A Cape May County, New Jersey, couple who won half of a record $390 million lottery jackpot claimed their prize yesterday, almost two weeks after the drawing.
Elaine and Harold "Barry" Messner hid their secret until yesterday and appeared to have carefully planned for the moment.
But there would be no giant check and smiling for cameras for the Messners. They would entertain no questions about just how delicious it must feel to win that many millions or exactly how they planned to spend the gigantic jackpot.
At the end of their winding, dirt driveway in the Tuckahoe section of Upper Township, they had already posted a fluorescent forest of signs akin to the Wicked Witch's infamous "I'd turn back if I were you" warnings. One sign said, "Beware of Dog."
A big, black dog barked nearby, but it wasn't the Messners' pet.
"They don't own a dog," neighbor Rosemary Trout said.
Through a lawyer they hired before going to the New Jersey Lottery to claim their Mega Millions prize yesterday — $87.4 million in cash, after taxes - the Messners declined all comment.
Harold Messner allowed the lottery computer to pick the winning numbers - 16, 22, 29, 39 and 42, with the Gold Mega Ball 20. The couple chose the cash-payment option for their fortune, which yields $116,557,083 before the 25 percent federal withholding tax.
"Those are all pretty standard questions, but I've been asked to say nothing," the Messners' attorney, Richard M. King Jr. of Linwood, said when asked the Messners' ages, occupations, and other biographical facts.
Harold Messner, 57, worked as a self-employed builder, neighbors said. Elaine Messner, 56, worked with him managing the business.
In a statement released through the state Lottery Commission, the couple said their working days were over.
"This is that early retirement we've always dreamed of," Harold Messner said in the statement.
The couple have two grown daughters and several grandchildren, neighbors said.
"They keep to themselves, but they are really, really nice people," Trout said. "I always used to see them at the Somers Point ShopRite when I worked there, shopping with their grandkids. I want to congratulate them; I think it's awesome they won."
The Messners saw the media swarm that began March 6 when the Lottery Commission announced that one of the two winners in the multistate Mega Millions lottery had bought a ticket at Campark Liquors in nearby Woodbine, according to lottery officials, and decided they wanted no part.
Instead of immediately coming forward and holding a news conference — as did the truck driver from Georgia who won the other half of the jackpot - the Messners hired a financial consultant and a lawyer and waited almost two weeks.
"We watched all the coverage at Campark Liquors, and what the lottery director and the lottery chairman said really stuck with us," Harold Messner said in the statement.
That free advice was taken chapter and verse from William T. Jourdain, acting executive director of the New Jersey Lottery, who suggested they seek legal and financial guidance.
"Harold and Elaine did everything right that you could ask of a winner in a big jackpot," he said. "They signed their ticket, they put it in a safe place, and then they sought legal and financial advice. Those are the steps we love to see our winners take before they come forward."
Now that they have, the Messners may be able to rest easy.
"I think it took us both until about Friday just to let the fact that we won sink in," Messner said in his statement. "After that, we signed the ticket and put it in a safe place. "Then we sought out financial advice, but when you're talking $88 million, it's always a good idea to let someone who manages money for a living lend a hand."
Messner said that when he thought he won, he checked the number twice and then called out to his wife.
"She had a very hard time believing it. Then, we didn't sleep for the rest of the night," Messner told lottery officials.
"We feel very fortunate and blessed," Messner's statement said. "Now we can do all those things we said we would do once we retired."
Messner also seemed a little philosophical when he talked to lottery officials.
"In a lot of ways, we're still recovering from the shock of winning all this money," Messner said. "I know this means we're officially a retired couple, but past that, Elaine and I are still sorting all this out. We have some ideas about what we want to do with this big win but haven't made any big decisions yet."
The Messners' prize goes into the record books as half of the largest jackpot in North American lottery history — an astounding $390 million.
The largest single-ticket jackpot in the New Jersey Lottery's 36-year history went to Harold and Helen Lerner, who won a $258 million Mega Millions jackpot in September 2005.