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Jack Whittaker's Powerball tragedy.
November 29, 2012 3:21 PM   Subscribe

The day would come when many West Virginians recalled the story of Jack's Powerball Christmas with a shudder at the magnitude of ruination: families asunder, precious lambs six feet under, folks undone by the lure of all that easy money.
posted by Egg Shen (68 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
Every time there's a huge Ontario lottery jackpot I wind up having a conversation with someone (usually a co-worker) about why I haven't bought a ticket, and this is pretty much it. Would I like more money than I have? Sure. Tens of millions of dollars? No way. I don't need anywhere near that much cash to be happy, and I have a feeling a windfall like that would fuck up a lot of my relationships with my friends and family.
posted by The Card Cheat at 3:46 PM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


I automatically read that in the talk-singing narration of a Drive-By Truckers song.
posted by Benjy at 3:57 PM on November 29, 2012 [10 favorites]


I have a feeling a windfall like that would fuck up a lot of my relationships with my friends and family

Uh... I thought that's what everybody wanted the money for?
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 4:03 PM on November 29, 2012 [17 favorites]


I read this a while ago. It is devastatingly sad.
posted by ocherdraco at 4:04 PM on November 29, 2012


This would never happen to me. If I won that much money the heart attack would get me first.
posted by Splunge at 4:06 PM on November 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


I've often wondered what the best strategy would be. One time gifts to friends and family followed by saying no to anything and everything would probably be best.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:06 PM on November 29, 2012 [5 favorites]


That is very sad.

Also, note for the literal-minded like me: story involves young people dying, not actual lambs. (I kept waiting for the sheep farm to come into the picture. There is no sheep farm.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:07 PM on November 29, 2012 [12 favorites]


I remember reading this when it first came out. Very well written, and makes me very sorry for people who get unexpected windfalls. Seems as though the ones who aren't destroyed by it are very much the minority.
posted by orrnyereg at 4:10 PM on November 29, 2012


As for strategies (I've actually thought about this, despite never playing the lotto): immediately deposit all the winnings in a trust fund, naming the bank as the trustee. Set up rules for the trust fund, so that it disperses $x to you once a month and a certain amount every month that may be distributed to family members/friends/acquaintances/grifters, upon application to the trustee. That way, people come to you demanding money, you can say, "Sorry, go talk to the bank." The bank, unburdened by relationships and guilt trips, will be able to make sensible distributions.
posted by orrnyereg at 4:14 PM on November 29, 2012 [10 favorites]


i hesitate to link this, but it's awfully relevant.

Rotten.com's Library Guide To Winning The Lottery And Not Having Everything Go Wrong.
posted by gorestainedrunes at 4:15 PM on November 29, 2012 [15 favorites]


This always reminds me of the economic development principle that you cannot nation build without a civil society in place. In other words, money's only good if you're in a position to handle it.

While I feel I may be better positioned than these people, I have often thought that if I were to get such a windfall the best thing to do would be to do the unthinkable and keep enough to buy out my mortgage, buy two houses for my children to inherit, a few million in retirement money and then set up a charitable foundation to give the rest of it away. Like, over 90% of it away.

Most of my friendships are with people in their 30s with mortgages. If I started giving money to one set...well...
posted by jimmythefish at 4:18 PM on November 29, 2012


I wonder if this is because most people have poor money-handling skills. At normal money levels, this results in credit card debt and the occasional missed car payment. At Powerball money levels, mistakes are amplified to the point where they result in bankruptcies and ruined relationships.

Oh well. Regardless of my little theory, it makes me sad to see people get hurt, rich or poor.
posted by Triplanetary at 4:19 PM on November 29, 2012


Seems as though the ones who aren't destroyed by it are very much the minority.

Nah, that's definitely confirmation bias.

People who are inexperienced with money do seem to be disproportionately the subjects of these stories though.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:25 PM on November 29, 2012 [4 favorites]


I think the biggest mistake in any windfall is the assumption that it won't change the way you, personally, look at life. It will, always, because it changes the way other people percieve you, and must change the way you react. Ask any inheritor.
posted by Mblue at 4:32 PM on November 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


Anyone who is willing to spend money on a lottery ticket is clearly not responsible enough to receive the jackpot, which should instead be given to a non-participant as a reward
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 4:32 PM on November 29, 2012 [13 favorites]


The Rotton guide is good and all, but what if you live in a state that won't let a Blind Trust claim the prize? Or won't let you claim it anonymously? Because I'm thinking that 'radical name change + wearing a disguise at the Press Conference' would be the way to go here.
posted by spinifex23 at 4:33 PM on November 29, 2012 [4 favorites]


Having worked for people with major money before I can tell you I don't envy them -because everyone else sees them as a walking wallet. And that much money at a time is a curse precisely because everyone ELSE will change how they interact with you.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:34 PM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sadly, Ms. Tiffington McAntsypants III, Esq. won't be able to try that disguise on any day soon...
posted by spinifex23 at 4:35 PM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Rotton guide is good and all, but what if you live in a state that won't let a Blind Trust claim the prize?

Or as they do in California, release mini-mart surveillance video footage of the person who purchased a $52 million lottery ticket in an effort to get him to come forward and claim his prize.
posted by jamaro at 4:36 PM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]




This is an old article. His daughter has since died of an overdose as well, I believe; he now claims to be broke; and he won an additional lotto prize (low 5 figures).
posted by availablelight at 4:40 PM on November 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


I mentioned it in the other Powerball thread - I actually have role models for lottery winning. Our neighbors, and longtime family friends, won just shy of 8 mil in the Connecticut Lotto in 1989.

But they were really, really sane about it - they took the 20-years of annual payments, and hit this pitch-perfect blend of "responsible things" and "living a little" - some of the first things they were thinking of doing, right when they won, were things like "hey, we could throw a couple of really good fundraisers for the local Little League" and "hey, we could send the kids to whatever grad school they want!" They both re-trained for the jobs they really wanted to do - the father ended up going into politics and could afford to fund most of his campaign by himself (my father joked to him that he was probably pissing off the opposition because "man, the worst thing they can say about you is that you're a millionaire").

About the craziest thing they did was get tickets for the whole family to go to the Barcelona Olympics; but mostly it was normal things like that. The best thing they did was fly the whole family over to Poland because one of their grandfathers had emigrated to the US right after WW II and had a brother he hadn't seen since 1947.

It's been a couple years since they got their last payout, and the family's fine - the husband retired from politics, and their marriage is still intact. He was able to set up a trust fund for his brother who has cerebral palsy. Their kids are both doing fine; both happily married and with successful careers.

They got money, and somehow - everything was okay. Not everyone is ruined by lotteries, fortunately.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:42 PM on November 29, 2012 [67 favorites]


The lottery is a punitive tax on those who don't understand probability.
posted by mullingitover at 4:44 PM on November 29, 2012 [6 favorites]


Not everyone is ruined by lotteries, fortunately.

Yeah, but what are the odds?
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 4:46 PM on November 29, 2012 [19 favorites]


I suppose the correct approach is to take the 20-year annual payments, and live as if you got a one-time windfall of $200,000 -- just enough money that people won't totally question your ability to afford some nice things, but not so much that they'll think you're wealthy.

And if you want to help your friends -- your real friends -- wait until they ask everyone (including you) for help with medical bills, to save their house, whatever, and then donate a small amount in your name, and a larger amount as an anonymous donation through a lawyer.

Yep, I've got this all figured out. Now I just need to buy a lottery ticket someday.
posted by davejay at 4:46 PM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


The lottery is a punitive tax on those who don't understand probability.

Yeah, I had a discussion today with a guy at work who gave me that old "If you don't play, you can't win" line. To which I naturally replied, "you've got it wrong. If I don't play, I can't lose."
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:48 PM on November 29, 2012 [12 favorites]


There are the plots to enough noir novels in that article to keep an author busy for life. It's like some sort of urtext.
posted by Bookhouse at 4:48 PM on November 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


I've recently come to see these stories as a kind of status quo reinforcement mechanism. "Oh, if you really did have all that money you'd ruin your life. Better to be poor, and leave being free of want to the rich people who can handle it!" PHOOEY.

It is true that having a lot of cash results in a lot of people self-destructing though.
posted by JHarris at 4:53 PM on November 29, 2012 [11 favorites]


The lottery is a punitive tax on those who don't understand probability.

The lottery is a fantasy RPG for those who can't afford to spend all their time online.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 4:54 PM on November 29, 2012 [42 favorites]


the guy just kinda lost all sense of self-control, seems like. purposely announcing it to EVERYONE around you, in a working class community like that, on fucking TV should have been the first indicator that this was going to go very badly.

you either disappear if everyone knows, or you never let anyone find out in the first place.
posted by ninjew at 4:55 PM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


I only ever buy lottery tickets when the jackpot gets really high and my work does an office pool, I do it mostly for the enjoyment of chatting about the lottery with coworkers. It's basically two bucks for a conversation, which is pretty steep when I think about it.

Also, If we ever win, I'd get a lot less money than one person would, which would be useful in terms of people asking me for money. I'd like to think that I would pay off my student loans, buy a house*, and otherwise go about my life, but who knows.

*That cat would probably talk me into getting a boat as well, he makes a compelling argument.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 4:57 PM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have a feeling a windfall like that would fuck up a lot of my relationships with my friends and family.

Comedian Pete Holmes has a stock line for any joke that doesn't get the enthusiastic response he's hoping for: "If you're not laughing, you're not really picturing [the premise].

Before you decide what you wouldn't trade $500 million for, really picture $500 million.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 5:00 PM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


you either disappear if everyone knows, or you never let anyone find out in the first place.

Yeah, I think I'd make up some story about a small inheritance to cover buying a decent house, then shut the hell up about it. Kidnapping and murder are a regular feature in my nightmares.
posted by lumpenprole at 5:00 PM on November 29, 2012


> Before you decide what you wouldn't trade $500 million for, really picture $500 million.

Fair enough. If you put the money in front of me, I'd almost certainly take it...so I make it a moot point by not buying lottery tickets.
posted by The Card Cheat at 5:06 PM on November 29, 2012


It's basically two bucks for a conversation, which is pretty steep when I think about it.

It's not THAT steep. In 1971, it was £1 for a five-minute argument, but only eight pounds for a course of ten.* So really, the price of such things hasn't risen all that much in the past 40 years.
posted by hippybear at 5:08 PM on November 29, 2012 [14 favorites]


Very well written, and makes me very sorry for people who get unexpected windfalls. Seems as though the ones who aren't destroyed by it are very much the minority.

I think what it comes out to is this -- if you're reasonably capable of managing your money, then you probably don't play the lottery. Guess who that leaves to collect the big fortunes?

Still. Fucking sad. These people sound like they were all pretty normal before this all happened.

Also (and please don't call me heartless for saying this, but) it's sad to see all that money go to waste. How many people could it have lifted out of poverty, were it given to a traditional charity or NGO?
posted by Afroblanco at 5:18 PM on November 29, 2012


Yesterday I was grabbing a soda at a gas station on my way back from campus behind four or five people, most of whom were buying lottery tickets. "Not a Powerball for me, thanks," the guy in front of me said. "Just give me five of the little ones." Then he turned to me and explained "I've got too many redneck relatives hiding in the hills. If I won, they'd be down here with guns and torches trying to get it from me. I think of me not winning the Powerball like a public health measure."
posted by ChuraChura at 5:20 PM on November 29, 2012 [19 favorites]


Whittaker is ranked number 3 in this "10 biggest lottery disasters" article. Funny, I didn't gather from the WaPoMag article that he was quite well off before winning the big prize.
posted by telstar at 5:31 PM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Were I to win the lotto it'd be zeppelins all the way down.

I'm not kidding.

"Say notyou, can you help with the mortgage? You know, fer old time's sake?"

"Nope, but here's a zeppelin for ya!"
posted by notyou at 5:39 PM on November 29, 2012 [16 favorites]


When I woke up this morning and saw that I hadn't won Powerball I was glad I hadn't purchased any tickets.
posted by sourwookie at 5:45 PM on November 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


I matched the Powerball, which wins me $4. W00t!
posted by hippybear at 5:49 PM on November 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


They got money, and somehow - everything was okay. Not everyone is ruined by lotteries, fortunately.

Yeah, I've got some relatives that won the "lottery" of the Facebook IPO. I don't know how much (nor do I want to) but I'm pretty sure they are now millionaires. (Actual millionaires, not paper ones, since they sold at least some of the stock.) They made some big one-time payments to the immediate family, without ceremony, and we've all just basically acted casual about it since then.

Of course it helps that those payments, plus another windfall, paid off our mortgage and so now we are doing pretty well as well. If our side of the family was doing badly the discrepancy could cause some hard feeling.

I like to think that if we won the lottery we'd do some similar things as in your story. Fund a library wing or something, but keep living in the same house. We LIKE our house. But we'd add a garage.
posted by DU at 5:50 PM on November 29, 2012


The lottery is a punitive tax on those who don't understand probability.

"you've got it wrong. If I don't play, I can't lose."

Or, as I like to say, "You're paying taxes I choose not to pay."
posted by shoesfullofdust at 5:57 PM on November 29, 2012


I do enjoy the part of the article where the one woman compares the lottery winner guy to Gollum, ruined by the precious -- and that's just left unexplained, as a thing readers will understand.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:07 PM on November 29, 2012 [8 favorites]


The lottery is a punitive tax on those who don't understand probability.

The lottery is also an opportunity for people who understand probability to explain it to others for free while spending more than $2 worth of their time to do it.
posted by srboisvert at 6:10 PM on November 29, 2012 [6 favorites]


Casting the whole thing in a Tolkienian light is tempting - West Virginia's coal country has a lot in comment with Mordor, the effect the money has on other people (like the granddaughter's friends) is a lot like the effect of the ring, etc.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:17 PM on November 29, 2012 [4 favorites]


Show me all these stories you want but I know if I ever win this much money it'll go different. Not one of these people bought a giant mansion and filled it with cats. That, good sirs, it what will make it all work.
posted by schroedinger at 6:44 PM on November 29, 2012 [10 favorites]


Flip side: My boss is a researcher with a bunch of grants and annual gifts that fund his research. Aside from the NSF, his biggest funder is a foundation created by a man who won the CA lottery some years back. He was an alcoholic (but used the money to fund a stint in a swanky recovery facility), was and is a practicing communist, and uses his winnings to travel abroad for weeks at a time AND fund several research programs on improving educational outcomes, especially for disadvantaged kids.

He's goofy and a bit insufferable (in that all he can talk about is Karl Marx), but he's done awesome things with his lottery winnings.

So, you know, the diamond in the turd, or something.
posted by mudpuppie at 6:46 PM on November 29, 2012 [15 favorites]


Not one of these people bought a giant mansion and filled it with cats.
posted by schroedinger
They say that getting rich doesn't change who you are, it just magnifies the person you already were....
posted by tzikeh at 6:54 PM on November 29, 2012 [14 favorites]


the other thing that bothers me about this story is that at no point did Jack seem to attempt to cut Brandi off and toss her in an easily affordable rehab program. hard to recognize that when you're off the rails yourself.

Weeks after the funeral, Brandi's family and the state police were still awaiting the results of a toxicology report. But Jack had already reached some conclusions. He didn't blame the Powerball for his family's sorrows. He didn't blame himself. "All of the problems I have had are because of my granddaughter's drug-using friends," he angrily told an Associated Press reporter. "I'm going to find them and put them in jail.

nah dude that's all you. you were buying all the drugs, Jack, whether you see it that way or not.

money doesn't absolve one of personal responsibility.
posted by ninjew at 7:28 PM on November 29, 2012 [2 favorites]




What a sad tale of decline. While reading the article, I kept thinking of the (very excellent) poem by David Lerner entitled "Satan After Hours." The poem details that Satan is not the "comic book ghoulie" we tend to think he is, but rather a series of mundane sadnesses and indignities that hit you with their banality. The last lines state that Satan is "the kind of hopes that get pinned on a lottery," and that sounds just about right. The whole poem is here
posted by but no cigar at 7:40 PM on November 29, 2012 [7 favorites]


Do any West Virginians recall what their state did with their $200+ milly share of the windfall? Guessing not, though sadly I imagine such a hellstorm of cash has just as much of a corrupting influence, gubernatorially speaking, on a state like WV as it had on one of its upstanding citizens whom it wouldn't have killed to spring for a set of false teeth between trips to the Cadillac dealership.
posted by obscurator at 7:41 PM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


That's a Shakespearian tragedy. So much wasted opportunity and damaged lives. I'd go the quiet route of banking it and then taking of for a year to travel until I figured out what to do with it.
posted by arcticseal at 9:23 PM on November 29, 2012


Not one of these people bought a giant mansion and filled it with cats.
posted by schroedinger


...and also not filled it with cats at the same time.
posted by jimmythefish at 10:03 PM on November 29, 2012 [14 favorites]


I remember the incessant pleas for money when my aunt got a MacArthur award. I'm not sure I have a thick enough skin to deal with sudden wealth. But then I've never bought a lottery ticket. I can't afford the cost to rent hope for a day.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:07 AM on November 30, 2012


The Onion weighs in.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:52 AM on November 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


I remember the incessant pleas for money when my aunt got a MacArthur award. 

People do that to recipients of MacArthur grants?! That makes me angry. I'm always excited to look through the lists of people who get those grants because there are always several people listed who seem to have been living on nothing to support their work, and I can just imagine all the great things they'll do now that they don't have to scramble to pay bills. It never occurred to me that then they'd have to deal with people sidling up to them asking for a piece of the action.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:11 AM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well it's mostly people with sad stories about their kids needing an operation to live apparently. I'm sure it's hard to be angry at that, but it is saddening. My aunt and uncle changed their already unlisted number because of it.
posted by BrotherCaine at 8:44 AM on November 30, 2012


gorestainedrunes: "i hesitate to link this, but it's awfully relevant. (links to rotten.com)"

I see what you did there.
posted by symbioid at 9:56 AM on November 30, 2012


schroedinger: " Not one of these people bought a giant mansion and filled it with cats."

Eponysterical.
posted by symbioid at 10:58 AM on November 30, 2012


So... AFAICT, winning the lottery is like having unfettered access to a pharmaceutical warehouse.

BAD IDEA for a lot of people - even some people whom you wouldn't guess.

But, if you're the sort of person who would continue to ask a doctor, "So, these sniffles - antibiotics course, or do I just have to wait them out?", then you're less likely to end up on the slab, pickled in morphine.

Most of us would be tempted to take some Cipro first, ask the doc second... so it's tricky.
posted by IAmBroom at 2:08 PM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Heh. Via my iPhone and Google news.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 3:36 PM on November 30, 2012


In 1990 I was hit by a car whilst crossing a street which I will not name here. Long story short, I ended up with $45,000. When I got the check I put $10,000 in a savings bond. The rest went into the bank, a checking/ATM account at Citibank.

At first I was serious about the cash. Or so I thought. I gave my ex-wife $10,000 in cash for my son's college fund. I had been out of work for a while and even though I didn't have any kind of court ordered child support, I thought that it was only right. I later found out that she used it all for party time.

But I can't say anything about that. I fucked up as well. The first day that I had the account I took out $2000. I went down to the Village in Manhattan and, ready for this? I bought a set of glassware and dishes. And a tiny pool table. It was near Christmas and i was just completely taken by the fact that I had so much cash.

Of course that frugality didn't last. I had a bunch of "friends" at the time that were completely useless. Except if you thought that crack and heroin were useful things.

I found myself going to the ATM at all hours of the night with my "friends". The maximum that you could take out in 24 hours back then was $500. So I'd do $500 a day. Heroin. Crack. And drink constantly. The party never stopped.

I ran through what I had left in three months.

Then I went to the bank to get my bond money. I must have looked like a homeless person. But the guy explained to me that the bond had six months before I could cash it in.

That wasn't a problem for my "friends". They kept me fucked up and also kept a running tab. When i finally got the cash I owed close to $5000. The rest was gone in a month.

I was broke, strung out and my "friends" were gone.

Money is bad for addictive personalities. Trust me.
posted by Splunge at 8:09 PM on November 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


I would be dead in a week.
posted by 8-bit floozy at 1:27 PM on December 1, 2012


I think it's interesting to compare cases like these to the case of Warren Buffett, who is worth some fifty billions and who likes to talk about money: he calls his money "claim checks on society." Buffett's own stated plan is to let most of these claim checks expire unused when he dies.

Someone like Buffett has spent his entire life thinking about accumulating money, trying to figure out the best way to do so, and then trying to figure out what that money is best used for. As a result, it seems that money has not ruined Buffett's life.

Mr Whittaker's life did not apparently include a lot of study of these topics. I bet he enjoyed his biscuits and daily chats with his waitress far more than he enjoyed slapping down $50K atop a strip club bar. Because he didn't know what to do with his money, it was harmful to him - destroyed a lot of his social capital, it sounds like - without conferring benefit to him.

It is nearly anathema in modern American life to question the usefulness, purpose or implications of money. Try bringing it up at a cocktail party some time and watch the uncomfortable silence descend. Stories like this are interesting because they do the questioning for us and show us some pretty raw answers.

I play the lottery when the jackpot gets up over $300 million. If I won, though, I am pretty sure it'd cause a lot of problems in my life.
posted by Protocols of the Elders of Sockpuppetry at 1:02 PM on December 2, 2012


How high does the jackpot have to be before the expected return on a $1 ticket grows to above $1? You have to take in to account that as the jackpot grows the number of players grow and the number of expected winners also grows, so you can't simply look at the odds and the jackpot size.

Does the number of expected winners grow fast enough to keep the expected return under $1 regardless of jackpot size?
posted by Justinian at 1:04 PM on December 3, 2012


Does the number of expected winners grow fast enough to keep the expected return under $1 regardless of jackpot size?

If it did, wouldn't institutional investors and syndicates step in at that point and water it back down?
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:18 AM on December 4, 2012


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