OLYMPIA, WA: It's not every day that a man dressed in drag tries to steal $93 million.
But that's the crisis the Washington Lottery faced recently when Hillary Walls, a con artist with a history of passing himself off as a woman to perpetrate crimes, claimed to be the winner. The real winners were retired couple Richard and Pat Warren.
In September, Washington became the only state West of the Mississippi River to join the Mega Millions multistate game. Two months later, the state not only had its first Mega Millions winner, but the $93 million was three times larger than any other lottery jackpot in state history.
"The drawing was on a Friday, so we knew Saturday morning the winner was from Washington," said Rhett Usry, an account executive with Publicis Dialog's Seattle office, which has worked with the lottery for two years.
"TV stations started calling us. We told them that there was a winner from Washington, but we wouldn't know more until after the weekend, when the lottery's offices opened."
Walls had tried to call the lottery offices, and then began calling TV stations saying he had won. One station even reported that Walls was the winner, without the lottery's confirmation.
"We went on the assumption that Hillary was the winner," said Hannah Coan, senior principal at Publicis. "There was no reason to think he wasn't."
Even so, Publicis continued to tell the media that while there was a winner, the lottery had not confirmed who the winner was.
"It's rare to have a winner call the media," added Maureen Greeley, the lottery's communications director. "That was a good clue something was unusual. That's why we wanted to maintain a clear message."
But when Walls appeared on TV, his story fell apart. A local sheriff's department recognized Walls as a cross-dressing con artist. The lottery learned of this the same time the Warrens' attorney called to say they were the real winners.
"We had called a press conference, and much of the media was going to be there," said Coan. "We planned various scenarios for whatever happened."
In the end, Walls never made it to the press conference. He was arrested on his way there.
Publicis and the lottery started the press conference with the Warrens' story so they could have their moment, and not be part of the affair involving the cross-dressing culprit.
"From the very start, we had to be sure of our message," said Greeley.
"We wanted to be fair and clear. We wanted to keep the media focused on the Warrens."
But Greeley and Coan admitted the involvement of a man in drag made the story a little more interesting for the media.
"In some ways, Hillary made for a great story," said Coan. "And when the stories ran, the lottery came out clean. None of the stories were negative."