Hard luck results in bittersweet prize

Winner: Moved by her story, Howard Stern gave Tracy Whitehead a chance to win big in Las Vegas. She did.

January 31, 2001|By Ann LoLordo, Linell Smith and Patricia Meisol | Ann LoLordo, Linell Smith and Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

A year ago, Tracy Whitehead was planning how to leave her abusive relationship with Joseph Palczynski, a decision that triggered her abduction, the deaths of four bystanders and the terrorizing of her family.

Yesterday she was contemplating how to spend the money she won after "shock jock" Howard Stern was moved by her horrifying story.

Stern flew the Baltimore County woman to Las Vegas as the winner of a hard luck contest he advertised on radio. And on Sunday night, in a Stern-arranged bet, Whitehead won $100,000 in one hand at blackjack.

"She was thrilled," said Amy Jones, marketing coordinator for the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. "She jumped up, screamed, hugged everybody, hugged Howard Stern."

It was also her 23rd birthday.

Whitehead was one of thousands of listeners who sent stories detailing their hardships to Stern, said Matt Wilson, a friend who accompanied her to Vegas. Wilson, 31, helped her write the letter describing what she had endured.

Last March, after Whitehead left Palczynski, he kidnapped and raped her at gunpoint and killed three people who tried to help her that night. He also shot and killed a fourth victim the next day. After Whitehead escaped him, Palczynski went after her family. He broke into an apartment where Whitehead's mother lived with her boyfriend and his son, holding them hostage. Police killed Palczynski when officers stormed the apartment four days later. Whitehead's family was unharmed.

Whitehead and Wilson returned Monday night to Baltimore. Wilson said the young woman was considering several investments and "doing something for the people affected" by Palczynzki's murderous rampage. Whitehead could not be reached for comment.

Her chance to gamble was part of Stern's shtick in bringing his radio show to Vegas. Stern initially planned to bet $1 million in a game of black jack and give his winnings to a person he deemed to have the worthiest hard luck story.

But in the end, after weeks of hype, the bet stood at $100,000, staked by GoldenPalace.com, an online gambling casino.

"I couldn't believe she won," said her mother, Lynn Whitehead, who heard the radio broadcast of Stern's show Monday morning. "I hope she gets her life together. She's got a chance now."

Eric Arnold, the marketing director of the hotel casino, said Whitehead was flown to Vegas for the weekend at the expense of the Stern show; the hotel paid for her accommodations. Arnold said he had tried for a year to get Stern to broadcast a show from the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. Stern could not be reached for comment.

His show - broadcast from the hotel's Viva Las Vegas Lounge - drew thousands to the casino, Arnold said. Stern's other guests included David Brenner, Dennis Rodman and Reggie Jackson.

Stern hand-picked the blackjack dealer against whom Whitehead played - a stunning brunette named Olivia, Arnold said. Whitehead, in black stretch-type pants and a black and silver shirt, her brown hair in a ponytail, sat at the blackjack table with Stern two seats away.

Whitehead was dealt a 9-card and a 10, Arnold said. She put down a $100,000 stack of brown chips - "chocolates" in casino parlance. The house drew a five, a seven and a six, for a total of 18.

"The place went crazy," Arnold said. "She cried."

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