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Published: 3/21/2002

2 accused of swindle involving fake prizes

Two Floridians were indicted by a Lucas County grand jury yesterday for allegedly bilking money from people in an illegal telephone-sweepstakes scam.

Authorities said Henry Lee Elam, Jr., and Brandy Merrill called people who live in Ohio and told them they had won money in a national sweepstakes. But victims were told they had to pay corporate, city, and gift taxes to collect the $28,000 second-place sweepstakes prize.

John Weglian, chief of the special units division of the Lucas County Prosecutor's Office, said 27 people in Ohio, including residents of Toledo, Ottawa Hills, and Sylvania, sent money to the defendants in anticipation of claiming cash winnings.

Merrill, 25, of Opa Locha, Fla., was indicted on 27 counts of receiving stolen property, four counts of misrepresenting a material aspect of a prize promotion, and one count each of engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, telecommunications fraud, and failure to register as a telephone solicitor.

Elam, 26, of Hollywood, Fla., was indicted on 27 counts of receiving stolen property.

Prosecutors said Merrill and Elam were convicted on federal charges in Florida for the sweepstakes operation. Elam is in a federal prison in Montgomery, Ala.

Stephanie Beougher, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Attorney General's consumer protection office, said callers told the victims they were winners in the Robin Leach national clearinghouse sweepstakes. However, Mr. Leach, host of the popular television series Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous, was not involved in the operation. “We don't have any information that would link Robin Leach to the scam. We think [Merrill and Elam] lent his name to the sweepstakes without him knowing it,” Ms. Beougher said.

Mr. Weglian said the victims were told to send up to $1,300 to Elam in Florida to cover Internal Revenue Service taxes, and an overnight delivery service would be at their door the next day with their prize. However, none of the victims received money.

“It appears it was just out-and-out fraud. The only persons winning were the people collecting money,” Ms. Beougher said.

Although the indictment was filed in Lucas County, victims taken in the scam live in Wood, Fulton, Hamilton, Trumbull, Darke, Summit, Knox, and Clermont counties.



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