By Steven Kreytak, Austin American-Statesman Staff
A judge in Austin on Tuesday ordered that $395,000 seized in a lottery fraud investigation be given to Willis Willis, a Dallas-area maintenance man who prosecutors say was the rightful winner of a $1 million jackpot last year.
â€œI feel great right now,â€ said Willis, 68, outside court. He wants to use his winnings to pay off medical bills, to pay the college tuition bills for the youngest of his six daughters and to buy a new set of golf clubs. He does not plan to work again.
The order by state District Judge Bob Perkins comes as authorities are continuing to search for Pankaj Joshi, a convenience store clerk in the Dallas suburb of Grand Prairie who prosecutors say stole Willisâ€™ ticket in May when Willis asked him to check if it was a winner.Joshi, 25, was indicted in Travis County in September on a felony charge of claiming a lottery prize by fraud. Authorities have said that after claiming the jackpot in Austin they believe that Joshi returned to his native Nepal.
Because the Texas Lottery Commission withheld taxes, Joshi was given a check for $750,000 after claiming the prize at the state lottery headquarters on 6th Street, authorities have said.
Early in the investigation, Austin police working with lottery investigators and the Travis County district attorneyâ€™s office seized about $365,000 from bank accounts Joshi opened in the United States, prosecutor Patty Robertson said Tuesday outside court.
In the last couple of months, Robertson said, they retrieved an additional $30,000 that Joshi had given to a cousin and another person in the U.S. Robertson said that an additional $300,000 has since has been frozen in accounts in Nepal by authorities there. She said U.S. State Department officials are working to retrieve that money for Willis.
Randy Howry, one of Willisâ€™ lawyers, said he and his law partner Sean Breen would continue to pursue Willisâ€™ winnings, even if it means traveling to Nepal or filing a civil lawsuit.
Willis said he frequently thinks of Joshi, who had worked at Lucky Food Store on Great Southwest Parkway in Grand Prairie while attending University of Texas-Arlington.
Willis, who worked maintenance at apartment complexes, had gone to the store regularly to play the lottery on his way home and to have his tickets checked on his way to a nearby bar where he regularly watched NASCAR.
â€œI can just see his face all the time,â€ Willis said. â€œIt irritates me at times but most of the time I am just like, â€˜hey, it happened.â€™â€