Welcome to the first edition of #StoryTimeWithMark. Have I ever told you about the time I was involved in a massive ticket scam for the 2005 Michigan Ohio State game? This story is about the kindness of strangers, the strength of faith as the world comes crumbling down around those involved, and the putting of the pieces back together. The backdrop for this story is the best rivalry in all of sports. The Game. Michigan vs Ohio State.
My wife Rebecca and I found out she was pregnant with our son in October of that year. We’d been married just over a year and a half. Out of the kindness of her heart, my wife went on eBay and purchased two tickets to The Game. She purchased the tickets to The Game in late October and had intended on surprising me. The plan was to present the tickets to me in an envelope with the words written on the card “Let’s take our baby to their first Michigan game.” I had never been to a Michigan game before and attending The Game was high on my list.
Weeks went by as my wife waited patiently for the tickets. One week turned to three and suddenly, The Game was two weeks away and we didn’t have our tickets. She had purchased them off of eBay from a vendor with a near 100 percent satisfaction rate who’d been rated over 1000 times by satisfied customers who’d bought tickets to The Game, the Daytona 500 and various other NFL games.
The vendor was located in Fostoria, Ohio. She tried sending messages to the seller and to PayPal regarding the lack of tickets. As The Game drew near, she was forced to tell me her plan to surprise me. She was upset and rightfully so. The gift was ruined, but also it looked like we were going to be out about $600. The closer The Game drew, the more it deteriorated. Suddenly, the seller’s eBay feed was flooded with complaints.
We weren’t the only ones suffering from this. More than 200 people had purchased tickets to The Game ranging from Alabama, California and New York. All of them were suddenly flooding the seller, who I later learned was named Mark West, with messages and emails demanding their money back or the tickets. Things took a turn for the bizarre on Tuesday, November 15.
On Monday November 14, 2005 Alyssa Miller began writing a letter to the editor defending her stepfather. Mark West had been married to her mom for approximately three years, and while he may have seemed “quirky” at times to her he was a good guy who seemed to be normal and caring.
That Sunday, the Fostoria Review Times had published an article about West claiming he hadn’t fulfilled the order for Michigan Ohio State tickets for more than 200 people. West and his wife Teresa, Miller’s mother, were in Pittsburgh watching the Steelers take on the Cleveland Browns.
Miller had seen the article and had chosen not to call her mother for fear that it would upset the two and ruin their trip. She would wait until they arrived back home before making contact with her, and she was glad she did considering what happened over the next two days.
When Miller’s mother arrived home with Mark, she saw the article and asked him about it. He brushed it off and said it was a large misunderstanding. He would have the tickets soon and he would send them out.
There was a knock on the door. One of the men who had purchased the tickets was there and he was angry. West refunded his money to him on the spot and apologized. The man left. Minutes later, a television station from Toledo showed up and interviewed West. He told the same story. He would send the tickets tomorrow and it was a huge misunderstanding.
That Tuesday, Teresa went to work business as usual assuming West would take care of the ticket fiasco that day. The previous evenings events were merely an outlier. Things would go back to normal soon. It was all just a misunderstanding. That same morning, Miller dropped off the letter to the Review Times and headed over to the apartment her mother shared with West to see if Mark needed any help sending out the tickets.
“He thanked me for coming but said he didn’t need any help. He seemed in good spirits and said to me it was a huge misunderstanding,” Miller said.
That same Tuesday morning, I had done research on Mark West and was given the phone number he had listed through eBay and PayPal support. I must have called over 50 times and each time the phone gave me a busy signal. Each time I called I was met with a fresh wave of frustration.
I’m sure I hadn’t been the only one who had not received their tickets. I finally gave up and began my work as an internet tough guy. I started looking into anything I could find about Mark West. After reading the Fostoria Times-Review, I learned that a couple hundred people were in the exact same boat.
They had been stiffed out of their tickets to The Game. Hope began to dwindle. I picked up the phone one last time and pressed send. Finally, it began ringing. On the other end of the phone, a very weary voice picked up.
“Hello?” The man said.
“Hi, I’m looking for Mark West.”
“That’s me? You calling about the tickets.”
“Yes, it’s pretty close to the game. What happened? Can I get my money back?”
That was met with a deep sigh.
“Look, I’m sorry man. I’ve been in Daytona Beach for about a week. My mother lives down there and she’s very ill. I’m overnighting your tickets today. You’ll have them by Wednesday. I’m sorry for the inconvenience.”
At this point, I felt terrible for the guy. He seemed in over his head and to top it all off his mother was very ill. I told him I understood and that I hoped she was better. He thanked me and we hung up. I was optimistic based on our conversation that I would receive the tickets the following day. The tickets never arrived.
When Miller was at West’s apartment had a duffel bag near the door and a lot of his belongings on the table, Miller noted. He told her he had to run a few errands that morning and would be sending off the tickets. Miller later saw West’s car at his bank. That was the last time anyone saw Mark West for more than three months. He vanished.
That night, Teresa came home from work to find a threatening note taped to the front door with a bomb threat attached. The apartment was empty inside, but it wasn’t quiet. The phone rang incessantly. Calls from all over the country.
Teresa first tried calling Mark, but he wouldn’t answer the phone. It went straight to voicemail. She called her daughter to help her with the phone calls. Every time they answered the phone they were met with angrier people.
“The calls were not stop,” Miller said. “Someone had left a threatening note on the door. A bomb threat. It was scary. At that moment, we hadn’t known he had left we just knew we couldn’t find him. He didn’t come home that evening. We were really scared. After we received the threat we were afraid someone had done something to him or that he had done something to himself.”
They tried to remain polite and apologetic but it was getting them nowhere. The media began to show up then. At that point, Miller decided it was time to cut bait. She asked her mother to gather her belongings and come back to her house. At least there the phone would stop ringing. Little did Teresa West know, that would be one of the last times she would reside in that apartment. No tickets were shipped out that day. The only thing that left Fostoria, Ohio was Mark West.
Wednesday, November 16, Teresa went down to the police station and filed a missing person’s report on West. The media fervor surrounding her and her family rose up farther. They began showing up at her work. That evening, Teresa had to sneak out of the back door and into the back of an unknown car to be escorted back to Miller’s home. Then, soon after, they found out where Miller and her family lived as well. It was a very stressful time for Miller and her mother, but they had an amazing community of support around them.
“We have a very strong church family. That was number one for us. They were like rocks of support for us. It was a blessing. I never felt that overwhelmed because of all the support around us. There were so many unknowns. We didn’t know what happened to Mark. We didn’t know what was going to happen to mom. Everything was uncertain. We didn’t know if she was going to be implicated by association.”
The letter to the editor Miller had originally written was never published at her request. She went to the paper and explained they didn’t know what was going on and please don’t print the letter. She wrote a new letter that was eventually published in the Review Times asking them to respect her mother’s privacy.
Back at her home, things were tense but at least the calls had stopped. Well, almost all the calls.
Back in Florida, I was reading the story about Mark West on the Fostoria Review-Times website when something caught my eye. There was a comment at the bottom of the story from a woman named Alyssa Miller. In it, she defended her mother for being lumped in with West’s actions. She asked for patience from those involved and hoped that the situation would be resolved quickly.
From reading her comments, I thought it might be a good idea to try to locate her number for some clarity on the situation. I was angry and disappointed, as I’m sure many others were in this situation. I was able to locate her home number. Before I dialed, my wife caught my attention. She knows me better than anyone. In that moment before I called, angrily, she calmed me down.
My wife is the kindest person I know. She is far more kind than I am. I was angry about the tickets but my wife had a reason to be furious. Still, she was the calming voice throughout. “Be nice. Just call and explain the situation. But above all, be nice. They didn’t do anything to you. You’re calling them out of the blue. Do not be mean.”
As difficult as it was to admit, she was right. I calmly dialed the number and took a deep breath. The phone rang a few times before Miller picked up.
“Hi, my name is Mark. I’m looking for Mark West. I purchased tickets from him off of eBay. I’m not looking to cause any trouble. I had a hard enough time randomly calling a stranger about this issue. We’re just trying to find out if we’re going to get our tickets or do we need to cancel our plans.”
Miller said we were the first people to call that were actually nice about the whole situation. Everyone else who had called had the reaction I had wanted to have. Luckily, I had my wife as a calming force and I was respectful and nice. Miller put her mother on the phone. She began apologizing profusely. I could tell from that moment that they were not the ones to blame for this issue.
West had acted alone, kept his family in the dark, and abandoned them when they needed him to come through for them. I felt guilty for calling and upset that we were in this situation. Unfortunately, they did not have an answer for us. West was in the wind. We said our goodbyes and hung up the phone. It was time to cancel the trip. My wife left the room to call and cancel our reservation.
My phone began ringing moment later. It was Alyssa Miller. I answered. Moments later I interrupted my wife.
“Hang up the phone. We’re going to the game.”
Small towns can be amazing and terrible at the same time. Everyone knows your business and when something of any notoriety happens it amplifies it greater based on the invasiveness of that small-town environment. But in small towns people also have your back when you’re down and out.
More than 100 people from all over the country had angrily called the Miller family demanding their money back in a threatening manner. Only one phone call they received was met with a warm understanding response. I have my wife to thank for that. The Miller’s had a family friend who had two tickets to the Ohio State vs. Michigan game. When they learned about what had unfolded with West, they came to Miller’s house and gave their tickets to the game to them for free.
They wanted to help in any way that they could, and if one family could benefit from this terrible situation they wanted to help. When we called the Millers, and spoke with kindness and respect, they decided we were the ones who deserved the tickets. But it was Thursday and the game was in two days.
There wasn’t enough time to ship them. We agreed to meet Alyssa and her family in Bowling Green, Ohio right outside of Bowling Green State University. It was a 16-hour drive. We packed our bags as fast as we could and loaded up into our car to begin our drive into uncertain waters towards perfect strangers who would give us tickets to The Game.
Fricker's - Bowling Green, Ohio
36 hours after our initial conversation, on a cold and rainy November afternoon, we pulled into the parking lot of a restaurant called Fricker’s and met Alyssa Miller, her husband and her young son. We talked for about 20 minutes about how this whole thing unfolded. We thanked them profusely for their generosity despite their incredible struggle. I held the two tickets like I had just received entry into Wonka’s Chocolate factory. My wife, struggling with morning sickness from the pregnancy, smiled warmly. We were going to The Game.
The next day we packed into The Big House with more than 110,000 fans and watched Ohio State overcome a 9-point deficit in the final six minutes to defeat Michigan 25-21. It was crushing, but it would have been much worse from our couch at our college apartment thinking about what could have been. This is where our part of the story ends, but it was just the beginning for Miller and her family. Where was Mark West?
The House of Cards
“You really realize how little you know about somebody.” Miller said. “That’s the biggest thing. He seemed very nice. But everything he told us and her we found out was not true.”
Teresa had some serious worries. She didn’t want to be implicated in something she had no involvement in. She had nothing together financially with Mark West. They had married way after they were both established. They did not share bank accounts nor did they know either of their financial situations. Mark always paid the rent on time and always seemed to have extra cash and extra tickets to concerts and sporting events.
But now, Mark West was staring down multiple federal offenses. Technically, because West was supposed to deliver the tickets through the mail he had committed mail fraud. Suddenly, the FBI, the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigations (BCI) and the Secret Service were in contact with Teresa. It was time to get a lawyer.
“We didn’t know what was going to happen to mom. The FBI and the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation was investigating. I mean, at this point it was a federal offense. Mark had committed mail fraud because he had promised to deliver the tickets through the mail. He was in very serious trouble.” Miller said.
When they finally talked to BCI, they had their attorney present and were met by members of the Secret Service. She presented all of the bank statements she could find to prove that her and West’s finances were completely separate. Miller’s mother was totally cleared.
What Teresa learned after speaking with the BCI was far more troubling than anything that had happened up to this point. She learned that her husband had built a life with her on a foundation of lies. For instance, when they had started dating, West had stated he had ALS. After investigating West further, they found out that was a lie.
Additionally, when they began dating, West told Teresa that his second wife had died. This, too, turned out to be a lie. The BCI interviewed her, alive and well, while trying to obtain information about where West could possibly be located. Her mother was devastated. She had felt duped by someone she’d loved. And it only got worse from there.
“Mom knew he had been in jail previously, because West had told her his brother had been murdered and he assaulted the man who murdered his brother.” The truth was that, according to court records, authorities in Wheeling, West Virginia arrested West for attempted armed robbery and drug possession in the early 1970's.
West was convicted across the Ohio River in Belmont County, Ohio for possession of marijuana and drunk driving in 1973. He’d been arrested again in 1987, when he confessed and pleaded guilty to armed robbery at an Amoco gas station along I-75 in Bowling Green. According to documents, court records show a fresh start in Toledo went sour a week after West got fired from his job, when he pulled a knife on a store clerk and stole more than $200 cash. West served a three-year prison sentence for that conviction.
At this point, Miller and her mother began investigating things on their own. West had told Teresa he worked a nine-to-five job. When they called the business where he said he’d been working, they claimed to have never heard of him. That was the final straw. Teresa began divorce proceedings.
“I handled the lies that Mark told in disbelief. I had to remind myself that he was at fault and not me. I felt so betrayed and so gullible." Teresa said.
That December, Alyssa and her mother began the process of moving her mother in to her home permanently. She had filed for divorce, but West had paid most of the bills on the apartment. She had her mother move into her fully functional home, which was an adjustment.
During this time, though, she felt that her relationship with her mother grew to a level it had never been before. They became very close. Teresa was forced to sell or get rid of about 90 percent of her belongings. The life she had known was gone, but it was fortunate that it hadn’t blown up later in a much worse situation. Anything they found that could help the FBI and BCI find and apprehend West they gave to the BCI.
ESPN, The Associated Press and CNN came calling. Those who had been scammed began filing complaints against Teresa, considering she was the only one left in town. She denied all interview requests.
“Everything was very scary when it first happened. I was scared, confused and betrayed. It was such a confusing time.” Teresa said. “Faith and family helped me get through the difficult days. I could not have handled any of it without them. I handled the media only because I felt protected by many. The prosecuting attorney, my lawyer, BCI, my family, and many others tried to keep me out of the spotlight. When somebody wants a story, they'll do anything to get it.”
Teresa wanted to move on with her life, which had come apart in the span of three weeks. They went through their most difficult times together. They gave all the statements to Rex Russell, who was the lead investigator for the BCI. They had ascertained that West could have been in Florida. They wanted her help to try to pin him down.
West and Teresa had a mutual friend named Melissa. They were not close, but acquainted. West had made contact with Melissa after he had disappeared. He gave her a phone number which in turn she gave to (mom). West made claims that he still loved her and still wanted to be with her. He was sorry for what he had put them through.” Miller said.
Miller was fully aware of the pathological nature of West’s lies. She turned the phone number over to Russell and it because one of the first steps in locating West.
They wanted to set up a sort of sting operation. The BCI had considered the idea of arranging a meeting between West and Teresa where he would be apprehended. Fortunately for all involved, West was apprehended before that option was on the table.
On January 14, 2006 Mark West was arrested in a bar in Daytona Beach, Florida. It was the same place he had told me he was visiting his sick mother, which was a lie. He had been trying to sell tickets to the Daytona 500, which he had done in the past on eBay. He paid for everything in cash and had done a good job of not leaving too much of a paper trail. He was extradited back to Ohio to await trial.
His bail was set at $200,000. Because he had disappeared before, the judge considered him a flight risk, to which West felt was “unconstitutional” according to an article published on WTOL in 2006.
"I've got a bond that murderers have, and I didn't kill anybody," said West in the article.
According to the Toledo Blade, West testified for five hours about the business he started in late 2002 selling tickets on eBay. He said it was his practice to sell tickets he did not have in hand well in advance of sporting events, then buy tickets to fill those orders from students, alumni, season ticketholders, ticket brokers, and even through eBay.
The trail was delayed until the summer and every time he made the news the media came back around. Again, Teresa kept most of the media at by denying all interviews. During the trial, she took the stand briefly to discuss the role she didn’t play in the scam. The rest of the time was spent in the back room watching the trial unfold.
West said he never intended to defraud anyone, but admitted he was unable to deliver the tickets he’d sold to the Ohio State-Michigan game on Nov. 19, 2005, because of inflated ticket prices and because he’d taken an $85,000 loss on tickets he’d sold for the Buckeyes game with Texas on Sept. 10, 2005. After taking such a large loss, he was not able to fulfill the ticket orders despite continuing to post the tickets on eBay.
Teresa never spoke to Mark West again. The day he fled was the last time she spoke with him. Years later, told her he was sorry. Both Teresa and the Miller family have forgiven him. Eleven years later, Teresa still lives with Miller and her family.
It took the jury only two hours to come up with a guilty verdict. They sentenced Mark West to 36 months in jail with 11 months counted towards time served. He was ordered to repay over $160,000. PayPal refunded our money as well. All parties who bought tickets were refunded up to $1000.
Ultimately, the choices West made before and during the scandal caused a fork in the road for all involved. It changed lives irrevocably sending all parties in directions they had never intended. But in the end, life went on and improved for Teresa, Alyssa Miller and the rest of her family. In the end it taught us, no matter what, kindness trumps all, faith is paramount, and forgiveness is freedom. The end.
Mark West did not respond to any requests made to be interviewed.