HUDSONVILLE, Michigan — While having a few drinks at a Hamilton Street bar, Aristeo Robelin saw a familiar face.
It was one of the police officers who helped put him in federal prison on drug smuggling and weapons charges.
The cop congratulated Robelin on his new life as a millionaire and bought him a beer.
Robelin, 40, took the meeting as an omen and stopped spending so much time in Hamilton Street bars.
Three years after winning $3.7 million in the Mega Millions lottery, the father of two and ex-con has left Saginaw and his past behind.
He lives in Hudsonville, a town of 7,000 that locals call "Michigan's Salad Bowl" for the carrots, celery and other vegetables grown in the region.
Robelin says the aroma of onions is strong near his wooded, 4.5-acre property during harvest time. He has lived alone since his children's mother took his eldest son and her children and moved back to Saginaw. The couple since has had a second child.
"It's pretty quiet out here, but it's different," Robelin says. "I don't mess with too many people."
With most of his winnings reserved for his children, Robelin says he lives on $80,000 per year.
The number is significant: That's the amount officers found when they raided the homes and vehicles of Robelin and another man in 1999.
Authorities claimed he and a partner led a syndicate that smuggled cocaine into Michigan. He faced various other drug and weapons charges throughout his youth and adult life.
More than the millions, the birth of his first son turned him away from street life and selling drugs, Robelin says.
"I'll never touch that again," he says. "I don't have to."
The changed perspective paid off.
In late 2005, Robelin asked co-worker Keith Bryce to pick up Mega Millions tickets because he didn't want to leave the house with then 4-month-old Aristeo Jr. on a cold, blustery night.
He had less than a 1-in-175 million chance of getting the same five digits and Mega ball number randomly picked for Bryce. Copies of the check and the winning Mega Millions ticket are on file in his home office.
"It's still unbelievable," he says.
When the clerk behind the counter at the 7-Eleven in Frankenmuth told Robelin that someone in Saginaw hit the Mega Millions jackpot the night before, he exchanged looks with Bryce.
The two were on lunch break from their job installing windows when the woman told them about the winning ticket sold at the South Michigan Express Stop.
"Teo," Bryce said, "that's where I bought the tickets at."
The orange-and-white Mega Millions tickets were at Robelin's home on the kitchen counter, next to the salt and pepper shakers and a loaf of bread.
The night before, Robelin asked Bryce to pick up the bread, a half-gallon of milk, a dozen eggs and $5 in Mega Millions easy pick numbers.
Bryce bought $5 worth for himself, too. Not wanting to choose between the two slips, Bryce and Robelin agreed to split the jackpot if they won.
As news of their win spread, people flooded Bryce with requests for money.
It was different for Robelin.
News of his criminal past made people leery to ask for money, he says.
Soon after he picked up his check from the state lottery office in Lansing, Robelin quit his job installing windows. He avoided the spending sprees and extravagant gifts for family and friends that befall many lottery winners and estimates he has more than $2 million remaining.
"I know the value of a dollar," Robelin says. "It's not like I worked hard for it, but it's mine."
Now he spends free time watching football on his projection-screen television, playing pool and doting on his sons, 3-year-old Aristeo Jr. and 8-month-old Vito — when he has the chance.
The boys live in Saginaw with their mother. Judges in Ottawa and Saginaw counties have granted her personal protection orders against Robelin since March 2007, court records indicate.
Times News Service could not reach her for comment.
Robelin stops in Saginaw to visit his mother and scout for more investment properties, but hasn't talked to Keith in two months.
Still, the numbers on the third row of a little slip of paper — 07, 08, 47, 51, 52, and 05 — linked the two forever.
The friends do share one tradition: They've played the Mega Millions each Tuesday and Friday since winning the jackpot.
"Lightning," Robelin says, "strikes twice sometimes."
Aristeo R. Robelin — here with his 3-year-old son, Aristeo "Little Thayo" Robelin II — won $3.7 million in the Mega Millions lottery three years ago and left his past behind.