By Sam Levin
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Riley, on the other hand, believes Peterson planted the snake. "The windows had paper on them because we had a crew in there painting," he says. "But the shadow matched Peterson's silhouette. He has this weird hair profile it's kind of a Donald Trump hairdo. The snake was right there just six inches from the door. You could have stepped on it!"
Counters Peterson: "That's ridiculous. I don't even know where their office is."
Peterson's attorney, Wittner, says he's never seen anything so crazy. "Bizarre is more like it. I've been in this business a long time and these allegations are really, really unusual. It's borderline embarrassment.
"I think Steve has the kind of personality that he's not what you call a funny guy," continues Wittner. "He's a very serious guy and a bright guy. And I think he's all business and I think that rubs some people the wrong way."
Steve Peterson grew up on West Swon Avenue, a picturesque street in Webster Groves that boasts big turn-of-the-century homes and manicured lawns. Neighbors recall his parents, especially his father, Gary, as pleasant and cordial, and his sister, Laura, as a popular blonde. Steve Peterson, on the other hand, seemed to be a brooding loner, they say. One mother recalls her son and his friends referring to Steve as a "nerd."
While the Petersons appeared be a normal suburban family, neighbors say they were shocked when in 1984 Gary Peterson pleaded guilty to charges of embezzling funds from his employer, Centerre Bank. The scheme involved Peterson, the bank building's manager, cutting checks to a corrupt contractor for bogus plumbing work. In total, he and the conspiring plumber flushed some $485,000 from the bank before being caught. He was sentenced to eight years in prison.
A sophomore at the prestigious Country Day School at the time of his father's conviction, Steve Peterson grew more insular, turning to his sister, Laura, for support. Today, Laura, 36, remains one of Peterson's few if only friends, according to colleagues.
With his father in prison, Peterson's mother, Marguerite, became the family's breadwinner and succeeded far beyond expectations. By the late-1980s her real-estate management firm, Scott Price & Associates, represented some of the largest condominium associations in the region. Peterson joined the company after graduating from Washington University.
In 1999 Peterson married Kathy Kilo, the daughter of the prominent physician and medical researcher Charles Kilo. That same year, Peterson made a splash in the local real-estate market when he purchased a stake in Blake & Davis. The marriage and the new business title seemed to catapult the then 32-year-old Peterson to the ranks of the privileged class.
Dressed in a breezy uniform of starched Oxford-cloth shirts, needlepoint belts, khaki pants and loafers with no socks, Peterson made a name for himself impressing clients and agents with four-course lunches at the members-only St. Louis Club. Outside of work he could be spotted cruising through town in his Mercedes 320, accompanied by his dogs, a pair of Weimaraners he named Blake and Davis.
As Peterson flaunted his new position with the company, employees with Blake & Davis say he showed casual indifference to critical business matters, tossing away bills and shirking promises made to his sales agents. With his five-foot-nine frame, generous waistline and Coke-bottle glasses, Peterson was hardly an imposing figure, but employees say he relished the way he could manipulate his underlings.
Employees say Peterson required them to sign non-compete agreements and threatened to file lawsuits against anyone who dared to leave the company.
"He even made clerical workers sign the contracts," recalls a former employee. "People were paralyzed with fear. They thought they'd be unable to work if they left."
Peterson confirms that he required some of his employees to sign non-compete agreements but dismisses the notion that people didn't know about the documents. "They signed them, didn't they?" he says. Peterson has little tolerance for those who he believes have broken the contracts and found new jobs outside Blake & Davis.
"To the extent that they've done something improper, they'll be pursued," he says. "And to the extent that they haven't they won't, because they moved on and they've followed the rules. You have to have simple standards. If you can't follow simple standards, then we'll look at the courts to define them."
Former employees, meanwhile, say it wasn't long before the entire office began to feel insecure and worried about Peterson.
"The whole office was just a toxic cesspool of mistrust," says a former agent.
"You'd drive by the Clayton office and everyone would be outside talking on their cell phones," says another ex-worker. "We were all convinced he was listening to phone calls."
In February 2005 morale hit a new low when the co-owner of Blake & Davis, Andrew Dielmann, abruptly severed ties with Peterson. Dielmann declined to comment on why he left other than to say he wanted to start his own business. But his departure opened the floodgates at Blake & Davis, with dozens of agents leaving within weeks to join him in his new venture. Dielmann can't recall off the top of his head exactly how many people left to join him in his new company.