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.

Eighty-four-year-old Barbara Dillon, who served as treasurer for Briarcliff, says Peterson took over the job after his mother ceded her Scott Price & Associates to him. Peterson later rolled the management firm into Blake & Davis.

"She had done a damn fine job managing our association for seventeen years," says Dillon. "I thought the son would follow the mother. We are most unhappy with Mr. Steve Peterson. He put us in serious financial arrears and set our condominium back several years." Dillon adds that Blake & Davis has yet to pay the judgment and doubts the condo association will ever see a dime of the money.

Wittner, who tried the case on behalf of Blake & Davis, says he's unaware of whether the judgment has been paid.

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.

Meanwhile, other suits were pending. In February of this year the company's advertising firm, Kupper Parker, filed a suit claiming Blake & Davis owes it more than $75,000 for marketing and promotional work. That case was set to go to trial October 16.

Landlords, too, claim they're owed money. Late last month the owner of the St. Charles office building filed a rent and possession petition against Blake & Davis, claiming he'd not been paid the August and September rent. Peterson failed to show up for the October 16 court date, says the property owner's attorney Tony Linson, and the judge ruled in favor of the landlord.

"I was frequently dealing with vendors who hadn't been paid," recalls Brett O'Daniell, who served as director of marketing for Blake & Davis. "But then I was misled from the first day I worked there. I'd approach Steve about all his unfulfilled promises and he didn't care."

Par for the course, says O'Daniell, was when he went to the dentist last summer only to discover that the company's health insurance had been canceled. "I called the insurance company and they told me the policy hadn't been paid since June 1. This was mid-July. I confronted Steve about it and he said it was a mix-up. The check must have been lost in the mail."

Desperate to right the ship last fall, Peterson found new investors in his sister, mother (who now resides in Las Vegas), Joe Riley and fellow agents, Tom Omnus, Irina Kish and Kelly Shaw. Together they signed a guarantee for a $2.1 million loan — $500,000 of which was to start a new company that would affiliate Blake & Davis with GMAC Home Services. The remaining $1.6 million was to purchase a tract of land in Winghaven. Laura Peterson was to serve as chairman and chief executive of the new company.

The business never came together, says Riley, because Peterson refused to turn over Blake & Davis' financial statements to GMAC. "Every month it was supposed to happen and never did," recalls Riley. "Then Laura just disappeared for about six months. We never heard from her."

Laura Peterson declined to return phone calls for comment.

"The running joke was that she and Steve had a falling out and he buried her in the back yard," says another former agent. "She was supposed to be managing the company and, poof, she's gone."

Last month Peterson filed a temporary restraining order against Riley that would bar him from practicing real-estate in the St. Louis area. The suit contends that Riley "intentionally, willfully, and maliciously misappropriated and misused trade secrets and proprietary confidential information of Blake & Davis and continues to do so." On September 27, a St. Louis County judge granted the restraining order. A follow-up hearing is scheduled for October 19.

"Mr. Riley has been told he can no longer conduct real estate as a trade and needs to immediately cease and desist," states Steve Peterson. "By virtue of what he and others are doing, they're just making life difficult to themselves. And it's extremely disappointing. They need to act like professionals and move on with their lives."

For his part, Riley denies learning any "trade secrets" at Blake & Davis that he didn't already know from more than twenty years in the real-estate business and is confident the judge will overturn the restraining order once his attorney pleads his case this week. In the meantime, he's eager to distance himself as much as possible from Peterson. He likens his ten months as president of Blake & Davis to babysitting a problem child, with Peterson ordering him to fire employees for no cause and routinely skimping on commitments to his agents.

Last May Riley was conducting a meeting in the Clayton office when former Blake & Davis agent Marcia Harris challenged Peterson for failing yet again to advertise the company's listing in the Post-Dispatch.

"He marched up to her from the back of the room, grabbed her by the elbows and warned her: 'If you want to voice your opinion you need to put your money in and become an investor.'" recalls Riley. "Everyone in the room was just stunned. Then after the meeting he comes into my office and demands that I fire her. I told him I wouldn't do it and that if he were one of my employees I would have fired him on the spot."

In August, Harris filed suit against Peterson, claiming he fired her in an attempt to avoid paying her more than $60,000 in commissions. "These were done deals," says Harris' attorney Steve Cohen. "Basically all that was left for her to do was to pick up her check."

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