SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Judge Joseph Fahey said Friday he will take a few days to make his decision after closing arguments in the trial of two New York brothers accused of stealing a winning $5 million lottery ticket.
The bench trial before Judge Fahey began Monday of last week and concluded on Friday.
Robert Miles, a maintenance worker who claims he is the real winner of the $5 million, alleges that Andy Ashkar, who is charged with criminal possession of stolen property, stole the ticket from him at The Green Ale Market in October of 2006. The winning ticket was validated on Oct. 27, 2006, according to lottery officials.
Andy and Nayel Ashkar tried to claim the winnings in March of 2012 at a state lottery office in Schenectady. They are both facing conspiracy charges, as is their father, Nayef, who has a separate trial date scheduled in September.
Following is an account of the final arguments on Friday.
10 a.m. A fire drill stalled proceedings in the trial of two brothers accused of stealing a $5 million lottery ticket from a convenience store customer.
Once the courtroom opened at 9 a.m., Assistant District Attorney Beth Van Doren rested her case. Defense attorneys then motioned to have the charges dismissed against their clients, saying Van Doren had not provided sufficient proof for the trial to continue.
Judge Joseph Fahey denied the motion, and the defense called their first witness to the stand. Then, a fire alarm went off.
The courthouse was evacuated and it took about 20 minutes for every one to pass through security and re-enter the courtroom.
11:20 p.m. Andy Ashkar, 35, took the stand this morning and said he bought a winning $5 million scratch-off lottery ticket on Oct. 27, 2006.
He said there were other customers in the store when he scratched it off, so he held in his emotions. He said he showed the ticket to his dad and told him he wasn't going to believe what had just happened.
"He handed it back to me and said, 'Shut up. Don't say anything. Leave," Ashkar testified.
Andy Ashkar said he got in his car and headed to the lottery office. He said he started having second thoughts, and didn't want to make a rash decision, so he pulled over on the side of the road and called his brother, Nayel.
Andy Ashkar said he went home, showed Nayel Ashkar the ticket, and put it in the coat pocket of a suit in his closet. About six weeks later, he said he put it in a safe deposit box.
He waited nearly six years to try to claim the winnings, he said, because he was worried about possible negative effects of making his claim. He said he was worried about his family's safety and the relationship with his new bride, who hadn't yet immigated to the United States from Palestine when he won.
A quick break was called, and then Andy Ashkar was back on the stand.
12:15 p.m. Prosecutor Beth Van Doren asked Andy Ashkar why he would apply for Medicaid when he had a $5 million lottery ticket ready to be cashed.
Ashkar, who took the stand earlier this morning in his own trial, said he applied for public assistance because he was unemployed and his wife was pregnant.
His brother Nayel, also on trial on conspiracy charges, leaned over to speak with his brother's lawyer several times during the testimony.
Andy Ashkar said he wasn't "on the books" at the convenience store his family owns where the winning ticket was sold in 2006. However, he said he "helped out" at The Green Ale Market several days a week, whenever he could. He said he lived with his family back in 2006, and traveled overseas in August of that year with his mother.
There, he met his wife and signed a marriage contract. He began working to bring her to the United States and didn't tell her he won $5 million, initially, he said.
"I didn't really know her yet," he said. After they had their first child in 2008, he testified that he told her about the ticket.
He said he decided to split the ticket with his brother and waited until the ticket was about to expire to go to the lottery office. He said he waited nearly six years because he was worried about his family's safety if the press were to publicize the news, he said.
He said he asked lottery officials if there were ways to remain anonymous, he said. Then, when the lottery launched an investigation, he said he gave them sworn statements and any documents they asked for.
An investigator with the New York State police department, Alfonse Nitti, was the first defense witness called to the stand this morning. He said he performed background checks for the lottery, and looked into Andy Ashkar after the lottery launched an investigation.
He said Andy Ashkar had been arrested twice in 1996, but there were no reports of convictions. He said he closed his investigation. The lottery hasn't asked him to look into Robert Miles, he testified.
3:30 p.m. Judge Joseph Fahey said he will take a few days to make his decision after closing arguments in the trial of two brothers accused of stealing a winning $5 million lottery ticket.
Defense attorney Robert Durr called the credibility of witnesses called by the prosecution a "huge issue" in his closing. He said it's plausible that they fabricated their story in the belief Robert Miles, who says he is rightful owner of the $5 million ticket, would pay them for it.
One of the witnesses, James Ratchford, testified that Miles promised to "take care of him" if Miles was awarded the $5 million. Ratchford is a maintenance worker with Miles at the Parkside Commons apartment complex, and the two are roommates.
Another witness, Desi Melendez, is a convicted drug dealer. And today, defense attorneys gave the judge federal grand jury testimony from witness Ramon Rosario. The attorneys told the judge the information implies that Rosario had taken money from drug dealers in exchange for "help."
"It's very similar to what seems to have gone on here," said Durr.
Van Doren told the judge she was unaware before the trial that Rosario had testified previously in federal court.
Even if the judge believes the prosecution's witnesses, said Durr, there's still no proof the winning ticket was ever stolen.
"In the worst light, it's a poor bargain," said Durr. "There was no wrongful taking of that ticket."
Miles testified that Andy Ashkar took the ticket from him after saying it was only worth $5,000. He said he accepted $4,000 from Andy Ashkar.
Defense attorney Robert Tisdell said the prosecution hadn't shown any proof of a "meeting of the minds" between Nayel and Andy Ashkar regarding the winning ticket. The brothers are charged with conspiracy, and Andy Ashkar is charged with criminal possession of stolen property.
In her closing, Van Doren didn't make excuses for her witnesses.
"If they had fabricated this story, wouldn't it have gelled a little more?" she asked. "If I had coached them, wouldn't they be a little more consistent? "
Van Doren said her witnesses were obviously "reliving" a moment. However, she said, it was an event that happened nearly seven years ago.
She said none of her witnesses went to the police because they weren't sure the ticket was really worth $5 million until the Ashkar brothers tried to claim the prize in March of 2012.
Some of the witnesses testified Miles said he won $5 million, and some said he won $5,000. Later, Miles told them the store said the ticket was worth $5,000, they testified.
As for Miles' testimony, Van Doren said there was no question this wouldn't have happened if he'd been "thinking clearly."
Miles testified that he had been high on crack cocaine the night before he bought the winning ticket.
"It is the very condition of Rob that allows this whole thing to happen," said Van Doren. "He is never really sure what that ticket says. He takes it to the store, and they tell him it's $5,000. But then he starts thinking, what if Ray (Rosario) was right, if it was $5 million, and they did lie. What if?"
Van Doren said that in October of 2012 Miles' "darkest fear" came true when a press release announced Andy and Nayel Ashkar as $5 million lottery winners.
"When that press release comes out, he knows," she said. "It's not just $1,000 he was cheated out of, it was $5 million."