Local lottery winners balance dreams, reality

Everyone has a plan for their winnings figured out as they stand in line to play the lottery or take a penny to their scratch-off ticket: an early retirement, a permanent vacation or an Aston Martin DB5 just like James Bond drove.

Shawn Benton of Altoona, who in February 2010 cashed in his own $1 million Millionaire Raffle ticket with his wife, Stephanie, said he was no different.

But daydreaming is the easy part.

“I thought, ‘I’ve got to be smart about it,'” he said.

His feelings seem to be a common thread among area lottery winners, who have, for the most part, opted to act as though they’d won a few thousand dollars instead of a million or more, because they wanted to make the money last and plan for the future.

The Pennsylvania Lottery is a lucrative business, recording more than $3.48 billion in gross revenue for the 2011-12 fiscal year, with nearly $2 billion in prizes paid to winners.

And those profits are up 8.5 percent from last year, hitting an all-time sales record, according to state lottery Information Specialist Lauren Piccolo.

Hoping for a piece of the action, some people play religiously whether the daily Cash 5 or the biannual Millionaire Raffle.

It’s not all rosy

For a small number of people, their dreams came true and the reward was great; for others, winning the lottery is the worst thing that’s ever happened to them.

The horror stories across the country aren’t in short supply.

In December, a Florida jury convicted Dorice “Dee Dee” Moore of first-degree murder for killing 2006 lottery winner Abraham Shakespeare, an illiterate casual laborer who hit a $30 million jackpot in 2006. Police said Moore befriended Shakespeare and slowly funneled money into her own accounts before shooting him and burying his body under a concrete slab behind her home.

In September, 25-year-old Amanda Clayton of Detroit, who in 2011 won a $735,000 lump sum, was found dead of a possible drug overdose. Police said Clayton was no stranger to trouble: she’d been convicted of fraud in June for failing to disclose her winnings to the food stamp and public assistance office, and for months continued to collect more than $5,000 in benefits.

Last month, Chicago police questioned Shabana Ansari for hours after the death of her husband, 46-year-old Urooj Khan, who was poisoned with cyanide in July – the day after he was issued a lump-sum check from his $1 million jackpot. No arrest has been made.

Those who don’t wind up in legal trouble or on a coroner’s slab still are more likely to go bankrupt.

According to a paper published in 2010 by researchers at Vanderbilt University, the University of Kentucky and the University of Pittsburgh, large-sum lottery winners may be more likely to lose it all than those who win only small amounts.

Researchers looked at two groups of lottery winners: those who won $10,000 or less, and those who won larger prizes between $50,000 and $150,000.

The study found that five years after winning, the ones who won the larger sums were more likely to have filed for bankruptcy three to five years afterward, even though they had “similar net assets and unsecured debt as small winners,” meaning they had the same debt but more money available to them to pay it off and maintain better financial security. They chose not to.

This research seems to suggest that our regional winners are somewhat unique. They have hired financial advisers, made mostly smaller purchases and, most importantly, tried to maintain normal day-to-day lives.

Local luck

Heather Moyer, 39, of Altoona, said life didn’t really change much after her mother, Linda Despot, and then-boyfriend Don Woomer held a $46 million winning ticket in October 1987. After taxes, that came down to about $780,000 for each of them every year for 26 years.

Moyer was 14 at the time.

“It was normal, because I always had a part-time job [and] I went to school,” she said. “It was just a little easier to sleep at night.”

Despot said after a quarter-century of being known as the local big lottery winner, she just wants to live quietly now.

Despot told the Mirror in a 1989 interview the luxury purchases included a Ford Bronco for Woomer and a Chevrolet Corvette for her.

“You really have to learn how to budget” when payday comes just once a year, she told the Mirror.

According to the Pennsylvania Lottery, Despot and Woomer received their 26th and final payment of $1,770,778, or $885,389 each, in October.

Although Despot and Woomer did many things together with their winnings, including building the 11,000-square-foot Winsome Stables in Hollidaysburg that now is for sale, big purchases never were the norm.

Moyer said despite coming into many millions of dollars, her mother still lives in the same house as when she won 26 years ago.

“We are boring,” she laughed. “There’s nothing going on.”

She said her family has worked hard to live private lives without any frills, and she doesn’t think her life was any different than most people’s lives.

“It didn’t change [me],” she said. “I don’t think it should change people.”

Moyer said her 12-year-old son doesn’t have a cell phone, unlike many kids his age, and even with the money available, she wants him to learn responsible spending habits.

“It’s hard trying to teach your kids what a dollar is, and, if you keep spending, you won’t have it,” she said.

Even without constant worrying about the next paycheck or large bills, Moyer said she continues to work hard and “do her own thing.”

Making a plan

Matthew Pelow, 25, originally of Johnstown, decided to make a Sheetz run in the middle of the night November 2008.

He paid for his food and, while waiting for it, fished around in his pants pocket and found a $20 bill. Then, he did something he almost never did: He got back in line and bought a $1 Million Silver & Gold scratch-off ticket. He had a one in 600,000 chance of winning.

Pelow said he waited until later to scratch off the ticket at his girlfriend’s house and was in complete disbelief at what he saw.

“[I thought] that someone was playing a trick on me,” he said.

He left his car at his girlfriend’s house and ran home to tell his mother, who thought he was in trouble and running from the police. “It was like 2 a.m.,” he said.

After taking a $750,000 lump sum payout, the 20-year-old Pelow had some decisions to make.

Deciding whether to take a lump-sum payment or an annuity is often the first of many tough decisions winners must make after winning games like Powerball or Mega Millions.

Some financial planners suggest taking the annuity option if it is available, because it will keep winners from making rash purchases and blowing through their money quickly, but Dave Frederick of Ark Financial Services in East Freedom said every case is different.

He said he’s dealt with a lottery winner before, and it was a pleasant experience because the person knew what they wanted and had a plan.

Frederick suggested winners hire a team of advisers, including a financial adviser, a certified public accountant and a lawyer to help decide what to do next.

“If everyone can agree, half the battle’s over,” he said.

Frederick also noted that while the annuity is a smart plan because it can stretch the money over several years and gives a higher overall payout, it’s hard to generalize because some people may have a reason for wanting the money sooner.

The most important thing, he said, is for a lottery winner to find someone they trust to help them, and to take the time and study the options.

That’s what Pelow did. At the time, he had been attending the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown but, after winning, decided to take some time off to travel and figure out his life’s plan. The money provided him with the means to do so, he said.

He bought a car for himself and his mother, a motorcycle for his father and took his five best friends to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico for spring break.

Pelow has since moved to Pittsburgh to attend Robert Morris University and finish an undergraduate computer systems information degree, and said he plans to graduate and move to a beach somewhere.

And other than a few strange people here and there, Pelow said he’s never been pestered for money, has the same friends he’s always had and feels blessed at the opportunity winning the lottery has given him.

When he thinks about making a purchase, he said he weighs want versus need and always keeps in mind what he can do with his invested winnings.

“I can have a down payment on a house or even retire early,” he said, and is planning for his future family.

Paycheck to paycheck

Shawn Benton, 39, of Altoona said he didn’t want to sound ungrateful by saying that his lottery winnings, which came to roughly $650,000 in a lump-sum payment after taxes, didn’t add up to a lot.

But once debts are paid off – for the cars, the house and on credit cards – and college funds were set up for his three children: Josh, 21; Dylan, 14; and Madison, 12, the rest of the money was invested by a family friend and the Bentons don’t live extravagantly.

“I mean, the kids have nice cellphones,” he said, holding his own blue Verizon flip phone that looked like it’d seen better days, and checking his Timex watch. “But we don’t live any differently.”

The Bentons found out they’d won a Millionaire Raffle the day after the winning numbers were announced, and Benton said his first reaction was relief, like a burden had been lifted from him.

Also, he admits, there may have been a fist pump or two.

Not a lottery addict, Benton admits he would “mess around once in awhile when [a jackpot] got high” but played Millionaire Raffle every time.

In his 18 years of marriage to Stephanie, they always played, he said.

Reality didn’t hit him until he saw the money deposited into an account, he said, but many things haven’t changed.

“My truck parked out front has a dent in it. I’m not gonna get that fixed,” he said.

He admits that he bought a used Harley Davidson, a 4-wheeler quad with a plow for clearing the driveway in winter and that he hopes to retire at 55 instead of 65. But otherwise, life at the Benton residence has remained largely unchanged.

“The money is where it is, and we live paycheck to paycheck like everybody else,” he said, although it’s “a little easier if there’s something that needs taken care of.”

Sometimes, he even second guesses his decision to set up college funds, saying although he doesn’t want his kids to have to scrape by with massive college debt, they need to know they “can’t sit at home because Mom and Dad won money.”

Looking ahead

Even with the money in the bank, many lottery winners still try their hand at getting lucky once more – both Pelow and Benton admitted to playing every so often, although Pelow plays only on the anniversary of his win and Benton goes out only “when the Powerball gets high” but say they feel blessed and grateful for what they have now.

Benton and his wife still work, and payments on the house they bought overlooking Altoona come every month like clockwork.

“We make house payments. Next month, we’ll have another payment,” he said.

Frederick, the East Freedom financial planner, said the commonality of local winners’ attitude likely is the same for people throughout the area and may be the reason they’ve had continued luck with their finances.

“We’re a little bit more grounded,” he said.

Despot said she’d “had a good run” and was glad it wrapped up with her final installment last year. For her, it’s “not a fun story [anymore].”

Being one of the younger area winners, Pelow said he felt weird after he’d won, and wondered how others would treat him or how his life would change. He said he’s comforted by his mother’s words of wisdom.

“I would give [other winners] the same advice my mom gave me. She said, ‘It’s only money, Matt. Everybody has some. Don’t let it change you.'”

And it hasn’t, he said.

Mirror Staff Writer Kelly Cernetich is at 946-7520.