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.

If a customer complained--and many did, say former employees--Family Archive had a ready reply: We apologize for the unintentional mistake, and we'll be happy to refund you some money for your troubles.

"I talked to many an old lady in Kansas or someplace who was so upset that she hadn't gotten a book, and her checking account had been drawn upon," says former Family Archive editor Janet Wilson. "At least I can say I was honest with my customers and tried to help them."

Kathy Wade, one of the five investors, says Weiner told her that customers wouldn't be billed until after they received their books.

"He said it in the context of, 'We need this amount of start-up cash because we don't charge for books until we mail them,'" Wade says. "There are some things that really bother me about this. One is, I loaned money to a guy I really trusted, and he was doing this? Two, if the employees felt so uncomfortable with what they were being told to do, why didn't someone tell me or an authority, or maybe find another job?"

Though the telemarketers were selling thousands of books, there were major woes inside Family Archive from the start.

"Shelly did not know how to factor in the human element," says Debbie Bauer, who worked at both SFT and Family Archive. "He assumed that a business works like a computer--input, output. But we were winging it, taking people's money when we weren't supposed [to] to stay above water, whipping things together, on the edge of chaos."

To firm telemarketer Roger Martin, that description sounds hauntingly like accounts he's read of life under Charlie Keating.

"Sometimes, you don't know when you're in the middle of something exactly what's going on," Martin says. "That's what people said at the end of Keating, and that's what I'm saying now."

It wasn't for lack of trying that Weiner's dream went tumbling. An insomniac, he routinely would be first at the office and among the last to leave.

Around the time of his "I am what I am" meeting, Shelly Weiner asked investor Don Loback for more money.

"We periodically had been getting some financial reports," Loback says, "though now I don't know how accurate and truthful they were. The business apparently never did well from day one. Not too long before Shelly decided to do himself in, he contacted some of the investors trying to raise some more money. I told him no way."

Two days before he shot himself, Weiner had a pleasant conversation with Denise Nojaim, an editor with Family Archive for about a year.

"We talked about the problems in shipping and other things, and it was really decent," Nojaim recalls. "I remember asking him, 'What are you going to do about having no new covers for the books?' That was one of the problems. Shelly usually had an answer, whether it panned out or not. But this time, he looked at me and said, 'I don't know.'"

Shelly Weiner's will, which recently was submitted to a county court for probate, left his estate to his wife and children. It's uncertain at present how much money that will mean.

Some Family Archive employees have landed on their feet with new jobs. Others remain on unemployment and food stamps, embittered by their current fates, but forced by necessity to move on with their lives.

Yet others continue to vent their frustrations verbally against the investors, whom they see as immoral fat cats.

"I think the investors had an obligation to have a better idea of what was going on," says Roger Martin. "It would be chump change for them to pay us our money--maybe a business tax deduction. But there's no way in hell they'll do it."

Replies Kathy Wade, who was Shelly Weiner's closest friend among the investors: "I feel terrible about someone who worked and didn't get paid, but do the employees of America West who took a pay cut think the shareholders ought to be subsidizing them? We were a small group of stockholders, so I guess our situation is looked at differently. I gave the guy a loan--that basically was it. I just didn't know how far over his head he was."

Wade briefly considers a question about what she will do in the future if a friend asks her to invest in a new business.

"I'd tell them, 'I don't want you to end up dead in a toy store parking lot,'" she says. "'I'm not gonna do anything for you.'

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