A cynical person might say that the odds of meeting a truly honest person are the same as winning the lottery. But at one Rutherford convenience store, you'll find the odds are good of finding both a winning ticket and an honest store owner, who returned a winning scratch-off with a $2 million jackpot to a regular customer after it ended up unclaimed in the garbage.
Owner Yogi Patel and his wife Vilsa own Leprechaun News on Park Avenue by the traffic circle. Nestled between a bank and a parking lot across from the train station, the store sees its share of customers who stop in regularly, and even daily, to play the lottery or pick up scratch-off tickets. One such familiar face is a local man — we will call him John Smith — who sees that there's something lucky at the Leprechaun.
Like many of his customers, Yogi said he and his son Jay who operates another convenience store, and Smith know each other by name. Smith drops in every now and again and typically buys between $200 and $300 in a variety of tickets.
In what's become a regular routine, Smith came in March 19 and purchased some instant game tickets, including some for the game Double Diamond Spectacular. Being close to 6 p.m., Yogi was out at dinner and Vilsa was minding the store. Scratching off the cover to reveal the bar code at the bottom, Smith handed over the tickets one-by-one for Vilsa to scan, reading the screen to see if it was a winner and continuing to scratch more from his pile. Once he had sorted through his pile and cashed in the awards from the smaller winning tickets, he left the store, and the pile of unsuccessful ones went into a box of unsuccessful tickets behind the counter.
Yogi returned later that evening and his wife told him that he had missed Smith's visit, and that he cashed in some of his winning tickets.
Going through the list on the computer, Yogi made an astounding discovery — a ticket worth $1,375,000 when redeemed came up on the receipt as being scanned.
"It's the biggest prize I've ever seen on this [receipt]," Yogi said.
Trouble was, no customer had come forward as being the winner.
Double Diamond Spectacular stuck in Yogi's mind as being one favored by Smith because not many people play the $20 game. The owners also remembered that Smith had come in around the time listed on the receipt and had sorted through a stack of tickets.
"I thought 'oh this guy plays this ticket,'" Yogi recalled. This detail also came in handy because by happenstance, his camera happened to not be working that day, so identifying the correct players would have been a challenge.
Yogi dug through the trash box, and managed to locate the golden ticket.
With the help of his son Jay, Yogi called Smith and told him to come in for an "emergency."
A short time later when Smith arrived, Yogi presented him with the winning ticket — the one he nearly threw away.
"I just gave him the ticket, I said to him 'it's your ticket, it's $2 million dollars.' He was in shock," said Yogi. "He said to me, 'Yogi I cannot believe it.'"
Together, they got the ball rolling on the paperwork needed for him to claim the winnings, aided by an inspector for the New Jersey Lottery, who had been notified by the barcode being scanned and visited on March 20.
A New Jersey Lottery representative confirmed that the $2 million jackpot ticket had been claimed.
Telling the store about the special Double Diamond Spectacular, Yogi greeted his customers by name as they came in to purchase what they hoped was the next lucky ticket.
When asked why he wanted to make sure the true winner got his winning ticket, Yogi said the answer is simple.
"Because I don't want anybody else's money, it's not my money," he said. He recalled how his father, who sadly passed away just a day after moving to the United States, had always worked hard all his life for other people.
Yogi said Smith still comes in now and again to play the lottery.
His store has proven to be a lucky location for big buck winners in the past. In 2005, a Mega Millions player bought the winning $250 million jackpot ticket at the store. Customers have also purchased tickets for other big jackpots over the years — $50,000, $60,000 and $63,000.
The store's luck is reflected in the name, Leprechaun News, said Yogi.
The Patels have operated the store on Park Avenue for close to 20 years.
Thanks to Steve for the tip.