"Bill is a fair, honest and extremely trusting older gentleman," says Sherry Brunson of her brother-in-law, Bill Brunson. "He does not hear well, and readily admits he is not knowledgeable (about) or had experience with leases."
The defense of Bill Brunson is the latest and perhaps last phase of a land-lease dispute that's put the kibosh on a Valley man's plan to renovate and reopen the Payson Zoo a war of words that is made up entirely of conflicting recollections and little or no documentation.
Bill Brunson, the octogenarian who owns the land east of Star Valley, says there never was a signed lease agreement between him and Shae Hensley of the Phoenix-based Ponderosa Exotic Animal Programs. He also claims to own the chain-link cages, out buildings, perimeter fences and other materials left behind by former zoo operator Randy Ferry.
Hensley says he assumed Ferry's lease, and that Brunson owns nothing that currently sits on the property.
Ferry says that he's caught in the middle and doesn't want to say a word that could make someone mad at him.
"I do think there are some misunderstandings going on here," he says. "But all that I can tell you is that there will no longer be a zoo on that property. There are just too many hard feelings."
Meanwhile, Brunson's sister-in-law, Sherry, says that the player getting the shortest end of the stick is Bill Brunson.
The primary reason Bill wanted Hensley off the land, Sherry says, is that Hensley was proceeding with the construction of new animal displays without "his written and signed permission in the form of a lease."
The two-acre zoo which opened two-and-a-half miles east of Star Valley in January of 1979 but closed down last year due to Ferry's financial woes was to have been refurbished, repopulated by a new assortment of animals, and reopened by December.
Most of the old zoo had been razed and new exhibits were in the process of construction when all parties agree Hensley approached Bill Brunson with a new lease agreement.
"When Bill read the lease, he promptly rejected it and did not sign it, as several of the terms were detrimental to him and were against his wishes," Sherry says. "He asked Shae to vacate the property and remove his belongings," which in both Brunsons' minds add up to several habitat "frames" made of black pipe set in concrete.
Hensley estimates that the cost of their construction and installation, along with the money he put into hauling six truckloads of trash off the property, adds up to about $50,000. Sherry estimates that the actual figure is closer to $15,000.
Ferry says he has returned $22,000 that Hensley paid for a manufactured home that sits on the property, which he assumes has ended the conflict.
If so, that would be welcome news to Bill Brunson and his sister-in-law.
"We don't want any more confrontation with anyone," Sherry said. "And we sincerely hope (Hensley) is able to find a suitable property for the Payson Zoo."
Hensley, however, isn't sure if the dispute is over or headed to the courts.
"I just don't know," he says. "If I drop it, that still leaves me hanging for the rest of the money I put into the property. So I just don't know."