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Winning lottery jackpot is lucky for some, tragic for others

Posted at 10:59 AM, Aug 01, 2022

Dave and Erica Harrig stayed true to their values when they won a lottery jackpot of more than $61 million in 2013. It made all the difference.

The couple from Gretna, Nebraska, a community on the outskirts of Omaha where Dave Harrig now is a volunteer firefighter, allowed themselves to buy a new home, some vintage automobiles and a few ocean cruises after they both quit their jobs.

But nine years later, they still live much as they always did, remaining in their community, keeping up with church, family and friends, and teaching their children to work hard to make a living despite any financial windfall that might come their way.

Many other winners haven’t been as lucky, suffering personal setbacks and lawsuits or becoming the victims of scams. The latest winner of a big jackpot came Friday, when a single ticket sold in Illinois matched the numbers for a $1.337 billion Mega Millions prize. Illinois is among the states where winners of more than $250,000 can choose to not reveal their names.

Dave Harrig, an Air Force veteran who worked in aircraft maintenance, says keeping things simple probably saved him and his family from the kind of hassles and tragedies that have befallen other big winners.

Almost overnight, the Harrig family mailbox was filled with letters full of hard luck stories: sick children, lost jobs, burned out homes.

Dave Harrig said they ignored them all and focused on their own family and charities.

They didn't even touch the principal on their winnings until just a few years ago, when they tapped into it to fund a new museum of firefighting in Gretna that will open soon.

“We have nicer things, a bigger house, and more than we ever had in the past. But we are the same, and my wife and I keep each other in check,” Dave Harrig said, encouraging future lottery winners to invest wisely, choose a national investment adviser rather than a local one, and to avoid advisers who try to sell financial products.

They've ignored false rumors that have swirled about them, suggesting that his wife at one point ran off with a doctor and that he had a lawyer girlfriend. Their four children endured teasing at school.

“We're still learning, but it has helped to stay working together as a team,” he said of himself and his wife.

He acknowledged the struggles of some past winners, saying the experience of winning a jackpot “can really accentuate your character and any addictions.”

The late Andrew Whittaker Jr., of West Virginia, suffered lawsuits and personal setbacks after he claimed a record $315 million Powerball jackpot on Christmas night in 2002.

At the time, it was the largest U.S. lottery jackpot won by a single ticket. People harassed him so much with requests for money he was quoted several times saying he wished he had torn up the ticket.

Before dying of natural causes in 2020 at age 72, he struggled with alcohol and gambling problems and had a series of personal tragedies, including the death of his granddaughter.

Winning the lottery brought other kinds of headaches for Manuel Franco, of West Allis, Wisconsin, who claimed a $768 million lottery jackpot in April 2019.

Then just 24, Franco excitedly held a news conference to discuss his win, but later reportedly went into hiding amid harassment by strangers and the news media.

The Better Business Bureau of Wisconsin began warning people in 2021 about messages from scammers who claimed to be the multimillion-dollar winner.

Using Franco’s name, the scammers sent text messages, social media messages, phone calls and emails phishing for personal information, telling recipients they had been chosen to receive money.

The BBB said scammers got more than $13,000 from people they tricked, including people in Alabama and Colorado.

Despite the problems encountered by the winners, lottery officials favor publicly identifying winners to instill public trust in the games.

That's in large part because some past drawings have been rigged. Former Multi-State Lottery Association information security director Eddie Tipton pleaded guilty in 2017 to manipulating software so he could predict winning numbers on certain days of the year. He and his brother rigged jackpots in numerous states for a combined payout of some $24 million.