GRAND PRAIRIE, Tx. — Willis Willis has an idea how he can get his money back from the store clerk who authorities say stole his $1 million winning lottery ticket.
"Just get me in a room with him for two minutes," says the 67-year-old Navy veteran.
Willis was back home in Grand Prairie on Tuesday after a meeting with Texas Lottery Commission officials Monday in Austin in which his attorneys tried unsuccessfully to collect the winnings.
It was a meeting that only seemed to add confusion and frustration to the already bizarre case.
Commission officials told Willis that they consider the store clerk, Pankaj Joshi, the rightful winner because Joshi signed and redeemed the ticket as required, Willis' attorney said.
Joshi was indicted in Travis County on charges of claiming a lottery prize by fraud. Prosecutors there say Willis is the winner and hope to return to him about $365,000 they have seized from Joshi's bank accounts.
A spokesman said the Lottery Commission does not comment on pending legal claims.
Willis' attorney, Sean E. Breen, said Tuesday: "I think the Lottery Commission is more concerned with covering their own behinds than making sure Mr. Willis gets the money. We will move forward with all legal remedies."
Willis, who has played the same Mega Millions numbers for years, bought the winning ticket May 29 at the Lucky Food Store at 902 Great Southwest Parkway in Grand Prairie, authorities said.
Willis returned to the Lucky Food Store on May 31 to have the Mega Millions ticket and two Cash 5 tickets scanned, because he had not been able to locate the winning numbers.
Joshi scanned the tickets — the Mega Millions ticket was a $1 million winner — but gave Willis only $2 for one of the Cash 5 tickets, authorities said.
Joshi later went to Austin and cashed in the Mega Millions ticket, receiving $750,000 after taxes, a search warrant affidavit said. Joshi, a former student at the University of Texas at Arlington, is believed to have gone back to his native Nepal, authorities said.
The case is starting to draw national media attention. Dateline NBC interviewed Willis on Tuesday. Afterward, he met with local reporters at the Grand Prairie Moose Lodge, where he is a member.
In a denim shirt and a U.S. Navy cap pulled over his graying hair, Willis sat in the lodge's bingo hall and said the episode has left him feeling violated. But he was trying to keep things in perspective.
"I didn't have the money at first; I still don't have the money now," he said. "I definitely want it.... If I don't get it, I'm not going to cry about it."
Willis said he was hardly looking to go on a spending spree. The former apartment maintenance worker said he has medical bills, a daughter entering college who could use help with tuition and a tooth that badly needs a root canal.
"Those are the priorities in my life," he said.
Willis said he did not know Joshi well, although he had seen him behind the counter. Willis visited the store often and knew the manager and assistant manager by name. He cashed payroll checks there, and when he asked store clerks to check his lottery tickets in the past, they told him when he won $5 or $10 prizes. He said he was unaware he could check the winning numbers online.
"I always got my money, no questions asked," he said. "There was a trust."
Willis seems likely to get at least the $365,000 seized by Travis County prosecutors. Assistant prosecutor Patty Robertson said Tuesday that the Lottery Commission's view that Joshi is the winner does not affect the allegation that he committed fraud to win it.
"I don't believe the Lottery Commission is trying to claim ownership of the seized funds," she said. "We will be asking the court to return the funds to Mr. Willis."
As Willis spoke to reporters at the Moose Lodge, his friends stood in the next room and watched. They said they are astounded at the twists and turns in Willis' efforts to get his jackpot.
"We are real happy for him that he won," lodge member John Sauber said. "We sure hope someone sets it right for him."
Willis told reporters that he is willing to be patient. If it takes a year, he won't give up, he said.
He also won't stop playing the lottery. In fact, he bought five Mega Millions tickets Tuesday, he said.
"See if I can pull one more rabbit out of a hat," he said.
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