By Avi Selk, The Dallas Morning News
Willis Willis may have had the winning lottery ticket, but it was the convenience store clerk who had his number.
As authorities tell it, years of playing the Texas lottery finally paid off for the Grand Prairie man in May when he walked into the Lucky Food Store with a million-dollar ticket.
But in a double twist of tortured fortune, an opportunistic clerk may have cheated him out of his ticket and his treasure.
Today, while Willis waits to be a millionaire, police are searching for the accused fraudster, who might be half a world away.
Until he disappeared this summer â€“ shortly before police seized his bank account â€“ Pankaj Joshi was a trusted clerk at the Lucky Food Store in Grand Prairie.
“He was an OK guy,” said Masudur Rahman, who worked with the 25-year-old University of Texas at Arlington student for four years. “We never doubted him.”
Neither did the 67-year-old Willis, who regularly cashed his checks and bought his lottery tickets at the convenience store.
Willis, a maintenance man and father of four, chose his numbers based on family birthdays and played the same slip until it could no longer be read by the terminal, according to a police affidavit.
“Hes a guy living day to day,” said his lawyer, Randy Howry, who met with Willis on Wednesday in Austin.
The Lucky Food Store finally earned its name for Willis on May 29, when he spent $20 from a $238 check on three lottery tickets.
Investigators said a Mega Millions ticket from that purchase won big at a drawing a few hours later, though Willis wouldnt know it for months.
In hindsight, Willis may have missed several opportunities to prevent the ensuing debacle.
He never saw the drawing on TV, he later told investigators, because he didn’t know how to find it.
He might have read about the winning numbers, but he recently stopped buying the newspaper.
Willis wasnt in the habit of signing his tickets â€“ a simple safeguard that would have made any attempt to defraud him of his winnings difficult, if not impossible, according to a spokesman for the Texas Lottery Commission in Austin, where the case is being prosecuted.
Lucky Food Store even has an automatic ticket checker. But after four years as a customer, Willis trusted the clerks to check.
“He couldnt believe that he [Joshi] would do something,” Rahman said. “He knew him as well as he knew me.”
$2 for a winning ticket
The day after the drawing, when Rahman told Joshi that the store had sold a million-dollar ticket, the clerk laughed and seemed as surprised as everyone else, Rahman said.
But by the time Willis walked in the next day, police said, Joshi had hatched the most dastardly of get-rich-quick schemes.
As he always did, Willis handed the clerk his tickets, and Joshi dutifully handed him back a $2 prize for one of them.
The clerk, according to the affidavit, neglected to mention that another ticket was worth $1 million.
Willis might never have learned of his would-be fortunes misfortune if Joshi’s co-workers hadnt sleuthed it out.
Rahman said he and the Lucky Food Store manager got suspicious when Joshi turned in his notice two weeks after the drawing â€“ saying he was moving back to Nepal to help his cousin with her perfume store.
Alarm bells rang when the men learned that Joshi had claimed the prize from a lottery center in Austin. In four years, they said, they had never seen him buy a lottery ticket.
The men tried to call Joshi to confront him, Rahman said, but he wouldnt pick up the phone.
At the end of July, two months after the drawing, the Lucky Store manager tipped off the Texas Lottery Commission.
A commission investigator visited the store and, after poring over receipts, determined Willis had bought the winning ticket.
When the investigator called the almost-millionaire, Willis said he hadn’t suspected a thing.
After securing search warrants, Austin police raided four of Joshi’s suddenly swelling bank accounts in September. The Travis County district attorney’s office said it has so far seized $365,000 of the $750,000 the clerk was awarded. (The IRS, which wins no matter what, got a quarter of the prize.)
Last month, a grand jury indicted Joshi. Hes charged with claiming a lottery prize by fraud. Because of the eye-popping dollar figure, he faces up to 20 years in prison.
But the clerk seems to be long gone. Howry said he fears hes high-tailed it to Asia with the bulk of his client’s cash.
As for Willis?
After being jilted by Lady Luck, he’s frustrated but not angry and is hoping to recover whatever he can, Howry said.
“He knows [some of] the money’s been collected,” he said. “He knows he has to jump through hoops to claim it. He’s been amazingly patient with the whole process.”
And amazingly optimistic, too.
As he has done for years, Howry said, Willis continues to play the lottery.
Just not at the Lucky Food Store.