DEATH OF A WHIZ KID

BY AGE 30, SHELDON WEINER WAS ONE OF CHARLIE KEATING'S TOP LIEUTENANTS. TEN YEARS LATER, HE COMMITTED SUICIDE IN A TOY STORE PARKING LOT.

Kaplan and Weiner went into business together in 1989. According to papers filed at Maricopa County Superior Court, Weiner invested at least $250,000 in the pair's new company, South Euclid Investments.

In February 1992, the Weiner-Kaplan team incorporated Scottsdale Family Treasures, which would become the model for Family Archive Press. Weiner was SFT's president and treasurer; Kaplan was its vice president and secretary.

SFT was to be a high-powered combination of publishing and telemarketing: The idea was to convince folks to purchase a book that would detail their family's history--with the bulk of the information provided by that family in a questionnaire.

By late 1992, however, the Weiner-Kaplan marriage was foundering. SFT had financial troubles from the start, reports filed with Arizona Corporation Commission indicate. Court files also show the firm didn't submit taxes for most of 1993 until authorities filed papers demanding payment.

On January 6, 1994, Weiner quit SFT. The operation closed within a month. Litigation involving the two men was pending when Weiner committed suicide. Kaplan, who represented himself in many of those legal proceedings, could not be contacted for comment.

Scottsdale Family Treasures had been a loser, but Weiner remained undaunted. He told everyone that Marc Kaplan, not the concept itself, was the sole reason things had gone south.

But Weiner's personal reserves had gone the way of Keating's Lincoln Savings--down the tubes. In early 1994, he needed to sell deep pockets on the genealogy project's bona fides if he were to get his fresh start.

Among those Weiner had befriended in the early 1980s was Kathy Wade, one of Continental Homes' two chief executives. County records show Wade and her husband, Bob, bought rental properties with the Weiners.

Weiner approached Wade, her partner at Continental Homes--Don Loback--and three others who would become the financial backbone of what would be known as Family Archive Press. If they provided seed money, he told them, they'd surely recoup their investments and more in a reasonable period.

Family Archive would lease its computers and other equipment from a company recently formed by would-be investors Gary Hall, Larry Nelson and August Rantz III.

The quintet considered Weiner a careful man not prone to hyperbole. They soon agreed to fund an LLC in which they'd be the "partners" and Weiner its "manager."

None of the investors contacted by New Times would reveal how much he funneled to Weiner. But four sources close to the investors estimate the figure at a minimum of $500,000.

"Shelly came to me with an idea," says Don Loback. "I listened because I'd known him for years. I based my decision on helping a friend get something going, not based in pity but on what I hoped was a prudent investment. I obviously wish I'd never lent him a cent. When all is said and done, I think I'm going to be one of the largest creditors."

Family Archive Press opened for business in March 1994, on North 16th Street near Thomas Road. Weiner installed one of his brothers, Dennis, as chief operating officer. Weiner's wife, Ellen, was to be managing editor. By the terms of the LLC agreement, Shelly Weiner was responsible for the whole show.

In a nutshell, here's how Family Archive was supposed to make money.
The firm targeted possible sales candidates through a computer-generated mailing list. It mailed lengthy "questionnaires" to those individuals, assuring them repeatedly that a response would cost them nothing.

Anyone who responded--and thousands did each month--would be handed over to the telemarketers for the hard sell. Their job was to convince people to buy "personally crafted" genealogy books--each of which cost $69.95.

"You and your family have been selected to be featured in a Who's Who publication," a Family Archive script started. "This happens to but a very few people once in a lifetime. . . . We have put a lot of time and effort into this book and we know you will consider it a family treasure and pass it down from one generation to the next. WHEN YOU SEE THE OUTSTANDING DETAIL AND QUALITY OF THE BOOK, YOU WILL UNDERSTAND HOW REASONABLE THE PRICE IS! Of course, our 30-day review period allows you to make that decision for yourself."

The script then allowed for a "special response" to inevitable naysayers.
"It is important you understand WE ARE NOT ASKING FOR ANY MONEY TODAY. NOT ONE PENNY! The only reason for my call today is to see if you have an interest in viewing our book. . . . You should not even receive a billing statement until after you receive the book. We would never expect you to buy anything sight unseen. . . . (First name), we couldn't be more fair than that, could we?"

Some well-known figures bought books, including onetime presidential candidate George McGovern. But the bulk of the customers who bit were older folks from small towns around the nation--especially in the Deep South and Midwest--say several people who worked at Family Archive Press.

Soon after the place opened--no one can say exactly when--Shelly Weiner added a new facet to his operation: He told his telemarketers to lie to customers about the "no money down" billing process.

Ex-Family Archive employees say Weiner and other higher-ups instructed them to charge a customer's credit card and automatic debit billings immediately--not, as promised, upon a customer's acceptance of a book.

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