Man wins mega millions jackpot to tune of $273m after stranger returns lost lottery ticket

Liam Stack

An unemployed New Jersey man won a $273m (£210m) Mega Millions lottery jackpot last week after a stranger found and returned the winning ticket he had left behind on a shop counter.

The man, Michael J Weirsky, told reporters on Thursday he lost two tickets immediately after he bought them at a QuickChek in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, on the day before the lottery draw. He said it was the result of “the typical cellphone deal.”

“I was paying more attention to my cellphone,” he said at a news conference. “I put the tickets down to put my money away, then I did something with my phone and just walked away.”

Mr Weirsky had spent hours searching for the tickets when he got to his home in Alpha, New Jersey, near the Pennsylvania border. He was convinced he must have lost them there, and it was not until the next day he decided to ask an assistant at the shop if anyone had seen them.

The assistant said someone had handed them in. Then she quizzed him on what tickets he had bought before handing them over, he said. The lottery draw was that night.

“I was very thankful there was an honest person out there because I thought it was gone,” he said.

But Mr Weirsky, who said he spends $20 a week on quick-pick lottery tickets, said he did not realise he had the winning ticket until two days later, as a snowstorm swirled outside.

He said a friend of his mother’s called to say she thought a mutual friend of theirs had hit the jackpot. That man bought his ticket at the same store Mr Weirsky did, and had been standing right in front of him when he did it. Mr Weirsky called to ask if he had won.

When the man said he had not, Mr Weirsky decided to check his own tickets using the lottery app on his phone. Then he turned to his mother in shock.

“I put the phone down, I put the ticket down, I sat there for a second — I said to my mother, ‘Hey, that [man] just said I was the jackpot winner,’” he said. “And she’s like, ‘What’s that mean?’”

“I said, ‘I won $273m,’” he told her. “And she was like, ‘Get the hell out of here.’”

So, for a while, he did nothing.

“I just put the ticket back down, watched TV for about another half-hour. And I just got up and ran upstairs, got dressed and I said, ‘I’ve got to go find out if it’s real,’” he said.

New Jersey Lottery said in a statement Mr Weirsky “ventured out in a snowstorm” to scan the ticket at a nearby store. The scan also said he was the winner.

Mr Weirsky said the lottery win would change everything for him. He had been unemployed for 15 years, he said, living as a stay-at-home husband and moving often for his ex-wife’s job.

Their marriage ended in October. He said he now plans to take his time looking for work. He may start a business, he said, or work part time helping a friend who works as a handyman.

“I am just going to sit back and enjoy it,” said Mr Weirsky, who could not be reached Friday night.

He said he planned to take his winnings as a $162.5m (£125m) lump sum rather than in instalments. His first move will be to buy a new pickup truck, he said, and his next will be to listen to his lawyer.

“After that, I am basically locked into what my lawyer and other people that I got working for me tell me I can do,” he said. “But after they tell me I can go crazy, I am going to take a family vacation and take everybody with us.”

James Carey, acting executive director of the New Jersey Lottery, said Mr Weirsky was lucky someone had returned the winning lottery ticket to the shop. (The store was lucky, too: It got a $30,000 (£23,000) prize from New Jersey Lottery for selling the winning ticket).

When it comes to lottery tickets, possession is nine-tenths of the law, Carey said. If the person who found Mr Weirsky’s ticket had claimed ownership, that person would have been declared the winner.

“If you have a winning ticket, we always urge our players: Sign that ticket right away,” Carey said at the news conference. He added, “If you think about it, it is very difficult to say who owns a lottery ticket short of someone coming in here and saying, ‘I purchased this ticket. It’s mine.’”

Mr Weirsky said he was thankful for the unidentified good Samaritan who found his tickets on the shop counter and decided to hand them in. He said he hoped to find the person.

“I’ve got to find him and thank him,” Mr Weirsky said, adding, “I am going to give him something, but I am going to keep that private.”

The New York Times