The strange, untold story of the King Soopers family fortune

Lisa R. Parker

BOW MAR — The jade green water at Bowles Lake shimmered in the bright May sun as four members of the King family stood on the dock, reminiscing about the family history all around them: the stately house where they got married, the horses they used to ride in the summers, the prickly bushes that made you think twice about falling from the monkey bars.

This posh enclave southwest of Denver, replete with million-dollar homes abutting the lakes and foothills, is entirely the imagination of the family patriarch, Lloyd King, founder of the King Soopers grocery chain.

Lloyd King was Bow Mar. He served as the nascent town’s first mayor in the 1940s, transforming empty farmland into a grandiose family estate that rivaled any other in Colorado. And as King Soopers grew from a single Arvada store in 1947 into a regional powerhouse, King amassed a multimillion-dollar fortune and a reputation as one of the state’s shrewdest businessmen.

“Grandpa was a rockstar,” said Cindy Gotchey, one of Lloyd’s grandchildren.

The family name still rests on a brown-and-white sign next to the lake: the Lloyd and Eleanor King Beach.

But nothing here belongs to the Kings anymore. The house and land? Sold off. Family possessions? Gone. Family legacy?

“It’s all been hijacked,” said Stacey Cahalane, another grandchild.

So what happened to the King Soopers fortune?

When Lloyd King died in 1998 at 91, much of the $35 million family fortune was left to his surviving wife. And that’s when things got strange, family and friends say.

Interviews with more than a dozen King family members, in-laws, family friends and former workers detailed a process of isolation that left them on the outside of Eleanor King’s life in her waning years. Longtime friends and staff who spent decades with the Kings suddenly were shoved to the side. Eleanor started changing her will every few months, giving money, taking money, cutting out people she loved, friends and family said. Grandchildren were told they couldn’t see their grandmother for vague reasons.

In the end, they allege, one man controlled the purse strings to the Kings’ fortune: a lawyer and former Colorado state representative who, family members say, never met Lloyd King. Robert Eckelberry had power of attorney over Eleanor and, served as personal representative for Lloyd and Eleanor’s estates, as trustee for Eleanor’s stepchildren’s sizable trust funds, and as the president and CEO of the Lloyd J. King & Eleanor R. King Foundation — a quartet of powers that left some estate attorneys consulted by The Denver Post uneasy.

“We believe that he saw his cash cow and coerced himself into a good situation,” Gotchey said.

The Kings say Eckelberry won’t let them serve on the board of their own family’s foundation, while paying himself a six-figure salary. Now family members are pushing for a say in how the King Soopers fortune is spent, and they’re asking the Colorado attorney general and the IRS to look into the foundation’s dealings.

“This has never been about the money,” Cahalane said. She keeps a trove of court documents, wills, deeds and family photos in a fat white binder at her home in Monument. The spine reads: Justice. “This is about catching (someone) who hijacked my family’s legacy.”

Eckelberry did not respond to multiple emails, phone calls and voicemails from The Post requesting an interview. There was no answer when a reporter visited his home. Calls and messages left on the foundation’s voicemail were not returned. Two board members did not respond to repeated attempts to contact them.

David Ezra, the King foundation’s treasurer, who also sits on the board, defended the charitable foundation’s contribution history, its compensation and makeup. He said the board would consider Gotchey’s recent formal request to add a family member to the board.

“It doesn’t mean we’ll do it,” he said.

This is the strange, untold story of one of Colorado’s most prestigious families — and the fight over its legacy.

OCT 6 1962 - Wallful of ...

Bill Johnson, The Denver Post

A wall covered with newspaper clippings testifies to the scope of Lloyd King’s job. King, pictured on Oct. 6, 1962, was the founder of the King Soopers grocery chain.

“The perfect storm”

Everything changed after Lloyd King died in January 1998.

He was the one who dealt with the finances during their 50 years of marriage, family members said. So when Eleanor inherited everything after his death, it was a bit overwhelming.

“She didn’t know diddly-(expletive) about business,” said Lew King, one of Lloyd’s two children from his first marriage.

Eleanor was a fearful person in general, family members said. She never rode in elevators and wouldn’t fly on airplanes.

“She was a very vulnerable person,” said Jeanette King, Lew’s ex-wife, who was once a close confidant of Eleanor’s. “She didn’t really want all this money or responsibility.”

APR 9 1976 - Rep. Robert Eckelberry at the Colorado Capitol. (Photo by Ed Maker/Denver Post file)

Ed Maker, The Denver Post

Then-Rep. Robert Eckelberry is pictured at the state Capitol in Denver on April 9, 1976.

It was in this vacuum that Eckelberry came into the picture.

There’s some internal family debate over exactly how the attorney arrived in their life. Some family members, such as Lew King, say Eleanor wanted a divorce attorney at the end of her husband’s life. Others say Eckelberry was referred to help manage the estate.

Eleanor never did file for divorce. But Eckelberry was in.

The attorney had his own practice in Arapahoe County for decades, and was elected three times to the Colorado legislature in the 1970s, according to his foundation biography.

Eleanor never had her own children — Lew and Larry were stepchildren from Lloyd’s first marriage — and Lew admits he and his stepmother never got along. (Larry died last year.)

“It was horrible the way she treated us,” Lew King said. “Our relationship with her was zero.”

Left with a big estate, no children of her own and few blood relatives, “it was the perfect storm to move into a family that wasn’t together,” Jeanette King said.

Eleanor made her views on her stepchildren clear in her will. While she left the two men $2 million each in irrevocable trusts, she included a clause that if something should happen to her personal representatives, Eckelberry or Jeanette King, neither of Lloyd’s children would assume the mantle.

It became apparent, family members said, that Eckelberry was more than just Eleanor’s estate planner or divorce attorney.

“She trusted him with her life,” said Rodney “Spud” Kulbe, the husband of one of Lloyd and Eleanor’s granddaughters who also worked for the family for two decades. “He was it — he was the cat’s meow.”

Eleanor left every decision up to Eckelberry, Lew King said. He called frequently — far more than your average divorce attorney or estate planner.

“My understanding is that (Eckelberry) spent an enormous amount of time with Eleanor during that period,” said Ezra, the foundation’s treasurer. “And not for the purpose of doing anything, but for the purpose of helping her get through the day.”

Family members, however, became suspicious of Eckelberry’s motives.

Matt Kulbe, one of Lloyd’s great-grandsons, recalls taking a trip with his wife and grandparents down to New Mexico. Lloyd and Eleanor owned a home in Albuquerque, so Kulbe’s grandfather, Larry King, thought it would be fun to check it out.

When Larry approached Eckelberry about the trip, Kulbe says he was denied. There’s an issue with the roof, Kulbe said Eckelberry told them. The family couldn’t stay there.

Larry decided to take a drive to the house anyway so his grandson could see it.

But when they pulled up to the home, “Bob is there with his wife,” Kulbe said, referring to Eckelberry. “It was bizarre.”

Eckelberry said something about having to be there to meet the contractors, Kulbe said.

“There was no sight of construction anywhere,” he said.

An old family photo of Lloyd and Eleanor King and their family. Lloyd King was the founder of King Soopers and the developer of the Town of Bow Mar. He was a grocery pioneer and innovator.

Courtesy of the King family

An old family photo of Lloyd and Eleanor King and their offspring. Lloyd King was the founder of King Soopers and the developer of the town of Bow Mar. He was a grocery pioneer and innovator.

What happened to Eleanor King?

In the years after her husband’s death, Eleanor suddenly became much less accessible to family and friends.

Matt Kulbe recalls being 10 years old, feeling unnoticed while his sister celebrated a birthday at Lloyd and Eleanor’s house. Eleanor made sure he had a present to open that day, too — a Batman wallet.

There were the family trips to Norfolk, Nebraska, where Lloyd grew up. They’d drink root beer floats, play golf and hang beside the pool.

“Those were the best times ever,” he said.

Then Lloyd died. After his funeral, Kulbe never saw his great-grandmother again.

“My perception was that this second wife got it all and wanted everything,” he said of Eleanor. “And that she gave us all the middle finger in a way. The sad part: I don’t know if that’s true anymore.”

It’s not as if they didn’t try. Family members would call to see if they could visit. It’s not a good time, someone would tell them. She’s sleeping. Or she’s not feeling up for it.

“It started to feel like something’s not right,” said Steve King, one of the grandchildren. As a medical professional, he tried to ask what was going on with her, health-wise. But nobody would tell him anything.

He fancied himself Eleanor’s favorite grandchild. Even though he lived out of state, the two would talk frequently on the phone and write each other letters. But after his grandfather died, he said he never saw his grandmother again.

It felt to family and friends like Eleanor was being isolated.

“That’s when she needed people around her,” said Rob King, another grandchild. “At that point in her life, she would benefit from being around people. That wasn’t the case.”

It wasn’t just family being cut out. Longtime staffers who worked on the property and viewed Lloyd and Eleanor as family suddenly found themselves on the outs.

Fannie Mae Roberts worked for the Kings for years, tending to the house and cooking meals. She’s listed in Eleanor’s will as “my friend and housekeeper” and was initially supposed to get $25,000 and a house in Bow Mar.

Roberts even served as a witness on two of Eleanor’s revisions to her wills.

But on April 27, 2000, in Eleanor’s seventh will change, she took Roberts out completely. No money. No house. No more job. Roberts was forced to move back to Kentucky, where she died in 2014.

“She was heartbroken,” said Sybil Kidd, Roberts’ niece. “They were family. She loved the King family.”

Roberts told Kidd when she came back that she believed Eleanor was influenced by a younger man who came to work for them.

“It was sad for her and she was very sad for a while,” Kidd said. “It took a while to regroup from that mentally.”

Rodney Kulbe, Matt’s father, spent 20-some years doing handiwork for the Kings. The family had him feed the geese — a pet favorite of Lloyd’s — and he’d often eat lunch with Lloyd and Eleanor. He remembers being in the room in the early 1980s when Lloyd broke the news that King Soopers had been bought out by Kroger.

But one day, after Lloyd had died, Kulbe says he got a call from Eckelberry.

“She didn’t want me around anymore,” he said he was told.

“I was hurt,” Kulbe said. “It was really upsetting.”

Lynda Poplin’s mother knew the Kings since she was a teenager growing up in Littleton. She and her mother, Dolly Grant, both worked for the family — but they too were told to stop coming in 1999.

“I think they had an agenda, obviously,” she said of Eckelberry and David Robinson, the Kings’ veterinarian-turned-property manager. “Dollar signs.”

Robinson’s presence in the house was often strange and disturbing, family, friends and ex-workers say. He would often talk to Eleanor alone in her room. Many suspected him of spreading rumors about affairs between other staff, or playing on Eleanor’s suspicions.

When Eleanor knocked Roberts out of her will, she gave Robinson the house that had been earmarked for her and $25,000.

Robinson could not be reached for comment.

Frequent changes to the will

Eleanor, meanwhile, started changing her will constantly in 1999, soon after Lloyd’s death, according to a Post review of the documents.

People who had been with the family for decades — Fannie Mae Roberts, Matt Kambic, who took care of the property, and the Chenoweths, who were supposed to take care of Eleanor’s beloved dog, Toby — were suddenly written out.

The biggest shocker may have been Jeanette King, who originally stood to inherit $2 million, the same amount as Lloyd’s two children.

“I was like the daughter she never had,” Jeanette said. Eleanor affectionately referred to Jeanette as her “daughter-in-love” instead of daughter-in-law. They spoke nearly every day.

But Eckelberry felt threatened by her, she said. Jeanette at that time was going to the Bow Mar house most days after work, helping Eleanor with the estate.

“At one point, he said to me, ‘If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,’” Jeanette recalled.

One day, the two asked Jeanette to come over. Eleanor, Jeanette thought, was acting strange.

“She started acting a little weird, like, ‘Oh, you’re trying to take over take over the foundation,’” Jeanette said.

In March 1999, Eleanor removed Jeanette from the will entirely.

“Eleanor would have signed anything he put in front of her,” Jeanette said.

All told, Eleanor made five changes to her will in 1999 and eight alterations in an 18-month span.

That many changes in such a short time period raises some red flags, two estate attorneys told The Post. Most of their clients, they said, make only two or three changes — total.

“When I’ve had clients making that many changes, at some point I might say, ‘I’d like to get a doctor’s letter to make sure you don’t have anything cognitively impairing your ability,’” said Susie Germany, a Colorado attorney who specializes in estate planning and elder law. “I’d maybe have some concerns about someone making undue influence. In my experience, there’s something going on behind the scenes.”

Lew King, Lloyd’s son, acknowledged that Eleanor could be “paranoid as hell about everything.”

“She was suspicious,” he said, “suspected everyone of everything.”

Ezra, the foundation’s treasurer, didn’t get involved until the organization got off the ground around 2009. He said Eleanor may have been nice when she spoke to you, but “when you weren’t there, she didn’t necessarily talk about you in the same way as she’d talk to your face.”

It’s his understanding, he said, that Eleanor did have a lot of people “running interference” for her during this time.

“If Eleanor decided she didn’t wanna see you, and if people who worked for her didn’t take that upon themselves, they got fired,” Ezra said.

An old family photo of Lloyd and Eleanor King and their family. Lloyd King was the founder of King Soopers and the developer of the Town of Bow Mar, Colorado. He was a grocery pioneer and innovator. Photo courtesy of the King Family.

Courtesy of the King Family

An old photo of Lloyd and Eleanor King and their family.

“Like the family didn’t exist”

Eleanor died June 23, 2008. She was 96. Almost immediately after, Eckelberry changed the locks to the Bow Mar house, family members said.

He and his secretary set up a garage sale, telling the family that they could come and check out items. If family members wanted something big, several recalled, they would have to pay for it.

Cahalane remembers requesting the teacups that her grandmother used to put out after Thanksgiving dinner. Her father, Lew, said he’d have to check with Eckelberry. After some pushback, she eventually was able to get the teacups and a set of furs she always loved, but not without a fight.

“We weren’t even allowed to decide what our family got to keep,” she said.

It all felt very strange, family members said.

“It was like the family didn’t exist,” Rodney Kulbe said. “The family was just ex-communicated.”

By the time Lloyd and Eleanor were both gone, Eckelberry had been placed in charge of nearly everything: the trusts, the estate and the King family foundation — which received any remaining assets not listed in the Kings’ wills.

One person controlling all these levers could be ripe for a conflict of interest, the two estate attorneys consulted by The Post said.

“If I’m in a position of trust, that gives me way too much power,” Germany said. “Without checks and balances, that’s a dangerous position to be in.”

Cole Pokard, another estate attorney, said he would never give himself power of attorney or appoint himself trustee for a client’s trust, though some attorneys will do it.

“From our end, it’s not necessarily unethical, but we see it as such,” he said.

Neither attorney had heard of a situation where an estate planner also ran the family’s foundation.

“It definitely sounds like he’s in a very cozy position, to say the least,” Germany said.

Ezra said none of this was done without Eleanor’s consultation.

“Eleanor was there every step of the way,” he said.

From left: Jeannette King, her daughter Stacey Cahalane, Elaine King, and her daughter Cindy Gotchey, right, look over old family photos and newspaper clippings at Jeannette's home in Littleton on May 10, 2022.

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

From left: Jeanette King, her daughter Stacey Cahalane, Elaine King, and her daughter Cindy Gotchey, right, look over old family photos and newspaper clippings at Jeanette’s home in Littleton on May 10, 2022.

The fight for the foundation

Family members acknowledge that there’s not much they can do about the estate anymore. But they can’t understand why the Lloyd J. King & Eleanor R. King Foundation lacks a single member of the King family on its four-member board. Now they’re pushing for a change.

In fact, multiple Kings said they could never remember Lloyd or Eleanor even talking about wanting a charitable foundation in the first place.

“The foundation was Bob’s idea,” Lew King said.

But over the years, Eckelberry has consistently refused requests from King family members to join the foundation, they say. They’ve never even been allowed to sit in on a board meeting.

“This was a decision made by your grandmother, Eleanor,” Eckelberry told Cindy Gotchey, one of the grandchildren, in a March email, when asked why there were no family members involved. “…It was Eleanor’s desire that no family members be on the Board.”

“There is nothing in the foundation’s bylaws,” the retired attorney continued, “that require a family member to be on the board.”

But did Eleanor King really want that? The Kings believe otherwise.

The foundation’s articles of incorporation, from June 1998, five months after Lloyd died, list Jeanette King and Judy Jepsen, Lloyd’s niece, as “initial” directors on a seven-member board.

On Feb. 27, 1999, Eleanor sent Eckelberry a letter — which was reviewed by The Post — informing him that she would be appointing those two to serve as the foundation’s secretary and treasurer.

“These appointments supersede any prior designations and are to take effect immediately,” Eleanor wrote.

But as they prepared for their first board meeting in 1999, Jeanette King says she received a threatening call.

“Don’t bother coming because you’ll embarrass yourself,” she said Eckelberry told her. She was out.

Jepsen, who declined to be interviewed for this story, also never made it on the final board.

Ezra, the board member and treasurer, wasn’t in the room for the initial meeting. But it’s his understanding, he said, that Jeanette, due to her falling out with Eleanor, made it clear that she didn’t want to be on the board. Jepsen, he said, also declined.

“There were two Kings on the first board meeting,” Ezra said. “They both decided they didn’t wanna do it.”

By the time the foundation was up and running a decade later — funded by the $9.48 million sale in 2011 of the Bow Mar property — both Kings were off the masthead. But the names of two Eckelberrys remained: Bob, the CEO and executive director, and his son, John, who was listed as a director.

The Kings say they’re bothered by a series of donations made to causes that appear to be affiliated with the Eckelberry family, not their own.

Between 2012 and 2019, the foundation gave more than $52,000 to a Methodist church in rural Missouri, less than half a mile from where Eckelberry says he went to high school, according to a Post review of the foundation’s IRS filings. Another $41,400 over that same period was allocated to a church in Breckenridge, four miles from a home listed in Eckelberry’s name.

The foundation also gave $14,000 across four years to Family Advocacy, Care, Education & Support, a nonprofit organization in Denver. Eckleberry’s son, John, is a former board member of the organization.

John Eckelberry told The Post that, after the foundation was funded, board members had the opportunity to recommend names of organizations to which they’d like to contribute, and the board would vote on those choices. He said he was a volunteer with FACES and received no benefit from any donation.

Those church donations, however, only reflect a small sliver of the foundation’s annual contributions, which in 2019 amounted to $429,000. Some of the charitable giving that year included $20,000 each to Colorado Public Radio and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and $22,000 to the Red Cross.

The foundation also annually supports causes near and dear to Lloyd and Eleanor, such as the Dumb Friends League and Salvation Army.

Ezra pointed to the fact that the foundation gives away more than the 5% threshold that private foundations are mandated to give each year.

“Not the Lloyd and Eleanor King foundation”

Matt Kulbe remembers thumbing through the program at the 2014 Hope Ball for the Cancer League of Colorado, a cause in which he’d been closely involved, and seeing the foundation listed as a sponsor.

“I thought, ‘What the heck? This is my family foundation,’” Kulbe, Lloyd King’s great-grandson, recalled.

The family shouldn’t be accidentally running into the foundation at charity events, Kulbe said. He’d be honored, he said, to be able to write checks in his great-grandfather’s name.

“We could carry on the legacy of Lloyd King and be able to make really fun and really neat philanthropic choices through that foundation — made by family members of Lloyd King,” Kulbe said. “That’s what it was set up for.”

Ezra said Eleanor King may have set up the foundation, but that doesn’t make it the Kings’ foundation.

“It’s independent of the King family,” he said. “It doesn’t belong to them. It doesn’t belong to anyone, per se.”

More than $200,000 each year goes to paying the four current board members, who also have titles within the foundation.

Eckelberry has taken $110,000 in annual salary between 2013 and 2019, IRS filings show. Another director is paid more than $66,000 a year, while the foundation’s secretary and treasurer, Ezra, takes home $18,000 a year.

“He set it up to have a lifetime income,” Lew King said of Eckelberry. “It’s bogus.”

Ezra said Eckelberry pushed for the foundation to give away more than it could earn, even during the stock market’s lean years following the 2008 economic collapse. If the market hadn’t rebounded in recent years, he said, the foundation would have run through its money.

“That doesn’t sound to me like the guy was trying to give himself a perpetual anything,” Ezra said.

The Kings see their family name as a sponsor on PBS or at charity galas and wonder why they’re looking at everything from the outside. It’s their family name. It’s their family money. And yet none of them have any control over where it’s all going.

“This is not the Lloyd and Eleanor King foundation,” said Jeanette King. “It’s turned into the Eckelberry family trust.”

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