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Essay Flap’s Plot Takes Strange Turn

Times Staff Writer

The most imaginative writer in town could not have penned the surprise ending to Ben Waldrep’s “Why I Want to Live in Manhattan Beach, Calif.” essay contest.

First, the winner of the writing competition declined to claim the grand prize: Waldrep’s ocean-view home. And then the contest’s 1,812 losers won $1 million each.

That is the unanticipated conclusion to a charity fundraising promotion hatched five years ago by a retired aerospace worker that is being played out in a Los Angeles courtroom.

When his wife died and he decided in 2000 to move from his $800,000 Manhattan Beach home, Waldrep devised a plan to offer the dwelling as an essay contest prize instead of selling it.

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Entrants would pay a $195 fee to participate in the writing competition. Waldrep pledged that 10% of the entry fees would be donated to a local charity that had assisted his dying wife.

But when the contest ended and Waldrep didn’t move out of his house, one unhappy essay writer filed a class-action civil lawsuit alleging that the competition was fixed. Last week, a Los Angeles jury decided Waldrep had committed fraud and ordered him to return the entry fees, plus interest, to the writers.

It was when the jury returned Monday to award punitive damages to the writers that the plot thickened.

Jurors agreed that the contestants should additionally split between them the approximately $1 million for which Waldrep sold the house last year. But in a mix-up, jurors inadvertently awarded the 1,812 essayists $1 million each.

Jurors discovered their $1.8-billion mistake while chatting with lawyers after the trial. When they attempted to return to the courtroom of Superior Court Judge Andria Richey to rectify things, they learned they were too late: They had been dismissed.

Waldrep, 77, was not in court and could not be reached later for comment. But his lawyer vowed to try to have the judgment set aside next month when Richey reviews the jury’s recommendation and hears objections. If necessary, Craig Forry said, he will seek a new trial.

A onetime engineering administrator for Boeing, Waldrep staged the essay competition after reading magazine and newspaper articles describing writing contests that had been used to dispose of a bed-and-breakfast inn and a cafe.

In announcing his contest in 2000, Waldrep said he was dedicating the competition to his late wife, Iris. He pledged to donate 10% of the contest fees to the Wellness Community, a nonprofit Redondo Beach group that counseled her as she was dying of lung cancer.

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Waldrep explained that he would hire an independent company to administer the contest and oversee the four judges who would evaluate the essays.

Questions arose, however, after the contest ended and Waldrep remained in his two-story, 1,850-square-foot, three-bedroom home. Located on an Alma Avenue corner lot, it boasts ocean views from two balconies.

An entrant from British Columbia was named winner of the house in 2001. But the first-place essayist, David McNair, failed to accept his prize. In 2002 a losing entrant, Don Coulson, filed a class-action lawsuit alleging that the contest was rigged.

Coulson, 72, a Temecula printer and amateur writer, said his suspicions were raised when he read McNair’s entry and was puzzled by the quality of the prose. He decided to take legal action when McNair didn’t claim the house.

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David W.T. Brown, the lawyer for Coulson and other class-action plaintiffs, said McNair refused to come forward to explain why he never collected his prize. Because McNair lives in Canada, he was outside the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles court.

Forry, Waldrep’s lawyer, said the prize went unawarded because contest rules did not specify how it would be allocated if the first-place winner forfeited it. Four entrants tied in second place.

Two teachers and two high school administrators from the South Bay served as contest judges. They read 1,813 entries, grading each on a scale of one to 25. The winner had a total score of 99; the second-place finishers all scored 97, according to Forry.

“I read some of the entries. They were written from the perspective of a dog, as hard-luck stories, as resumes, as poems,” he said. “Anyone thinking the best one was going to spring like a rose out of a field of weeds was mistaken.”

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Attorneys for the plaintiffs suggested that Waldrep reneged on giving away the house after collecting about $360,000 in entry fees and giving 10% to the Wellness Community.

Brown alleged that judges’ scores on McNair’s essay were altered to make him the winner. He said the other writers tried without success last year to obtain a restraining order to prevent Waldrep from selling his home.

The $1.2 million he received for the house “is long gone now,” Brown said Wednesday. Waldrep, who paid $45,000 for the house in 1969, now lives in an El Segundo apartment.

Since the verdict, Brown said he has been approached by Hollywood producers interested in turning the dispute into a movie.

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If that happens, there are 1,812 writers ready to pound out a script.


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