Is it luck or something else?
The Kentucky lottery sells hundreds of millions of dollars in scratch off lottery tickets each year. While it's difficult to "hit the big one," people beat the odds time and time again.
WHAS11's investigative reporter Adam Walser traveled the state, trying to discover how some people repeatedly get so lucky.
For thousands of Kentucky residents, playing the lottery is favorite pastime.
Sometimes players win big, but usually, the outcome is not so lucky.
The lottery in Kentucky is set up to give everyone an equal chance, but winning lottery tickets are finding their way into the same hands over and over.
Big scratch-off prize winners in Kentucky are defined as people who take home $600 or more.
WHAS11 obtained a list from the lottery contacting the names of people who won big prizes more than once during the past year.
The list is more than 2,900 names long, with some of the same names popping up over and over.
The town of Salyersville in Eastern Kentucky is perhaps the luckiest community in the state. During the past year, they've had a $500,000 winner in the lottery, a $125,000 winner and then, there's the Wheelers.
WHAS11 first spotted Lowell and Concheata Wheeler on the Kentucky Lottery's website, holding one big check after another.
In the past year, they've won more than $1,000 a total of 23 times,
Six times, the husband and wife both claimed $1,000 or more on the same day.
The Wheelers used to own a convenience store in the community of less than 1,600 residents. They admit playing the lottery at their store, but they say their big wins started coming in after they retired last year.
$136,000 so far in a year, but how?
"We play 3 or 4 days a week. Sometimes we'll play more. It's according to how we feel or whether we've got money to go spend on it or not," said Concheata.
Concheata says she usually buys 3 or 4 $20 tickets at a time.
Lowell says he'll sometimes play a new roll until he wins something. He also says he envisions winning numbers in his sleep.
Former employee takes Lottery to court
Keith Hunter used to be the staff attorney at the Kentucky Lottery.
Hunter is now representing thousands of lottery players in a lawsuit, claiming the lottery misrepresented potential prizes on two of its games.
"To repeatedly win like that, there seems to be some sort of issue that the lottery should investigate," said Hunter.
U of L mathematics Professor Patricia Cerrito agrees the Wheeler's winnings seem unusual.
"I imagine they're counting... Counting rolls, counting cards," said Cerrito.
Cerrito says the odds of winning at least a $1,000 playing the Wheeler's favorite game are about 0.2%, or two chances out of a 1,000.
To understand those odds, imagine a joker in a deck of cards. Then shuffle it into not one, but 10 decks of cards. The chance of drawing that joker from the stack is the equivalent of the odds of winning a $1,000 from a $20 scratch-off ticket.
It means the wheelers would have to play 33 cards at $677 a day, every day, 365 days a year if they won according to the odds.
To calculate the chance of winning 23 big prizes in a year, multiple 0.2 times itself again and again.
How would Cerrito describe those tiny odds to her u of l math students?
"I ask them if at every moment in time, they are looking at the sky waiting on that lightning to fall on them," said Cerrito.
"It's a situation where they're just the luckiest people in probably not only Kentucky, but in the world. But it does look, in my opinion rather suspicious.
As for the Wheelers, they just hope the lucky streak continues.
Security at the Lottery
Next to Fort Knox, lottery headquarters is one of the most secure places in Kentucky.
It all starts with employees processing orders from 2700 retail locations.
The lottery scratch-off tickets these clerks are selling are printed by the millions at this plant in Georgia.
Winning numbers are assigned randomly by a computer.
The cards fly across the printing presses so fast, you can't even see them without a strobe light.
They are then boxed and shipped to Louisville, where pallets of sealed boxes are stored floor to ceiling in a warehouse.
Eventually, the games are transferred to the shipping room, where orders are filled.
"It's been assigned in the computer system, but the guys down here have absolutely no idea who that's gonna go to," said one lottery employee. "They just reach in the box and grab whatever they can grab. There's no system to it. It's all randomly done."
Completed orders are then packed into shipping bags and sealed.
"When he scans that barcode in, it locks that order into the computer system. After all those tickets are locked in, only at that point is there an address label that's printed."
The tickets aren't activated until they reach stores.
Lottery employees have no idea where the winning tickets are sent.
So how can anyone cheat? The most common way involves deception.
Convenience store clerks
"Well nope. No winner. They're kind of tricky to read sometimes? They are," said one clerk.
Clerks can use the complexity of the different games to trick winning customers into thinking they lost.
In this surveillance video from California, the clerk takes a $500,000 winning ticket from a customer and hides it, to cash in later.
That customer was actually an undercover lottery investigator.
Kentucky doesn't conduct similar stings, because officials say cheating isn't widespread.
The lottery's former attorney Keith Hunter says customers are often too trusting of those who sell them tickets.
"They're handing them the ticket saying, "Gee, did I win?" "Well, I may have won $10" when in fact I won $100," said Hunter.
Lowell and Concheata Wheeler, who have won 23 big prizes in the last year, says it's even happened to them.
They say a clerk outside Kentucky told them a $100 winning ticket was a loser and threw it in the trash.
"She thought we were some dumb old hillbillies that didn't know how to play lottery when we've spent years doing it... Redneck hillbillies," said Wheeler.
Mark Patel's company doesn't allow him to play the lottery but there's no law in Kentucky preventing retailers from playing.
While we there were hundreds of repeat big prize winners in Kentucky last year, it's nearly impossible to tell how many are convenience store owners, employees, their relatives or close friends.
Jackie Millikin of Louisville has won 22 big scratch-off jackpots worth $31,500 in less than three years.
He refused to talk to us about his winnings.
We learned that the store where he works, Bank Street Liquors, once had the 13th highest lottery sales in Kentucky.
You can't buy lottery tickets there anymore, though.
The lottery has placed a $58,000 lien on the business.
The Kentucky Lottery aggressively prosecutes players who cheat.
Earlier this month, Jean Watkins was arrested after allegedly cashing a $350 winning ticket, then stealing it back.
Police say Watkins tried to cash the ticket again at another location.
As far as retailers go, they say, "If it isn't on the up-and-up, they can face all kinds of penalties, up to the revocation of their license."
Only two Kentucky retailers lost their licenses in the past year both for criminal offenses unrelated to the lottery.
Attorney Keith Hunter says someone besides the lottery should police retailers since the lottery depends on those same people to sell lots of tickets.
"I think there needs to be more oversight," said Hunter. "As long as their numbers are up, I'm sure they're happy, but my concern is that people are not having a fair opportunity to win."
In the meantime, lottery officials say you should always sign the back of a winning ticket to make sure nobody tries taking it from you and you should look at the receipt from the lottery terminal to make sure you know if you won or not.
And if something isn't right, let the lottery know about it.
The Kentucky Lottery recently passed a new regulation requiring an investigation any time a retailer wins more than $5000.
That measure was adopted after evidence of widespread lottery fraud turned up in California, Minnesota, Iowa and Canada.
Watch the investigative reports
WHAS11 Investigative Report – Part 1
WHAS11 Investigative Report – Part 2
Thanks to Bluegrass for the tip.