DENVER (CN) - An heir to the U-Haul fortune whose wife was murdered did not commit libel in saying that his brother might have set him up for the police, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled.
The sons of L.S. Shoen, who founded the moving company in 1945, had been sparring over control of the company for decades before murder cast a pall over the feud, according to the ruling.
About a month after The Wall Street Journal documented the Shoen family rivalry - which pitted Samuel Shoen and his father against several of his brothers - in a July 1990 article, Samuel's wife, Eva, was shot to death at their home in Telluride. Samuel was away in Phoenix at the time.
One of the brothers, Mark Shoen, had U-Haul investigate the murder with a seeming bent against Samuel, according to the ruling. The court notes that U-Haul investigators "passed inaccurate or unsubstantiated information about Sam to the sheriff's department."
Hoping to dig up new leads in 1993, the sheriff's department orchestrated an episode about the Shoen case on "Unsolved Mysteries." That episode produced a tip that led law enforcement to Frank Marquis.
After confessing to killing Eva, Marquis pleaded guilty in 1994 to manslaughter and burglary of other Telluride homes in 1994. He received a 24-year sentence.
"Marquis confessed that when he killed Eva, he was visiting Telluride to burglarize drug dealers' houses," according to the ruling by Judge Terry Fox. "Marquis claimed he shot Eva next to her bed and she ran to the top of the stairs. Marquis denied any knowledge of the injection sites on Eva's body and claimed he acted alone. Although Marquis said that he was not bleeding in the Shoens' home, he claimed that he cut out the piece of bloody bed sheet because he thought some of the blood might be his. Marquis did not explain why he did not also take all or part of the bloody mattress underneath the bed sheet."
But the widowed Samuel speculated in an interview years later that someone may have cut out the bloody sheet to plant it as evidence against him.
Samuel gave the interview to TruTV for a 2008 episode of "Dominick Dunne's Power, Privilege, and Justice."
In the episode, titled "Tragedy in Telluride," Samuel suggests that his brothers may have tried to set him up, and that their father suspected as much before his death in 1999.
In fact, Mark Shoen had sued his father unsuccessfully in 1991 "for statements L.S. made on television shows accusing Mark and [his brother] Joe of involvement in Eva's murder," the court noted.
Mark Shoen quoted Samuel's alleged remarks in his latest libel suit.
Samuel had said Mark is "certainly capable of evil things," noting the "completely ruthless" attempt to oust L.S. from control of U-Haul, according to the complaint.
Asked if he agreed with his father that one of his brothers was "some way involved" in Eva's murder, Samuel allegedly told TruTV: "Well, I didn't know, I knew that they were certainly capable of it and pretty much anyone who knows them will say that."
Though the court ruled before trial that some of Samuel's statements were defamatory per se, a jury eventually ruled against Mark.
The Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed the jury's findings that "Mark failed to prove that (1) the statements were false, (2) Sam made the statements with actual malice, and (3) Mark sustained damages," as described in a footnote of the ruling.
Mark Shoen's claims are subject to a higher burden of proof because they "implicate a matter of public concern," the decision states.
Summarizing the factors in play, the court noted that: "The victim was a family member of the well-known U-Haul company owner; Members of the family were involved in a contentious multimillion dollar lawsuit against each other when the murder happened; Mark's private investigators passed inaccurate information to the Sheriff's Department implicating Sam in the murder; Marquis' confession did not explain, among other things, (1) the presence of injection sites on Eva's body, (2) the missing bed sheet, or (3) how Eva reached the top of the stairs without leaving any trace of blood after being shot, given a doctor's testimony that she would have been unconscious within seconds after being shot; and Marquis' plea agreement documented the prosecution's belief that, at that time, unanswered questions about the murder remained."
Judge Fox, joined by the two other members of the panel, concluded that the closed investigation did not settle "legitimate public concerns" about "whether the murder remained partially 'unsolved.'"
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