Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Jackpot crazy: Reporting on the $533 million Mega Millions lottery winner in New Jersey

$533 million lottery winner Richard Wahl, left, with New
Jersey Lottery's Acting Executive Director John White on
April 13, 2018. Photo/Jai Agnish
When the world met the $533 million winner

My coverage of the New Jersey $533 million Mega Millions winner concluded Friday following the New Jersey Lottery press conference where the winner, Richard Wahl, was introduced. It was a pleasure to be there when Wahl met the world. And it was fun to be able to get some questions in.

Immersed in the lottery craze

We got to see what this guy was about and it was a chance for me to further understand the lottery craze I was now fully immersed in. I had a front row seat at the press conference, literally. But I also had a front row seat to the lottery madness that led up to that moment.

This was the largest win in New Jersey lottery history and the fourth largest in Mega Millions history. I happened to be the lucky reporter assigned to the win when it was first announced on March 31 because I was working a breaking news shift that Saturday.
From the first article I wrote with a colleague, to the last, I was amazed at how many readers consumed the news of the lottery. Our articles and videos combined for close to a million views.

What readers want to know

Readers wanted to know who the mystery winner was, but the intrigue didn't end there. They also wanted to understand from an accountant's perspective, just how much money exactly the winner would take home.

Daniel Mahler, a certified public accountant whose firm represented a lottery winner in the 1980s, said the winner better be prepared for when people start asking him for money.

“This guy has to watch himself," Mahler said of New Jersey's big winner. "Everybody’s going to come after him. Everybody looks for a handout."

Mahler is also the mayor of Wanaque, one of the local towns I regularly cover. The article idea came out of a conversation I had with him before the start of a mayor and council meeting.

Winners in other states

I enjoyed speaking to lottery officials in states like Indiana, California, and Kansas where the other biggest Mega Millions jackpot hit. The spokespeople there remembered well where they were when those winning numbers were called. And it was interesting to learn about the different rules from state to state regarding winner anonymity, and what happens to unclaimed jackpots, among other things.

It turns out that lottery lightning struck in Kansas and New Jersey on the very same day of the week and month, exactly six years apart. This is when Kansas split the largest Mega Millions jackpot ever ($656 million) with two other states in 2012.

The biggest winners take 12 days to come forward

I was also able to determine that it takes winners an average of 12 days to come forward based on an analysis of previous winners. Two days after we published that article Wahl came forward on day 14. Some winners have shown up the next day and others have waited until week 51 to claim their millions.

All the links to my articles and videos we produced during the two week stretch are below. I combined with several colleagues along the way. And there were some exciting moments working under deadline with my editor and producers and writers with The Record and with USA Today.

The Facebook Live broadcast from NJ Lottery headquarters

Here's the Facebook live broadcast from when Wahl was introduced to the world at New Jersey Lottery headquarters on April 13. It happens to features my first stand-up for Northjersey.com a few minutes in. We were also lucky enough to have front row seats to the action thanks to our fast friendship with New Jersey Lottery. They were great to work with all along the way.

Wahl was affable as had been advertised to me by a lottery spokeswoman before the event began. He came off as a humble, and genuine person -- a good Catholic man -- who will probably do some real good with such an unfathomable amount of money.

One of the things that struck me was when a reporter asked him if he would continue to play the lottery. Wahl responded that he probably would. Here was a man who just won $553 million dollars and was hoping to keep the lucky streak going. Can you blame him, I guess?

Reporters were spellbound by the lottery winner

A room of 30-plus members of the media were spellbound with Wahl's every word during the press conference. They were downright giddy at times.

At one point Wahl revealed to the reporters that he had made an incognito appearance at the gas station where he had purchased his winning Mega Millions ticket on a day many of us where there. A press conference for the lucky retailer was held April 2 when the owner was awarded a $30,000 bonus check.

"A lot of you guys had probably seen me already," he told the reporters. "The day they were handing out the $30,000 check I actually stopped in for gas."

There was a collective groan and some laughter in response to that fact. Us reporters had been that close to uncovering Wahl's identity only two weeks earlier.

Catching a plane

There was no chance to speak with Wahl after the press conference. He quickly left the building to catch a flight. The spokeswoman with New Jersey Lottery was nice enough to slip Wahl my business card so we'll see if he calls me for an exclusive interview one day soon.

The Record/Northjersey.com coverage

March 31, 2018: Riverdale gas station sells winning $521 million lottery ticket
April 2, 2018: NJ Mega Millions winner may be 'one of our regulars' from North Jersey, but hasn't been identified
April 2, 2018: Five things you should know if you are the $533M NJ Mega Millions winner

April 4, 2018: NJ Mega Millions: Where's the $533 million winner?
April 10, 2018: Most Mega Millions winners step up in 12 days, but Jersey's $533M jackpot still unclaimed
April 10, 2018: Get ready to say no a lot, accountant tells Mega Millions mystery winner
April 12, 2018: $533 million NJ Mega Millions jackpot going to one winner to be revealed Friday
April 13, 2018: NJ Mega Millions jackpot goes to Vernon resident

USA Today coverage

March 31, 2018: New Jersey sells winning Mega Millions jackpot lottery ticket
April 2, 2018: Mega Millions jackpot really was $12 million more — $533M — lottery officials say
April 12, 2018: $533 million Mega Millions lottery winner will get the check Friday
April 13, 2018: Latest Mega Millions winner says he'll take his lottery jackpot in cash please

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Witnessing James Neal's joy of hockey up close

In honor of James Neal's incredible start to the 2017/2018 NHL season with the Las Vegas Golden Knights I dug up these memorable photographs from 2013.

At the time I was shooting photographs for a now-extinct website that got me ice-level access to Islanders games at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Long Island. Sitting through hours of dreaded traffic on I-495 was worth this.

Because here I was shooting through one of the six photo holes at ice level. The ice cool air was blowing through as I stuffed either of the two lenses of my cameras through for the perfect pic. I had to pull back the camera to avoid stray pucks, sticks and players.

Sometimes an NHL player like Antoine Roussel or a ref would hand me a puck through the photo hole to give away to fan behind me. My friend Greg would get mad at me for not keeping the puck, but there are rules amongst the professional photographers, mind you :) Plus, I had already caught a NJ Devils game puck years earlier as a fan, so I was good as far as game pucks go.

When I was putting my 70-200 camera lens through the photo hole during warm-ups sometimes a player would deliberately try to destroy it with a wrister from the blue line for some laughs. Yeah, Robyn Regehr, I'm talking about you! But, these were experiences that I will not easily forget. Especially as a fan of the game.

So, here is how these James Neal photos came about. After I drove in for the game with some good friends and a bit of tailgating I put my press face on and wandered around the parking lot to collect pix. The parking lot pix were fun. Fans were in their gear going nuts. There was a car smashing area. If I recall, this was the first Islanders home playoff game in five years. So the atmosphere was alive. It was a rare afternoon weekend game too so the tailgating was in its maximum state. The smell of grilled up goodness and booze was all around. My crew got on the local TV station with their Stiga hockey tables.

After gathering up some outdoor parking lot pix I decided to meander inside the arena to see what was happening and if there was anything was worth photographing. It was early and it was pretty much just me inside with a handful of ushers and security folks. My press badge gave me access to pretty much everywhere.

I remember getting lost in the boxes upstairs one time. There were these enormous photographs of Islanders greats covering the hallways up there. You know, guys like Mike Bossy. The Islanders were one hell of a team in the 80s! They won four straight Stanley Cups!

When I wandered inside the empty arena I noticed that every seat in the place was covered with orange playoff towels. That was really cool. Here are some photos of that:

While I was setting up these photos I noticed some people skating on the ice.

View some of the game pix here including one of Sid the Kid Crosby working the corner during the game. This is when Sid had a broken jaw and was rocking the lower face protective glass. I had some interesting encounters or observations of Crosby during the couple of years I was photographing NHL games at at the coliseum. Crosby is very particular about taping up the blade of his stick between periods. He was one of the first ones out of the locker room between periods and onto the runway taping up his stick just right.

Maybe this is part of his needing to have an awareness of things happening outside and around him and the team. This extended beyond the ice into the locker room area. It's not quite unlike John Tavares' pregame stretch routine in the hallway outside of the press room. I believe Johnny, as his teammates call him. Maybe this is also a need to establish an awareness of the things happening around him. Or they both just need a quiet moment to focus. It was fun to see that up close, whatever it was.

Anyway, James Neal was in a sweatshirt and shorts that day standing at the end of the runway shooting some pucks around. He was actually injured at the time and didn't play in that game. I was struck by how much fun he was having just shooting some pucks at the net. He's a Whitby, Ontario born Canadian, just outside of Toronto.

Here he was, James Neal, standing on the threshold of the ice in sneakers shooting pucks at the net. I think, here is a player who just loves the game that much that he can't stay away from it. Teammates, like the legendary Evgeni Malkin were there checking out what Neal was up to. And they were enjoying the moment like kids that love hockey.

And for me to be there, that close to a moment like that, that close to these superstars that I love to watch play the game...it gives me chills to this day to think about it.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Chasing death

An aerial over Greenwood Lake looking southwest. (By Jai Agnish) 
I wrote about a 20-year-old that died in an early morning car crash Monday and chased it down some more on Tuesday.

It happened in my hometown. On East Shore Road, a road I've driven countless times. I was just living in Greenwood Lake, N.Y. this past winter and made the drive on that long, windy road over and over again from the office in Butler, N.J.

I've seen it in the daytime and in the nighttime. Those trees. That lake. I wonder what Paul saw in the moments before his tragic death Saturday.

Today I pursued some leads, or rather rumors, and filed a records request. The police station, the phone, the house numbers. Someone has to go and knock on Paul's mom's door. That was me today.

I'm still not sure what I would've asked her, or first said. It's a dreadful assignment, but it's outweighed when you consider your place in this reality. I didn't just lose a son.

So, you hope she's not home. And if she is, you hope you say the right thing. Ask the right questions. That your humanity takes over. You expect that. Being a reporter that is also aware of being a human. The balance of life, I suppose.

I left my card in the screen door. And then I went home, and wrote about a new Taco Bell coming to Wanaque.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Super Bowl halftime show

Super Bowl halftime show by Jai Agnish
Super Bowl halftime show, a photo by Jai Agnish on Flickr.

Super Bowl halftime show at MetLife Stadium in Easter Rutherford, NJ Feb. 2, 2014. This photograph was published with this article/slideshow.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

'Here, take it'

"Take it" by Jai Agnish
"Take it", a photo by Jai Agnish on Flickr.
Dallas Stars' forward Antoine Roussel hands a puck through a photohole for a fan during warm-ups. From the game between the Stars and New York Islanders at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, New York on Jan. 6, 2014.

Some of the photos I took during this game were published with this article that I wrote at examiner.com.