La Caille deaths followed lengthy legal battle
$4.7 million awarded in March; appeal and attorney fees still pending.
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The people who founded, built and worked at La Caille restaurant saw themselves as a close-knit family — until an ugly five-year legal battle forced the owners to put the iconic Utah restaurant up for sale.

Some friends and family of the founding partners say the dispute also led to the Christmas night murder-suicide of La Caille co-owner Steve Runolfson and his wife, Lisa. The couple was found on a bed in a blood-splattered room at the Provo Marriott Saturday night. Police say it appears Runolfson, 56, shot his 57-year-old wife and then turned the gun on himself.

"It was an agreement between the two of them," said Provo police Sgt. Reed Van Wagoner. "They had called and left a message with family that they were not coming home and not to have a service for them."

Runolfson's former partner, Mark Haug, who won a $4.7 million court award in March over a contract dispute with Runolfson and partner David Johnson (Lisa Runolfson is also Johnson's sister), said in a statement that he is surprised and deeply upset by the deaths "as Steven and Lisa were an important part of his life for decades."

"My client is distraught," said Haug's lawyer, Jim Magleby. "They took him in when his father wasn't around. They basically were his family. We tried to settle this case for years and he would have taken a lot less than he was [ultimately] awarded. ... This was a contentious lawsuit, but as far as I know it wasn't going to bankrupt them."

The lawsuit that began five years ago and the deaths that followed marked the rapid collapse of a 33-year relationship that Haug had entered at age 13, as a dishwasher, with original partners Johnson and Runolfson.

Haug joined the two partners as they literally built by hand the stone French restaurant and its 20 acres of swan ponds, gardens and vineyards in the sagebrush at the foot of Little Cottonwood Canyon. Johnson bought the restaurant, formerly known as Quail Run, from his father Lester for $300,000 and in 1975 began building his dream of a world-class French restaurant.

Ultimately, Haug, the one-time dishwasher, rose to executive chef of La Caille, though the restaurant eschews such titles. Along the way, he had accepted a 4 percent partnership in La Caille.

But in 2004, according to court documents, Haug's wife accused him of having an affair with another employee and slapped him across the face in La Caille's kitchen. The chef walked out. Within months, the partnership turned sour as Haug claimed his partners tried to "trick" him out of his fair share of the partnership.

In court, Magleby argued that Haug's share had grown to as much as 42 percent under the contract. But never in dispute was the close relationship among the three men. Magleby told the jury: "... When these partners went to work, they really went to work. ... They didn't hire a bunch of contractors. ... Mostly what they would do is get up in the morning, they would work from six or seven or eight in the morning until three or four in the afternoon, at which time they would get cleaned up and go to work in the restaurant."

But Johnson and Runolfson's lawyers argued that Haug was asking for a disproportionate amount of money from the business, which would force the sale and probably the demise of La Caille.

When attempts to settle failed, the lawsuit ended up in 3rd District Court in February 2006. In March 2010, a jury found that Runolfson and Johnson breached their 1993 partnership agreement with Haug and unlawfully took control of his share. The jury awarded Haug $4.7 million, including punitive damages.

In the ugliest part of the legal clash, the jurors also found that Johnson and Runolfson were responsible for a 2005 "malicious prosecution" scheme that resulted in Haug facing criminal charges for misappropriating La Caille money. The county prosecutor later dropped the charges.

In court, Magleby told the jury, "When Mr. Haug again refused to sign documents [to give up his share], they threatened him again. ... And within four days , they called the police and they filed false criminal charges, accusing Mr. Haug of a second-degree felony that, if he had been convicted, would have put him in jail for 1 to 15 years."

Magleby said, "It took us over a year to get the D.A. to dismiss the false criminal charges."

Haug now works as an hourly employee for a property management company in Park City, Magleby said."It's honest work and he enjoys it," Magleby said.

Both sides are awaiting for a ruling by the judge on Haug's $2 million in legal bills. Sotheby's International Realty has been listing the 20-acre property for $19.9 million. But friends and family of Runolfson and Johnson say that after the partners sold "their life's work," to cover the costs of the litigation and judgement, they would have nearly nothing left.

David Johnson's son Eric Johnson, who also has worked in many capacities at La Caille, says the court verdict, judgments and the fear that they were losing their way of life may have driven the Runolfsons beyond hope and led to the death pact.

"This is not at all indicative of who they were as people," Eric Johnson said of the Runolfsons' murder-suicide. "It has everything to do with this lawsuit taking away their lives. This lawsuit destroyed their reason to go on living, like a long-term illness takes away a person's reason to live."

He says he worries about his father's state of mind. "[The lawsuit] has ruined and stolen his life. [La Caille] was his whole life. It was his purpose. He created it from nothing."

But Haug's lawyer Magleby says the two partners refused settlement offers and forced the case to trial. "We had settlement offers on the table that everyone could have walked away and gotten on with their lives."

Moreover, Magleby says nothing unexpected has recently emerged in the case to set in motion the events of the Runolfsons' deaths. "They would have known what was coming ever since the verdict."

Rumors continue to swirl about buyers for La Caille and the 20-acres of prime real estate on which it sits. Eric Johnson says several potential buyers are interested. "Nothing is signed, but we do have several different people who are negotiating with Sotheby's."

As for the lawsuit, Eric Johnson says Haug's lawyers have yet to offer an acceptable settlement to stave off an appeal. "We are proceeding forward with an appeal. I think [the Runolfsons] couldn't face the next five or six years of litigation. For them, time just ran out."

For now, Eric Johnson says La Caille, which has been doing well financially, will continue as it always has. "The restaurant is the same today as it was five years ago. And it will continue to be the same in a year and a half."

gwarchol@sltrib.com —

La Caille and its woes

The "family" that built Utah's La Caille restaurant splintered after former partner Mark Haug sued founders Steven Runolfson and David Johnson for trying to "trick" him out of his share of the business and falsely accusing him of criminal acts.

But family members say the resulting verdict in Haug's favor forced the founders to put the iconic restaurant on the block and ultimately led to last weekend's murder-suicide of Runolfson and his wife, Lisa.