How's this as a scenario for one of those warm and fuzzy soft-drink commercials? A young woman finds a bottle of Pepsi in the health food store where she works the evening shift. When none of her coworkers claims it, she twists off the bottle cap, sees some fine print and shows it to a friend. "I said, 'Does this say what I think it says?' " recalls Sindy Allen, 18, who works at the Wild Oats store in Las Vegas. "She took it out of my hand and said, 'This says you've won a million dollars.' I said, 'That's what I thought it said,' and I grabbed it back."

Great stuff, right? Of course, real life is seldom as simple as it's depicted in commercials. And that's exactly what Sindy Allen, who on March 17 did in fact open a Pepsi-Cola bottle worth a million dollars, would soon find out.

The next day, Judy Richardson, 45, who works the morning shift at Wild Oats, heard about Allen's lucky find. She realized the Pepsi bottle was the very one she had bought at a store next door, forgot to drink and left on a shelf behind the counter a day earlier. She then confronted Allen, with whom she had always been friendly, but got nowhere. "She said, 'It's mine; I found it; I'm not sharing it; I'm keeping it,' " says Richardson. "It's just not right. I thought her conscience would get to her, but it hasn't." Meanwhile the people at Pepsi, who had hoped to celebrate the soft drink's 100th anniversary with its Pepsi-Cola Globe Buck Contest, have decided to back slowly away from the dispute while making no sudden moves. "It's up to them to figure out who the true winner is," says Pepsi spokesman Jon Harris. "But once they do, we'll be giving away a million bucks." Enter the lawyers. Richardson filed suit, asking a Nevada court to determine who owns the bottle cap. "My analogy is to a communal refrigerator at the workplace," says Rob Goldstein, Richardson's attorney. "You store your lunch in it, but does that give your coworker the right to open your lunch bag? You still have an expectation of ownership and privacy." Counters Allen's lawyer Benson Lee: "If you leave anything, there's a presumption you don't want it."

The staff at Wild Oats, for the most part, has sided with Richardson. "Sindy's a good person, but I think she has convinced herself that what she did isn't wrong," said Daisy Garcia, the manager on duty when Allen found the bottle. "If it was up to me, she should just split it with Judy."

In a better world, this might be where the music soars, the women split the dough, and happily we fade to black. But this is real life, remember. On the advice of her lawyer, Allen did offer to split the winnings with Richardson. But Richardson, who has no receipt and only the testimony of three friends to prove she bought the Pepsi, rejected the offer. "It's the principle," she explains. "I'm the one who bought the bottle, and I know it was meant for me.

That is a once-in-a-lifetime thing that just doesn't happen to everybody." Incensed, Richardson filed court papers suggesting her Pepsi bottle was stolen. Replies Allen indignantly: "I am not a thief! I didn't steal that bottle. It's my money. I got it fair and square."

Both women have continued to work at Wild Oats, though on different shifts. "I can't afford to quit right now," says Allen, a first-year theater major at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. She envisions using the winnings—about $3,000 a month, after taxes, for 20 years—to go on a cruise and shopping spree, while Richardson, the married mother of two, sees a way to send her younger child to private school. "I would still have to work," she says, "but it would really make my life easier."

For now, there are no winnings, only the prospect of a nasty trial. "I feel sorry for her," says Richardson of her rival. "When you do something that's not quite right, you have a hard time living with yourself and looking in the mirror every day."

Allen, though, says her reflection is just fine and dandy: "I'm excited. It feels really good to win something." Over at Wild Oats, staffers just shake their heads. "It's like everybody's been saying," Garcia says with a shrug. "It's going to end up with most of the lawyers getting most of the money."

Feeling warm and fuzzy yet?

Alex Tresniowski
Melissa Schorr in Las Vegas

  • Contributors:
  • Melissa Schorr.