What are the odds that a man could throw away a $1 million scratch ticket, lose his father and then his own life all in four months' time?
The regulars who play their lottery tickets here at the White Hen Pantry grocery now shrug away the misfortune that started at the counter last October for one of their own, Kevin Donovan, as if bowing to the vagaries of luck they gamble against each day.
But Donovan's run of bad luck has outlived him.
Last fall, he filed a claim against the elderly man who retrieved the $1 million ticket Donovan had mistakenly thrown into a garbage bin. In April, three months after Donovan, 49, died suddenly of a heart ailment, the Massachusetts State Lottery ruled the ticket rightfully belonged to its finder, 83-year-old Edward J. St. John.
Now Donovan's two children have filed suit in Superior Court hoping to reverse the Lottery Commission's decision and claim the ticket's proceeds.
Their lawyer contends the ticket was lost — not thrown away — and because the garbage bin had not yet been placed on the sidewalk for disposal, its contents were not yet in the "public domain."
"It is no different than if that ticket was on the shelf," says Daniel T. Doyle. "Mr. St. John wrongfully took that ticket."
Kevin Donovan and Edward St. John were regulars at the White Hen.
Donovan, a mechanic on disability, worked part time at the Xtra gas station up the street. He was a big man who strode into the White Hen most days to sit among the regulars at the small round tables by the window to play scratch tickets. Donovan spent more than $2,000 a month on tickets at the White Hen, said Doyle.
St. John lives a couple of hundred yards behind the store in the Fox Brook Manor housing complex for the elderly. A retired jewelry worker, he spends much of his days visiting nearby stores and rummaging through the garbage for discarded lottery tickets. It is a hobby, says his lawyer, Scott Ambler, that has paid dividends in the past.
Many regular scratch ticket holders know that winning tickets have special coding, Ambler explains. If they are playing dozens of tickets at a time, many players might first scratch off the coding cover to see if their ticket is a winner and not scratch off the actual numbers until later to see how much they have won. But if they misread the coding, an otherwise winning ticket could end up in the trash.
Among St. John's discoveries, says Ambler, have been tickets worth $500 and possibly a $5,000 winner.
White Hen regular Dick "Ralphy" Vespa says he was in the store Oct. 10, playing a bunch of $10 Hold 'Em Poker tickets when Donovan came in and bought up a bunch as well.
"I says to him, 'I've played a bunch in that book and it's got nothing.' I came back an hour later and he was still here. I said: 'You're still in that same book?' "
According to his complaint to the Lottery Commission, Donovan said he bought 20 or 30 of the instant game tickets that morning, then left for about 15 minutes to get more money. On his return he asked the sales clerk whether anyone else had played Hold 'Em Poker in his absence. The clerk said she didn't think so and to confirm, the two compared the numbers on the tickets Donovan had already purchased with those tickets remaining on the roll behind the counter.
Donovan then bought the remaining seven tickets for $70.
It was Donovan's practice, says Doyle, to scratch the tickets at the store counter. Checking the ticket coding, he would then segregate the winners from the losers. He wouldn't know how much he won until later when he scratched off the rest of each ticket.
Donovan threw out all the tickets he thought were losers — including the million-dollar winner — and left the store.
Sometime later, St. John visited the store on his usual rounds, retrieved the tickets from the garbage bin and left.
St. John didn't know he had the $1 million ticket until that evening while scratching clear the numbers.
"He couldn't believe it," says his lawyer, Ambler. "He was in shock. The first thing he did was call his brother," who also rummages for disposed of winning lottery tickets. "He said, 'You'll never guess. I got one. I have a million-dollar ticket.' "
The next morning, St. John presented the ticket for validation at the White Hen and signed the back.
News of the winning ticket spread like wildfire. Everyone knew that St. John never bought tickets, says Vespa, and that Donovan was playing the roll of poker tickets the day before. Donovan's complaint says the store owner, Joseph Varin, contacted Donovan about the ticket and the following day, Oct. 12, Donovan filed a claim with the lottery, alleging he was the rightful owner of the ticket.
The lottery disagreed. In April, it ruled that a lottery ticket is like legal tender — possession is all that is required to prove ownership. But the suit filed by Donovan's children has hung up any payment to St. John.
St. John offered Donovan's children $100,000 of the ticket's winnings, says Doyle, but when the children asked for $150,000, he said no and withdrew his initial offer.
In December, while the Lottery Commission was debating the ownership of the ticket, Donovan's father, a community leader in Medway for years, died at age 88.
Donovan died less than two months later, on Jan. 31, in Hyannis.
"He was a wonderful man, very loyal and dedicated to his children," says former co-worker Stephanie Picchioni.
The loss of the ticket ate at him, Picchioni says.
"He was often making fun of himself and said he was going to have a T-shirt made up that said: 'I'm a million-dollar idiot."'
Edward St. John isn't all that much happier.
Tired of the criticism and "untruths" he says he has read in the newspapers, he doesn't talk much to anyone anymore about the ticket. And he hasn't been down to the White Hen since October.
"They're the cause of all this," he says. If the store hadn't informed Donovan about the found ticket, "none of this would have blown up."
Inside the White Hen, Dick "Ralphy" Vespa takes out his penknife and scratches at another ticket.
He feels the ticket rightfully belongs to St. John: "It was in the garbage and no one would have gotten it if he hadn't picked it up."
He plans on paying a bit more attention to his own tickets now.