Mike Sargent doesn't put much stock in karma. Luck isn't his thing either.
But in getting back a lost winning lottery ticket worth $25,000, a little of both may have come into play — along with some divine intervention.
Like the lead character in the new NBC sitcom My Name is Earl, Sargent lost the scratch-off ticket moments after he realized he'd hit the jackpot and, through several incredible coincidences, had it returned days later.
In the television show, losing the ticket inspires Earl, a downtrodden ne'er-do-well and petty thief, to right the wrongs he's committed throughout his life.
Sargent, a 51-year-old facilities specialist at AT&T, has demons in his past as well. A former drug addict and alcoholic, he admits being verbally abusive to his wife and two sons until he turned his life around 19 years ago, entering rehab and embracing his Christian faith.
Friends and his pastor's wife say he's now generous to a fault, giving to others even if it means doing without himself. He and his wife buy groceries for the church's needy families, and they set up a prison ministry shortly after their older son was sentenced a decade ago to 99 years behind bars for telling a friend to kill another boy.
"It doesn't matter, he'll put it on his credit card if you need anything," said Judy Russell, whose husband, Joe, is pastor of Calvary Temple in Lillian.
Sargent bought the winning Wheel of Fortune instant ticket on Nov. 15, scratching it off as he stood at the counter of the Venus Food Mart in his hometown of Alvarado, about 25 miles south of Fort Worth. He signed the ticket on the spot, filling in his name and address as he called his wife and said he was bringing her the best Christmas present ever.
By the time he drove the three miles home, however, the ticket was gone.
"I didn't know where it went," Sargent said. "I was thinking that God just took it out of my hand."
Sargent went back to the store, but the clerk was sure he'd left with the ticket. It was a windy night, so he dropped some losing tickets on the ground to see where they'd blow. As luck would have it, they wouldn't budge.
Still, he and a friend from church spent the rest of the night searching the fields along U.S. Highway 67, even calling 911 and asking the volunteer fire department to shine its fire truck lights on the search area after darkness fell. (The firefighters declined.)
The search continued for days. Friends combed the fields and roadside ditches, while Sargent and his neighbor sifted through all the garbage in the convenience store's Dumpster.
He posted signs all over town and even called a local radio station offering a $2,000 reward for the return of his ticket.
Finally, five days after he lost the ticket, Sargent got a call from Gerardo Ruiz, a water meter reader from Midlothian who found it while working five houses down from the store.
Ruiz hadn't seen the signs or heard Sargent on the radio. And his first thought wasn't to give the ticket back.
"I went home and I showed my wife and I said 'Look, Jesus gave us a $25,000 ticket,'" Ruiz recalled. "She said 'Well you better call that guy, maybe you can get a reward, because God is going to punish you if you don't return it.'"
When Ruiz asked for $2,500, Sargent didn't hesitate. He visited eight banks before he found one willing to give him a cash advance on his credit card, then he paid Ruiz, took back the ticket and immediately wrote a $1,750 check to his church.
His saga wasn't over, however. Between the time Sargent signed the ticket and when he got it back, his signature was partially scratched off; Ruiz speculated it happened when he stepped on the ticket with heavy work boots.
When Sargent took the ticket to the Texas Lottery's claims center in Austin on Nov. 21, officials told him they couldn't immediately honor a defaced ticket. He'd have to wait six to eight weeks for them to conduct forensic tests and prove he was the one who'd signed the ticket.
"What we want to do is to make sure, because of the integrity and the honesty and the security of the games, that the person that is the rightful owner of the ticket receives the funds if it is a valid winning ticket," lottery spokesman Bobby Heith said.
Sargent is hoping he gets the money in time for Christmas, but he and his wife aren't going to buy each other extravagant gifts. Instead, they plan to help a prisoner get a paralegal certificate and use the rest to pay off their credit card debt.
And he doubts he'll ever buy another lottery ticket.
"I kind of feel that I should have been using that for our charities instead of just throwing the money away," he said. "I think God was telling me ... that I need to be dependent on him and not on lotteries and jobs and anything else. God will always provide for me."