In 2005, three people won a Colorado Lotto jackpot worth $4.8 million, and Boulder's Amir Massihzadeh held one set of winning numbers.
He accepted his prize of $568,990 — after splitting the pot and paying taxes — and moved on with life.
Ten years later, Colorado Bureau of Investigation agents visited Massihzadeh to interview him about his winning number because they were investigating a criminal scheme to rig lotteries. They suspected the other two ticket-holders who split the prize with Massihzadeh had cheated.
Massihzadeh, who let the computer choose his numbers, was not suspected of wrongdoing.
Even after the other two were convicted in the scam, the Colorado Lottery refused to award the full jackpot to Massihzadeh, saying he was locked into a contract when he signed the original ticket.
Thus began a years-long court battle between Massihzadeh and the state lottery over whether or not he is entitled to the full $4.8 million jackpot. On Tuesday, the Colorado Court of Appeals will hear the case to interpret exactly how contracts between lottery winners and the state should work.
"If an honest person plays a game by the rules, but other players cheat to win and get caught, then the honest player should get the whole jackpot and the cheaters should not get anything," Robert Duncan, one of Massihzadeh's attorneys, said in an email to The Denver Post. "But when we went to the state, it said it did not owe our client anything."
Massihzadeh declined an interview, but his lawyer said his client isn't mad or frustrated. He simply believes the entire jackpot is rightfully his.
Lottery officials referred questions about the case to the Colorado Attorney General's Office, which declined comment because of pending litigation.
When Massihzadeh won nearly 14 years ago he never considered there would be a problem, Duncan said.
What he — and state lottery officials — did not know was that a man in Iowa who worked as director of information security for the Multi-State Lottery Association was installing code to help him and his brother forecast likely winning numbers. The Multi-State Lottery Association is a nonprofit organization owned and operated by 33 state lottery systems, including Colorado's, which use the association's computer system to generate winning numbers.
Eddie Tipton, the security director in Iowa and the mastermind behind the scam, had manipulated the computer program so that he would be able to predict winning numbers, according to previous reports on the scam. Tipton designed the software so that it only operated on certain dates and was dormant the rest of the time to avoid detection. But on those certain dates, odds were high that Tipton knew the numbers that would be chosen.
Tipton provided those potential winning numbers to his brother, Tommy Tipton, who also shared them with others.
After the Nov. 23, 2005, Colorado Lotto numbers were announced, Tommy Tipton, who had received a notepad with likely winning combinations from his brother, gave his winning ticket to a friend, who claimed a lump-sum payout.
Tommy Tipton also had shared those combinations with someone else, and the third winning number was claimed by a Las Vegas limited liability company called Cuestion de Suerte, which also asked for a lump-sum payment.
But the Tiptons got caught after the Iowa Lottery investigated suspicious circumstances surrounding a $16.5 million Hot Lotto ticket purchased in December 2010.
The Tiptons were required by court order to pay Colorado $1,137,980 in restitution: the total amount paid out by the state for the two rigged lottery tickets. They were also ordered to pay restitution in Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Kansas, according to Colorado's response brief in the Court of Appeals case.
The state said in its court filing that the Tiptons have not paid any of the restitution to Colorado and are unlikely to do so. Eddie Tipton is serving two consecutive five-year sentences in the Iowa state prison, it stated.
After the Tiptons' scheme was busted, that left Massihzadeh as the lone holder of a winning Lotto ticket.
Massihzadeh and his attorneys went to the Colorado Lottery to ask for the full payout.
"These criminals knew what no one else did: what the potential winning combination of numbers would be. They were not playing a game of chance like all the honest players," Massihzadeh's attorneys wrote in their opening brief before the appeals court. "For the honest players, like Mr. Massihzadeh, the drawing was still a fair and random game of chance because they had the same opportunity to win when competing against other honest players."
Lottery officials said they did not owe Massihzadeh anything. The original payout was set in a contract both parties had signed, the lottery determined.
But a Denver District Court judge dismissed the lawsuit in February 2018, agreeing with lottery officials that Massihzadeh was bound by the original contract.
The state has argued that Colorado law says the lottery cannot be held liable after earnings are paid, and that it technically did not have contracts with the Tiptons because other people claimed the winnings. The criminal convictions had no bearing on Massihzadeh's claim because the winner's shares are determined by the number of matching tickets, not the means by which a player purchases a ticket, the lottery said.
"Massihzadeh, unaware of the fraud, purchased a quick pick ticket. He now claims that the Division's payment of two-thirds of the jackpot to the other ticket holders breached his own contract with the Division," the Colorado Lottery argued in its brief before the appeals court. "In doing so, he entirely disregards the terms of that contract. He also ignores the obvious — he was an unknowing beneficiary of the fraud, not a victim of it. The Division was defrauded of at least $1.6 million in prize money in 2005. Massihzadeh now asks the Division to pay this amount a second time."
On Tuesday, before an audience of high school students in Trinidad, Massihzadeh's lawyers will try to convince the appeals court their client deserves the money and to reverse the district court's decision.
And if he loses?
"He certainly hopes the Court of Appeals will agree with his position, but, if not, then his life will continue to be as good as it has been since 2005," Duncan said.
Timeline of the biggest crime in US lottery history
The following is a compilation of Lottery Post news coverage chronicling the Hot Lotto mystery and subsequently discovered crime.
We start the timeline with a news story indicating that only 3 months remained for the $16 million Hot Lotto jackpot to be claimed.