By David Grogan and Jane Sanderson
Updated October 17, 1988 12:00 PM

When they checked into Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on Aug. 5, 1987, the most excitement Kirk Erickson and his family anticipated was seeing the Beach Boys perform that night. The Ericksons agreed to split their take at the slot machines, but didn’t really expect to win much. They certainly didn’t expect to win a million dollars. And they certainly didn’t imagine they would win a million dollars only to have the casino refuse to pay them. But they did, and it did. “Things haven’t been the same since,” says Kirk’s father, Russell (“Rusty”) Erickson, who is now embroiled in a costly legal battle against Caesars and the state of Nevada.

Rusty, a building contractor from Hot Springs, Ark., his wife, Beth, and son Kirk were agog at the sight of the Million Dollar Baby Slots, a carousel of eight one-armed bandits surrounding a glass case filled with $1 million in $100 bills. “We eyed that million dollars like kids at a carnival,” Rusty says. Fronted $50 by his parents, Kirk, an Arkansas State University communications student who was then 19, bought some $1 tokens and began feeding one of the $3 machines. Then, after he’d watched his fortunes rise and fall by a few dollars during 45 minutes of play, the machine silently lit up with a message to summon an attendant.

Kirk pushed the call button more than 20 times but no one appeared, so he asked his father to watch the machine so he could look for help. While Kirk was away, two casino employees approached Rusty. “Hey, that’s the mil, that’s the whole thing,” said one. The other chimed in, “Man, I didn’t think it would happen on my shift. Congratulations, you’re a millionaire.”

The shock left Rusty, 41, and Beth, 42, feeling faint. As for Kirk, when he returned and heard that he’d won $1,061,811, “I got real numb,” he says, “like I was in a dream.”

The Ericksons’ reverie was short-lived. Even as Kirk rushed back to the hotel room to share the surprise with his sister, Jenny, then 15, and spread the word by phone to relatives and friends, two state gaming agents ordered Rusty into a back room. There, he says, in the presence of five casino employees, the agents demanded to know Kirk’s age. When he said 19, they told him Caesars Palace would not pay the jackpot, because Kirk was under the legal gambling age of 21. Moreover, as Rusty told hearing examiners, the state agents said if he persisted in demanding his son’s jackpot, they would jail him on a felony charge for trying to collect another person’s winnings. When Kirk eventually joined the meeting, he was flabbergasted. “Just an hour before, these people were saying, ‘Hey, you all are millionaires,’ ” he recalls, “and then they started talking about arrest, jail and felony.”

Rusty did not fold. “I knew at that point they were pulling a scam,” he says. “I told my wife to get a bondsman, a lawyer, newspaper reporters and my nicotine gum, because I was trying to stop smoking.”

The agents backed off from their threat to arrest Rusty, but the casino has stood firm in its refusal to pay. The Ericksons, whose appeal to the Nevada State Gaming Control Board is pending, have filed suit against Caesars Palace in the U.S. District Court in Las Vegas, seeking payment of the original jackpot plus $20 million in punitive damages. In addition the Ericksons have sued for $1,061,811 from each of two state gaming control agents who allegedly went along with Caesars’ decision to deny the jackpot.

Both Caesars Palace and the gaming agents contend they followed the letter of the law. But the Ericksons insist that the casino made little attempt to inform young patrons of the age regulation, and in fact encouraged Kirk to gamble by offering free drinks and repeatedly selling him gambling tokens. “Some of the casinos are running a racket,” claims Rusty. “It seems they let minors play until they hit a big jackpot. Then they jump in and refuse to pay. They keep your losings as well as your winnings.”

Rusty argues that Caesars Palace misled his family from the moment they booked a room in the hotel and informed the clerk the family included teenagers. “That’s when they should tell you anyone under 21 is not allowed to gamble, but they don’t,” he says. According to the Ericksons, signs announcing the age limit were not readily visible in the casino. “If I had gone in and the age limit was clearly posted, I wouldn’t have a gripe now,” says Kirk.

Already out $20,000 in legal fees, Rusty says there is no way to estimate the ultimate cost of the battle for the jackpot. “We’re up against a monster that has all the money in the world available,” he says. Caesars Palace has no comment. Meanwhile Kirk has come in for some good-natured ribbing at Arkansas State, where he has been dubbed the Million Dollar Man. The Ericksons do not have any definite plans for the money if they win the suit. “Thinking about it in dollars and cents, it’s hard to imagine what we would do with a million dollars,” says Rusty. “They took the fun out of it.”

—By David Grogan, with Jane Sanderson in Hot Springs