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FOX 13 Investigates: The rise, fall, and mysterious death of Tony Hsieh

Posted at 9:48 PM, Mar 08, 2021

Tony Hsieh was a shoe mogul who left a giant footprint in downtown Las Vegas. His rise shaped that area for decades to come, but many are now wondering what his legacy might have been in Park City if he were still alive.

Hsieh made a fortune by defying what "normal" is. In fact, he encouraged people to embrace their inner weirdness and spread happiness to others.

He graduated from Harvard University in 2004. From there, he launched an internet start-up called Link Exchange, which grew into a booming basement business. He later sold the company for $265 million, stating he wasn't fulfilled.

Hsieh started in a new direction, becoming involved in what would become Zappos in 1999 as an investor. At the time, it was known as founded by Nick Swinmurn.

The company's name was changed to Zappos in 1999, based on the word "zapatos," which is the Spanish word for shoes. Hsieh became CEO of the company in 2001.

Zappos moved from California to Henderson, Nevada in 2004, and Swinmurn left the company in 2006.

Hsieh was known for his unique leadership style, believing in customer service above all else and essentially allowing the employees to run the company. Zappos was repeatedly recognized as one of the best places to work in the country.

Growth at the company soared under Hsieh's leadership. In 2009, Zappos was sold to Amazon for $1.2 billion.

Hsieh stayed on as CEO, but turned his attention to downtown Las Vegas. The area had developed a seedy and depressed reputation over the years.

His idea was to breathe new life into the area by making it family-friendly.

"It spread a lot more development down Main Street," said casino owner Derek Stevens in an interview with KTNV. "It really changed things over."

Stevens said investors poured millions of dollars into downtown due to Hsieh's vision.

By 2012, Hsieh sunk $350 million of his own cash, which led to the creation of the Downtown Project.

"We never competed in any way, but we had a lot of discussions over the years about what's the next thing and how we can grow, and Tony was a pretty relentless growth-orientated guy," said Stevens.

The move to Park City

Hsieh abruptly and quietly left Zappos around August 2020, setting his sights on Park City.

Some say the "retired" shoe mogul was trying to duplicate what he envisioned for Las Vegas in the snow-covered ski slopes of Utah.

Documents show Hsieh's time in the beehive state was marked by home-buying, wild parties, law enforcement interventions, and a growing concern about his mental health.

Hsieh — either directly himself or through his close friends and associates — invited people to Utah to take in the sights.

"We were just touching base and [former bandmate Rachel Brown] said, 'Hey, Tony is stepping down from Zappos. He's going to be creating a whole new thing up in Park City. Why don't you guys just come up and get out of the heat?'" said David Perrico, a Las Vegas musician. "It was a mini three-day vacation."

Perrico said Hsieh's mountain mansion was set on acres of land and filled with breath-taking beauty.

Property records show the home was purchased in July 2020 for almost $15 million.

"It had to be at least 20,000 square feet," Perrico explained.

Perrico said he rarely saw his host, but noticed something else at the mountain mansion. A policy in which cell phones had to be surrendered to staff before entering the home.

"The place was heavily fortified with security, I mean everywhere you went there was security," explained Perrico.

Records show that Hsieh went on a shopping spree while in Utah, purchasing several properties around Park City totaling millions of dollars.

Some said it was the beginning of something big.

"We were going to be putting a lot of people to work, creating a lot of jobs, a lot of things in Park City itself," said Perrico.

According to multiple reports from the Summit County Sheriff's Office, Hsieh was also making a name for himself with Utah law enforcement.

In June, a friend reported Hsieh broke several things inside a home and threatened to hurt himself.

Hsieh was taken to the hospital for treatment, but a friend phoned authorities hours later warning if Hsieh were to be released from care, it would "be a problem."

In early August 2020, authorities were called once again to Hsieh's mountain mansion for a welfare check.

Approximately 10 days later, there was another call in to police.

This time, a friend reported Hsieh was increasingly paranoid, and they were becoming concerned for his safety.

The redacted report indicates Hsieh was believed to be using inhalants.

The documents show that, despite the safety concerns, Hsieh's security detail told authorities everything was fine.

In September, reports show a party at Hsieh's mansion got the attention of both neighbors and police.

Neighbors reported a party which had been going on for "40 straight days" with loud music and "flames shooting in the air" from "some sort of contraption."

Death by fire

The final moments, including what was going on in the mind of Hsieh, will likely never be known, leaving investigators to piece together what they found at the fire scene in New London, Connecticut.

According to the reports, it is possible that Hsieh’s carelessness or intentional acts may have started the fire in the shed where he was found.

On the banks of the Thames River, about a two-hour drive from New York City, is the home of Rachel Brown, Hsieh's longtime friend and coworker at Zappos.

According to investigators, Hsieh and others had returned from a trip to Puerto Rico, and on the night of Nov. 17, 2020, there was an argument between Hsieh and the homeowner.

Hsieh did not stay in the luxury 5-bedroom house, instead choosing to sleep in an attached shed out back.

"My understanding of why he went into the shed that night was because he had an argument with the owner of the home, and then he left the home and went outside," New London Connecticut Fire Marshal Vernon Skau said during a January 26 news conference.

Hsieh's staff grew concerned for his safety as temperatures dipped around the freezing mark.

Fire department records indicate staff checked on Hsieh throughout the night.

READ: Fire department report reveals new details surrounding death of former Zappos CEO

According to investigators, an exterior security camera recorded video of an interaction between Hsieh and his staff after a plastic bag caught on fire.

"You're going to smoke yourself out," staff told Hsieh. "That's poison."

"It's poisonous, but I used it to light a fire," Hsieh replied.

"In the conversation he had with his staff, they brought in a heater because they thought he lit the fire to keep warm," explained Fire Marshal Skau.

Fire officials said a propane heater, which gives off tasteless, odorless, and — in large doses — lethal carbon monoxide, was brought into the confined shed to keep Hsieh warm.

"It's an inappropriate place to use that," explained Fire Marshal Skau. "Those particular heating units, just from the nature of how they combust the propane, will produce carbon monoxide, so using it in an unvented area could be dangerous."

At 3:15 a.m., the exterior security camera picks up light smoke wisping from the shed door.

The camera catches Hsieh , at first placing the propane heater outside of the shed, but moments later bringing the heater back inside the shed and shuts the door.

The report indicates a latching sound can be heard as the shed's locking mechanism was activated from within the shed.

At this point, thicker smoke and burning embers can be seen, according to the report.

At 3:20 a.m., Tony Hsieh's brother, Andrew Hsieh, knocks on the shed door and tells Tony it is time to leave for a trip to Maui, Hawaii.

Tony Hsieh tells Andrew Hsieh to come back in 5 minutes.

A minute later, the report indicates a carbon monoxide alarm within the shed began to sound.

At 3:22 a.m., the propane tank can be heard hissing and venting the pressurized gas.

At 3:24 a.m., Andrew Hsieh and staff realize there's a fire, and the rescue attempt begins.

"We need help as soon as possible, someone is locked in a room and there's a fire," said a female voice over the phone to a 911 operator.

"Rachel, Rachel, Rachel, they really need help, is there a code to the storage room? Tony is locked in there," the same female voice can be overheard on the recording.

Seconds later, the call turns to panic.

"Please, hurry up, please hurry up, this is urgent, this is really urgent," the female voice said, followed by unintelligible crying.

An additional 911 call was placed by Hsieh's traveling nurse.

"We are not getting a response from him, we're not getting a response from him!" said the nurse to an operator.

"Who is he?" asked the operator.

"His name is Tony. I am actually a nurse that travels with him and gives him an IV," explained the nurse.

Police body camera shows smoke poured out of the shed once the door was broken open.

Hsieh can be seen being pulled from the fire.

He was rushed to a hospital and then flown to another facility.

He died on November 27.

The report notes Hsieh was found approximately three feet from the shed door, and inside were several Whip-it brand nitrous oxide chargers, a whipping cream dispenser, a marijuana pipe, and Fernet Branca liqueur bottles, as well as several candles.

"The interviews with the witnesses said that Tony does enjoy candles and that's been well reported. It reminds him of a simpler time in his life, is what the common trend on the answer," explained Skau.

The report concludes that the fire's cause is undetermined with four possible explanations.

"The first being a carelessly discarded smoking material. Second, there was a propane heater being used near the origin that was close to combustibles. Third, there were candles in the area of fire origin that could've caused a fire. And fourth, there could've been a careless act or even an intentional act by Mr. Hsieh," explained Skau.

New London Police do not intend to file criminal charges, but authorities said if new information comes to light, that decision might change.

Authorities note it could be possible, given the evidence at the scene, that Hsieh might have been intoxicated or impaired, and that might have prevented him from escaping the fire.

A toxicology report is still pending from the medical examiner.

Hsieh's legacy in Utah and beyond

Park City Mayor Andy Beerman released a statement on Dec. 10:

  • "I offer deep condolences to the friends and family of Tony Hsieh. We have lost a brilliant and creative soul. He may have been new to our community, but he 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. It was a lifeline to at least a few of them. In 2012, the Park City leadership classes visited Las Vegas to see Tony’s transformative work to revitalize Old Vegas. He had taken his earnings and community-first ethos from Zappos, and begun to apply it to improving his hometown. He had a fascination with community-building, and brought an entrepreneurial and imaginative approach to his work. Thank you to Tony for the kindness he showed our community, and we are sorry we were unable to get to know him better. We invite his friends and co-workers to stay and continue his work. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family."

"I was just amazed by the generosity of Tony, to say, 'Hey, we're gonna send you these buses,' and what really stuck out to me, knowing what he did in Las Vegas, it was gonna be kind of a second, positive outcome in Park City," explained Perrico.

Two civil lawsuits have been filed against Hsieh's estate from his previous assistant at Zappos and long-time friend.

The suit claims Hsieh broke multiple agreements and contracts, that he was not close with his family, and that he paid his brother a million dollars in exchange for moving to Park City.

The attorney representing Hsieh's estate has not returned requests for comment.

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