Emma Teitel: As Powerball winner Jane Doe knows — winning the lottery can be fatal
The anonymous winner of a lottery prize worth more than half a billion dollars deserves at least a little sympathy, writes Emma Teitel.
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It’s hard to feel sorry for a person who wins half a billion dollars in the lottery. Not only do they have half a billion dollars but they did nearly nothing to get half a billion dollars. They stood in a line, or more likely, held up a line, and took their sweet time contemplating which game to play at the local convenience store, while the person behind them rolled his eyes and tapped his toes impatiently (joke’s on him).
That said, I can’t help but feel at least a little bit sorry for the winner of the recent Powerball lottery in the United States — a New Hampshire woman who won $559.7 million (U.S.) but who has yet to cash in her ticket because she is embroiled in a legal battle. The woman in question, referred to in court documents as Jane Doe, or as I like to call her, Jane Dough, is challenging her state for the right to remain anonymous when she collects her fortune. The New Hampshire Lottery Commission requires a winner to sign her name on the back of a winning ticket before she cashes it in. Unfortunately, Jane Dough signed away not realizing at the time that an option exists to the sign the ticket in the name of a private trust in order to retain a winner’s anonymity. But the lottery commission says it’s too late: Dough signed her ticket under her real name, and if that piece of paper is altered, it’s rendered invalid. The lottery argues that it must publish the information on the ticket in the interest of transparency.
But Jane Dough doesn’t want to be transparent about her identity, because according to her attorney, she wishes to retain “the freedom to walk into a grocery store or attend public events without being known or targeted as the winner of a half-billion dollars.”
Put another way, she wishes to remain anonymous because if her name and story gets out in the press, or worse, to her friends and family, that half a billion bucks may bring her nothing but misery — and possibly even death. How is such a thing possible? Let me count the ways.
In the mid-2000s a man named Abraham Shakespeare won a $30 million jackpot in Florida. He took home a lump sum of $17 million. In 2009 Shakespeare went missing. He was discovered murdered a year later. His killer, a friend of his named Dee Dee Moore, is believed to have swindled him out of millions before she shot him to death.
In 2012, a 46-year-old Chicago man named Urooj Khan won a million dollars in the lottery. Only a few weeks later, he fell down dead. Authorities initially believed Khan died of a heart attack, but further testing of his blood revealed lethal levels of cyanide in his system. The lottery winner’s death, previously attributed to “natural causes,” led police to launch a homicide investigation that remains open to this day.
But don’t worry, not all lottery winners are murdered. Some are just hounded by tabloid media, swindled out of their fortunes by backstabbing friends and family, or rendered destitute and suicidal. In 2009, a British woman named Callie Rogers who tried to take her own life after she won the lottery in 2003, told the Daily Mail:
“I’ve just wanted to make people happy by spending money on them.
“But it hasn’t made me happy. It just made me anxious that people are only after me for my money. My life is a shambles and hopefully now it (the money) has all gone I can find some happiness. It’s brought me nothing but unhappiness. It’s ruined my life.”
Of course people who win the lottery can and do improve their lives. They pay off their mortgages, buy impractical cars, open bars that fail, and give a nice chunk of change to charity. But I think it’s important to note that every horror story above contains a common thread: identity disclosure. Every miserable or deceased person listed above, and several more whose stories I read but did not include in this column, was open about their newly won fortune. Every one of them had the mark of the obscenely lucky. And every one of them paid for it. It’s possible, if not likely, that had they remained anonymous, as Jane Dough is fighting to do, they’d have avoided a great deal of misfortune.
The case can be made that without the cloak of anonymity, taking home a lottery jackpot, no matter how massive, simply isn’t worth it. And perhaps, in the interest of public safety, governments should allow lottery winners to remain anonymous no matter the circumstance, not only to protect winners from harm, but to prevent the rest of us from acting on our most vile impulses. I hope for Jane Dough’s sake, and those closest to her, we never learn her real name.
Emma Teitel is a national affairs columnist.