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Hitting lottery can be a curse

Aldrich Simmons Jr. won the Lotto last month.

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He took home about $3 million after taxes. Even now, he spends $160 a week buying tickets.

"Three million is nice," he says, "but you can't stop the world with it."

Simmons, 55, has heard the worst-case tales of other winners.

He lives in Polk County, like Abraham Shakespeare did. Simmons didn't know Shakespeare, but he's heard about the 42-year-old's demise: dead and secretly buried, deputies say, at the hands of a woman who wanted his money.

"I'm not worried," Simmons says.

Experts say he should be at least a little worried.

Lottery officials insist unraveled lives are not the norm. Many are able to use the money to relieve debt or fulfill a wish, without incredible drama. Still, tales of ruin rise to the top when it comes to winners whose fortunes turn to curse.

"Anyone who says this isn't going to change them is wrong," says Don McNay, a financial adviser to lottery winners and author of Son of a Son of a Gambler: Winners, Losers and What to Do When You Win the Lottery.

The sudden gain of millions of dollars in a publicized, state-run lottery can make anyone a target.

McNay's first piece of advice: Don't tell anyone.

"Most of the time, people can't help themselves," says McNay, who writes a finance column for Huffington Post. "They drive straight up to the place to claim their winnings and they want the big press conference."

Shakespeare did. He drove to Tallahassee, held a check for $30 million and posed for a photograph flanked by family members, before returning home with an $11 million cash payout.

Simmons says he posed for that picture too. And he couldn't help but tell people.

He was working at his own fiberglass manufacturing business when his son called and told him to check his lottery tickets. A.J. Simmons, 27, was at the convenience store where they both bought their tickets, and the store claimed it had sold the winning combination.

As his son read the numbers over the phone, Aldrich Simmons began whooping and hollering.

Everyone at work knew.

He and his son cut out of work early, drove to Tallahassee that night, found the Florida Lottery building and checked into a hotel room nearby. The next morning they turned in Simmons' ticket, smiled for the camera with a $7 million check in hand, and left with the one-time payout of less than half that.

He paid off some debts, bought a 2009 Chevrolet Impala, then stowed the rest.

"Now," Simmons says, "it's sitting in the bank, drawing interest."

Though most states, including Florida, require winners' names to be public, winners can decline to have their pictures taken. They also can refuse an interview with the Florida Lottery public relations office, which is likely to include details of the conversation in a news release. McNay said his advice to people whose names are necessarily public record is to immediately change their phone number.

Another key for success, says Steven Danish, a psychologist who counsels lottery winners, is to know yourself and know your plan.

Before you win the lottery, that is.

"If they have a plan for their lives, it's going to be fine," says Danish, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who once led advice workshops for winners of the Virginia Lottery. "If they don't have a plan, this can screw up their lives tremendously."

Peter Doubleday was 51, happily married to a high school science teacher, and enjoyed his success as a horse race announcer.

He didn't need to win the lottery, he says. He already expected a comfortable retirement.

But the moment in 2002 when he and his wife realized they held the fourth and final winning ticket in an $84 million Florida Lotto jackpot, they were dumbfounded.

They claimed their prize — a one-time payout of $11 million, the same amount Shakespeare took — established a foundation to help donate the money to his wife's school, then built themselves a house in North Carolina.

Eight years later, Doubleday is still working. His wife is still teaching.

The rest of his winnings are invested with the help of Merrill Lynch.

Other than a few fishy investment solicitations that came his way soon after he won, Doubleday was somehow spared the onslaught of financial requests that notoriously nag so many other lottery winners.

Maybe it's because he won his millions in Florida, but lives in North Carolina.

Maybe it's because he already had a plan.

He thinks there are people in his life who don't know he ever won the lottery.

Back in Polk County, Simmons says he's still trying to determine his plan.

Three million dollars isn't enough to make him want to quit work, he says. Nor does it inspire him to start handing out bills left and right like Shakespeare did.

A day laborer, Shakespeare stopped working. He paid his child support and opened a trust fund for his son. He gave a million to his stepdad, hundreds of thousands to his stepsisters. He paid off someone's mortgage and then someone else's. He bought a couple of houses and a couple of cars, wrote checks to friends and paid for funerals when people asked.

"Had the pot been bigger," Simmons said, "I could probably afford to be Santa Claus. But the pot being what it is, I have to pace myself. There's just enough there to last me to my last day."

Give him $95 million, Simmons said, and it might be a different story.

"I'd be on my jet," he joked.

But he says he has learned something from Shakespeare's tragedy.

"I think he let too many people into his inner circle and let too many people have access to his belongings," Simmons said.

Despite expert advice that lottery winners need attorneys, Simmons doesn't believe he needs one now. He does plan to find a financial adviser. But he won't trust just anyone. His family won't let him.

More cautious than he, they warn he could end up like Shakespeare.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

The highs and lows of lottery winners

Jack Whittaker, a West Virginia businessman won a then record-breaking $315 million Powerball jackpot in 2002 at age 55. He soon became a target for solicitors, thieves and lawsuits. Within years, his marriage dissolved, he got a DUI and his granddaughter died of a drug overdose. In late 2009, his daughter was also discovered dead. In an interview with ABC's Nightline earlier this year, he called the winnings his curse.

Brad Duke, an Idaho fitness instructor and director for a chain of gyms, won $220 million in 2005 and tried to stay anonymous. When the Idaho Lottery Commission declined him anonymity, the then 33-year-old did his research, took an $85 million lump sum, went on a media circuit, assembled a team of financial advisers and invested the money with a goal of turning it into billions. So far, so good.

Billie Bob Harrell Jr., a Home Depot stock clerk, won $31 million in the Texas lottery in 1997. Then 47, he bought a ranch, gave to family, his church, strangers. Within two years, his marriage was in shambles and his money gone. He was found dead in what detectives determined to be a suicide. His family disagreed over the cause of death. Some believe he was the victim of foul play.

Sheelah Ryan won $55.2 million in the Florida Lottery in 1988. Three months later, she set up a charitable foundation that helped with an array of causes, including building low-cost housing and assisting single mothers who faced eviction for not paying rent. Ryan died of cancer in 1994 at age 69.

Abraham Shakespeare won $30 million from a Florida lottery in 2006. Then 41, he became very generous with his winnings, giving to family, friends and strangers. He paid off mortgages, bought himself a house and trusted a woman who deputies now say killed him in April 2009. In January, his body was found buried under concrete on a plot of land in eastern Hillsborough County.

Sources: Associated Press, New York Times and CNNMoney.com

Hitting lottery can be a curse 03/20/10 [Last modified: Sunday, March 21, 2010 3:42pm]
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