Winners…and Losers of the Lottery

July 10, 2017

What if you won the lottery and became an instant millionaire? Would you lose your head and burn through the money? Or would you keep your cool and invest? (Tip: Uncle John would invest in toilet futures.)
Winners and Losers of the Lottery

What are the Odds?

Your odds of winning the Florida Lotto jackpot are one in 22 million. But don’t despair—that’s better than your odds of winning the California SuperLotto Plus, which are one in 41 million. According to experts, if one person purchases 50 Lotto tickets each week, he or she will win the jackpot…about once every 5,000 years. Still, many people do beat those odds and win. But here’s the big question: Do their lotto winnings make them happy?


  • When Juan Rodriguez won $149 million in a New York lottery, his wife of 17 years immediately filed for divorce and claimed half of his winnings.
  • Michael Klingebiel was sued by his own mother in 1998 because he failed to share his $2 million jackpot.
  • Ken Proxmire, a machinist from Michigan, took his $1 million winnings to California to start a car business with his brothers. Five years later he was bankrupt and back working as a machinist.
  • Against all odds, Evelyn Adams won the New Jersey lottery not once, but twice—in 1985 and 1986. Her total winnings: $5.4 million. But she gambled those millions away, and today she lives in a trailer. “Everybody wanted my money,” said Adams. “Everybody had their hand out. I never learned one simple word in the English language—‘No.’”

Living Large

It seems like big money just means big trouble. It certainly did for Jack Whittaker of West Virginia. On Christmas 2002, Whittaker won the largest undivided jackpot in United States history (at the time)— $314 million. Since then he’s had hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash stolen from his cars, home, and office. He was arrested twice for drunken driving and pleaded “no contest” to a misdemeanor assault charge against a bar manager. Though Whittaker gave $20 million to churches, charities, and schools, it never seemed to be enough. On a daily basis, strangers rang his doorbell, eager to tell their stories and ask for financial help. The sudden wealth took a toll on his wife and family, too. His 16-year-old granddaughter, Brandi Bragg, who stood beaming by his side at the initial press conference, died of a drug overdose almost two years to the day after the big win. Whittaker’s wife told the Charleston Gazette that she regrets everything. “I wish all of this never would have happened,” said Jewel Whittaker. “I wish I would have torn the ticket up.”

Crash Landings

  • Willie Hurt of Belleville, Michigan, won $3.1 million in 1989. He divided his fortune between his ex-wife and cocaine, and by 1991, he was penniless and in jail, charged with murder.
  • Victoria Zell, who shared an $11 million Powerball jackpot with her husband in 2001, was broke by 2006 and serving seven years in a Minnesota prison for vehicular manslaughter after killing a friend in a drug-and-alcohol-induced car crash.
  • Thomas Strong, winner of $3 million in a Texas lottery in 1993, died in a shootout with police in 2006.
  • In 1993 Janite Lee won $18 million in the Missouri Lottery. She spread the wealth around, donating huge sums to schools, political campaigns, community organizations, and charities. But Lee was too generous: she filed for bankruptcy in 2001 with just $700 left.

You Think That’s Bad?

Jeffrey Dampier won $20 million in the Illinois lottery in 1996. After buying houses and cars for his siblings and parents, and treating 38 of his nearest and dearest friends to a Christmas Caribbean cruise, he was kidnapped and murdered by his own sister-in-law.
Uncle John's Triumphant 20th Anniversary Bathroom Reader

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