Broken Dreams

Marilyn West
Marilyn West explains her dilemma to Jim Lyons, a financial investigator in the Economics Crimes Division at the office of the Attorney General in Tampa. Her two daughters listen as she speaks. They are left to right, Jessica Elizabeth Tyson and Hope Angel West, center. (Times photo: Tony Lopez)

"I'm here to claim my prize"

By Paul Wilborn, Times Staff Writer (Jan. 10, 1998)

Life has not been easy for Marilyn West.

Drug dealers who control her Baltimore neighborhood threaten her and her two daughters daily. West said she grew up in an abusive home and married an abusive husband. She chronicled her troubled life in a 173-page autobiography she calls Miles of Fear.

She hoped the book would be a ticket out of her troubled neighborhood. But before her agent could find a publisher, West opened a letter from American Family Publishers spokesmen Ed McMahon and Dick Clark.

She rubbed off a number. It matched the prize number under the security seal. She read the letter again and started shaking. She appeared to be an $11-million winner. She looked for a disclaimer, like the ones she saw on other sweepstakes pitches, but didn't see one.

The instructions said to respond to a Tampa address within five days. By the time she opened the letter Wednesday, only two days remained.

So West borrowed $1,500 from her sister and flew to Tampa on Thursday with daughters Hope Angel West, 19, and Jessica Elizabeth Tyson, 11, to claim the money.

But like many disappointed people before them, they found no millions waiting. No balloons. No parties.

They didn't even get a smiling face at the office building at 3000 University Center Drive, near University Mall, that was listed on her entry letter.

It is a telemarketing office for Time Customer Service, a company under the Time-Warner corporate logo, as is American Family Publishers.

West and her daughters are not the first people to come to Tampa thinking they are American Family sweepstakes winners. Last September, Richard Lusk, 88, flew from California, thinking he had a winning entry. Airport police later identified nine other people, most of them elderly, who had flown to Tampa over the past two years, chasing a non-existent sweepstakes prize.

Many of them, like the Wests, go to 3000 University Center Drive.

West and her daughters were stopped in an alcove by a security guard, a frowning man who did not give his name.

"What are you here for?" he asked them.

"I'm here to claim my prize," West said.

She produced her entry, with the matching number. The one that urged West to "come forward in the next 5 days" and that said, "Remember Marilyn West, from this day forward, we're waiting for the $11,000,000.00 winning number to arrive at our Tampa, Florida Headquarters."

But there was nothing waiting for West at the Tampa headquarters.

The frowning man told her she should mail in her entry. He offered to call a cab but did not apologize for their inconvenience.

"He left us standing out in the hall," West said. "He was angry that I brought the letter."

They spent the night at a nearby motel, unsure what to do next.

"I just kind of walked around," West said.

Eventually, she and her daughters walked to Luby's for dinner.

Unable to afford another $31 cab ride, they caught a bus to downtown Friday, hoping it was near the airport. A man at the bus stop heard their story and sent them to the Hillsborough County Courthouse to file a complaint.

Eventually, they ended up at the Florida attorney general's office in Tampa. Florida is one of 20 states investigating American Family Publishers.

Jim Lyons, an investigator, and Gary Betz, an attorney who is handling the state investigation into American Family Publishers, looked over the letter.

"I'm angry about this, and I'm sure you're angry," Betz told West. "We're trying to make sure they do things that aren't deceptive."

But he offered her little hope.

"Unfortunately, the law is sometimes slow," Betz said.

American Family Publishers attorney David Carlin could not be reached for comment Friday. Carlin has said the company's practices are not deceptive, but some people "couldn't separate fantasy from reality."

But West said she gets sweepstakes pitches all the time and has always found the disclaimer. The "if." But not this one.

"We're not dumb," she said. "If you look at it, it says: "Come on and get your money. It's in bank for you.' It's all a lie."

The state investigators said the disclaimers in West's letter were quite subtle. West thought she had won after a hidden number she scratched off matched her "prize claim number." But the letter, which mentions matching numbers several times, says later the match must be made with the "secretly preselected winning number."

"This is not one we've seen before," Lyons said.

There was one bit of good news for West and her daughters. Lyons called an official at Busch Gardens and told them what had happened to the family. They were offered free passes to the park.

Instead of spending her winnings Friday, West and her daughters toured a theme park and at 9 p.m. caught a US Airways flight back home.

West said she would wait until she got home to start worrying about how she would repay her sister the $1,500.

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