Once upon a time there were 21 co-workers who liked and trusted each other well enough to pool their money for the New Jersey Lottery.
They didn't win much.
Then the pool manager announced that he had a cousin who had won a $25 million Lottery jackpot. His co-workers suspected that the pair had won with their money. Furious, they sued.
Yesterday all the parties squared off in a Bergen County courtroom, where Superior Court Judge Marguerite Simon must decide who gets the $25 million from the Big Game Mega Millions drawing March 15.
In one corner sat an Englewood couple, Terri and Cornell Davis, who turned in the winning ticket and are now defendants in the lawsuit. The couple claim they've received death threats and were forced into hiding after news of their win.
In another sat 27-year-old Jamal Townes, the X-ray technician who was in charge of the lottery pool.
And in yet another were his colleagues from Englewood Hospital's cardiac catheterization laboratory, three of whom testified yesterday.
"The case simply revolves around credibility," said Sheldon Liebowitz, an attorney for the 20 workers. "Who's telling the truth and who isn't telling the truth."
Warren Sutnick, the lawyer for Townes, put things differently.
"It's a case of impossibility," Sutnick said in his opening statement. "This is about rumor, this is about innuendo and gossip, and you will hear how this story grew and mushroomed."
In May, the judge ordered that all but $100,000 of the winnings be held in a court account while the case is pending. If the Davises lose the case, that money must be returned.
Late last year, the workers decided to contribute $2 each into a weekly lottery pool. Around last February they won $50 in the Mega Millions game. The workers said they had an understanding that Townes would use that winning money to purchase additional Mega Millions tickets. It is not clear, however, whether the workers had continued to contribute each week to the lottery pool.
Townes did not buy any more tickets until the March drawing.
Two employees testified that they did not ask Townes to make copies of the tickets he bought for them at the Circle Food Mart in Englewood, nor did they ask him to buy tickets specifically for the March 15 drawing. They said they expected him to use the pooled money to buy tickets whenever the lottery prize climbed higher than $10 million.
Patricia Kutner, head of the catheterization unit and a pool contributor, testified that the workers grew suspicious of Townes after the drawing when he told them his "cousin," Cornell Davis -- they are not related -- won the lottery and had bought Townes a BMW and then moved to Hawaii. Townes' lawyer said neither of those things are true.
The Davises' version of dvents was presented by their lawyer, James P. Cinque, who said Cornell Davis purchased the ticket --winning numbers: 3-6-14-31-33-Gold Megaball 8 -- as part of a routine $7 purchase at an Englewood convenience store.
Cinque said he plans to call New Jersey Lottery Commission officials to testify about their own investigation into the matter, and their finding in favor of the Davises.
The Davises and Townes were neighbors in Englewood 20 years ago, Cinque said, but had no recent contact. The lawyer also dismissed claims that Townes passed the ticket to the couple.
"It's ludicrous. More than ludicrous. It's just bad faith," Cinque said.
Yesterday the judge said she had not decided whether she'll consider the commission's independent finding in her decision, but is allowing the testimony from Lottery investigators in the dvent that she does consider it.
The bulk of yesterday's testimony revolved around Townes' whereabouts on the morning of March 14. The winning ticket was purchased at 9:33 that morning.
The defendants produced a work log showing that Townes logged into a 10-minute diagnostic procedure starting at 9:27 a.m. They said garage records from the hospital show his car did not leave the building from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
But hospital workers testified that, even though Townes was logged in for a diagnostic test, he could have left the building for a short amount of time unnoticed. The convenience store where the ticket was purchased is about a 10 minute drive from the hospital.
"You want to believe that he stopped in the middle of a procedure, jumped in someone's car, the engine racing, and drove past several other stores where he could have bought a ticket?" Cinque asked. "It's ludicrous."