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A walk along Lake Michigan by an Indiana prison guard this past spring has raised intriguing legal questions over what obligations a person who offers a reward has to meet when an arguably deserving person asks for payment. Marlon Triplett was at Miller Beach in Gary, Indiana on March 17 when he spotted what turned out to be the body of Brian Welzien, a 21-year-old college student who had been missing since a night out celebrating with friends on New Year’s Eve. Welzien’s disappearance created an intense search by family and friends in the city’s Gold Coast area where he was last seen, as well as an offer of a $25,000 reward for information leading to his whereabouts. Now, Triplett wants to collect the reward money. But Stephany Welzien, Brian’s mother, does not want to pay, at least, not the entire amount originally floated. The suddenly bickering parties agree on at least one thing: Triplett did not know about the reward until after he found the body in an isolated area of the beach and phoned in a tip to police. And that lack of knowledge about the reward, legal scholars said Thursday, may create a weak case for Triplett to collect the money if he resorts to the legal system. Under contract law, there has to be some give-and-take between the parties involved, a promise in exchange for a service, said Richard O. Warner, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law who teaches a class in contracts. “If someone is unaware of the reward then it is not a response to the promise,” Warner said. “In this case the promise is not binding because they was no two-way consideration.” “Technically, a person has to know the offer was out there and performed as if under a contract,” added Richard W. Carter, general counsel for CrimeStoppers International. Mark A. Psimos, a Merrillville, Ind. attorney representing Triplett, declined to comment on that specific issue, but believed that his client is on sound legal footing nevertheless. “Once an offer is made it is in place until it’s withdrawn or retracted,” said Psimos, of the Mark A. Psimos Law Office. Stephany Welzien “hasn’t done that.” But, there are other complicating factors to consider, other lawyers warn. Michael D. Wexler, a Chicago attorney representing Welzien, said that monetary contributions for the reward came from all over the country and that there were people other than his client who distributed flyers with reward amounts on them. That has made it unclear just who was offering the reward and where the money was coming from – and whether Welzien has to pay anybody at all, said Wexler, of Seyfarth, Shaw, Fairweather & Geraldson. “Her original intent was to have a small reward for the return of her son,” Wexler conceded. “What if any obligation she has at this point, she may not have one.” In fact, Triplett was paid $2,500 by Stephany Welzien back in May, but Psimos attributed the lower amount to a missing zero in a letter written to Welzien by the attorney who had previously represented Triplett. But both Wexler and Psimos said that they still hoped the disagreement could be worked out without having to go to court. CrimeStoppers International, based in Arlington, Texas, is one organization familiar with the pitfalls of offering rewards for information leading to the solving of crimes and apprehension of criminals. The organization has never had a problem with non-payment of a reward, except for when it was a supplemental reward offered by another party, general counsel Carter said. “We strongly recommend that a reward not be more than $1,000, which is what we’ve done since 1976,” said Carter, a retired municipal court judge in Arlington, Texas. “Our example has found that there is no case that can’t be solved for $1,000.” But to avoid this problem Carter offered some very simple advice, “People shouldn’t make offers they can’t keep.” Still, an option possibly open to Triplett is the legal concept of unjust enrichment, said Chicago-Kent’s Warner. Because Triplett had conferred a benefit for Welzien’s family – finding his body – then the value of that benefit that had been decided upon- the $25,000 – should be given to him, Warner said. “He could say ‘It’s unjust for you to have knowledge of the body and keep the $25,000, I deserve some of that money’,” Warner added. But The John Marshall Law School Professor Michael Polelle said he was “skeptical” that an unjust enrichment argument would work in this case because Stephany Welzien did not use anything of Triplett’s for her benefit. “The benefit could be the satisfaction that she has her son back,” Polelle said. “He uses the contract price to set the value. It’s a long shot but it will only apply if there was no contract.” There is money remaining from the donations given when Welzien was missing and his mother has slated it to be used for a scholarship in Brian’s name, Wexler said.

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