Houston bus tour traces Enron path to ruin


HOUSTON -- The gleaming metal "E" that once marked the entrance to Enron Corp.'s downtown headquarters. The unfinished mansion commissioned by former Chief Financial Officer Andrew S. Fastow. The secondhand store that Linda Lay, wife of company founder Kenneth L. Lay, had opened to hawk her pricey castoffs.

For $30, these and other sights tied to the rise and fall of Enron can be viewed from the comfort of an air-conditioned bus on the "Lifestyles of Houston's Rich & Infamous" Enron tour.

It's hard to resist Enron's tale of greed and comeuppance, said Sandra Lord, who thought up the five-hour excursion. "People like good stories, and Enron is a great story," she said.

Last weekend - two days before Lay began testifying at his fraud and conspiracy trial - the tour was booked solid with curious local residents. Audrey Smith, 48, wanted to see for herself what the Enron hubbub was about. "We've lived in Houston all our lives but have never seen this stuff in person. We should know about it," she said.

One of the first stops was a consignment store previously known as Jus' Stuff. Once stocked with furnishings from multiple homes sold by the Lays after Enron's collapse, it's now an import store filled with items from India.

The Lays left behind a complex computer system that "we still haven't figured ... out," Import Warehouse co-owner N.K. Gupta said. A call to Lay's office seeking information, Gupta said, was met with polite indifference.

Next, the 11,000-square-foot home that Fastow and his wife, Lea, were building in River Oaks - a lush neighborhood with the most expensive ZIP code in Houston. It was one of five properties that Fastow pledged as equity so he could post bail after being charged with fraud in 2002.

A young couple pushing a baby stroller watched as the tour bus pulled up and 25 people proceeded to wander across the lawn, peek through the windows and check out the view behind the chain-link fence.

Several sightseers frowned at the weeds in the front yard. "You've got to feel for the next-door neighbors. They must have paid $5 million for their house, and they're stuck next to this thing," said Kris Lloyd, 61, an investment adviser.

Former Enron chief executive Jeffrey K. Skilling still lives in a massive Mediterranean-style mansion set back on a River Oaks cul-de-sac. Gwen MacDonald, an oil company secretary, stared at the red tile roofs and lavish landscaping. She had watched news reports of Skilling's testimony - he is being tried with Lay on fraud and conspiracy charges - and it made her blood boil.

Then it was off to the Huntington Condominiums, where members of the tour group shielded their eyes from the sun and tried to pick out Lay's luxury digs on the 33rd floor.

As the bus rolled past other notable sites, including the enshrouded estates of Kenneth Lay's former business associates and Linda Lay's rental properties, Lord sprinkled her commentary with Enron trivia: The company originally was to be called "Enteron," until someone realized the name was another word for the intestines - not the best association for a natural gas company. "You can see already people weren't thinking things through," Lord said.

Leaving Houston's swankest neighborhoods, the bus headed toward MicroCache, a computer parts store next to a freeway access road and an adult video emporium. This was the last leg of the tour - a pilgrimage to the final resting place of the famous Enron crooked "E," which was sold at auction for $44,000. But when construction cones blocked the way, the bus driver took a detour, traveling past taquerias and over potholes. "This better be a ... good-looking `E,'" MacDonald said.

Inside the cramped computer store, the 5-foot-high "E" stood alone in a darkened room, dramatically lighted from above like a museum piece. A line formed for a closer look.

"Huh. It's an E," MacDonald said, suppressing a giggle.

Susan Sherrouse - curious about the company that had hired her daughter only to collapse less than a month later - had signed up for the tour with four friends. She reflected on what she had seen: the evidence of unimaginable wealth, the disgrace. "It's Houston history," she said.

Lianne Hart writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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