On Sept. 16, 2002, a New Jersey Pick 6 lottery ticket was sold from the Sunshine Grocery store in Hoboken. The numbers, randomly generated as a "quick pick," proved to be the very lucky indeed. But a court will have to decide for whom.
Several days after the ticket was sold, a brother and sister from Union City presented the lone winning ticket in the $4 million drawing to the New Jersey Lottery Commission in Trenton. Ecstatic at their good fortune but uncertain of their English (they are from Puerto Rico), Marabelle and Ronaldo Torres said they waited several days until they could find someone they trusted to help them before trying to redeem the ticket.
Then Isaac Mendez showed up.
Mendez, a 35-year-old Rutgers University student who lives in Jersey City, said it was in fact his ticket that the Torres' presented. He said he's the one who bought the ticket from the Sunshine Grocery that day, but then lost it while he rode the bus up Washington Street.
Weeks later, when Mendez went to the Lottery Commission offices in Trenton to argue his case, he said he recognized the Torres' - who were there for the same reason - as fellow passengers on the No. 22 bus on Washington Street on Sept. 16. He says that the ticket must have fallen out of his pocket and the Torres' picked it up.
The Torres' say that claim is absurd, since they drove their own car to Hoboken that day and never take the bus.
After both the Torres' and Mendez were interviewed by investigators for the Lottery Commission, the director said she was prepared to give the money to the Torres siblings, unless Mendez thought he had a good enough case to bring to court.
So there they were yesterday, all three of them and their attorneys, each side trying to convince a jury that its tale of the ticket is the true one. At stake is $1.4 million, the amount left after taxes and a lump-sum payment fee were taken from the $4 million jackpot.
Testifying yesterday before state Superior Court Judge Camille M. Kenny in Jersey City, Mendez said that after buying the ticket he glanced at it once, for a few seconds, as he walked out of the store that day, then put it in his pocket and virtually forgot about it. He didn't sign it.
It wasn't until more than a week later, when the winning numbers - and the store at which the lucky ticket was bought, the Sunshine Grocery - were published in the newspaper, that his memory was jogged.
The numbers on the ticket Mendez bought were randomly generated, selected by computer at the lottery terminal. But, he testified yesterday, the first two digits - 7 and 11 - had stuck in his mind because it is the numerical rendering of the date of his mother's wedding anniversary: July 11.
Another number in the six-digit sequence - 33 - was significant, Mendez said, because he had just turned 34, so 33 had been his age until four days before the day in question.
When he heard those numbers, 12 days after the drawing, Mendez said he knew right away he had a winner.
"I said, 'that's my number, I won!'" Mendez testified. "The key was the 7, 11."
After a frantic search of pants pockets, drawers and old jackets, Mendez realized the winner was gone and contacted the Lottery Commission, setting in motion an investigation into the disputed ticket's ownership.
The Torres' argument is pretty simple: They're in possession of the winning slip.
David Balk, their attorney, dismissed Mendez's story, saying he never had the ticket in question and only ascribed significance to the digits 7 and 11 after he knew the winning number.
Mendez initially said he bought the ticket after his 2 p.m. doctor's appointment that day - at 2:16, to be precise - but then, after he was told when the winning ticket was bought, said it may have been before his appointment. The Torres' say they bought the ticket just before taking their sister to lunch that day, at either 1 or 1:05 p.m.
As it turns out, both sides were a little off: The ticket was sold at 1:34 p.m., according to lottery records.
Three other Pick 6 tickets were sold between noon and 4 p.m. that day, but Mendez insists his was the number that began with 7 and 11. One of the other tickets began with 7 and 12, but Mendez said that definitely wasn't his ticket - he said those numbers wouldn't have any significance to him worth remembering.
The Lottery Commission deposited the $1.4 million with the court, to be released to whoever wins the case.
Kenny, who declined a summary motion from Balk to dismiss the case, said that if Mendez could prove he was the one who bought the ticket, he will have a legitimate claim to the money.
"As I look at the law of lost property," Kenny said yesterday, before declining the motion and allowing testimony to proceed, "it is not 'finder's keepers, losers weepers,' as we learn in the schoolyard. If Mr. Mendez bought the ticket, he has a claim to it."