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Ghosts follow Cave Creek developer

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Posted: Sunday, May 13, 2007 6:56 am | Updated: 7:20 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

CAVE CREEK - He is the buffalo stuntman who rides a 2,800-pound beast through rings of fire. He’s the mounted shooter with the arena behind the Roadhouse saloon.

He’s a horse whisperer to some, a drinking buddy to others and, as the local newspaper tells it, he is “rapidly becoming a Cave Creek land baron.”

Collin “T.C.” Thorstenson is one busy wrangler. Too busy for old ghosts.

The man who rode under a swarm of suspicion a decade ago after the puzzling death of his new, much older bride — Times heiress Margaret Lesher — is married again, living a cowboy showman’s life and kicking up scuttlebutt in this frontier desert town a short drive from the lake where Lesher drowned.

On a warm Tuesday night in April, he works the crowd in woolly chaps and a stars-and-stripes western shirt. He holds a revolver on his belt, a buffalo on a rein and a wide grin across his face as he poses at a living-history attraction west of town.

The next day at noon, he settles onto a padded stool at Harold’s Corral, the bell cow in a herd of saloons where locals carouse and tourists order up barbecue and a dab of Wild West spirits.

He pulls on a Coors Light and tells horse tales to friends. An empty bottle rests beside him on the bar.

In mid-April, he was nominated for local “Horse Hero” of 2007.

And on April 14, he was up in the saddle for the annual Fiesta Days parade.

He hoists an American flag on a pole as he clops past the Horny Toad saloon and its knowing rival, the Satisfied Frog.

“Check it out, folks! There’s a shooting match after the parade, behind the Roadhouse,” he announces. “Come watch it!”

Two old townies watch him pass out of earshot.

“That’s T.C. Thorstenson,” one said. “His wife died up at Bartlett Lake. ... Guess he got the money all squared away.”

“Now he’s investing it, I guess,” said the other.

“Yeah.”

ECHOES OF THE PAST

Stories and rumor travel fast through this town of 4,900, where adobe homes crawl up scrappy foothills spiked with century-old saguaro.

Bartlett Lake, where Margaret Lesher’s body was found on May 14, 1997, lies a half-hour drive east through the mountains of Tonto National Forest. People knew the story before Thorstenson moved north from Scottsdale about four years ago with his buffalo and trademark pink trailer. For many locals, it’s a conversation piece ripe for dark humor.

“There’s a joke here,” said one Cave Creeker. “Don’t go fishing with T.C.”

Thorstenson, who celebrated his 50th birthday in the fall, is now 15 years younger than Lesher was when a helicopter crew spotted her body a stone’s throw from shore, 8 feet below the surface, in her underwear.

All eyes turned to the buffalo wrangler 25 years her junior and the story of their whirlwind romance, the brief wedlock and about $5 million in cash and property he stood to inherit from Lesher, the socialite-philanthropist and perhaps Contra Costa (Calif.) County’s most influential woman.

Authorities never charged him. They never called him a suspect.

They investigated the reservoir lake and examined the corpse. They questioned campers and Thorstenson. They interviewed his first wife and a wealthy former fiancee who said he fled when she insisted on a prenuptial agreement.

The result: an 885-page report concluding that her death was an accident. In short, authorities said, Lesher drowned drunk.

Court documents show that Thorstenson earned a modest income from his rodeo and trick-riding buffalo work, owned some land and traded stocks. But his wealth paled in comparison to Lesher’s, whose previous husband, Times founder Dean Lesher, died exactly four years before the camping trip. In 1995, she had signed off on sale of the Times empire to the former Knight Ridder newspaper chain for $360 million. Reports pegged her net worth at $80 million to $100 million. Lesher’s estate battled over Thorstenson’s inheritance. She had left him $3 million and her half of the 10-acre, $1.7 million Scottsdale ranch that they bought together.

Also at stake was about $325,000 in furniture, more than $200,000 in her retirement plan from Contra Costa Newspapers, and two life-size bronze buffalo that guarded their front gate valued at nearly $200,000. What Thorstenson inherited from Lesher remains confidential. But Arizona public records show that shortly after a 1998 settlement, his wife’s estate deeded him the Scottsdale ranch.

Thorstenson now lives with his current wife, Tracee, on a six-acre spread dubbed “TNT Ranch” a few miles north of Carefree Highway.

Behind a fence, a handful of bison lounge in the Arizona sun. Tall saguaro line the straight driveway. A pair of bronze buffalo stand on stone pedestals outside the gates.

A HEFTY SUSPICION

Lesher’s four daughters at first lent their support to Thorstenson, at least publicly.

But they soon joined many friends and legions of armchair crime buffs who took aim at a man who grew up in South Dakota, drove coal trucks in Wyoming and tamed bison starting in his teens.

Thorstenson had failed to note one of his two prior marriages on their marriage license, and trustees for Lesher’s estate argued fraud, saying he never told her of his second wife, Kathi Thorstenson, who later said he abused her.

The circumstances of Margaret Lesher’s death make friends bristle even now.

“It’s totally unlike her to go out and swim in the middle of the night in the cold water,” said close friend Martha Hertelendy.

Friends and relatives said the former Peach Queen from Texas grew deeply sad and lonely after Dean Lesher’s death in 1993. In Thorstenson, who owned a Texas ranch, she found a strong, handsome cowboy who connected her to her roots.

Friends and family were wary of the much younger cowboy. Some cautioned Lesher to be careful. Still, she was happy.

“We tried and we tried and we tried,” said daughter Roxanne Ryan. “It became so difficult. If you did try, she didn’t want to talk anymore.”

They met in May 1996 when Lesher went on a cattle drive. Thorstenson was the entertainment, and his handling of the buffalo impressed her. A busy philanthropist, Lesher asked him to perform in a benefit for Contra Costa’s battered women, an organization she backed with her money and influence. He agreed.

Lesher, long a fashion maven, started to sport blue jeans and boots. T.C. called her “Margee.” He asked for her hand, and they wed in Hawaii on Nov. 7, 1996.

“She was just so thrilled with him, just so enamored with the whole thing about him,” said Angie Coffee, a friend. “He did dote on her.”

In retrospect, some people close to her said they sensed the marital equivalent of buyer’s remorse.

The police report said Lesher was deeply unhappy and even scared in the weeks and months before the camping trip. She suspected Thorstenson of affairs. Friends told police the couple argued the morning of the camping trip.

Just days before she died, Lesher had asked Thorstenson to sign a post-nuptial agreement. She also asked her lawyer to change her trusts to bequeath him what then amounted to about $5 million. The paperwork was never completed, the report said.

But the report also said all the evidence at the scene pointed to an accident.

Angry at the media coverage, Thorstenson largely shunned reporters. He hired a lawyer and kept quiet. Approached last month at his outdoor shooting arena in Cave Creek, Thorstenson turned away an interview request. The Contra Costa Times had done him “no favors” in the past, he said.

“(Expletive) you is about the nicest thing I can say,” he said, leaning back against a fence rail. Later, by phone, he elaborated.

“If you really loved somebody, and I loved Margaret big time, and it was a terrible accident, and I couldn’t find a job for nine months ...” he began. “The last time, you ate my lunch up ... I don’t want to hear from you guys or talk to you guys for the rest of your life.”

One friend fondly describes Thorstenson as a “banty rooster,” an old Southern term for a man of small stature prone to feistiness. Thorstenson has suffered plenty over Lesher’s death, said Peggy Dyer Brock.

“Everyone knows he had a pretty hard time over that. He grieves over that. He grieves over her. He’s carried that loss around him for 10 years. There’s probably people still think he killed her. He’s carried that weight around his neck,” she said.

A NEW LIFE IN THE DESERT

After Lesher’s death, Thorstenson settled into the Scottsdale ranch.

But residential development was pressing in, and he won the right to subdivide the land in 2005 after a two-year fight. Maricopa County property records show he sold it last year for $8.6 million — five times the purchase price.

The money has helped him become a Cave Creek real estate player. He has bought prime land along Cave Creek Road. He now owns more than 20 acres of residential and commercial property in town, having bought 15 acres for nearly $4 million in two deals in the past year, county records show.

In April, he filed plans for an art gallery on vacant land he acquired late last year for $2.3 million, just west of the Buffalo Chip saloon. He also wants to build a big indoor arena on the 5-acre plot that he bought for $1.5 million where he holds weekend shooting competitions.

Friends say he is fast joining a roster of colorful local legends in Cave Creek, where bikers and horsemen mingle.

Thorstenson regularly performs at rodeos, Old West attractions and corporate events, and his big pink trailer can often be seen rolling through town on the way to another show.

STIRRING CONTROVERSY

Not everyone here thinks Thorstenson and Cave Creek mesh. Since he arrived in 2002, he has dusted up his share of local rabble.

Thorstenson faced reprimand when he first moved here and cleared his property to make way for his buffalo without a permit. The town requires landowners to keep an undisturbed path for native animals.

“The guy wasn’t in town two weeks before he gets a citation. He scraped the whole thing. He bladed everything to make room for the buffalo. That’s not the way you do it around here,” said Adam Stein, town marshal and a former New York City police officer. Thorstenson replanted the land and got the required permits before his court date, so the town dismissed the citation.

Now, Thorstenson wants to rezone the 5-acre arena property near the center of town from “desert rural” to commercial — a potentially profitable move that others have tried on the same land, only to be shot down by the Town Council or a public vote. He also was seen recently with a grader, clearing vegetation and cutting branches from trees on the newly bought property across the street, where he filed plans for the art gallery. That raised eyebrows in a town that incorporated 21 years ago to protect the desert landscape from oncoming development. Stein, the marshal, stopped him.

“People with graders and things around desert vegetation make people here nervous,” said Ian Cordwell, Cave Creek’s planning director. At a recent council meeting, Thorstenson spoke against a noise ordinance intended to reduce motorcycle volume and urged more parking in town. One local preservationist fears Thorstenson aims to create a major Wild West commercial draw that could trample Cave Creek’s local charm.

“Controversy certainly does follow the man,” said Anna Marsolo, a local real estate agent who has taken Thorstenson to task over his arena plan and the grading.

Friends see a different Thorstenson — a man who mentors equestrian girls, helps settle restless horses and adds new flavor to town.

Cave Creek has changed, they say. Development has come knocking. Better a wealthy cowboy on a buffalo, better his promoter’s sheen and the shadows of his past, they say, than an anonymous developer.

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