SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Two brothers kept quiet for six years about the $5 million winning lottery ticket they'd bought at their parents' store in Syracuse.
Andy N. Ashkar, 34, of Camillus, and his brother, Nayel N. Ashkar, 36, of Cicero, came forward March 1 of this year to claim the $5 million top prize in the $500,000,000 Extravaganza scratch-off game, lottery officials said.
That was 11 days before the prize would've expired.
"It's unusual, highly unusual," lottery spokeswoman Carolyn Hapeman said Tuesday of the six-year lapse on such a large prize.
Andy Ashkar bought the ticket at his parents' Green Ale Market at 2208 E. Fayette St. in Syracuse, in 2006, the lottery said.
Ashkar delayed redeeming it until March 1 of this year, at the lottery's customer service center in Schenectady. The prize would've expired March 12, Hapeman said.
The reason for the delay, according to the lottery's news release: Ashkar was concerned that the winning ticket "could negatively influence his life if he did not plan properly before being publicly introduced."
Ashkar said he did not want the winning ticket to influence his engagement and then marriage, according to the news release.
"The younger brother also said that during that time, he decided to share his winnings with his brother, Nayel, to show his appreciation for all that Nayel had done for him during his life," the news release said.
The lottery's announcement of the winning ticket was delayed for seven months partly because its security unit investigated for possible fraud, as it does whenever the winner is someone related to the owner of the store that sold the ticket, Hapeman said.
"It's part of our routine procedure to put that on retailer hold, where our investigators contact the folks who presented the winning ticket, and also the people from the store," Hapeman said.
After its investigation, which included taking sworn statements from the winners, the lottery determined the scratch-off ticket was bought legitimately, she said.
Sara Ashkar, the wife of Nayel Ashkar, answered the door Tuesday at their home in Cicero. She said news of her family's winnings was spreading fast. Holding both her landline house phone and cell phone, she said family and friends had been calling all afternoon to express their surprise and excitement.
"It's crazy," she said. "Hard to believe. It's still sinking in." She said she's known about the winning ticket for some time but didn't know the announcement would be Tuesday. Nayel Ashkar said he and his brother want to wait for the press conference to tell their story. He didn't know when the press conference would be.
The Ashkars declined to comment further. Andy Ashkar could not be reached for comment.
Andy Ashkar is the business manager at Romano Toyota in East Syracuse. Nayel Ashkar is finance manager at Honda of Ithaca.
Nayel and Sara Ashkar paid $236,000 for their house in Cicero in March 2008, according to The Post-Standard's archives. Andy Ashkar paid $290,000 for his house in Camillus in August 2011, according to the archives.
Lottery officials are aware of gimmicks that retailers have tried to use with scratch-off tickets, Hapeman said. One involves retailers or their associates checking the bar codes on the tickets to look for winners before scratching them off.
That can still be done, "but not without us knowing about it," Hapeman said. Ohio lottery officials last month announced that undercover investigators had caught a dozen clerks and store owners using barcode scanning to steal winnings. They would scan customers' tickets, see that they were winners, then lie to the customers that they weren't. The clerks or owners would then claim the winnings for themselves or their friends.
The New York Lottery regularly changes its security measures to detect fraud, Hapeman said. Lottery officials have uncovered cases of retailers who weren't entitled to the tickets they were claiming, and those people were denied the prize, she said.
"There are as many things to look out for as there are retailers and human beings and all their frailties," Hapeman said. "We just have to make sure our security unit does due diligence. They're trained in ways to protect all of our lottery players."
The lottery will launch an investigation any time it has information that a winning ticket went to the retailer himself, one of his employees, a relative or even a friend of his family, Hapeman said.
"Just in fairness to everyone," she said.
The Green Ale Market, where Andy Ashkar bought the winning ticket, is a rundown store in a tough neighborhood. It was closed and dark Tuesday afternoon. No hours or closed sign was posted. Several customers, including a young boy with a fistful of dollar bills, approached the store and were surprised to see it closed. A cooler with soft drinks and gallons of milk could be seen through the gated front door.
A pile of leaves and a discarded scratch-off ticket sat in the corner of the market's locked entryway.
The lottery had to rush the announcement about the Ashkars because of media inquiries, Hapeman said.
She noted that with all prizes of $1 million or more, the office requires players to attend a news conference to discuss the prize claim and participate in a check presentation.
But the lottery said it has not yet determined a date for the news conference. The brothers are willing to participate, Hapeman said. She didn't know where they kept the $5 million ticket for six years.