Lotteries

TOUGH LUCK

An A&W workers’ dispute in Mission, B.C., over a $14.5-million lottery ticket has turned nasty, with allegations of lies, deceit—even threats of physical harm

KEN MACQUEEN October 3 2005
Lotteries

TOUGH LUCK

An A&W workers’ dispute in Mission, B.C., over a $14.5-million lottery ticket has turned nasty, with allegations of lies, deceit—even threats of physical harm

KEN MACQUEEN October 3 2005

TOUGH LUCK

An A&W workers’ dispute in Mission, B.C., over a $14.5-million lottery ticket has turned nasty, with allegations of lies, deceit—even threats of physical harm

Lotteries

KEN MACQUEEN

FOR A MONTH now, folks in the Fraser Valley city of Mission, B.C., have been devouring a high-stakes soap opera along with their burgers and root beer at the local A&W. It began the evening of Aug. 20, when the gods of chance and fate, or perhaps just the power of a lucky kiss, resulted in the drawing of numbers 04 14 17 23 26 38 in that night’s Lotto 6/49. That afternoon, as was often the case before a big jackpot, an informal pool of A&W staff bought a ticket.

It held nine $2 “quick picks.” They locked it in a restaurant cabinet, as they always did, and went back to work. The chance of a single ticket containing all six winning numbers were slim to none—just one in 13,983,816. With odds like that, they didn’t expect to win. But win they did, and then the problems began: were there nine members of that pool, or 11, or 13?

Last Friday, a nervous knot of players and their eight lawyers gathered in Vancouver before Donald Brenner, Chief Justice of the British Columbia Supreme Court, to begin the complex and expensive process of resolving ownership. The ticket is worth a staggering $14,507,724, plus interestmore than enough, it turns out, to alter the course of 13 lives for better, and for worse. Family, friends and former friends of the various factions sat in separate sections of Courtroom 20, the large, high-security room

specially

built for the Air India bombing trial. At least two of the A&W staff with a claim for the money—

Megan Weisgarber and supervisor Tanis McQuillan—couldn’t make the hour-long trek from Mission. “They were scheduled to work,” said their lawyer, Patrick Lewis.

At the end of a day of claims and counter claims, Brenner nudged the dispute dramatically closer to resolution by issuing an order worthy of King Solomon. He effectively sawed the prize in two. His order releases 9/13ths of the money—more than $10 million—to be shared equally by the original nine claimants of the ticket. The remaining money, about $4.5 million, will be held back while four other co-workers wage a legal battle for a share.

The order was hammered out with the agreement of all lawyers, after Susan Griffin, representing the nine who first claimed the prize, said it was unfair to deny her clients their undisputed share of the money during litigation that could conceivably last five years. “Today, the issue is whether they can hold my clients’ prize to ransom.” The order created nine instant millionaires—and perhaps a few early retirements from the fast food industry—but it’s unlikely to heal an increasingly tense workplace.

“It’s been stressful, I imagine, with everybody,” said Mike Healey, the father of 16-yearold Sarah, a part-time worker who is among the four claimants still fighting for a share of the prize. “All we can say is we hope the truth comes out in this.” He and his wife, Lilly, represent their daughter in the claim since she is legally a minor and unable to play the lottery. Sarah, the only one of the claimants to offer even a brief comment Friday, said the dispute has made life difficult at work. “It’s been pretty bad with some people down there,” she said. Still, her father added, “most of them have been pretty good to her.” Remarkably, all 13 employees have con-

tinued working side by side, even as they were fighting each other for their economic futures. It was all the more amazing, considering the dirt they were dishing behind the scenes: allegations of lies, deceit, even threats of physical harm. Those claims, on which much of this story is based, are contained in sworn affidavits, unproven in court. Several of the lawyers have already served notice there will be a tough cross-examination of many of the most inflammatory claims as the litigation drags on.

THAT TIRESOME cliché about money not buying happiness? Take a seat. See it in action. It’s the late morning calm before the lunch rush at the Mission A&W, a week before the hearing, and Weisgarber is working the front counter. She is 19, cute and blond. She may even be rich, though that is a question for the courts. On this morning she seems, as her mother, Lee, has described her, “deflated.” Relationships have deteriorated among a once-tight group of co-workers. Weisgarber listlessly sweeps an already spodess floor, and dishes burgers and Chubby Chicken to the light pre-lunch crowd. A woman using the drive-thru hollers into the open window: “Now, are you girls all rich?” Weisgarber shrinks back as though the question causes physical pain. “I don’t talk about that,” she says, politely, but with enough steel to spike that topic of conversation. The truth is, she doesn’t know. She may be very rich or very disappointed.

Working in the kitchen this morning is Francis Carcasson, a part-owner of the franchise, and one of the group of nine who claim sole ownership of the jackpot. This puts him at odds with Weisgarber and the three other of his employees who also want a share of the winnings. Weisgarber summons him from the back, where, with a tight smile, he deflects yet another interview request. “Don’t you have anything better to write about,” he asks. “There’s people dying all

around the world.”

He has told the local press his priority is serving burgers and fries.

The jackpot has sat in a Supreme Court account since it was deposited on Sept. 8 by the B.C. Lottery Corp., after it had washed its hands of the conflicting and contradictory claims for ownership. The court account pays a less than stellar interest rate of 2.25 per cent. Even at that, the prize grew by $894.31 per day, or more than $6,260 per week. Most certainly, the legal bills grow faster.

The factions break roughly into two camps. First, a group of nine stepped up to claim the prize. Then four others—Weisgarber,

McQuillan, 24, Rani Johnston, 22, and Healey, a Grade 10 student—came forward, each with differing versions of why they are owed a share. The resolution might seem an obvious choice between two options: divide the pot by nine, with each share about $1,611,969. Or split it 13 ways, each getting $1,115,979. Either way, a bunch of people need never flip another burger. If it was ever that simple, it isn’t now.

In Mission, a blue-collar city on the north shore of the Fraser River, the plight of lowwage workers squabbling over the difference between a $ 1.1-million or $ 1.6-million ticket into the upper class hasn’t elicited much local sympathy. Opinions cleave between those urging the nine to share, or the other four to slink away. Some deem

THE AMILY ‘HAS A BA REPUTATION’ ONE CLAIMED. ‘I FELT WORRIED FOR MY SAFETY.’

THEY POUNDED ON THE BACK DOOR. ‘HE WAS SO AGITATED THAT HIS NECK WAS PULSING/

both sides equally unworthy. “Maybe the courts should consider who really needs the money and send it to the hurricane victims,” said a typically caustic correspondent to the Mission Times, “instead of greedy little girls who wouldn’t know what to do with all the money.”

Had a solution been reached out of court, there’d have been a cheque presentation at the lottery offices in Richmond and a tame news conference where the winners would say, as winners do, they’ll take vacations, buy houses and look after their relatives. Instead, positions harden. The court file grows fat. The venomous collection of sworn affidavits speaks volumes.

THE GROUP of nine have the most consistent version of the ticket purchase and its ugly aftermath. It goes like this: employee Marge Toyryla arrived early for her afternoon shift on Aug. 20 to chat up a group buy for that night’s draw. This often happens when jackpots reach the stratosphere. Toyryla passed an envelope. Those wanting to play gave $2, and she wrote their name on the envelope. Manager Shirley Marshall, an 11-year employee at the restaurant, contributed $4. She has an agreement with her friend, Carcasson, the lone male in this dispute—if either was absent during a draw collection, the other paid the missing person’s share.

There were nine names on the envelope. In addition to Carcasson, Marshall and herself, there was: Sabrina Buckmaster, Kristina Clark, Natasha Hodgson, Laura Midan, Jennifer Rink and Amanda Simmonds. Most of the women had worked at the restaurant between three and five years. Most say in their statements that lottery pools at the A&W were, as Marshall describes it, “spur of the moment,” and usually limited to those on shift when the idea hits. Still, they say, certain rules are followed. Names are recorded on the envelope and cash is demanded up front. “Late

payments have never occurred because the money has to be collected first in order to buy the tickets,” says

Midan, “and it would be too hard to collect money after a losing draw.” Rani Johnston was asked if she wanted to play. “She specifically said no, using the excuse that she was saving for school and I think she also mentioned a vacation,” says Toyryla in her affidavit. “I remember Natasha teasing her by saying ‘you’ll regret it if we win,’ and Rani just said T know’ or ‘whatever,’ something like that.” The other three who later claimed a share simply weren’t on shift when the money was collected, goes the story.

Toyryla spent $18 at the nearby Shoppers Drug Mart for nine “quick picks.” The envelope containing the ticket was locked in a cabinet in the restaurant, but first, in a light-hearted moment, the ticket was passed among the contributors. Several kissed it for good luck. Apparently, it worked.

That version of events differs markedly from that described by Weisgarber and McQuillan. Both say they are regulars in the lottery pool and that Toyryla collected two $2 coins from each of them on Weds., Aug. 17, believing that would cover the Super 7 draw that Friday and Saturday’s 6/49. Both say Toyryla regularly placed the money in a fanny pack around her waist. Both claim she never used envelopes, nor regularly wrote down the names. “I trust Margie [as

several workers call her] to do what is fair and proper,” said Weisgarber. Both Johnston and Healey claim they said they wanted in on the draw and would pay later.

Lawyers representing the four claimants left out of the prize have based much of their attack on the informal nature of the lottery. There are no “hand-written rules of the game,” argued Douglas MacAdams, who represents Healey. David Taylor, representing Johnston, said the lottery has always been based on understanding and goodwill among the tightly knit staff. “They work together, they play together. These are not strangers.” All that changed with the win. Suddenly, he said, “there were 14.5 million reasons” why people’s perceptions of each other changed.

About all the 13 claimants agree on is that elation over the win was short-lived. Tears and recrimination soon followed. “Rani was working when she found out that I and the other eight players had the winning lottery ticket,” says Rink. “Rani began crying and refused to work for a period of time.” Toyryla and others describe an angry confrontation as McQuillan, her husband, Kevin Stefoniuk, her brother, Robbie, and his wife, Petra McQuillan, pounded on the back door of the restaurant, demanding an explanation. Stefoniuk did much of the talking. “I said to Margie,” he states in his affidavit, “‘What the fuck’s going on?”’ Toyryla called the conversation threatening. “He was so agitated that his neck was pulsing,” she says. “He swore at me. He asked if I was going to share the prize with Tanis. I told him no because she didn’t contribute to the draw.” Toyryla, and employee Kristina Clark, who witnessed the confrontation, say the group stormed off after Stefoniuk said: “I hope you have fun spending your money because we’re going to get it one way or another.”

A shaken Toyryla spent the next two nights at the home of manager Shirley Marshall. Several of the group of nine claim the McQuillan clan is tough enough to back up that threat. “Tanis McQuillan’s family has a bad reputation in Mission,” says Marshall in her affidavit. “Her brother Robbie has a reputation of being a drug dealer, and of bragging about how tough he is and how he has connections with the Hell’s Angels. I felt worried for my safety and Marge’s safety.” Adds Carcasson: “Everyone in the group was rather stunned at the whole thing: excited we had won this big prize, shocked that Megan Weisgarber and Tanis McQuil-

lan were saying they somehow were entitled to it; and upset that Tanis McQuillan’s family might be willing to go so far as to threaten or hurt us.” The allegations of threats and the aspersions against the McQuillan family were flatly denied Friday by Lewis, McQuillan’s lawyer.

On Tues., Aug. 23, the group of nine drove to Richmond to collect their prize. So did McQuillan and Weisgarber.

When you win a lottery prize of any substance in B.C., Jim Lightbody is the guy who hands you the cheque. Awarding “lifechanging prizes,” he says, is just about the sweetest part of his job as vice-president of lottery gaming for the B.C. Lottery Corp. Most winners are understandably nervous, Lightbody says. “But when they get that cheque in their hands, without a doubt, every single one of them goes, ‘wow’, and they have this huge smile, and they can’t stop shaking my hand.” Then, he says, “they almost go into space for a little while.”

The Aug. 20 jackpot had all the elements for a feel-good event: a fat prize going to nine people working humble jobs. “We were looking forward to celebrating this win,” he says. Then came a call from a lawyer for Weisgarber and McQuillan. (Johnston’s and Healey’s claims came later.) “We knew before the group of nine showed up that there was going to be a dispute. The other two did show up with their lawyer as well, and that was a little tense in our office.”

In any given year, B.C. lottery winners collect some $450 million. In more than 30 years of awarding prizes, Lightbody says, this is the first time the corporation has resorted to the courts. There have been disputes in the past, he says. “Usually, the group works it out.”

The showdown at A&W is a cautionary tale that the lottery corporation has used to great effect. As the dispute headed to court, it bought prominent newspaper ads reprinting the group agreement form it recommends all lottery pool players use. Beneath it ran the tagline to the corporation’s current advertising campaign: “Always be nice to people who play Lotto 6/49.”

By the end of Friday, there wasn’t much nice about the dispute. Nine people entered the courtroom as A&W workers, and exited as millionaires. No one cheered. No one even smiled. There is still a fat pot of money to be had, and an ugly fight to come. The odds of that are dead certain. f?l