Just six months ago, Jose Luis Betancourt was in the money.
The Texas Lottery Commission had just wire-transferred his $5.5-million winnings to his Wells Fargo bank account, and the Brownsville, Texas, resident was dreaming of the real estate he could soon buy.
Betancourt dropped by the bank on Jan. 17 to check on the transfer. Awaiting him, though, were federal agents ready to arrest him for drug trafficking. The charge: The previous day, Betancourt had sold 36 grams of cocaine to a federal informant.
Now Betancourt, 52, could spend the rest of his life in prison, but he won't do so as a rich man _ he had to return his lottery winnings. In the eyes of the federal jury that convicted him June 4 of conspiracy and possession with intent to sell cocaine, the lucky ticket was bought with drug money, making the big bucks proceeds from his drug deals.
His lawyer, Baltazar Salazar of Houston, doesn't deny his client's illicit activities _ federal agents found almost two kilograms of cocaine in Betancourt's apartment, after all _ but says an appeal of the forfeiture is planned. The $1 Lotto Texas ticket was bought by a neighbor whom Betancourt later reimbursed, said Salazar, and "the government did not prove that the dollar was traceable back to our client."
"We're disappointed, to say the least, that the jury could not separate (Betancourt's) illegal act from his luck," Salazar said. "Because that's what it was."