How I Convinced A Powerball Jackpot Winner That He Lost
“Do you work at the station that got the numbers wrong?”
A week after a man from West Virginia won the largest jackpot in Powerball history, I was at a party in South Carolina. My friend introduced me to a cute girl who worked at his TV station, and left us alone to talk.
“You work in TV too?”
“You’re from West Virginia, right?” she said.
“Things probably got crazy with that Powerball guy, right?”
“Do you work at the station that got the numbers wrong?”
I shrugged my shoulders. No use in denying it. She’d never know, of course, that I was the one who screwed it up.
“You weren’t the one who screwed it up, right?”
I froze. I hesitated. I didn’t answer right away, which was all it took to confirm to her that, yes, I was —
“Oh my God,” she said, interrupting my thought. Now wide-eyed and covering her mouth with her hands, she couldn’t think of anything more to say, except for another round of ohmigod’s.
In 2002, the only way to immediately know if you’d won a Powerball jackpot was to watch television. I was 22, and I’d just started working the overnight shift at an NBC affiliate in Huntington, West Virginia. Part of my job was to put the Powerball numbers on the air during the 11 p.m. news. Even though the drawing aired live on a competing station, a huge number of viewers would watch us for the numbers instead — a big draw in a viewing area where the people were largely old, poor, and computer-illiterate.
The lottery numbers would air on my station around 11:13 p.m. or so, and had the potential to keep sleepy viewers awake through at least the first commercial break. So every Wednesday, I’d stop what I was doing at 10:59, watch the other station, jot down the numbers, and walk them to the control room. If I forgot, I’d get yelled at the next day. “Powerball is huge!” my old boss would say, gesturing with wide open arms to emphasize just how huge it was. “People watch just for the numbers, and when you don’t have them, you’re letting them down.”
On Christmas night in 2002, the top prize had grown to legendary proportions: more than $314 million. At the time, this was the largest Powerball jackpot ever. My boss decided that the numbers wouldn’t air at 11:13, but rather 11:05, five minutes after the drawing. There would be no walking.
That night, as the balls came out of the machine, I scribbled down the numbers as quickly as I could, sprinted down the hallway, and tossed the slip of paper to a production tech, who entered the numbers into the system just seconds ahead of time. Well, I mused as I gasped for breath, at least the losers would know how close they came.
I walked back to the newsroom with a sigh of relief. I’d made it. I’d beaten the clock. My boss wouldn’t yell at me.
And as I heard the anchor read the numbers, I realized I’d gotten one of them wrong.
So here’s something I didn’t realize until that moment: The faster I write, the more my sixes look like ones. Instead of 16 showing up on the screen, the graphic showed an 11. I turned and sprinted back to the control room. The only thing going through my head was the word “shit,” set on repeat. I flung the door open and everyone turned to look at me.
“Shit,” I blurted out. It was the only thing that came to mind.
After I regained my composure, I told them about my mistake. Then I stood there and watched the clock. We had misinformed the public for only two minutes before the anchor apologized and read the correct numbers. At least we’d corrected my mistake quickly, I thought. And besides, the chances of anyone winning were small. The likelihood that the winner would be from our area? Even smaller. The odds of that person being a viewer of that night’s 11 p.m. newscast? Smaller still.
I was the only one in the newsroom when the first Associated Press flash came, shortly after midnight. There was a winner. Then the next flash. The winner was in West Virginia. Then the next one. The winner had bought the ticket at a gas station in the next county over.
During the two minutes between mistake and correction, Jack Whittaker had apparently turned off the television and went back to sleep. Whittaker was a construction company owner from Scott Depot, W.Va. who bought the ticket that included the five winning numbers and the Powerball. His wife had been watching my station’s newscast that night, wrote down the numbers, checked his ticket, and seen that he had guessed four of five numbers and the Powerball correctly, making him only a $100,000 winner. She woke him up to tell him. He quickly went back to bed. No big deal, he must have thought. I’m only $100,000 richer.
Whittaker turned on the TV early the next morning, presumably watching my newscast, and saw a reporter speaking live from the C&L Super Serve where he bought a biscuit and a Powerball ticket several days before. Huh, he thought. Someone else must have bought a winning ticket there too. Then he double-checked the numbers and realized he was the winner.
Whittaker spent the following week standing in front of cameras, holding giant checks, shaking hands, with a big grin underneath his glasses and large black cowboy hat. The coverage was one long West Virginia stereotype wrapped in lottery clichés. Whittaker went on Today and CNN saying what good luck he’d had all through his life. He’d be donating to his church. He swore he wouldn’t change. He vowed that his granddaughter would, through the power of his new money, achieve her lifelong dream of meeting Nelly.
Oh, and he also said he’d gone to bed thinking he was a loser, because my television station had aired the wrong numbers. He repeated that part of the story several times on several different shows.
This became the teasable part of a national story. A Powerball winner who goes to bed thinking he’s a loser is just the sort of anecdotal twist a news writer dreams about. My name never made it into the narrative, of course. I was just a faceless producer. There was no social media horde to dox me. My news director had to answer questions from reporters. She explained how it happened and vowed it would never happen again. Luckily, the story went away after one news cycle. Our ratings didn’t go down, and I kept my job.
A few years ago, I tried to contact Whittaker. He no longer lives in Scott Depot, never returned my messages, and doesn’t seem interested in talking anymore. In 2012, he told a Bloomberg reporter who tracked him down in person that he would only agree to an interview for a $15,000 fee.
Whittaker’s problems started less than a year after he won the jackpot. He had a propensity for being robbed of hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time while frequenting the Pink Pony and other West Virginia strip clubs. He left suitcases of cash in plain sight on the front seat of his Hummer, which he would later crash. He was arrested several times for drunk driving and assault. He was sued by a casino. Five years after he won $314 million, he claimed he was broke. His granddaughter died of a drug overdose in 2004. She never met Nelly.
“I wish I’d torn that ticket up,” Whittaker told ABC News in 2007. His wife, who left him a year later, said the same thing.
Sometimes I wonder: What would have happened if he had? What if, on Christmas night 2002, I’d screwed up not just one but two numbers? What if Whittaker would have thought, right then and there, that his ticket was only worth a few bucks? What if he would have thought that it wasn’t worth the effort to redeem it? I, albeit unwittingly, was the only person who actually could have made him tear that ticket up. How would his life have changed by staying the same?
Whittaker himself would be defined by the mistakes he made, starting on the day after Christmas, 2002. The last moment of anything approaching normalcy for him was the night before, when my wrong number led him to believe that nothing in his life had changed. My only regret about my mistake, in hindsight, is that I didn’t make a bigger one.
Even today, I’m just an anonymous bit player in a cautionary tale about the dangers of sudden wealth. Only once was my name connected to my mistake: That party in South Carolina. Once the cute girl I’d been talking to had outed me, I hoped my embarrassment might be, at the very least, a good conversation starter.
Instead, she ran off and joined her friends, saying, “That’s the guy! That’s the Powerball guy who got the numbers wrong!” Her friends responded by looking over at me, that guy in the corner who’d now gone from mysterious stranger to naked loner. They pointed and giggled and said things I couldn’t hear.
They had to perpetuate the moment. People wanted to have a lasting image of themselves grinning next to the Powerball Fucker-Upper Guy. I smiled for a few of their pictures. After the third or fourth photo, my smile was gone. For the group shot, I wore a blank stare. Sure, we’d all like to be remembered for something good. Something kind. Something heroic. But most of us are just going to have to settle for being the person whose six looked too much like a one.