Friday, October 2, 2009

Winning Lotto numbers not always the ticket to dreams, success

Noreene and James Gordon of Tampa celebrate their good fortune as they claim their lotto winnings of $23.98 millon in February 2000.

In the October 1, 2009 Tampa Tribune story "Winning Lotto numbers not always the ticket to dreams, success," Keith Morelli reports on the downside of winning the lottery. Perhaps this is further evidence that money does not buy happiness and fulfillment.
TAMPA - One person's blessing is another person's curse.

Most of us dream of winning the lottery; of days spent leisurely on the new boat, or jetting to sun-splashed beaches in southern France. For some, that sudden wealth is a burden; a constant struggle of having to say no to family and friends and yes, take what you want, to the government.

In all the cases, the sudden, life-changing wealth changes them. Whether the change is for the better depends on the person. While some relish never having to worry about how much a car or house costs, others find the newfound wealth too much to handle.

Some have stories about dreams fulfilled, about investments that ensure wealth for generations to come. Others talk about making an effort not to change at all; of continuing to work; of driving the same car, living in the same house.

And others tell of a plague of problems and of sieges of beggars; family, friends and strangers; of lawsuits between relatives and of being dragged to court by the government; and in one case, prison on tax fraud charges.

Many, contacted for this story, just didn't want to talk about it. Here are a few who did:

Jay Vargas

Jay Vargas was only 19 last year when he won $35.3 million in the Powerball jackpot. He lived in South Carolina and worked a no-end-in-sight construction job. At the time, he lived on his own, went to school, worked and paid his own rent, he said. Life was hard.

Then his numbers came in. His life forever changed.

"I was living large, at first," he said. "I partied hardy. When this first happened, I partied like a rock star."

Having to deal with sudden wealth at first was a problem.

"I thought about how I'm going to maintain it," he said. "That was the biggest thing. I had hundreds come up to me looking for money. I had a lot of lost cousins."

He said that for the past year and a half, he has kept track of his own money and kept the partying to a minimum, which isn't so easy when you're 20 years old, with millions in the bank. He took a course in personal finance and so far has been on what appears to be the right track.

"I watch my own money myself," he said, and he has made sure his life slowed down since he came to Tampa.

Now, the young entrepreneur is dabbling in the creation of a reality television show that melds two of his dreams: professional wrestling and beautiful women. He spends all his time promoting the project called "Wrestlicious."

He works on the show out of the New Tampa home he shares with his wife and former model, Shana, and his new baby daughter.

He chose Tampa, he said, because it is home to a lot of professional wrestlers who he wants to get to appear on his show.

"Wrestling is to Tampa," he said, "like NASCAR is to Charlotte." Wrestlers live here and that's who he needs to be part of his show. "If you go out," he said, "you are going to just see a lot of those guys."

He plans on staying in Tampa.

"I love it here," he said. "I plan to stay here for awhile. And I'm still working. But it's just following my dream working, the kind of work that I want to be doing,"

Rhoda Toth

For $13 million Lotto winner Rhoda Toth, who, along with her second husband, Alex, picked the winning Lotto numbers in 1990, the good luck spiraled into full blown misery.

The winnings accelerated a downward trajectory for the Hudson couple, ending in allegations of infidelity, gambling losses, estrangement, death and prison.

The money sparked enough strife within the Toth family to spark a lawsuit pitting mother against daughter.

Now 30, Tifany Diehl, the daughter, lives in Indiana and is largely estranged from Rhoda Toth, her on-again, off-again mother. Only recently has she begun speaking to her and then, only sparingly via e-mail and telephone conversations to the federal lockup that her mother calls home.

"I hurt every day inside not having a mother in my life," Diehl said.

The winnings didn't make a monster out of her mom, but it didn't help, either, Diehl said. Rhoda Toth abandoned her first husband and her two children long before she won the lottery.

"There is a piece of my heart that hates that woman," Diehl said in a recent interview. After she hit the Lotto, Toth tried to woo her children back into her life, but it didn't work.

"She was busy gambling and running with men and living the high life," Diehl said, and within two years of the windfall, the Toths were borrowing money to pay bills.

The Toths found themselves living in a trailer in Pasco County, drawing electricity from a device hooked up to a running car engine. The 25-year marriage, which had been in trouble for years, crumbled amid allegations of infidelity and that was before the Internal Revenue Service came knocking, looking for $1.1 million it says the Toths owed in back taxes.

Alex Toth died in 2008, several months before his trial on tax fraud charges and last year, a federal judge ordered Rhoda Toth to serve two years in prison.

The 52-year-old ex-multimillionaire pleaded guilty to filing false tax returns over several years.
Rhoda Toth is in the Federal Medical Center Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas. She is scheduled to be released in April and she's counting the days, she said in a recent telephone interview.

She's well known among the inmates there because of her Lotto history, she said. They call her Martha Stewart.

"I'm struggling," she said. "It's very hard, depressing. I have no family left. It seems like it's been a curse on the family from day-one. When we found out we had the winning ticket, I was in shock. I told him [her husband, Alex] I wanted to give it back, I was not happy."

The money flew out of the accounts, she said. Gambling and living large took a lot of it. Giving it away took the rest, she said.

"We were trying to please everybody," Toth said. "We were buying cars and homes and taking people on vacation and doing things with them they have never gotten to do. Our friends, they didn't have anything. We were paying their bills and buying them clothes. We didn't want them running around like we were running around before."

She has some advice to lottery winners.

"I would go get financial counseling," she said. "I'd make sure I'd get a proper attorney and two accountants who knew what they were doing, who specialized in this kind of thing. I would go get some type of counseling myself to make sure I was able to control and handle all this."

That winning ticket, she said, ruined her life.

"I have a trailer with no power," she said. "I have no husband. He gave up. He didn't want to live anymore. He hated life in general. He hated the way the money took us down."

When she gets out, she plans to move back to Florida where a widow's pension and a disability check amounting to nearly $1,100 a month will have to do. Out of that, she has to pay $100 a month to the IRS, which has placed a lien on her home and all her property, she said.

"It's like a curse," she said. "I will never get out from underneath the IRS for as long as I live. And when I die it will still be there."

Tony Antoniou

Mamas Kitchen's owner Tony Antoniou was born in Cyprus and won $12 million in the lottery in 1998.
Antoniou had always wanted to travel, and now he's fulfilling his dream, although he still owns the popular eatery -- well, actually, three Mamas restaurants in the Tampa Bay area and one in Nevada. That's not to mention investments in his native land.

His three sons run the restaurants, said Mike Antoniou, who oversees the Mamas on North Florida Avenue.

The original Mamas opened on South Dale Mabry Highway in 1995 and served as the home-away-from-home for servicemen and women stationed at MacDill Air Force Base. Back then, Tony Antoniou just never took time off because he felt obligated to his customers there.

Now with his restaurants still in the hands of family, he travels a lot, Mike Antoniou said.

When he first came to the United States in 1968, he worked nights in the basement of a hotel across from LaGuardia Airport in New York.

There's nothing like a $12 million windfall to get your hands out of the dishwater.

Investments in real estate years ago are solid, even in the downturned economy, Mike Antoniou said, and his father seldom shows up at the eateries in town, opting rather for trips to Greece and around the states.

"He's enjoying his life," Mike Antoniou said, adding with a chuckle, "He's making his sons work, though. He says, 'Hey, it's my money.'

"He's flies around a lot, between Greece and Nevada and here," his son said. "He's everywhere. He has a family business in Greece.

"Things," he said, "are going well."

Larry J. Gispert

Larry J. Gispert, director of Hillsborough County's Emergency Operations Center, claimed the Jan. 12, 2007, $1.8 million Mega Money jackpot. Gispert chose the one-time lump sum payment of $1.3 million.

"I don't think he wants to talk," said a woman who answered the telephone at Gispert's South Tampa home. He himself wished to keep news of his windfall on the down-low, even more than two years after his ship came in.

Gispert continues to direct operations at the EOC, taking center stage as spokesman during disasters, such as hurricanes. A county employee for nearly 30 years, Gispert has been in charge of the EOC for the past 16 years. He did not wish to be interviewed for this story.

Noreene and James Gordon

Noreene and James Gordon, a north Tampa homemaker and a retired textile worker, claimed the February 2000 Florida Lotto jackpot of $52.4 million. They chose a one-time lump sum payment of $24 million. Their first big planned purchase: a cell phone for James.

Things have changed since then.

"It's a nightmare," she said recently, with friends and strangers knocking and calling for a chunk of her prize.

"They don't want a piece," she said. "They want it all."

Her husband died in 2006, and she has suffered three strokes since the windfall.

"People come out of the walls to take advantage of you every day of your life," she said before ending the short telephone interview.

Betty Ann and David Messick

In December 1998, four years after winning a $9.5 million lottery, Betty Ann Messick and her husband, David, climbed back into the work force and opened the Apple Tree restaurant in Plant City.

Their money train arrived in the form of a Lotto ticket in April 1994. At the time, David Messick worked in the Plant City Parks and Cemetery department. It didn't take long for him to decide to retire. But four years later, the Messicks un-retired.

The restaurant remained open until just recently when the shopping center where it was located remodeled and reconfigured the space. The Apple Tree never returned.

Bill Griffiths

Bill Griffiths of San Antonio won $4.1 million on June 13, 1998, a third of the total Lotto jackpot. He was 27 at the time.

"After I double-checked my numbers on Sunday," he said at the time, "I walked into my shop on Monday at Zephyrhills Bottled Water Co. and told my boss I quit."

With $208,666 coming his way in annual installments over 20 years, he made his hobby his full time labor of love: drag racing. Griffiths planned to pursue the sport full time and not have to worry about expenses.

The 1989 Pasco High School graduate who at the time was single and lived with his parents, vowed to put some of his winnings into a home of his own. He could not be reached for comment.

Here are the numbers

The Florida Lottery first started selling chances on Jan. 12, 1988; that was for a scratch-off game called "Millionaire."
During the past 21 years, the lottery has donated more than $20 billion to education and doled out more than $30.4 billion to winners.

Reporter Keith Morelli can be reached at (813) 259-7760.

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