she believes Peterson hired to spy on her and others.

"I was at a restaurant having breakfast with Cindy Fox, another [Blake & Davis] manager, and Joe Riley, president of Blake & Davis Realtors," writes Gibson in her restraining order. "The man at the next table kept watching us and trying to eavesdrop. He left when we left."

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