Later On

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Wealth corrodes

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April Witt describes in vivid detail how winning sudden and significant wealth can destroy a person. Jesus, you may recall, took a fairly strong stance against wealth, perhaps for this reason. This report in the Washington Post ran originally in 2005:

Whoever won the $1.5 billion Mega Millions jackpot will have some decisions to make. What should they do with the money? Who will they tell?

Jack Whittaker faced similar decisions in 2002 when he won Powerball’s $314 million jackpot ($113 million after taxes). At the time, it was the largest jackpot ever won by a single ticket. But the lottery changed Whittaker’s life and within a few years, the West Virginia construction contractor faced personal loss and tragedy. This article originally appeared in The Washington Post Magazine on Jan. 30, 2005.


It was coming up on Christmas, and Brenda-the-biscuit-lady was inexplicably happy as she walked to work in the predawn darkness. Brenda didn’t just make biscuits over at the C&L Super Serve for $6 an hour. She served up good cheer.

“How you doin’, honey?” she’d greet customers, with such enthusiasm that they had no choice but to smile back.

“Dad-gonnit, you are growing up on me!” she’d call to schoolchildren, just to see them grin. “What grade you in now?”

At 39, Brenda Higginbotham didn’t have much to show for a lifetime of good cheer. No car. No home. No picture-book Christmas on the horizon. In spite of that, in spite of everything, she had a sense of her place in the world as unsullied as a holiday snowfall before folks trample it ugly, like folks do. That abiding sense was Brenda’s gift.

“What do you need, dear?” she’d ask a weary workman eyeing her hot-food carryout case. For a moment, Brenda could make the man with chapped hands and muddy boots feel like somebody was looking after him.

“You want a roll with that, baby?” she’d say, smiling even bigger.

Of all her customers, the person Brenda loved to josh with most was the cowboy-man who pulled into the C&L Super Serve in Hurricane, W.Va., by 6:30 a.m. weekdays to gas up and buy breakfast. Brenda would spy him out at the pumps and start his order: two of her famous biscuits stuffed with bacon.

Brenda and the cowboy-man joshed so much that fellow clerks teased they must have some kind of “rendezvous deal” going on. Brenda would laugh and say, “It ain’t like that!” She didn’t even know that the cowboy-man’s name was Jack. Jack Whittaker. She just knew he dressed in black like Johnny Cash and carried himself big — big as the cowboy hat he always wore. She liked how polite and cheerful he acted, as if trouble were a stranger.

In the days before Christmas in 2002, Jack bought a Powerball lottery ticket along with his biscuits. Some fools couldn’t get enough of those tickets. Not the cowboy-man. He’d buy one only when the jackpot got big, like anything less than a couple hundred million wasn’t worth his trouble.

On Christmas Day, the lottery ticket-buying frenzy peaked at 3:26 p.m. In convenience stores and gas stations across West Virginia, 15 people every second commemorated Jesus’s birthday by plunking down $1 for a chance at a different kind of salvation: that Powerball jackpot.

It was about 11 o’clock Christmas night 2002 when Channel 3 out of Charleston announced what it said were the winning Powerball numbers. Jack was slumbering when his wife of nearly 40 years, Jewell, jostled him awake to say that his lottery ticket matched four out of five. Jack was clueless about what kind of payoff a four-number match brought, but he figured it had to be good for at least $100,000. He went back to sleep while visions of a six-figure windfall danced in his head.

The next morning, as always, he rose at 4:30 to get to work. Jack, 55, had been working construction since he was a poor 14-year-old in the hills. He’d built himself a nice life in this patch of West Virginia hard by the Kentucky and Ohio borders. He had a wife and a granddaughter who basked in his attentions, a brick house in a nice subdivision in neighboring Scott Depot, and a water and sewer pipe-laying business that employed more than 100 people. At 5:15 a.m., Jack snapped on the television and heard, to his surprise, that the winning ticket had been sold at the C&L Super Serve. What are the odds, Jack later said he was thinking, that one little convenience store would sell two lucky tickets? Just then the winning numbers flashed. The numbers broadcast the night before had been wrong. He had a match on all five numbers, not four.

Jack Whittaker had just won $314 million, the largest undivided lottery jackpot in history.

A few hours later, he ambled into the C&L Super Serve and calmly handed Brenda a bill, saying he’d been meaning to give it to her before Christmas. Brenda figured it was a $1 tip for helping him diet, taking care to pinch a little dough out of his bacon biscuits so the cowboy-man’s big burly wouldn’t go soft.

“He handed me a $100 bill!” Brenda recalls. “I looked at it, and I’m, like, ‘Oh, no, no, no. I’m not taking this from you.’ And he’s, like, ‘Oh, yes, you are.'”

Then it hit her.

“Did you win?” Brenda whispered.

Jack nodded and grinned.

The day would come when many West Virginians recalled the story of Jack’s Powerball Christmas with a shudder at the magnitude of ruination: families asunder, precious lambs six feet under, folks undone by the lure of all that easy money.

But for now, Jack’s big win was viewed as one of the greatest Christmas gifts in his poor state’s history, a holiday miracle to be heralded around the globe. Jack proclaimed that he would tithe a biblical 10 percent of his winnings, donate millions to his family’s favorite pastors and build big new churches. He vowed to start a charitable foundation to help needy West Virginians. “I just want to thank God for letting me pick the right numbers . . . or letting the machine pick the right numbers,” he said as he claimed his check.

Civic-minded citizens hailed Jack as a hero, the state’s antidote to mean-spirited hillbilly jokes. Sure, dental woes had left the strapping cowboy-man without a tooth in his head. But Jack sounded so well-intentioned on TV that some people said he should run for governor.

The day after Jack claimed his prize, Brenda was at the C&L Super Serve when she heard him on the radio saying he was going to share his big win with her along with the clerk who’d sold him his winning ticket. Brenda nearly collapsed.

“Lightning has struck,” intoned “Good Morning America’s” Charles Gibson. “Where better for it to happen than a place called Hurricane?”

Some West Virginians tell a joke about the hillbilly who died smiling.

“What’d he die of?” the man’s relatives asked the medical examiner. “He was struck by lightning,” the medical examiner declared.

“Then why was he smiling?” the kinfolks wanted to know.

“Well,” the ME said, “he thought he was gettin’ his picture took.”

Jack had his picture taken so much after his big win that he couldn’t have been more instantly recognizable in West Virginia if he’d been Elvis reincarnated. He starred in a half-hour live broadcast across his home state and appeared on network morning shows to introduce his family to the nation.

Jewell seemed quiet and shy on TV. She let it be known that she was so down-to-earth she actually enjoyed scrubbing her toilets. Their 15-year-old granddaughter, Brandi Bragg, announced that she was hoping to meet the rap star Nelly and buy a blue Mitsubishi Eclipse.

Jack declared that he was going to leave the power-shopping to the gals. He radiated a confident individualism. When a Charleston television interviewer pointed out that his all-black outfits were “sort of a Johnny Cash look,” Jack corrected her. “It’s a Jack Whittaker look,” he said.

Asked if he considered himself a role model, he replied: “I want to be a good example. I want to make people proud of what happens with this winning. I want to promote goodwill and help people.”

Jack opted to take his prize as a one-time payout of $113,386,407.77, after taxes. He was determined, he said at the time, to live as if nothing had changed, except that he could spend more time with his family. He was going to keep answering his own phone, opening his own front door and turning to God for guidance. “He’s still working on me,” Jack said, sounding modest.

On New Year’s Eve 2002, West Virginia’s most famous do-gooder strolled into the Pink Pony, a strip club in the nearby town of Cross Lanes, and, according to the manager, slapped $50,000 on the bar.

“I swallowed my bubble gum,” recalls general manager Michael Dunn, who says flashing all that cash “was just a stupid gesture.” There are people in this world who’ll knock you in the head for $5. “My worst nightmare was waking up in the morning and reading in the paper that Jack Whittaker got rolled at the Pink Pony. I said: ‘Please put that money away. Please don’t do that again.'”

Jack didn’t respond to repeated requests to be interviewed for this article. According to Dunn, Jack put away the cash but made it clear that he was there to whoop it up. He whooped it up so much that he couldn’t drive home. “I stuck his butt in a limo at the end of the night,” Dunn says.

Most everybody in West Virginia had an opinion on how Jack should spend his fortune: Fix potholes; put a new roof on the library; spay cats and dogs; buy a coloring book for every kid.

Since Jack said he was going to give away much of his winnings, a lot of people thought it would be a fine idea if he gave some to them. They turned up at the C&L Super Serve in the wee hours and waited for the great man to show up for biscuits. People lurked in the parking lot wild-eyed, or paced the store aisles as if they were deciding whether to buy a folding knife, flag decal, work gloves or the hunter’s best friend: a “hands-free grunter,” promising authentic deer noises. Even an evangelist from Israel hit up Jack for cash. “A lot of them, they had cancer, or their child was dying,” Brenda says. “Different stuff like that, which was heartbreaking. It would even make you want to reach in your own pocket.”

One morning Brenda was trying to chat with Jack, when a distraught young man, who said he was out of work, interrupted. “I need a job!” he shouted. Jack was real nice to the fellow, Brenda says. “Jack was, like, ‘Well, you come down to my office, and I’ll see what I can do for you.’ But mainly what the man wanted was money. He was, like, ‘No, I need money right now!'”

Pretty soon, Jack stopped coming to the convenience store, Brenda says. But people still found him to ask for money. They telephoned his home and rang his doorbell. Given the size of Jack’s fortune, some were reluctant to go away empty-handed. A few threatened Jack’s family. Off-duty deputies from the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department began providing private security for his family.

“I don’t know if life will ever be normal again,” Jack told a reporter for Channel 13 in Charleston.

Brenda knew how he felt. Jack made good on his promise to help her. He let Brenda pick out a new Jeep, bought her a $123,000 house and gave her a check for $44,000. She didn’t know how he’d come up with that particular sum. She was too stunned to ask.

“It was overwhelming,” says Brenda, who grew up on welfare in a family of seven children. Brenda’s grown daughter, who didn’t work, figured that since her ma was rich she should buy her a trailer and a new car. Brenda did. Other relatives demanded help Brenda couldn’t give. Brenda and one of her sisters stopped talking.

Some people had the mistaken impression that Brenda and the clerk who’d sold Jack his winning ticket were now millionaires. Once, a man followed the other clerk home from work. Brenda’s boyfriend started getting paranoid. “He’d say, I don’t want anybody to try to kidnap you,” Brenda recalls.

Meanwhile, Jack had so much mail that he hired three people to open the thousands of begging letters. He hired a private investigator to sort out which supplicants claiming to have a child with cancer didn’t even have a child.

“At first, I didn’t think anything would change, but everything has changed,” Jack told a Charleston newspaper reporter. He sounded disenchanted with his role as West Virginia’s richest moral exemplar. His health wasn’t good. He had pancreatitis, and he’d had eight operations in eight years. He figured he had about 10 good years left in life, he said, and wanted to live it to the fullest: “If someone’s got a problem with that, well, that’s just too bad.”

Not long after Jack’s big win, he started staying out at night, a family friend says. Jewell was beside herself. She’d loved Jack since he was a broke boy from a hill clan with the unofficial motto: “Don’t start a bar fight, but never lose one.”

Jack had always been up for a good time and “happy-go-lucky,” says niece Melissa Harris, who works for the construction company Jack owns with her father. Jewell believed in living by the word of God. She didn’t favor drinking, Harris says. But she and Jack loved to dance for hours over at the Do-Wop, a ’50s dance at a local park. “She was madly in love with him, and he worshiped her,” Harris says. “I always thought they were the perfect couple.”

Jewell declined to be interviewed for this article, but her nephew Billy Ray Wright describes his aunt and uncle as “the life force of our entire family. They were meant to be together.”

Now Jack had new friends.

On March 24, 2003, Jack was at Tri-State Racetrack & Gaming Center, a 90,000-square-foot gambling mecca in Cross Lanes with 1,800 slot machines and 15 greyhound races daily. What happened there is the subject of lawsuits filed against Jack in Kanawha County.

Jack was in the high-roller room with a woman, not his wife, floor attendant Kitti French claims. He seemed to have been drinking. As his comely companion played the slots, Jack grabbed at her breasts and crotch, French contends. Jack’s lady friend got lucky at a slot machine, and a floor attendant named Ronda Lilly waited for the go-ahead from security before counting out the woman’s winnings. Lilly alleges that Jack grabbed her hair and laid hands on her backside. Another floor attendant, Charity Fortner, says she was leaning down to refill a slot machine with tokens when Jack grabbed her ponytail and shoved her head in the direction of his crotch. French, who also waited on Jack, claims that he snapped her bra.

Jack, in court filings, denies the allegations. But French says she stopped thinking of Jack as a West Virginia hero the moment she met him: “My opinion — he’s obnoxious.”

The Pink Pony was always packed, especially on weekends and Wednesdays, when cars lined the road leading to the white stucco one-story building with the bright pink awning. Wednesday was amateur night. The club paid $50 to any woman willing to get up on the white Plexiglas stage and strip to the strains of her own musical selections. “Everybody likes to see the girl next door take her clothes off,” explains assistant manager Don Springstead. The rest of the week, patrons were only too delighted to watch professionals swing buck-naked around the Pony’s two gleaming dance poles.

At 24, Misty Dawn Arnold was the den mother to about 40 strippers. She’d audition and schedule dancers, stitch ripped costumes and referee fights. It was a management challenge. “You can’t put that many women in one building and make them compete for money and not have problems,” Misty says. “I made sure they kept their poise about them — that they didn’t go out there and act like trash.”

After high school, Misty stripped under the stage name Diamond. Her alter ego was expert at parting men from their cash by telling them lies they were unlikely to hear at home, namely that they were very, very sexy and very, very hot.

“It hardens your heart really quick,” Misty says. Eventually, Misty realized that she could no longer emotionally separate herself from Diamond even when she got off work. That spooked her, and she quit dancing for good.

Misty and her two kids moved in with one of the Pony’s assistant managers, Jeff Caplinger. Together, they had a new baby and plans. Jeff took glamour shots of the Pony’s dancers. One magenta wall of the club was lined with his photos. Misty was proud of him. The couple were saving money for Jeff to start his own promotions business.

Jack Whittaker patronized the Pony occasionally after that first New Year’s Eve. Jeff says Jack usually came in with a boisterous entourage and an annoying habit: “Busy fingers.” Jack tipped well, and the dancers liked that. But he was so frisky with women that the club began assigning a security guard to baby-sit him, Misty says. Sometimes Jack even grabbed at Misty, she says, but everybody talked nice to him because he’d won the Powerball jackpot.

Over the months, the once-dapper Jack grew slovenly, Misty says: “He would come in a sloppy shirt, all wrinkled. His hat would be dirty. He’d be unshaven.” And he became demanding. “At first he was, like: ‘I’m Jack Whittaker. I won all this money, yay for me,'” Misty says. “Later it was, like: ‘I’m Jack Whittaker. You’ll do what I say . . . I have more money than God.’ Who talks like that?

“It was like the money was eating away at whatever was good in him,” Misty says. “It reminds me, like, ‘Lord of the Rings,’ how that little guy — what’s his name? Gollum? — was with his Precious. It just consumes you. You become the money. You are no longer a person.”

One night in August 2003, eight months after he’d won the Powerball, Jack came to the club alone. He let it be known that he had more than $500,000 in a black briefcase sitting on the front seat of his Lincoln Navigator, which he’d left idling at the club door.

“Somebody should rob him,” Misty said, according to a criminal complaint police later filed. A bartender told police she heard Misty make that remark and saw her open two blue capsules and dump their contents into a Hawaiian Punch fruit juice drink to try to knock out Jack.

According to police, Jeff went to the parking lot, pulled his sleeves over his hands so he wouldn’t leave fingerprints, smashed the driver’s side window of Jack’s Navigator, grabbed the briefcase and hid it behind a dumpster. It was recovered after Jack realized it was gone and called police.

Misty and Jeff declined to discuss details of the allegations but contend they are innocent and never drugged or robbed Jack.

News cameras captured Jack sitting on a curb outside the Pink Pony, bleary and outraged. “My personal life is my own, and I make no excuses for my actions,” he said in a statement issued through a publicist. A British tabloid summed up Jack’s predicament with a three-word headline: A Lotto Trouble.

There was a lotto trouble to go around. The state revoked the Pink Pony’s liquor license. No booze meant no customers. No customers meant no tips. No tips meant few gals willing to prance naked, even on amateur night. “Thirty or 40 people in this club alone lost their jobs,” says Don Springstead, who helps keep the near-empty club open part time while the owners fight to regain a liquor license. “Cooks, managers, people who used to baby-sit the dancers’ kids. Stretch it out to all the people we bought our liquor and food from. It hasn’t just affected the Pink Pony. It’s ruined dozens of lives.”

Jeff and Misty tumbled into a legal hole so dark and mysterious it was as if the earth had swallowed them. Police charged the couple with robbing Jack, but they were never indicted. They spent more than a year under house arrest in a cramped, cluttered apartment with three children and no trial date.

“It’s Hell,” Misty says. “Even people in jail get, like, an hour out a day just to get some exercise, be outside in the sun. We don’t. We’re in Hell.”

Brenda felt bad for Jack. People were making fun of him. An anonymous caller to the local paper’s vent-line joked that Jack must have been in the Pink Pony trying to save souls. When Jack declined to give the city of Nitro, W.Va., $10,000 to make its water park handicapped-accessible, people sniped that Jack was more interested in strippers than in disabled children.

A few weeks after Jack’s nudie-bar debacle, Brenda’s own cheerful communion with her fellow man hit a rough patch. One of her new neighbors in the Hurricane sub-division of Moss Creek, where Jack had bought Brenda a three-bedroom split-level, began distributing fliers that said Brenda’s live-in boyfriend was on probation for a sex offense involving a minor. The biscuit lady knew all about her boyfriend’s crime and had long since accepted it. “We all make mistakes,” was how she looked at it.

But she hadn’t bargained on the reaction of her neighbors. “They would run in when they’d see me coming. It was like I had the plague,” she says. People made bitter comments behind Brenda’s back about how they’d had to work hard for a house in Moss Creek, and she’d had one handed to her. For the first time, Brenda saw herself through her neighbors’ eyes. “It was like I was white trash moving into their posh neighborhood,” she says.

Heartsick, Brenda sold the house that Jack bought and moved away. “I probably would have rejected the money in the first place if I’d known then what I know now,” she says. “It seems like money brings out the ugly in people.”

In the fall of 2003, the Jack Whittaker Foundation announced it was overwhelmed with requests for help and was suspending operations.

On the first anniversary of his win,  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

24 October 2018 at 8:42 am

2 Responses

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  1. The problem with the inability to create wealth stems from people not being encouraged to save money and create wealth.



    28 March 2019 at 12:01 pm

  2. Can you please explain how your comment relates to the post? I simply don’t see the connection.

    One big problem with the inability to create wealth is that millions are not paid a living wage. Before they can save money, they must have money to save. You might find this book informative: Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.



    28 March 2019 at 12:15 pm

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