By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
"This ranch is her family, her home," says Lorenda. "She didn't have that when she was growing up. She just wants this to be the most wonderful place in the world."
But this past year a renegade Web site, an attempted coup d'état and defamation lawsuits have shattered Helen's little piece of heaven. It seemed the Bar X would never become the happy household of Helen's dreams. Or perhaps it was simply turning into a real American family: a group of highly dysfunctional people with major issues.
If Helen needed any more proof that the 2002 Bar X annual meeting had been a bust, she needed only to look at the plates of uneaten fish.
"We have a fish fry every year after the meeting, but a lot of people left and never ate," she sighs. "It was the first year we ever had any leftover food."
The April meeting was tense for several reasons. Three months before the Bar X residents gathered at the clubhouse, a few of them -- calling themselves the Bar X Ranch Improvement Committee -- put up a Web site, www.barxranch.com, that details their complaints about shoddy maintenance and rude behavior on the part of Helen Phillips and her son Bo, the maintenance man.
The Web site's language is full of righteous indignation, accompanied by photographs to prove its point. Next to a picture of some steps with a missing handrail is the explanation "Here's another example of 'maintenance' where 'if it rots or needs work just throw it away!!' " Next to a photograph of a dead deer are the words "This is what happens because the 'office' insists on mowing just before the annual meeting so that you will be impressed with how nice the place looks. There were at least a dozen of these killings!!"
The complaints go on and on. The clubhouse roof hasn't been repaired, the street lamps need to be painted, and the trash barrels are a godforsaken wreck. Also included are anonymous testimonials from various residents, as well as out-of-town Bar X landowners, thanking the improvement committee for its hard work. Some include their own angry thoughts about Helen. One tearful, two-page missive describes her kicking out a visiting out-of-town property owner and his family. Their crime? They didn't have current property owner IDs and had exceeded the allowable number of people at a picnic.
The letter from the offended reads, in part:
"Finally my husband, who is a disabled veteran and has a severe heart condition, walked from the picnic bench to the door of [Helen's] truck He asked once again for her to please give back his ID card, she refused to do so and drove off while her door was open. The door of the truck almost hit my husband."
The Web site and its developers had created such a stir that when the residents gathered in the clubhouse for the annual meeting, they knew something was about to blow. Bo Phillips got things started by allegedly physically threatening anti-Helenite Alton Davidson. Although no one can recall the exact words used, several residents claim Bo said something about his foot ending up in Alton's rear end.
But that wasn't all. There were arguments about who was and who was not following Robert's Rules of Order. Some people stormed out in disgust. And in perhaps the most stunning event of the evening, three angry residents rounded up enough out-of-towners' proxy votes to get themselves on the board of directors. Now the board was just one vote shy of being able to dismiss Helen from her position.
Fried fish was the last thing on their minds.
Many of the people angry at Helen Phillips wouldn't go on the record for this story. Most cite a defamation suit filed by Helen against Davidson and Web site creator Bob Griffith. (Bo Phillips has filed his own suit against Griffith as well.) Both defendants referred questions to their attorneys.
But Jim Turner will talk. Three-year residents of the Bar X, Jim and his family fell in love with the place for the same reason Helen did: simple country living.
"I can sit on the front porch in my underwear and drink my coffee," he says. "There's plenty of peace and quiet. The dogs chase the armadillos, and the cats chase the squirrels." Jim even keeps pictures of his property by his desk at the car mechanic's shop where he is a service manager.
Jim tacks on a few new complaints to the laundry list of anti-Helen grievances. She always seems to give the tiny number of alligator-hunting permits to her relatives, he claims. And she's circulated a secret petition to have the three anti-Helenites removed from the board (Helen says that petition was started by supportive property owners, not her). But above all, Jim is frustrated by what he thinks is Helen's ego gone mad.
He admits that back when the Bar X was about to collapse, Helen played a crucial role in keeping it alive. And he acknowledges that when she wants to, she can be as sweet as sugar. He even admits Bruce Rogers took things a little too far. Still, he says, someone needs to rein the woman in.