Teri and Cornell Davis were so nervous that someone was going to snatch their winning New Jersey Lottery ticket that they hired two armed off-duty police officers to drive them to the lottery office in Trenton to claim their prize.
"I really thought we were getting our money that day," Teri Davis testified yesterday before state Superior Court Judge Marguerite Simon, sitting in Bergen County, adding that she and her husband had already started receiving threats about the money.
But instead of getting their winnings, the Englewood couple soon learned that their ownership of the ticket was being challenged. Now, they are in the middle of a controversy over who will get $25 million cash.
The nonjury trial in Hackensack pits the Davises against a group of 20 employees from Englewood Hospital who say the winning ticket is theirs.
The workers say a co-worker, Jamal Townes, 27, who was their lottery pool manager, used their money to buy the winning ticket for the Big Game Mega Millions drawing on March 15 and then secretly gave it to Cornell Davis in a plot to split the money.
The Davises adamantly deny such a conspiracy. They maintain that Cornell Davis purchased the ticket and, yesterday, vividly recalled the night they learned they had won.
Cornell Davis testified that at about 10 p.m. on March 15, he left his house to buy butter pecan ice cream at the nearby Circle Food Mart on Tenafly Road. When he arrived at the market, he saw a sign that said a winning ticket for the Mega Millions game earlier that night had been sold there.
Davis said he had purchased lottery tickets there the previous morning.
"I walked back home thinking, 'Wow, what if it were me,' but I never thought it would be," he told the judge.
Davis said that when he got home, he called the Lottery Commission's 900-number twice to get the winning numbers. He checked his tickets after each call. The numbers matched.
"Me and my son and my mother ... we were shouting and jumping," he said.
During cross-examination, Sheldon Liebowitz, the attorney for the hospital workers, questioned the Davises about how they obtained the winning ticket in the first place -- the major point of contention.
"Did Mr. Townes ever give you or your husband the winning lottery ticket?" Liebowitz asked Teri Davis.
"Absolutely not," she replied.
The hospital workers base their claim that Townes, an X-ray technician, bought the ticket and gave it to Davis on the fact that he told them his "cousin" -- Cornell Davis -- had won the lottery. He also told his co-workers not to be suspicious of him, they said.
Davis and Townes are not related, but do know each other from when they were neighbors in Englewood about 20 years ago.
Last week, a top Lottery official testified that the winning ticket was sold at the Circle Food Mart at 9:22 a.m. March 14.
Liebowitz noted that Teri Davis initially told Lottery officials that she bought the ticket between 6 and 8 p.m. on March 13, according to the Lottery Commission's investigative report on the matter.
But then the couple changed their story. Teri Davis said they were initially confused because both she and her husband buy tickets at the same store and had forgotten exactly when the winning ticket was bought.
Cornell Davis testified that he dventually remembered going to the Circle Food Mart early on the morning of March 14.
"I bought a Gatorade, a cigar, $7 worth of lottery tickets and $10 worth of scratch-offs (lottery tickets)," he testified.
Raymond Ryan, the Lottery's deputy director for security and licensing, testified earlier that his own investigation supported Davis' assertion that the ticket was purchased on March 14 and concluded that the couple were the rightful owners.
At the same time, Ryan said he could not substantiate the hospital workers' claim that the ticket was theirs. He said a log sheet and garage records show that Townes was working inside the hospital at the exact time the winning ticket was purchased.
The hospital workers, however, maintain Townes could have slipped out of the hospital and purchased the ticket. The Circle Food Mart is about a 10-minute drive from Englewood Hospital.
The judge has put all but $100,000 of the prize money in a court account while she hears the case. The winner will get the $25 million.
In the meantime, the Davises said they have moved out of their Englewood home because they don't feel safe there. Cornell Davis has dropped out of culinary arts school, and Teri Davis, who is expecting her second child, gave up her teaching job in Teaneck.
"I'm assuming I had won and I thought, 'Why continue through the school year pregnant and jeopardizing my health?'" Teri Davis testified. "I thought, 'It's time for me to get my break.'"
The trial resumes Monday.