The owner of a western Maine inn being given away through an essay contest has yet to address the controversy swirling around the process, and most traces of the contest have been removed from the Internet.

Janice Sage has been silent since Maine State Police confirmed they are investigating complaints that the winner of the essay contest she ran to turn over ownership of the Center Lovell Inn & Restaurant may have had unfair advantages.

Most references to the contest, including the rules and the finalists’ essays, have been removed from the inn’s contest website and Facebook page.

And it turns out that similar complaints were lodged 22 years ago when Sage took ownership of the inn in an essay contest run by its previous owner.

Neither Sage nor the prospective new owners, Prince and Rose Adams, have addressed the investigation into the contest, which has put a serious twist on what had been a quirky, happy story.

It’s not clear whether the sale has been finalized; a deed has not been filed with Oxford County.

At the inn Wednesday afternoon, there were no cars in the parking lot. The sign out front read “closed.” Calls to the inn were met with a voicemail greeting that said the inn will reopen July 10 and anyone wishing to make a reservation should leave a name and number.

An employee at the Center Lovell Market, just down the road from the inn, said she hadn’t seen Sage in a while.

Sage and the Adamses, who live in the U.S. Virgin Islands, have not responded to messages left over several days.

Sgt. Michael Johnston, who is leading the police investigation, estimated that it will take about a week, but noted that he’s never investigated anything like this before.

He said the applicable law, which applies mostly to gambling and lotteries, was not created with an essay contest in mind.

“That’s a bit of a hurdle,” Johnston said. “It will come down to whether this contest was by chance or by skill.”

For it to be aboveboard, he said, the winners would have to have been chosen on their skills in writing their essay – an admittedly subjective standard.

SUSPICIONS OF UNFAIR ADVANTAGE

Since the contest winners were announced June 5 and identified June 12, a number of contestants who didn’t win have been outspoken in criticizing the process.

Cortney Potts, a contestant from Nebraska and spokeswoman for a Facebook group called Center Lovell Contest Fair Practices Commission, said at the very least, the contest was poorly managed. For example, the inn put the contest rules on its website, but also posted them on a Facebook page that many people didn’t know about, Potts said.

She said the rules on the Facebook page and the website weren’t consistent. For example, the website provided a post office box for submissions. But the Facebook page also provided the hotel’s address so that people with late entries could mail their essays using overnight mail services.

The Facebook page has since been taken down. The website for the contest, www.wincenterlovellinn.com, indicates only that the essay contest is over. All other information about the contest has been removed from the site.

Potts and other contestants say they are suspicious that the Adamses may have had an unfair advantage because they already own a restaurant. Some believe Sage and the Adamses may have known each other, although they have no evidence to support that contention.

Johnston wouldn’t comment on the investigation or identify whom he has interviewed.

Jennifer Stein of Limerick, who almost submitted an essay but couldn’t get her thoughts condensed to 200 words, said the complaints sound like sour grapes.

“You are always going to have people who are sore,” said Stein, who thought the rules were pretty clear. “People get their hopes high and are let down.”

Critics of the contest say Prince Adams had an advantage because he has written an e-book, called “Crowdfunding Made Simple,” that includes information about running a bed-and-breakfast. That example is used in the book in a section on budgeting.

Justina Sontag, who owns and operates a motel in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, was among the thousands of essayists who were not selected. She said she doesn’t necessarily think the Adamses had an advantage over others, but that the contest itself was flawed.

“This was promoted as an essay contest,” she said. “But anyone who read the winning essay would not think it was written well. It was full of cliches. There was nothing creative or original. It read like a resume.”

The reported winning entry touts Rose Adams’ culinary skills and Prince Adams’ “marketing, innkeeping, bartending and handyman skills.”

Sage chose 20 finalists in the contest and posted their essays to Facebook. Although the page for the contest has been taken down, one finalist saved the entries and believes the winning essay can be identified by its content and the authors’ location in the U.S. Virgin Islands, corresponding with where the Adamses live.

Sage has said that she turned over the 20 finalist essays to an independent two-judge panel to select the winner, but has not identified the members of that panel.

PRIOR CONTEST ALSO CRITICIZED

Sage’s essay contest was modeled after her own experience 22 years ago, when her winning essay won a contest sponsored by the inn’s previous owners, Bill and Susie Mosca.

Sage and her then-husband, Richard Cox, were chosen from among more than 5,000 entrants. A 1994 story in the Lewiston Sun Journal indicated that some contestants at that time were suspicious of how that essay contest was carried out.

Then-Assistant Attorney General Wayne Moss said that such contests were not regulated, except that they must be based on skill, not chance. He also said they can invite abuse, such as collusion with a preselected winner.

“We’ve gotten letters from people who say the winner was picked on who submitted the best resume – who was best qualified to run an inn,” Moss said.

Sage has said her goal was to receive 7,500 entries, which each required a $125 check with the essay. That adds up to about $935,000, slightly more than the $900,000 that local real estate agents suggested as a listing price for the 210-year-old inn and two outbuildings on 12 acres overlooking Kezar Lake in Lovell.

Sage has not said whether she reached that goal.