Mega Millions: the risk of beating the odds

I have many vices, but I consider myself lucky that I have never felt the compulsion to gamble; not once, not ever, have I purchased a lottery ticket.

I spent about an hour in a Canadian casino when I was a university student on a trip with friends. I won a hand at the blackjack table, took my profits, and “let it ride” at the roulette table.

I protected my initial investment, but I still walked away with a sense of loss when the Bitch Goddess Fortuna relieved me of my compounded winnings with a spin of the wheel.

The US Mega Millions lottery drawing has rolled over 25 times since mid-2018. The jackpot now stands at over $1,600,000,000. That’s billion. With a “B.”

That’s big money. This post is about the “whammies” that are lurking in the bushes.

I truly hope that my readers are not setting their money on fire by purchasing lotto tickets, but I am not a moral authority. If you choose to buy tickets, I have some important information to share in the event that you defy the 1 in 258,890,850 odds and pick a winning combination.

If you win and then make the right choice to receive the lump sum payment instead of the annuity option, you will get a single check for a staggering amount between $900 and $950 million, depending on your state and their taxation schemes.

So, congratulations! You just won millions of dollars in the lottery! That’s great.

Now you’re fucked.

No, really: You are. You’re fucked.

33% of 7-figure+ jackpot winners declare bankruptcy.

If you just want to skip the background information, which includes tales of human misery, skip to Part 2 to see the seven crucial steps I recommend you take if you win big.

It’s an open secret that people who play the lottery and win obnoxious sums of money ruin their lives. The $1 million winners tend to come out okay, but people who collect 7-, 8-, and 9-figure jackpots reliably follow painful trajectories.

Maybe this is a demographic effect: lottery players could be exactly the wrong people to receive enormous sums of money. Or maybe money is the root of all evil. Either way, winners must be cautious.

Don’t believe me? Consider this:

Winners of large jackpots immediately experience a double-digit multiplier for their risk of:

  • homicide,
  • drug overdoses,
  • bankruptcy (ironic, yeah?), and
  • kidnapping.

Compared to the general population, they also face triple-digit multipliers to their risk of:

  • charges related driving under the influence,
  • being victims of homicide at the hands of a family or close associates, and
  • being a defendant in civil and felony criminal complaints.

Believe it or not, your biggest enemy if you suddenly become endowed with large sums of money is your own damned self.

You may find comfort in the fact that you will meet your fate by the actions of your own hands. However, if you can’t manage it on your own, don’t worry. There will be plenty of willing participants ready to jump start your atmospheric re-entry-speed descent to rock bottom.

George Clooney as Micahel Clayton (2007) with fat stacks of cash, from the Michael Clayton Beat Sheet..

They will be people you consider friends, family, and close associates. Their actual identities are of little import. They may not have bad intentions, but that’s how the road to Hell is paved, isn’t it?

Consider the case of Jack Whittaker, a sharply-dressed and money-savvy native of West Virginia. Whittaker is the poster child for the dangers of large windfalls.

In 2002, a 55-year-old Whittaker won the largest single-award jackpot in the United States at the time, which was $315 million. He publicly stated that his intention was to live “as if nothing had changed.” He was a modest and decent man before he won the prize. It seemed like his ship had finally come in, right?

Dead wrong.

Jack Whittaker was continously exposed to a series of unfortunate events. Personal challenges quickly escalated into tragedies impacting his friends and family. These were futher complicated by a veritable smorgasbord of legal battles.

Whittaker was not the typical jackpot winner: He had a net worth in excess of $15 million at the time he won the prize, due in large part to his ownership of a large contracting firm in West Virginia. It seemed plausible that he had achieved such a level of success and comfort that he could actually pull off the “nothing has changed,” post-win life.

Indeed, Jack was already quite wealthy, and so he should have been well-equipped to handle further monetary gains. By all accounts, he was a modest man of significant means, maintained a low profile, and was also a generous guy.

Mr Whittaker should have been able to easily ride off into the sunet.

He did not.

Whittaker made what I believe to be the wise choice for most people: the all-cash, lump sum payment. While jackpots are advertised as huge amounts, the lump-sum payment is significantly lower because all of the prize money currently held by the lottery company or agency is paid out at once, less withholding and taxes, rather than being invested into an annuity, which would pay out over a pre-determined period of time to reach the “sticker-price” advertised by lottery officials.

After taxes, Whittaker took receipt of a check for a “mere” $114 million. Things started to spiral downward shortly after that.

Whittaker immediately became a target for a range of financially-motivated stalkers and swindlers. They hung around his regular breakfast joint and hounded him with suggestions for various schemes and other ways to deploy his newfound capital. But they needed the cash now to pull off their sure-thing business plan. Or a relative had cancer. Or needed dialysis. Or any number of tales.

Whittaker abandoned his habit of patronizing this particular diner in shorter order than the kitchen ticket for a silver dollar short stack.

Persistent buggers, the scheisters started trying to raise him at home. His doorbell began ringing at odd hours. Soon enough, he was epmploying off-duty cops to secure the premises while at the same time fending off accusations of being a Scrooge-like character.

Then the deluge of mail began. Letters poured in from across the globe. Sick kids. Diabetic wives. PKD-stricken mothers. Whittaker started paying out more of his winnings to have three people sort the mail. He also retained a private investigator to further distinguish between false claims, confidence schemes, and legitimate cases.

Brenda, the unsuspecting gas station clerk who sold Whit the winning ticket, became collateral damage. He paid off her house and also wrote her a check for $44,000. She was taken care of, but was by no means a wealthy individual before or after Whit struck the jackpot.

Persistent, false rumors that the lotto agencies pay out a bonus to clerks who sell winning tickets hounded Brenda. She was stalked. Followed home from work. Threatened, assaulted, and battered.

Whit’s cars were also targets. On at least two occasions, thieves gained access to one of his vehicles and stole half- and then a quarter-million in cash.

Whit made the first mistake of transporting obscene amounts of US paper, but he was also betrayed by people close to him who observed these fat stacks entering and leaving the vehicle.

In the first heist, Whit’s drink was spiked to incapacitate him. In the second, his granddaughter’s friends used crude human intelligence gathering techniques over a period of weeks to plan their break-in.

How did it end up like this? Micahel Clayton (2007) from the Michael Clayton Beat Sheet..

Jack Whittaker was also a victim of character assasination. When he made a cash offer of $10,000 to modify the city’s recreational water park to make it ADA-compliant and improve handicapped access, there was public outcry that he spent sums larger than that at a strip club. Ludicrously enough, this was later proven to be true.

Whit really was a generous, well-intentioned guy, though. He invested tons of money into his own businesses and in no time had tripled the number of people he employed, which made him one of the largest regional employers. Over time, he gave away more than $14 million to charity through a foundation he had set up for just that purpose.

This is, of course, what you are “supposed to do.” Form a foundation. Be calm and measured with your charitable donations. It made no difference in the end.

Whittaker was repeatedly accused of trashing marriages. Complaints stated that his wealth made other men look inferior to their wives whenever he went into town. Like a pathogen, resentment festered and became toxic.

Whittaker paid real money to settle four of these suits. Yes, four.

His family and their close associates also quickly fell victim to an odds-defying number emergency department visits, overdoses, and fatalities. Eighteen-year-old granddaughter Brandi, who Whit was paying out a $2000/week allowance to, was tragically found dead after going missing for several weeks.

The cause of death, apparently, was a fatal drug overdose. Circumstances point to foul play, though. Her corpse was found wrapped up in a tarpaulin, the whole package having been hidden behind an abandonded, rusted-out vehicle.

Brandi’s 17-year-old boyfriend expired several months prior to this epsiode, also of a suspected overdose. The boy and his friends had been partying at Whittaker’s vacation home. After he collapsed, some of the boy’s friends burgled the house. They stepped over his body to make their initial escape before coming back for more, crossing his body at least two more times.

Bodies are starting to stack up: Micahel Clayton (2007) from the Michael Clayton Beat Sheet..

The parents of the boy lodged a wrongful death complaint and sued for damages. They claimed that Whittaker’s loose grip on his purse was a contributing factor in the death of their son.

Staggeringly, juries can actually be relied on to award these types of damages. Whittaker settled out of court. Again.

Even before people started dropping dead, local and state law enforcement took a particular interest in Whittaker’s movements and conduct. He was arrested again and again for more and more minor offenses, despite the fact that he had a clean record before picking up the lottery check. Whittaker already had an elevated profile in the area prior to this, and this certainly didn’t help him avoid harassment.

Indeed, within just an 18-month window of time, Whittaker recevied more than 250 citations for violations ranging from broken tail lights on all 5 of his brand-new, six-figure price tag cars to incorrect display or fixture of license plate stickers. He filed suit against various law enforcement agencies alleging harrassment, but these went nowhere. Instead, he was forced to pick up the tab for attorney’s fees and court costs.

His wife filed for divoce. In the process of so doing, she triggered an asset freeze that brought the operating accounts of his companies to a halt. Caesar’s casino in Atlantic City sued him for $1.5 million to recover losses from bounced checks as a result of the asset freeze.

Whittaker ended up heavily-indebted and faced bakruptcy.

This is just one example, though. Surely, I cherry-picked an extreme one to advance some sort of morally-charged, anti-gambling agenda, right?

Sorry, friends. I told you point blank above the fold that jackpot winners are categorically fucked—and that was not a lie.

Consider, for a moment, that 33% of 7-figure+ jackpot winners declare bankruptcy. Some suffer fates that are far, far worse. Here are some of the Greatest Hits in hisotrical jackpot winner outcomes:

  • Bob Barrell. $31 million win in 1997 in Texas. 1999: took his own life after non-stop requests for money from friends and family. Said in his note that “Winning the lottery is the worst thing that ever happened to me.”
  • ⁠William Post: $16.2 million in PA in 1988. 1989: his brother puts on a price on the heads of Post and his wife. Landlady sues for “her cut” of the jackpot. Convicted of assault and firearms discharge during a conlfict with a debt collector. Declared bankruptcy. Died in 2006.
  • Eve Adams: $5.4M from two wins in 1985 and 1986. In 2001: broke and living in a trailer. Gave or gambled away her money.
  • Susie Mullins: $4.2M in 1993 in Virginia. In 2004: Zero assets.
  • ⁠Shefik Tallmadge: $6.7 million. Arizona. 1988. Decalred bankruptcy in 2005.
  • Tom Strong: $3M won in Texas in 1993. Died in a shoot out with police in 2006.
  • Victoria Zell: $11M jackpot in Minnesota in 2001. As of 2006, was serving 7-year sentence for vehuclar manslaughter.
  • Jeff Dampier: $20M in Illinois in 1996. Kidnapped and murdered by sister-in-law in 2006.
  • Ed Gildein: $9M in Texas in 1993. Died in 2003, leaving wife with enormous debt burden. Wife was sued by their daughter in 2005 based on claim that wife was stealing from trust fund and blowing cash in Vegas.
  • Willie Hurt: $3.1 million. Michigan. 1989. As of 1991: Addicted to cocaine. Divorced. Broke. Indicted for murder.
  • Janet Lee: $18 million. 1993. Missouri. 2001: Filed for bankruptcy with $700.00 in assets. Seven hundred dollars.

This post was inspired by BlakeClass, reddit user and legal professional.

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