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Alaskan 'doomsday prepper' with off-grid hideaway found guilty of stealing more than $400,000 in coins

Alex DeMarban
Steven Berry's home north of Wasilla was paid for with nearly a half-million dollars in coins he was found guilty of stealing during his years of working at the Mudbusters car wash of Alaska. Loren Holmes photo

A self-described survivalist who prepared for the world's end by building a massive off-the-grid home -- complete with a secret survival room and passageways -- paid for part of the work with more than $400,000 in coins he stole over the years, according to testimony at his criminal trial.

Now, people who knew Steven Berry believe some of that glimmering treasure may be buried in Alaska.

The three-level house Berry built on a woodsy flank of Bald Mountain doesn't appear extravagant from the outside, but it was insured for more than $400,000 dollars.

It boasted a home gym, a hot tub and a stunning view that captured the nighttime glow of Anchorage, 40 miles to the south. A telescope and a Gatling gun on a swivel mount -- loaded with a belt of bullets -- looked down on the remote road to the house 10 miles north of Wasilla, said witnesses involved in the case brought by the state.

But the end of the world, at least the world Berry knew, didn't come in a hail of bullets. It happened quite by accident in the fall of 2009, with a meaningless comment at the Wasilla car wash named Mudbusters where Berry had recently quit.

Karen Mahoy, co-owner of Mudbusters and its three Wasilla locations, asked employee Paul Montanez to pick up coins at the bank. No problem, said the 20-year-old Montanez. He knew where the bank was.

That's because he'd been there before with Berry. Before Montanez worked at Mudbusters he dated Berry's stepdaughter, and Berry sometimes gave him a ride after high school.

Twice, Berry stopped at the Alaska USA Federal Credit Union and walked inside alone, lugging five-gallon buckets nearly full with quarters. Berry told the then-teenager he had to deposit money for Mudbusters.

But, as it turned out, Mudbusters never banked at Alaska USA.

Montanez told his dad, who told Mahoy, who had already come to suspect that Berry had been raiding the company coin vaults for years and taking home $1,000 bricks of dollar coins from the bank. Early last month, a jury in Palmer found Berry guilty of first-degree theft of more than $25,000, a Class B felony and the state's most severe theft charge.

Witnesses at the trial said much more was stolen. A forensic accountant, who examined years of car-wash records and Berry's bank accounts, testified the company had lost at least $414,750 between 2001 and early 2009, quarter by quarter and dollar coin by dollar coin.

Berry, 60, awaits sentencing on Dec. 16. But the story doesn't end there. Karen and co-owner husband Steve Mahoy are suing Berry in a civil case in part to recover something.

A state prosecutor also plans to seek restitution for the Mahoys. Yet the house Berry built -- and one possible source of money -- sits on land he doesn't own. And that raises questions about whether it can be sold.

Then there's the missing money. Berry's former wife, Tasha Buxton, who helped turned Berry in once she realized what he'd done, believes he's still hiding at least $50,000 in coins or cash.

House of coins

Berry apparently still lives in the Bald Mountain house. He did not return phone calls for this story. His attorney, James Wendt, said, "We're taking it day by day" until the sentencing. "There's really nothing more to say."

At trial, Berry testified that the couple and their young daughter lived simply. He said he buried jars of money because banks couldn't be trusted. He even hid money from Buxton and didn't involve her in the finances, she said.

Yet Berry had three banks accounts. And those who knew him wondered how he could afford the house, a time-share in Las Vegas, a pair of snowmachines, a four-wheeler and numerous cars bought over the years.

Buxton, now 41, said the couple came to Alaska from Maine almost penniless in 1999. But Berry, who won a $200,000 medical claim against Pepsi in the 1980s, claimed at trial he had $30,000 hidden when he arrived in Alaska.

At any rate, Berry was soon managing property for Pat Carney, a former state representative from Wasilla. In return, Carney, now 85, gave the couple free rent and paid Berry about $10,000 a year. Better yet, Carney suggested that Berry build a cabin near his own house, on his estate at the end of North Moose Meadows Road.

The generous Carney had his attorney son draw up a life estate giving the couple lifetime ownership of the house -- but not the land. It even contained a provision that Buxton and their daughter, who was 4 at the time, would be reimbursed the cost of the building materials if Berry died and they moved. When the couple broke ground, Carney operated heavy equipment to help.

But what was supposed to be a small cabin kept growing as the couple kept building. Before long, it was a 5,000-square-foot home with solar panels that tracked the sun and three 1,000-gallon fuel tanks for plenty of heat and power. Today, a section of the house still lacks siding, and No Trespassing signs are posted prominently near the dirt drive.

Carney testified during this summer's trial that the house seemed too extravagant to build out of pocket, without a mortgage. Buxton said it was constructed relatively cheaply, for less than $200,000, since no contractors were hired and many items were bought on sale.

When the couple built an addition in 2004, Berry sandwiched in a secret room behind the master bedroom closet that contained food, water and ammunition, as well as more than 20 guns. His collection included a $4,000 semiautomatic Gatling gun, part of more than $13,000 in items once purchased at a garage sale, Buxton said.

From the escape room, a ladder into the attic ultimately provided access to the living room closet. An escape chute allowed someone to drop onto a fuel tank in the basement, said Buxton.

The house hid a small fortune in coins, too. Buxton said she learned that in 2010, when Berry asked for help moving 100 dollar-coin bricks collectively worth $100,000. He'd hid them behind plywood in the rafters extending outside the house, Buxton testified.

Berry wanted them moved because a Hughes Network satellite dish installer was coming to the house and might be poking around the rafters, Buxton said. After the coins came down, Berry spent more than $30,000 on the solar panel array -- changing the coins to cash at various banks, she said.

Ultimately, Buxton said, only $50,000 worth of change ended up in the basement wall, hidden behind plastic sheeting, foam insulation and shelving.

Though Buxton had long considered it strange that Berry stockpiled his savings in coins -- in the belief that they'd survive a fire -- it didn't seem out of character for an "end-of-the-worlder" paranoid about a global calamity that would leave every man defending himself.

When the Mahoys initially began to accuse Berry of stealing, he "adamantly denied" he'd done anything wrong. And she believed him.

But she soon began to see things differently. "Once I realize there's $100,000 hidden and movement toward a civil case saying he'd stolen more than $400,000, that's when I really started questioning his stories," said Buxton.

Spare change

Berry started working for the Mahoys in 1999 as a car wash attendant making $7 an hour, when Mudbusters was just two years old. But Berry offered to play a bigger role in 2001, as the business was expanding to a third location and Karen's mother was dying of ovarian cancer.

Karen named Berry manager while she helped her mom through surgery and chemotherapy. She came to trust him after he stepped up to the plate during other personal emergencies, too, she said.

The families grew close over the years, with Buxton cleaning their house and homeschooling one of their children, and the Mahoys often showering them with kindness, such as buying their visiting relatives fishing charters, Buxton said.

Mahoy gave Berry oversight of the money coming into the company. Berry, who never made more than $50,000 a year at Mudbusters, built trust by saying he was cracking down on employees he suspected of stealing change.

That was just a show, Mahoy said. Berry's thievery became obvious when he suddenly quit in early 2009, after he seemed to be working less than he claimed and his relationship with the Mahoys began to erode, she said.

Immediately, the company was making record profits. In the first nine months alone, the car washes took in an extra $30,000, she said.

"That was the first red flag," Karen Mahoy said. "We were suddenly buying a lot less dollar coins from the bank and depositing a lot more money."

Suzanne Trimble, an Anchorage CPA and forensic accountant, said at the trial that over the years Berry made $177,000 in unexplained cash deposits. One cash deposit alone was $10,000. Trimble estimated that Berry and Buxton's net worth was $10,000 before 2002. When he quit Mudbusters, it was $763,000.

In hindsight, Mahoy came to trust someone who was untrustworthy, Mahoy said. She claimed Berry did more than steal money. He violated her family's trust, "preying" on them so he could steal.

"How could you not trust someone when you're going through life issues and you're vulnerable, and they are supposed to be guarding and protecting you and your children, for God’s sake my own kids?" she said. "Imagine, you really trust a person and then you find out they did this horrible stuff to you?"

Missing money

After the Mahoys filed a civil suit in 2011, Wasilla police launched a criminal investigation. A break came when Buxton, initially worried that speaking out would endanger the couple's now 13-year-old daughter, accused Berry of domestic violence and got a restraining order against him.

After learning that Wasilla police had launched a criminal case, the restraining order gave Buxton a chance to meet with investigator Ruth Josten. Buxton showed her the secret room and the wall where the $50,000 in coins had been stashed.

But by the time Josten arrived, the money was gone.

Buxton thinks Berry at one point tried to hide it, and possibly much more money, in Eagle River. A woman who lives at the end of Eagle River Road near the Eagle River Nature Center, Barbara Smith, testified in the trial that she watched a man drive to the area two days in a row in early 2012.

He went down a hill and dug in the snow, covering something with a white tarp. Smith took pictures of what he'd left: a briefcase and a large tote full of taped-up boxes.

Smith's husband happened to be a former Anchorage police sergeant. The couple learned that the car's owner, Steven Berry, had warrants for his arrest. Realizing that, they called police. Smith didn't disturb the stuff further because it might be evidence.

But Josten didn't immediately get word of the digging. When she arrived to search the area, everything was gone.

Buxton believes Berry was trying to hide the $50,000.

The state plans to seek up to $415,000 in restitution, said the attorney who prosecuted the case, Brittany Dunlop, an assistant district attorney for the state based in Palmer. The theft charge brings only a presumptive term of one to three years.

The Mahoys would love to be repaid, but they filed the civil case because at the time it seemed like the only hope of stopping Berry from hurting others, Karen Mahoy said.

"Restitution would be great if I got my money back, but the main reason we filed was somebody had to uncover this so he doesn't harm anyone else. Because the guy, he's good," Mahoy said.

Meantime in the house on Bald Mountain, Pat Carney sees the lights still flicker on and off, said Jeff Carney, who is acting as his father's attorney.

Whatever happens to the house, the Carneys want to make sure the Mahoys are properly compensated for what they've been put through, said Jeff Carney.

"You don't treat a victim unfairly," Jeff Carney said. "At the end of day, regardless of who owns the real estate, it's important to our family that the Mahoys be treated fairly."

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com