By Steven Kreytak, Austin American-Statesman
Willis Willis has medical bills past due, a toothache he can’t afford to fix and the hope â€” if not the money â€” to help his daughters with their college tuition.
The 67-year-old Grand Prairie maintenance man, who authorities say had his lottery winnings stolen by the store clerk he asked to check his ticket in May, said in an interview Tuesday that the $1 million prize would let him climb out of an economic hole. After doing that, Willis said, he might buy some new golf clubs.
“I am not a wealthy man,” he said. “I am a working man, live paycheck to paycheck.”
Now, as authorities search for Pankaj Joshi, who was indicted in Travis County this month on a charge of claiming a lottery prize by fraud, Willis’ lawyers are demanding that the Texas Lottery Commission pay his winnings.
“It is undisputed that Mr. Willis won fair and square a million dollars playing Texas Lottery,” said Willis’ Austin lawyer, Sean Breen. “The only issue right now is when is the lottery going to pay the money that they owe him.”
Texas Lottery Commission spokesman Bobby Heith said Willis’ demands are being reviewed and declined to comment further.
Willis worked as an apartment complex maintenance man until he was hospitalized for high blood pressure in November. He had to leave his job and move in with a grown daughter, one of his six children.
Since then, Willis has worked various maintenance jobs through a staffing agency.
He said that for several years he had cashed his paycheck at the Lucky Food Store on Great Southwest Parkway in Grand Prairie, a Dallas suburb, and bought up to $20 in lottery tickets. He then returned to the store on Sundays to check whether any of his tickets were winners before heading across the street to Mary’s Outpost, a bar where he regularly watched NASCAR.
“Everyone in there was very friendly, very respectable,” he said of the store.
On May 29, according to a police affidavit, Willis cashed a $237.80 check and bought $20 in lottery tickets. Two days later he returned just before 4 p.m. to have his tickets checked, the affidavit said.
Willis said that the clerk at the store stands behind a large Plexiglas wall and that the lottery machine is out of sight of customers. He said he handed his ticket to the clerk, a friendly man whom he did not know by name, and was told that he had won $2. He took the $2 and left.
“You cant see the machine, nor can you hear it,” he said.
Authorities say that it was Joshi who was working that day and that he redeemed the winning ticket, which they believe was purchased by Willis, at lottery headquarters in Austin on June 25. After withholding taxes, lottery officials wired $750,000 to a Washington Mutual account provided by Joshi.
A tip from Joshi’s co-workers, who said they never saw him play the lottery, triggered the investigation, police said.
Police have seized $365,000 of what they believe are lottery proceeds from several bank accounts opened by Joshi. The rest, Austin police Detective Billy Petty said, was probably wired out of the country. Petty said he thinks that Joshi, 25, who had worked at the store for about five years while attending the University of Texas at Arlington, has returned to his native Nepal.
Breen, one of Willis’ lawyers, said that lottery officials erred in giving the money to Joshi.
“Mr. Willis did absolutely nothing wrong,” Breen said. “When an agent of the lottery shows up in Austin â€” a store clerk â€” to reveal a million-dollar ticket, thats a red flag the size of Texas that something’s rotten.”