On Monday morning last week, Elizabeth Gelarderes did exactly what she always does, stop in at Richdale Food Store on her way to work for a regular coffee and a lottery ticket. The self-described ''lottery addict" scrawled onto a ''Cash Winfall" ticket the birth dates of her two children, something she's been doing for at least 10 years.
The next day, she brought the ticket in to see if she'd won. The store's owner, Patrick Simboli, 45, allegedly took the ticket, checked it, and told her that she had won $2.
But that evening, Simboli went to a lottery office in Woburn and cashed in a winning lottery ticket with the same numbers that were on Gelarderes's card, for a $46,000 jackpot, according to North Andover police Lieutenant Paul Gallagher. Police are now pressing charges against Simboli, alleging that he stole Gelarderes's winning ticket, worth $32,000 after taxes. He is scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday in Lawrence District Court.
''That's my little ritual: I buy the ticket; I get a coffee; I go to work. The next morning I come back to see if I've won," Gelarderes said in an interview yesterday. ''I play it faithfully. I don't drink. I don't smoke. This is what I do. And when I finally win, this happens. It's very disheartening."
Simboli did not return messages seeking comment. Lorraine Leahy, a cashier at the store, said yesterday that Simboli wasn't someone who would do this.
''He's got a big, big heart," she said, adding that she had spoken with Simboli recently and that he was ''a little on the mellow side."
Gelarderes is a special-education aide at North Andover High School, something she's done for 24 years. She and her husband, Nicholas, live in Raymond, N.H., and are taking care of her elderly mother.
After seeing the winning lottery numbers from Massachusetts in her local paper, Gelarderes said, she went back to the store May 11 and confronted Simboli. She said that she demanded to have her ticket back, but that Simboli told her that it had already been thrown away.
''This is the biggest she's ever hit," Nicholas Gelarderes said yesterday. ''Now she can't believe he tried to cheat her out of it."
Simboli's busy convenience store is a half-mile from the high school and sells goods ranging from comic books to dog food. A lottery stand is set up in the front corner of the store. Last year it generated $1.6 million in sales, one of the most profitable stores in town.
The lottery machine at the store is difficult to see for customers buying and turning in lottery tickets. The screen that flashes ''winner," which happens when a winning ticket above a certain amount is entered into the machine, is facing away from the customer, making it difficult for people to see if they have won.
The Massachusetts Lottery Commission has suspended sales at the store while the investigation continues. Lottery spokeswoman Beth Bresnahan declined to release many details.
''We're working with the North Andover police and in conversations with the woman making the claim to make sure the prize is given to the proper winner," she said.
Police said Simboli faces felony charges of receiving stolen property and larceny over $250.