By Jeff Balke
By Ben DuBose
By Ben DuBose
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Calvin TerBeek
By Jeff Balke
By Jeff Balke
In her dream, Mary Iacono stands in front of a slot machine. She drops a silver dollar in, pulls the lever and the machine flashes WINNER. She doesn't know how much money she wins -- but she knows it is a lot.
Mary believes in dreams. Most things she sees in her sleep come true, she says. And the Las Vegas trip, thanks to a friend, turned into reality in 1997.
Mary hadn't wanted to go, because she was wheelchair-bound from a hip surgery, and traveling is hard for victims of severe rheumatoid arthritis. But Mary says Carolyn Lyons would not take no for an answer, even when Mary, a 56-year-old former beauty shop receptionist, told her she didn't have the money.
But Carolyn said she'd pay for everything. Mary would be her good luck charm, Mary remembers Carolyn saying.
Like many friends who go to Vegas or scratch off a lottery ticket together, they said they'd split the winnings 5050, Mary insists.
By their second night in the gambling mecca, all they had was at least $47 in losses at the quarter slots at Caesar's Palace. They were on their way out the door to a Vegas revue when Mary spotted the dollar slots. Carolyn said there wasn't enough time.
"Finally, I somehow managed to convince her I just had to play the machines," Mary says. "All I could think of was the dream."
Mary says she pointed out a slot machine that resembled the one in her vision. Because of Mary's arthritic hands, Carolyn dropped the dollar in -- and lost.
"See," Mary remembers Carolyn saying. "Nothing. I told you I don't like these dollar machines; they're too scary."
"One more time," Mary remembers begging.
Carolyn looked at her, smiled and said, "This one's for you, Puddin'."
The winnings: $1.9 million, in $95,000 annual checks for the next 20 years.
But Carolyn swears she was the only player and so she's the winner -- the only winner. Carolyn says Mary's whole side of the story must be a dream. A dream that's now Carolyn's legal nightmare. Two years after the trip, Mary sued for half the jackpot.
"I don't know why this is even a lawsuit," Carolyn says. "I'm so tired of it I could scream. It's all lies."
Carolyn sits in her red-walled living room surrounded by gold candles, gold candle holders, heavy gold frames, mirrors and sparkling sequined stockings on the mantle. With her winnings she has created a more tasteful Vegas.
"I like glitter," says Carolyn, 50. The former secretary has cinnamon lips, wide olive eyes, soft smooth skin and a cropped Angela Lansbury hairdo.
If you ask Mary, she and Carolyn have been close friends for 35 years. Carolyn says she and Mary were never friends. Mary was someone she knew and someone she invited to her wedding, but not someone she spent much time with.
Three years ago Carolyn's sister told her that Mary had just gotten out of a nursing home; sick and depressed and alone most of the time, Mary was dealing badly with the death of her sister.
Carolyn wanted to help her. She was still recovering from being struck by a car, an accident that had led to a large settlement for Carolyn. She knew what pain was, and she wanted to help Mary.
"It's horrible to be lonely," Carolyn says. "Pain is pain."
Carolyn started taking Mary to the doctor, to Saturday Mass and then to dinner at the Grotto and Carrabba's. They got to be good friends. Carolyn says she gave her grocery money, helped pay her rent and lent her money for family emergencies.
Being nice, Carolyn invited Mary along on one of her occasional trips to Vegas. Carolyn's friends told her she was crazy to want to schlepp Mary around Vegas, Carolyn says. She guesses that Mary weighs nearly 200 pounds and her wheelchair is another 60.
Recalling the big night in Vegas, Carolyn says Mary only wanted to watch her play the slot machines. Mary pointed out a machine, but Carolyn says she used a different one.
"Nobody picks the machine for me," she says adamantly.
On the second play Carolyn noticed three matching symbols in the slot's window. But nothing happened. She mashed on the buttons, but the machine was jammed.
Carolyn called an attendant over and told her the stupid thing was broken.
No, the attendant said, you won. Bells don't go off at Caesar's Palace.
"It was a miracle," Carolyn says. "God gave it to me."
Patrons swarmed around trying to touch Carolyn, hoping her luck would rub off. The general manager took Polaroid pictures and escorted her to a back office, where they watched a video surveillance tape to confirm that she was the one who had played the winner. Then they cut her a check for $95,000.
A limo took Carolyn and Mary back to the Mirage Hotel to pick up their bags and returned them to complimentary rooms at Caesar's.
For four more days Vegas was theirs. They shopped and celebrated. Mary won more than $400 on her own, and Carolyn gave her $1,500.
"We had a ball," Carolyn says. She has smiling pictures to prove it.
And she doesn't remember Mary saying anything about wanting to split the money.
When the slot rang up the jackpot, Mary was so excited people thought she was the one who had won. That irritated Carolyn, Mary recalls.
"We won together, didn't we?" Mary insists she told her friend. Her version is that they decided that Carolyn would give her monthly cash payments so she could keep getting her Social Security disability checks.
Gambling in the Roman Room a few days later, Carolyn turned to Mary and told her that she'd decided not to split the winnings, Mary says.
"It's just not enough money," Mary remembers Carolyn saying.
Mary didn't fight with Carolyn, because she didn't want to get stuck in Vegas in a wheelchair with no money. She thought if she kept her mouth shut everything would work out.
Back in Houston, Carolyn offered to buy Mary a mink coat, Mary says. Mary didn't want it; she wanted the money. Carolyn offered a big-screen TV. Mary didn't want that either; she wanted the money.
Carolyn left $500 in Mary's wallet one day.
"I guess she considered that the payoff," Mary says. "We won that money together. It's true that the money was hers that we went there on. But I didn't want anything that wasn't already mine."
Mary's nephew, Vito S. Iacono, called Carolyn and said Mary was going to sue for half the winnings, Carolyn says. Mary told her that he was just saying that, and that there was no reason for legal action.
Vito repeatedly called Carolyn to say he wanted her to buy him a car, Carolyn says, or else he was going to sue. Carolyn's own nephew didn't have a car, so she said no. He called more than 110 times on March 15, 1997. Carolyn called the police.
Carolyn stopped talking to Mary, got an unlisted phone number and moved.
A year ago, Carolyn says, Mary called Carolyn's sister and asked for $5,000 to save her condo again. Carolyn didn't trust her anymore. She told her sister to tell Mary that she didn't have the money and she hoped everything worked out well for her.
Time passed. Mary had four operations. On pain medication or in the hospital, she says, she never got a chance to straighten things out with Carolyn.
"And to be quite frank, I thought she would come around," Mary says. But she didn't, and Mary feared that it would soon be too late to file legal action for her share.
On the eve of the third $95,000 jackpot payment to Carolyn, Mary slapped her with the lawsuit.
In chasing the payoff money, Mary has thus far fared no better in court than she did in the casino.
Carolyn's lawyer, Barry Flynn, cites provisions that govern contracts in the Texas Business and Commerce Code. Promises or agreements that aren't going to be fulfilled in one year aren't legal if they're not in writing and signed by the person who has to pay up.
Since Carolyn is getting the money over a 20-year-period, the alleged oral contract would have had to be in writing -- and there is no written contract, Flynn says.
Mary's attorneys, Alden "Doug" Holford and Linda Cryer, challenge that position. Holford says Carolyn won the money within a year of the women's pact to split the proceeds. He says it doesn't matter legally that it will take 20 years to receive all the money.
A second defendant is simply mystified by it all. Mary has sued International Gaming Technology, the Nevada-based corporation that made the slot machine and doles out the money. Mary's lawyers want to bind the company to paying her if the suit is successful.
The company didn't need to be hauled into court, because the payout will go to whoever is the legally designated recipient, says the company's Austin-based lawyer, Michael Burnett. "IGT does not care who receives the money," Burnett says. "They don't care."
State District Judge Jane Bland nixed Mary's attempt to have the payouts diverted into a special holding account until the lawsuit is resolved.
Later, Bland's peer, Judge Pat Mizell, threw out the case, granting Flynn's request for summary judgment. An appeals court recently heard arguments from Mary's attorneys on reinstating the suit.
Mary says Cryer told her the case could go all the way to the supreme court.
"If Carolyn is smart, she would settle," says Mary's nephew, Vito. "Maybe it's ridiculous that we would try to win."
In a conference call, Mary interjects, "But it's the only fair thing."
Carolyn keeps the turquoise folder labeled "lawsuit" buried in the back of a storage closet behind clear cases of softball-size gold Christmas tree ornaments. She says she tries not to think about the case because it hurts her too much that someone she was kind to would take her to court.
"Sue me for being mean, but don't sue me for being nice," she says. "I would have shared with her all my life, she knows that."
But if Mary thinks she's getting any money now, she's still dreaming.
E-mail Wendy Grossman at email@example.com.