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

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