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Hsieh raised eyebrows in Park City with money, parties and fire

Updated December 8, 2020 - 11:22 am

PARK CITY, Utah — Tony Hsieh was making waves in this wealthy ski town, throwing frequent parties at his new mansion protected by security guards. Then around Labor Day, out came the flamethrower.

Flames shot maybe 20 or 25 feet up every few seconds or so one night over the holiday weekend from something mounted on the ground, recalled a local resident, who was worried it would spark a wildfire.

“It was like a dragon’s breath,” the resident said.

It also was one of many bizarre or eyebrow-raising aspects of Hsieh’s venture in Utah, a still-mysterious undertaking that allegedly featured drugs, walls of Post-it notes, promises of “arts and culture,” workers bound by nondisclosure agreements, and, records show, a homebuying binge in an ultra-high-priced market.

Hsieh, the former chief executive of online shoe seller Zappos, died Nov. 27 at age 46 from complications of smoke inhalation after being injured in a house fire in Connecticut. The tech guru had famously turned Zappos into a retail powerhouse and sold it to Amazon in a $1 billion-plus deal, and spent a fortune on real estate, restaurants and other ventures in a once-neglected area of downtown Las Vegas, becoming the face of its revival and one of its biggest property owners.

But over the past several months, after the coronavirus pandemic abruptly ended his once-regular stream of interactions, events and good times in Las Vegas, the unmarried mogul emerged in Park City. He bought several houses, was surrounded by new people and hosted plenty of parties. He also seemed to display erratic behavior, and reports of his drug use sparked concern, people familiar with Hsieh’s life in Park City told the Review-Journal.

“I wish he would have never went there,” said a person in Las Vegas who knew Hsieh and was friendly with him.

‘It was haunting’

Park City, some 30 miles east of Salt Lake City, had about 8,500 residents as of last year. It features ski resorts, is known for hosting the Sundance Film Festival and boasts a history of celebrity homeowners, such as basketball legend Michael Jordan.

It’s a pricey housing market. In the year ending June 30, the median sales price of single-family homes was $2.03 million, according to the Park City Board of Realtors.

Hsieh was buying houses in Park City as of March through a limited liability company called Pickled Investments, and by August he had acquired at least eight homes here, the Review-Journal previously reported. Property records for Summit County, Utah, do not disclose sales prices.

The Park City resident who saw pyrotechnics at Hsieh’s property said the mansion seemed to host a party at least three or four nights a week by around early August. Upward of 30 cars would park along the street, mostly with Utah and Nevada plates.

One day in August, Hsieh hosted a party at the 17,350-square-foot mansion on Aspen Springs Drive. Neighbors were invited and given red bandanas to separate them from Hsieh’s staffers, the resident said. The folk singer Jewel, who met Hsieh about six years ago, was there to perform, according to two attendees, who noted that they didn’t see the homeowner.

Jewel’s acoustic set, as seen in video obtained by the Review-Journal, included her 1990s hit “Who Will Save Your Soul.”

“It was haunting,” an attendee said.

‘A big mystery’

Hsieh was a high-profile businessman in Southern Nevada for years. He moved Zappos from a suburban Henderson office park to the former Las Vegas City Hall in 2013 and launched a side venture, then called Downtown Project, the year before to pump $350 million into the Fremont Street area, a slice of downtown that had struggled with prostitution and drugs.

Now named DTP Companies, the business acquired apartment buildings, old motels and vacant lots; developed the Downtown Container Park retail hub and partnered to build the Fremont9 apartment complex; and invested in restaurants, tech startups and other ventures.

By comparison, it’s unclear whether Hsieh ever put his Park City venture under an umbrella similar to DTP. One person said Hsieh launched something called 10X, which involved booking of local restaurants on various nights, and another person said his undertaking was known as DTP2 or DTP2.0.

People who spoke to the Review-Journal also had a vague understanding of his goal or vision, with one source saying people around Hsieh spoke a lot about his wanting to bring arts and culture to Park City.

“I think everything was really a big mystery,” said the person in Las Vegas who knew Hsieh and, like others interviewed for this story, was granted anonymity to talk candidly.

Hsieh’s family said Monday in a statement for this story provided by an outside communications firm that they “are grieving a beloved son and brother and have nothing further to add.”

The statement noted that no decisions on the future of his estate have been made.

Beth Armstrong, president of the homeowner’s association for Aspen Springs Ranch, the Park City neighborhood where Hsieh’s mansion is located, declined to comment.

Park City Mayor Andy Beerman said in an email that Hsieh’s “stay in our community was short, so I have no comments beyond the statement I’ve released.”

It stated, in part, that Hsieh was new to the community but “had a large and immediate impact. Through the depths of the pandemic closures and difficult re-opening period, he generously and quietly bolstered many of Park City’s small businesses. … Thank you to Tony for the kindness he showed our community, and we are sorry we were unable to get to know him better.”

Orange octopus

Hsieh’s mansion was a visible party spot. The local resident said that in late August through Labor Day, it seemed to host a party almost every night, and at one point over an eight- or nine-day period, there seemed to be pyrotechnics at least five times at the house, including the apparent ground-mounted flamethrower.

His affinity for fire was no secret in Las Vegas. Hsieh had a fondness for Northern Nevada’s Burning Man festival, and Container Park features a flame-shooting praying mantis out front.

In many ways, his Park City mansion was an odd place. Three people said walls were covered with Post-it notes — the local resident heard that Hsieh’s employees were instructed to report ideas that way — and two people said candles were strewn about the house.

His staff was said to include a court stenographer who was hired to record what people were saying, as well as kitchen staff who cooked meals for people. Hsieh was known for staying in his room for days at a time on occasion, sources said.

Workers were required to sign nondisclosure agreements, said two people familiar with the matter. Some had to sign one every day when they showed up for work, one person said.

Three sources heard that Hsieh and people around him were using drugs in Park City. Since his death, both Forbes magazine and The Wall Street Journal have reported that Hsieh was using drugs.

Two sources told the Review-Journal they heard that people close to Hsieh had tried to help, though one person said those who tried to intervene were pushed out of his inner circle.

Last month, Hsieh was in Connecticut with his brother when he was injured in the house fire in New London on Nov. 18. He died more than a week later. The Connecticut Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has said his death was accidental. The circumstances surrounding the fire remain under investigation.

His staffers in Park City started losing their jobs soon after the fire, and security at the mansion is “dramatically” less visible now, sources said.

As of last week, his mansion had some visible signs of the unorthodox lifestyle he was known for in Las Vegas.

A massive, decorative orange octopus was on the front lawn, and some trailers and tiny homes, seemingly identical to those in the Airstream park where Hsieh lived in downtown Las Vegas with a pet alpaca, were at the back of the property.

Contact Eli Segall at esegall@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0342. Follow @eli_segall on Twitter.

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