By April Witt | The Washington Post
Whoever won the $1.5 billion Mega Millions jackpot will have some decisions to make. What should they do with the money? Who will they tell?
Jack Whittaker faced similar decisions in 2002 when he won Powerball’s $314 million jackpot ($113 million after taxes). At the time, it was the largest jackpot ever won by a single ticket. But the lottery changed Whittaker’s life and within a few years, the West Virginia construction contractor faced personal loss and tragedy. This article originally appeared in The Washington Post Magazine on Jan. 30, 2005.
It was coming up on Christmas, and Brenda-the-biscuit-lady was inexplicably happy as she walked to work in the predawn darkness. Brenda didn’t just make biscuits over at the C&L Super Serve for $6 an hour. She served up good cheer.
“How you doin’, honey?” she’d greet customers, with such enthusiasm that they had no choice but to smile back.
“Dad-gonnit, you are growing up on me!” she’d call to schoolchildren, just to see them grin. “What grade you in now?”
At 39, Brenda Higginbotham didn’t have much to show for a lifetime of good cheer. No car. No home. No picture-book Christmas on the horizon. In spite of that, in spite of everything, she had a sense of her place in the world as unsullied as a holiday snowfall before folks trample it ugly, like folks do. That abiding sense was Brenda’s gift.
“What do you need, dear?” she’d ask a weary workman eyeing her hot-food carryout case. For a moment, Brenda could make the man with chapped hands and muddy boots feel like somebody was looking after him.
“You want a roll with that, baby?” she’d say, smiling even bigger.
Of all her customers, the person Brenda loved to josh with most was the cowboy-man who pulled into the C&L Super Serve in Hurricane, W.Va., by 6:30 a.m. weekdays to gas up and buy breakfast. Brenda would spy him out at the pumps and start his order: two of her famous biscuits stuffed with bacon.
Brenda and the cowboy-man joshed so much that fellow clerks teased they must have some kind of “rendezvous deal” going on. Brenda would laugh and say, “It ain’t like that!” She didn’t even know that the cowboy-man’s name was Jack. Jack Whittaker. She just knew he dressed in black like Johnny Cash and carried himself big — big as the cowboy hat he always wore. She liked how polite and cheerful he acted, as if trouble were a stranger.
In the days before Christmas in 2002, Jack bought a Powerball lottery ticket along with his biscuits. Some fools couldn’t get enough of those tickets. Not the cowboy-man. He’d buy one only when the jackpot got big, like anything less than a couple hundred million wasn’t worth his trouble.
On Christmas Day, the lottery ticket-buying frenzy peaked at 3:26 p.m. In convenience stores and gas stations across West Virginia, 15 people every second commemorated Jesus’s birthday by plunking down $1 for a chance at a different kind of salvation: that Powerball jackpot.
It was about 11 o’clock Christmas night 2002 when Channel 3 out of Charleston announced what it said were the winning Powerball numbers. Jack was slumbering when his wife of nearly 40 years, Jewell, jostled him awake to say that his lottery ticket matched four out of five. Jack was clueless about what kind of payoff a four-number match brought, but he figured it had to be good for at least $100,000. He went back to sleep while visions of a six-figure windfall danced in his head.
The next morning, as always, he rose at 4:30 to get to work. Jack, 55, had been working construction since he was a poor 14-year-old in the hills. He’d built himself a nice life in this patch of West Virginia hard by the Kentucky and Ohio borders. He had a wife and a granddaughter who basked in his attentions, a brick house in a nice subdivision in neighboring Scott Depot, and a water and sewer pipe-laying business that employed more than 100 people. At 5:15 a.m., Jack snapped on the television and heard, to his surprise, that the winning ticket had been sold at the C&L Super Serve. What are the odds, Jack later said he was thinking, that one little convenience store would sell two lucky tickets? Just then the winning numbers flashed. The numbers broadcast the night before had been wrong. He had a match on all five numbers, not four.
Jack Whittaker had just won $314 million, the largest undivided lottery jackpot in history.
A few hours later, he ambled into the C&L Super Serve and calmly handed Brenda a bill, saying he’d been meaning to give it to her before Christmas. Brenda figured it was a $1 tip for helping him diet, taking care to pinch a little dough out of his bacon biscuits so the cowboy-man’s big burly wouldn’t go soft.
“He handed me a $100 bill!” Brenda recalls. “I looked at it, and I’m, like, ‘Oh, no, no, no. I’m not taking this from you.’ And he’s, like, ‘Oh, yes, you are.'”
Then it hit her.
“Did you win?” Brenda whispered.
Jack nodded and grinned.
The day would come when many West Virginians recalled the story of Jack’s Powerball Christmas with a shudder at the magnitude of ruination: families asunder, precious lambs six feet under, folks undone by the lure of all that easy money.
But for now, Jack’s big win was viewed as one of the greatest Christmas gifts in his poor state’s history, a holiday miracle to be heralded around the globe. Jack proclaimed that he would tithe a biblical 10 percent of his winnings, donate millions to his family’s favorite pastors and build big new churches. He vowed to start a charitable foundation to help needy West Virginians. “I just want to thank God for letting me pick the right numbers . . . or letting the machine pick the right numbers,” he said as he claimed his check.
Civic-minded citizens hailed Jack as a hero, the state’s antidote to mean-spirited hillbilly jokes. Sure, dental woes had left the strapping cowboy-man without a tooth in his head. But Jack sounded so well-intentioned on TV that some people said he should run for governor.
The day after Jack claimed his prize, Brenda was at the C&L Super Serve when she heard him on the radio saying he was going to share his big win with her along with the clerk who’d sold him his winning ticket. Brenda nearly collapsed.
“Lightning has struck,” intoned “Good Morning America’s” Charles Gibson. “Where better for it to happen than a place called Hurricane?”
Some West Virginians tell a joke about the hillbilly who died smiling.
“What’d he die of?” the man’s relatives asked the medical examiner. “He was struck by lightning,” the medical examiner declared.
“Then why was he smiling?” the kinfolks wanted to know.
“Well,” the ME said, “he thought he was gettin’ his picture took.”
Jack had his picture taken so much after his big win that he couldn’t have been more instantly recognizable in West Virginia if he’d been Elvis reincarnated. He starred in a half-hour live broadcast across his home state and appeared on network morning shows to introduce his family to the nation.
Jewell seemed quiet and shy on TV. She let it be known that she was so down-to-earth she actually enjoyed scrubbing her toilets. Their 15-year-old granddaughter, Brandi Bragg, announced that she was hoping to meet the rap star Nelly and buy a blue Mitsubishi Eclipse.
Jack declared that he was going to leave the power-shopping to the gals. He radiated a confident individualism. When a Charleston television interviewer pointed out that his all-black outfits were “sort of a Johnny Cash look,” Jack corrected her. “It’s a Jack Whittaker look,” he said.
Asked if he considered himself a role model, he replied: “I want to be a good example. I want to make people proud of what happens with this winning. I want to promote goodwill and help people.”
Jack opted to take his prize as a one-time payout of $113,386,407.77, after taxes. He was determined, he said at the time, to live as if nothing had changed, except that he could spend more time with his family. He was going to keep answering his own phone, opening his own front door and turning to God for guidance. “He’s still working on me,” Jack said, sounding modest.
On New Year’s Eve 2002, West Virginia’s most famous do-gooder strolled into the Pink Pony, a strip club in the nearby town of Cross Lanes, and, according to the manager, slapped $50,000 on the bar.
“I swallowed my bubble gum,” recalls general manager Michael Dunn, who says flashing all that cash “was just a stupid gesture.” There are people in this world who’ll knock you in the head for $5. “My worst nightmare was waking up in the morning and reading in the paper that Jack Whittaker got rolled at the Pink Pony. I said: ‘Please put that money away. Please don’t do that again.'”
Jack didn’t respond to repeated requests to be interviewed for this article. According to Dunn, Jack put away the cash but made it clear that he was there to whoop it up. He whooped it up so much that he couldn’t drive home. “I stuck his butt in a limo at the end of the night,” Dunn says.
Most everybody in West Virginia had an opinion on how Jack should spend his fortune: Fix potholes; put a new roof on the library; spay cats and dogs; buy a coloring book for every kid.
Since Jack said he was going to give away much of his winnings, a lot of people thought it would be a fine idea if he gave some to them. They turned up at the C&L Super Serve in the wee hours and waited for the great man to show up for biscuits. People lurked in the parking lot wild-eyed, or paced the store aisles as if they were deciding whether to buy a folding knife, flag decal, work gloves or the hunter’s best friend: a “hands-free grunter,” promising authentic deer noises. Even an evangelist from Israel hit up Jack for cash. “A lot of them, they had cancer, or their child was dying,” Brenda says. “Different stuff like that, which was heartbreaking. It would even make you want to reach in your own pocket.”
One morning Brenda was trying to chat with Jack, when a distraught young man, who said he was out of work, interrupted. “I need a job!” he shouted. Jack was real nice to the fellow, Brenda says. “Jack was, like, ‘Well, you come down to my office, and I’ll see what I can do for you.’ But mainly what the man wanted was money. He was, like, ‘No, I need money right now!'”
Pretty soon, Jack stopped coming to the convenience store, Brenda says. But people still found him to ask for money. They telephoned his home and rang his doorbell. Given the size of Jack’s fortune, some were reluctant to go away empty-handed. A few threatened Jack’s family. Off-duty deputies from the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department began providing private security for his family.
“I don’t know if life will ever be normal again,” Jack told a reporter for Channel 13 in Charleston.
Brenda knew how he felt. Jack made good on his promise to help her. He let Brenda pick out a new Jeep, bought her a $123,000 house and gave her a check for $44,000. She didn’t know how he’d come up with that particular sum. She was too stunned to ask.
“It was overwhelming,” says Brenda, who grew up on welfare in a family of seven children. Brenda’s grown daughter, who didn’t work, figured that since her ma was rich she should buy her a trailer and a new car. Brenda did. Other relatives demanded help Brenda couldn’t give. Brenda and one of her sisters stopped talking.
Some people had the mistaken impression that Brenda and the clerk who’d sold Jack his winning ticket were now millionaires. Once, a man followed the other clerk home from work. Brenda’s boyfriend started getting paranoid. “He’d say, I don’t want anybody to try to kidnap you,” Brenda recalls.
Meanwhile, Jack had so much mail that he hired three people to open the thousands of begging letters. He hired a private investigator to sort out which supplicants claiming to have a child with cancer didn’t even have a child.
“At first, I didn’t think anything would change, but everything has changed,” Jack told a Charleston newspaper reporter. He sounded disenchanted with his role as West Virginia’s richest moral exemplar. His health wasn’t good. He had pancreatitis, and he’d had eight operations in eight years. He figured he had about 10 good years left in life, he said, and wanted to live it to the fullest: “If someone’s got a problem with that, well, that’s just too bad.”
Not long after Jack’s big win, he started staying out at night, a family friend says. Jewell was beside herself. She’d loved Jack since he was a broke boy from a hill clan with the unofficial motto: “Don’t start a bar fight, but never lose one.”
Jack had always been up for a good time and “happy-go-lucky,” says niece Melissa Harris, who works for the construction company Jack owns with her father. Jewell believed in living by the word of God. She didn’t favor drinking, Harris says. But she and Jack loved to dance for hours over at the Do-Wop, a ’50s dance at a local park. “She was madly in love with him, and he worshiped her,” Harris says. “I always thought they were the perfect couple.”
Jewell declined to be interviewed for this article, but her nephew Billy Ray Wright describes his aunt and uncle as “the life force of our entire family. They were meant to be together.”
Now Jack had new friends.
On March 24, 2003, Jack was at Tri-State Racetrack & Gaming Center, a 90,000-square-foot gambling mecca in Cross Lanes with 1,800 slot machines and 15 greyhound races daily. What happened there is the subject of lawsuits filed against Jack in Kanawha County.
Jack was in the high-roller room with a woman, not his wife, floor attendant Kitti French claims. He seemed to have been drinking. As his comely companion played the slots, Jack grabbed at her breasts and crotch, French contends. Jack’s lady friend got lucky at a slot machine, and a floor attendant named Ronda Lilly waited for the go-ahead from security before counting out the woman’s winnings. Lilly alleges that Jack grabbed her hair and laid hands on her backside. Another floor attendant, Charity Fortner, says she was leaning down to refill a slot machine with tokens when Jack grabbed her ponytail and shoved her head in the direction of his crotch. French, who also waited on Jack, claims that he snapped her bra.
Jack, in court filings, denies the allegations. But French says she stopped thinking of Jack as a West Virginia hero the moment she met him: “My opinion — he’s obnoxious.”
The Pink Pony was always packed, especially on weekends and Wednesdays, when cars lined the road leading to the white stucco one-story building with the bright pink awning. Wednesday was amateur night. The club paid $50 to any woman willing to get up on the white Plexiglas stage and strip to the strains of her own musical selections. “Everybody likes to see the girl next door take her clothes off,” explains assistant manager Don Springstead. The rest of the week, patrons were only too delighted to watch professionals swing buck-naked around the Pony’s two gleaming dance poles.
At 24, Misty Dawn Arnold was the den mother to about 40 strippers. She’d audition and schedule dancers, stitch ripped costumes and referee fights. It was a management challenge. “You can’t put that many women in one building and make them compete for money and not have problems,” Misty says. “I made sure they kept their poise about them — that they didn’t go out there and act like trash.”
After high school, Misty stripped under the stage name Diamond. Her alter ego was expert at parting men from their cash by telling them lies they were unlikely to hear at home, namely that they were very, very sexy and very, very hot.
“It hardens your heart really quick,” Misty says. Eventually, Misty realized that she could no longer emotionally separate herself from Diamond even when she got off work. That spooked her, and she quit dancing for good.
Misty and her two kids moved in with one of the Pony’s assistant managers, Jeff Caplinger. Together, they had a new baby and plans. Jeff took glamour shots of the Pony’s dancers. One magenta wall of the club was lined with his photos. Misty was proud of him. The couple were saving money for Jeff to start his own promotions business.
Jack Whittaker patronized the Pony occasionally after that first New Year’s Eve. Jeff says Jack usually came in with a boisterous entourage and an annoying habit: “Busy fingers.” Jack tipped well, and the dancers liked that. But he was so frisky with women that the club began assigning a security guard to baby-sit him, Misty says. Sometimes Jack even grabbed at Misty, she says, but everybody talked nice to him because he’d won the Powerball jackpot.
Over the months, the once-dapper Jack grew slovenly, Misty says: “He would come in a sloppy shirt, all wrinkled. His hat would be dirty. He’d be unshaven.” And he became demanding. “At first he was, like: ‘I’m Jack Whittaker. I won all this money, yay for me,'” Misty says. “Later it was, like: ‘I’m Jack Whittaker. You’ll do what I say . . . I have more money than God.’ Who talks like that?
“It was like the money was eating away at whatever was good in him,” Misty says. “It reminds me, like, ‘Lord of the Rings,’ how that little guy — what’s his name? Gollum? — was with his Precious. It just consumes you. You become the money. You are no longer a person.”
One night in August 2003, eight months after he’d won the Powerball, Jack came to the club alone. He let it be known that he had more than $500,000 in a black briefcase sitting on the front seat of his Lincoln Navigator, which he’d left idling at the club door.
“Somebody should rob him,” Misty said, according to a criminal complaint police later filed. A bartender told police she heard Misty make that remark and saw her open two blue capsules and dump their contents into a Hawaiian Punch fruit juice drink to try to knock out Jack.
According to police, Jeff went to the parking lot, pulled his sleeves over his hands so he wouldn’t leave fingerprints, smashed the driver’s side window of Jack’s Navigator, grabbed the briefcase and hid it behind a dumpster. It was recovered after Jack realized it was gone and called police.
Misty and Jeff declined to discuss details of the allegations but contend they are innocent and never drugged or robbed Jack.
News cameras captured Jack sitting on a curb outside the Pink Pony, bleary and outraged. “My personal life is my own, and I make no excuses for my actions,” he said in a statement issued through a publicist. A British tabloid summed up Jack’s predicament with a three-word headline: A Lotto Trouble.
There was a lotto trouble to go around. The state revoked the Pink Pony’s liquor license. No booze meant no customers. No customers meant no tips. No tips meant few gals willing to prance naked, even on amateur night. “Thirty or 40 people in this club alone lost their jobs,” says Don Springstead, who helps keep the near-empty club open part time while the owners fight to regain a liquor license. “Cooks, managers, people who used to baby-sit the dancers’ kids. Stretch it out to all the people we bought our liquor and food from. It hasn’t just affected the Pink Pony. It’s ruined dozens of lives.”
Jeff and Misty tumbled into a legal hole so dark and mysterious it was as if the earth had swallowed them. Police charged the couple with robbing Jack, but they were never indicted. They spent more than a year under house arrest in a cramped, cluttered apartment with three children and no trial date.
“It’s Hell,” Misty says. “Even people in jail get, like, an hour out a day just to get some exercise, be outside in the sun. We don’t. We’re in Hell.”
Brenda felt bad for Jack. People were making fun of him. An anonymous caller to the local paper’s vent-line joked that Jack must have been in the Pink Pony trying to save souls. When Jack declined to give the city of Nitro, W.Va., $10,000 to make its water park handicapped-accessible, people sniped that Jack was more interested in strippers than in disabled children.
A few weeks after Jack’s nudie-bar debacle, Brenda’s own cheerful communion with her fellow man hit a rough patch. One of her new neighbors in the Hurricane sub-division of Moss Creek, where Jack had bought Brenda a three-bedroom split-level, began distributing fliers that said Brenda’s live-in boyfriend was on probation for a sex offense involving a minor. The biscuit lady knew all about her boyfriend’s crime and had long since accepted it. “We all make mistakes,” was how she looked at it.
But she hadn’t bargained on the reaction of her neighbors. “They would run in when they’d see me coming. It was like I had the plague,” she says. People made bitter comments behind Brenda’s back about how they’d had to work hard for a house in Moss Creek, and she’d had one handed to her. For the first time, Brenda saw herself through her neighbors’ eyes. “It was like I was white trash moving into their posh neighborhood,” she says.
Heartsick, Brenda sold the house that Jack bought and moved away. “I probably would have rejected the money in the first place if I’d known then what I know now,” she says. “It seems like money brings out the ugly in people.”
In the fall of 2003, the Jack Whittaker Foundation announced it was overwhelmed with requests for help and was suspending operations.
On the first anniversary of his win, Jack told an Associated Press reporter that he’d spent $45 million of his windfall, much of it to buy property for industrial development. Profits were down at his construction firm, Diversified Enterprises, because he was expanding for the long haul. He’d tripled his staff to more than 300 people and geared up to handle $35 million a year in contracts, up from $15 million. Jack estimated that he’d given away $14 million in acts of charity, about half through his foundation.
His plans to spend more time with his family weren’t working out. He was busier than ever, he said. “If they want quality time with me, they have to get up earlier or go to bed a lot later.”
Jack’s Powerball fame was proving rough on his granddaughter, Brandi, who called him Paw-Paw. She had lost almost all her friends, he said: “They want her for her money and not for her good personality. She’s the most bitter 16-year-old I know.”
When Brandi was a little girl dressing up for Halloween, Jack would dress up, too. “He’s been an M&M, a clown, and I can’t remember what else,” says Jack’s niece Melissa Harris. “He was a good Paw-Paw when Brandi was a little girl.”
Jack and Jewell had one child, Ginger, who had one daughter, Brandi. Brandi’s father committed suicide when she was small. Ginger battled lymphoma. Brandi lived off and on with her grandparents. The minute Brandi stepped off the school bus, she had to get on the phone with Paw-Paw to tell him about her day, Harris says. If Brandi said she was too sick to go to school, Jack took her to work with him. Even after Brandi got older, she and her Paw-Paw loved to stretch out on the bed together, watching TV and eating popcorn.
Brandi was Jack’s world, he liked to say. In the jubilant but disorienting months after the Powerball Christmas win, Jack’s world turned upside down — and Brandi’s with it.
Suddenly, Brandi had large sums of cash. It wasn’t unusual for her to be handed $5,000 in a single day, according to family friend Becky Layton.
Concerned about security, the family pulled Brandi out of high school. Old friendships frayed. “Before the lottery, she was normal, real friendly,” says Tim Cobb, 18, who describes himself as one of Brandi’s best friends at the time. “She let the money go to her head.”
Meanwhile, the adults around her were busy celebrating. On a hillside in Jumping Branch, where Jack had spent his impoverished boyhood, his daughter, Ginger, who did not respond to an interview request, oversaw construction of a mansion so outsized that some locals thought she was opening a hotel. Down the road in the gated community of Glade Springs, Ginger overhauled an existing multimillion-dollar home. Among the fanciful flourishes she ordered up was a suite for Brandi with a circular room. The room, Harris says, was designed to look like the inside of the genie’s bottle from the 1960s television series “I Dream of Genie.”
But the genie was out of the bottle for Brandi, who began doing drugs to escape feelings of isolation, a family friend says. Brandi became “a crackhead, if you want to know the truth,” says J.C. Shaver, 20, who saw her smoke “a lot of crack. Big rocks of crack.”
Teenage boys around Scott Depot started flashing expensive gifts from Brandi. More than one told his parents that Brandi’s grandfather was paying them more than $500 a day just to drive her around.
“We’ve all got nice things out of the whole situation,” says Shaver, who grew up in nearby Winfield in a house illuminated by the glow of the Exxon sign at the service station his family ran next door. “She gave me diamond earrings one time — three-quarter-carat diamond earrings — and $500 cash. I drove Jack’s Navigator for, like, four weeks. I drove his Maxima and his Cadillac.”
Last January, the Lincoln Navigator was parked outside Jack’s house on Rosehill Acres in Scott Depot when thieves reportedly smashed the driver’s side window and stole $100,000. Police said it looked like an inside job, as if the thieves knew just where to find Jack’s cash. Putnam County sheriff’s deputies later arrested three young men who had been hanging around Brandi. All three ended up behind bars, facing multiple felony charges and years in prison.
Other young men eagerly stepped in to take their places in Brandi’s entourage. “This is a hole, West Virginia,” explains Josh Smith, 20, who hung out with Brandi for a time. “There’s nothing to do. Nobody has money. So if someone comes along flashing money, it seems like an easy way out, easy money.”
Eight days after Jack’s Navigator was burglarized, a treacherous storm blew as Jack tried to make his way to Tri-State Racetrack on a Sunday afternoon. State troopers found him slumped over the wheel of a green Cadillac on the shoulder of Interstate 64. The Cadillac was running. Troopers “attempted to wake the defendant up numerous times,” police records say.
Charged with driving under the influence, Jack sounded unrepentant. “It’s been a rough few weeks,” he told reporters. “My wife is having a hard time. It doesn’t bother me, because I can tell everyone to kiss off . . . I tell everybody my personal life is my own business.”
M&J stands for Melissa and Jack. That’s what Melissa Farley, a Charleston businesswoman, testified in a Putnam County courtroom as she explained how she and the Powerball millionaire — partners in an entity called M&J Development — bought and renovated a house secluded behind a barbed-wire-topped fence in Fraziers Bottom, not far from Hurricane. Jack and Farley kept clothes there and visited the house to do things such as watch television, especially “The Sopranos,” she testified.
On June 1, Farley was gambling
at Tri-State Racetrack and won big: $25,000, she said.
The next afternoon, she and her sister had just stepped into the Fraziers Bottom house when a man popped up from behind a kitchen counter, Farley testified. The man had a bandana over his face, which kept slipping down. He tried to yank the bandana back up, but it was tough because he had a pistol in each hand, Farley said.
“He kept saying ‘Don’t f-ing look at me!'” Farley testified.
“We’re not [expletive] looking at you,” she testified that she told the gunman.
As she recounted her ordeal, Farley paused to explain her salty language to the court. “When I get scared, it’s F, F, F, F, F, F.”
Farley was terrified of the gunman: “When somebody has two nine-millimeters at you, in your back, and down on you, there’s a pretty good damn chance that somebody is going to die.”
“I don’t want to kill you,” Farley recalled the gunman saying. “I just want your money.”
“And I was, like, ‘Well . . . just [expletive] take it.”
He did, Farley said. He drove off in her black 2003 Cadillac Escalade — taking her $25,000 Tri-State winnings with him.
Fearful that Jack, who was supposed to meet her at the house, would encounter the fleeing gunman and be kidnapped, Farley used a cell phone to try to warn him, she said.
The gunman didn’t get far, according to police, who found Farley’s Cadillac stuck in the mud just 100 yards from the house. Nearby, they found Charles Wayne Morgan, his clothes covered with mud. Morgan, a Florida grandfather, owns a masonry business, which began going under after his arrest, his son testified. Morgan has pleaded not guilty. His sister testified at his bond hearing that her brother was visiting West Virginia to gamble at Tri-State.
If the robbery unnerved Jack, it didn’t show. A few weeks later, he held a news conference to defend his construction company after a county commissioner criticized its work on a public project. Jack was growing a ponytail, driving a Hummer and still reveling in his Powerball fame. “I’ve been a celebrity every day of my life,” he told reporters. “Or at least I’ve felt like one.”
Brandi’s life as a teenage addict with abundant cash took on a strange rhythm, according to young people who spent time with her. She and her friends of the moment would sleep much of the day and drive aimlessly much of the night. They shopped incessantly. They rarely sat down to hot meals. “We’d stop and buy $80 worth of junk food,” Josh Smith remembers.
Brandi’s custom-painted, pale-blue Mitsubishi Eclipse was a trash bin. Floor and seats were mounded with candy wrappers, empty pop bottles, packaging from electronic gadgets and DVDs and the crumpled change from Brandi’s $100 bills: loose fives, tens and twenties. As the kids cruised, money would “fly around the car,” Smith says. “Sometimes it would fly out the window.”
Once, they reached a mall 45 minutes before closing. Smith and another boy spent $800 on shoes and jerseys in a sporting goods store before moving on to a clothing store to buy “whatever we wanted.” Brandi was back in the car scoring crack, says J.C. Shaver, who was with her.
Eventually, Brandi wasn’t just smoking crack, she was injecting drugs, too, her cruising buddies say. Brandi’s family sent her to drug rehab more than once, says Harris, Jack’s niece. But Brandi kept her habit and the means to indulge it.
When Brandi dated one of Josh Smith’s friends, she’d give him half of whatever cash she received that day, Smith says. In turn, the boyfriend would “give me $1,000 or $500,” Smith says. Brandi took her boyfriend and Smith on a trip to Atlantic City with her grandfather and his friends, Smith says. Jack chartered planes and put up his large entourage at Caesars.
Running with Brandi should have been a blast, but it wasn’t, Smith says. The easy money proved corrosive in a small group of young people. “It turns it to Hell,” Smith says. “You don’t know who you can trust.” Brandi was mercurial. “When Brandi hands things out, she might be messed up and not remember it the next day,” he says.
Smith, the son of schoolteachers, worried that he was betraying his values. “I turned into a different person,” he says. “I had so much money, it turned me cold-hearted. You have $700 in your wallet. You spend it, and you know you’ll have $700 the next day. It’s fun, but it’s also dumb. It’s just a dream. You are not going to have it forever. You don’t have to work. Usually, you are going to do something stupid.”
So Smith quit spending so much time with Brandi and got a job greeting diners at an Applebee’s restaurant. But his pal J.C. Shaver continued to hang around Brandi for the money, a decision he would come to regret.
Carol Eads remembers fuming. The stocky cook at Doc’s says she came out of the kitchen to rest her feet only to have Jack snarl at her from a barstool that he wanted to have sex with the lady bartender. He said it in the foulest language, Eads contends. What’s worse, the bartender on duty at the humble joint not far from Scott Depot happened to be Eads’s daughter, a divorced mother of two.
“It will never happen,” Eads recalls telling Jack. “That’s my daughter you are talking about.”
When Eads’s daughter returned to the bar after waiting tables, Jack told her directly that he wanted to have sex with her and offered to pay. “He said, ‘Money can buy anything,'” Eads says. “She said, ‘Not me, it can’t.'”
Eads’s years in kitchens and bars have given her a view of human nature as unadorned as a dirty work apron. But Jack’s proposition was too much to take. “If he’d had teeth, I would have knocked them out,” she says.
Most nights, Doc’s is packed with regulars: truckers, welders, businessmen and other locals. Visits from Jack disturbed the bar’s friendly ambience more than once. One time, Eads says, he threw a chair and threatened to kill people. Another time, a local named Jeremiah Bennett needled Jack, saying he was pals with one of the guys accused of robbing $100,000 from Jack’s Lincoln Navigator. “He tried to hit me with a plastic chair,” Bennett says. “He was drunk. I wish he had. I would have fallen on the floor and said, ‘Call an ambulance, I’m hurt real bad.'”
Another night, Jack offered a bartender $10,000 if she’d strip to her panties and model for him, Eads says. The woman said no, but then sought others’ advice.
“She came over and asked me, ‘If you were offered $10,000, would you do it?'” Eads recalls. “I said I wouldn’t do it for a million. That’s when she called Gary.”
Gary Halstead, 41, did maintenance at the bar. The bartender in question was Halstead’s live-in girlfriend at the time. “She called me and said what do I think about her modeling panties for him for $10,000,” Halstead remembers. “I said, ‘No, you are better than that.’ For the amount of money he’s got, $10,000 ain’t nothing, is what I told her. That’s like $100 to him. I said, ‘You are not that cheap.'”
Retelling the story in between pulls on a bottle of beer, Halstead looks glum:
“We could have paid off the trailer with $10,000.” He says he doesn’t regret his advice. He just thinks there’s something powerfully wicked about offering hardworking people so much money that they are tempted to ruin themselves.
If his girlfriend had twirled around in her underpants for Jack, “it would have all gone sour,” Halstead says. Come to think of it, it went sour anyway. Halstead and his girlfriend broke up.
“I hate it when he comes around here,” Halstead says of Jack. “He’s domineering. Like anyone else with money, he wants to lord it over people.
“How many people has he ruined?” Halstead asks. “I’ve seen him proposition women with their man right beside them. I’ve seen him offer women money many times. I’ve seen it so many times I’m very surprised he’s not dead yet. This bar is all friends. We’re like family. We take care of each other. He could have bought himself a little island somewhere. Why is he coming around here bothering us?”
Hurricane’s Church of the Powerball is almost finished. That’s how some folks think of the new Tabernacle of Praise, rising on a hill three-tenths of a mile from the unadorned chapel where the tiny congregation has gathered for two decades. Jewell used to pray at the modest brick chapel, so Jack donated and built a big new church that seats 500. The people of the Tabernacle will have to figure out how to fill them. Plenty of folks in Hurricane say they wouldn’t lower their behinds into any pew paid for by Jack Whittaker.
Tabernacle’s pastor, C.T. Matthews, says he’s confident the congregation will prosper helping the lost find their way. “Let’s pray for those that’s lost and undone without God,” he tells his congregation during a Sunday sermon. “Let’s pray for those who are on cocaine and those who work in the meth labs.”
“We say God is going to send them to Hell.
“God’s not going to send them to Hell,” Matthews says as a murmur ripples through the church. “They choose to go there . . . He said, I set before you life and death — which will you choose?”
Jessie Joe Tribble’s daddy didn’t like that his 18-year-old son was dating Jack Whittaker’s granddaughter. But Jessie wouldn’t listen. “He got caught up in that web,” says Jimmy Tribble, 45, a small businessman who manufactures baseball bats. “I call it a web because when you have all the money you want and you can drive 50-, 60-thousand-dollar vehicles and do what you want to do, you know, suddenly you lose your ‘right and wrong’ thinking pattern.
“I said: ‘Jessie doesn’t know what love is right now. He’s over there for the money and the drugs, and we have got to get him out of there.'”
Jessie skipped school, and his grades dropped; Jimmy took away his car. Jessie wrecked an uninsured car he shouldn’t have been driving; his daddy turned him in to the law. Then Jessie ran off with Brandi. The girl had access to so many houses and cars, Jimmy couldn’t find his son, he says. A deputy sheriff finally told him that Jessie was living in a lake house Jack owned over in Beckley, Jimmy says.
“When he left my house, he took not even a pair of underwear,” Jimmy says. “Nothing. She went and bought him clothes, all these fancy shirts and sweat pants and shoes. I couldn’t compete with that . . . I couldn’t win a battle with that kind of money.”
Then, almost miraculously, Jessie came home. Jimmy found him crawling through a window in the middle of the night. Jessie was stoned on something and crying his eyes out. Brandi had dumped him, he told his daddy.
Jimmy was relieved. He and Jessie talked all night. “I told him, ‘Son, those people are never going to be your friends,'” Jimmy recalls. By morning, Jessie had agreed to go to summer school.
Jessie finished high school that summer, even made an A in English. To put a little money in Jessie’s pocket, Jimmy put him to work in the shop turning baseball bats on the lathe. Jessie talked about enlisting in the military like his older brother. “He was turning the corner,” his father says. “I believe this with all my heart.”
On Wednesday, September 15, Jessie left the shop after borrowing $2 to get something to eat at Dairy Queen. Jessie told his dad he’d be back the next day for his paycheck. He didn’t show.
On Friday, Jimmy’s brother came into the shop to say they’d found a boy dead over at Jack’s house in Scott Depot. It looked like an overdose. Jimmy couldn’t imagine what that had to do with him until he registered the look on his brother’s face.
“Jimmy,” his brother said, “they think it’s Jessie.”
Brandi seemed dazed. She stepped out of a Jeep in the parking lot of Chapman Funeral Home in Winfield and headed for the front door. Jessie’s wake was underway.
A group of Jessie’s grieving friends, outside for a smoke, refused to let Brandi pass. “They were calling her a bitch and yelling that she’d killed Jessie,” remembers Jessie’s grandmother Louise Tribble, a retired postal carrier who witnessed the commotion.
J.C. Shaver was there, and the money he’d gotten from Brandi meant nothing to him now. “We made a line across the funeral home where she couldn’t get in,” Shaver says. One boy revved up his Mustang and drove threatening circles around Brandi “like he wanted to hurt her real bad.”
Jessie had died of an overdose, a combination of oxycodone, methadone, meperidine and cocaine, according to his death certificate. “She’s the only one with money to buy drugs like that,” Shaver says. “Everybody knew she was the reason for his death.”
As the mob outside the funeral home denounced her, Brandi didn’t even try to defend herself, Shaver says. “She just stood there.”
On a Sunday in November, Jimmy was covered with plaster dust. More than two months after burying his son, he was working extra jobs to pay for the funeral and still make Christmas for his youngest two children.
Jimmy had questions that the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department declined to answer: Did Brandi give Jessie the drugs that killed him? Why was Jessie left alone in Jack’s house? Could he have been saved if somebody had sought medical help for him?
The grieving father unfolded a recent newspaper clipping about a West Virginia woman convicted of murder after she shared heroin with a man who overdosed. Whoever gave Jessie the drugs should be held responsible — even if it was the Powerball winner’s granddaughter, Jimmy says.
“I run a business over here and barely keep my head above water paying all these taxes,” he says. “These taxes help pay the salary of employees like prosecutors and law enforcement people. All I’m asking here is, I want my money’s worth. You go and investigate this over here like it was anybody else’s son or daughter.”
In a twist that made Jimmy wonder about the heart of man, police arrested J.C. Shaver, Dustin Campbell, 20, and a third young man for allegedly robbing Jack’s house while Jessie was lying there dead. According to police, Jack’s security system videotaped someone — deputies didn’t reveal who — letting Shaver and Campbell into the house. Cameras recorded Shaver and Campbell leaving Jack’s house with what police said were armloads of stolen goods. Cameras even recorded Campbell and a third young man returning hours later, entering the house through the back door and helping themselves to more, police said. All the time, police said, Jessie was dead on an upstairs bed.
Stunned, Jimmy talked to one of the detectives on the case, Sgt. Lisa Arthur. “Here’s the strange thing,” Jimmy says. “She spent 15 minutes talking to me about how important it was to get back Mr. Whittaker’s stolen property. Okay. The guy’s worth $113 million, and they are worried about his property. She spent 15 minutes telling me how they hunted them down and caught them, and they had them on videotape.”
“I told Lisa, ‘You need to find out who left a dead body laying there!'”
In separate interviews, Shaver and Campbell insist it was Brandi who invited them to the house and ushered them in the door. Both say they didn’t steal anything. Shaver says he had Brandi’s permission to take clothing from the house.
“Brandi was sucking on a crack pipe” when she opened the door, Campbell says. She skittered around the house, grabbing armloads of clothes and throwing them in her car, Shaver says. “She acted really, really paranoid. She was looking out the windows.”
Shaver and Campbell followed Brandi upstairs to a bedroom and saw Jessie lying face down on the bed, both said. “I went to wake him,” Shaver says. “That’s when she told me to leave him alone, he hadn’t slept in a couple of days.” Campbell says he thought Jessie was just “nodded out” after too much partying — not dead or in trouble.
Then Brandi left Shaver and Campbell alone in the house with Jessie, Shaver says. “I think it was all a setup” Shaver says. “I think it was all to put it on our backs. That’s why she didn’t want us to wake him up, because she knew he wasn’t going to wake up.”
The sheriff’s department declined to release the full security tapes that could confirm or refute the men’s accounts. Chief Deputy J.W. Dailey says his department is not investigating Jessie’s death because there is no mystery to unravel. “I don’t know any drug overdose that isn’t self-inflicted,” Dailey says. Holding anyone legally responsible for giving Jessie the lethal drugs would be akin to Adam taking the apple from Eve then declaring, “Now I’m going to sue you, Eve!” Dailey says. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”
The Putnam County prosecutor’s office subsequently acknowledged that the detectives assigned to this case and others involving Jack — including the Navigator break-in and the robbery at the Fraziers Bottom house — also worked off-duty providing private security for the Powerball millionaire’s family. Those detectives, Lisa Arthur and Shawn Johnson, did not respond to requests for interviews.
State law allows off-duty deputies to provide private security but says they shall not engage in work that would conflict with their official duties or impair their independence or judgment. Dailey says the department has not been influenced by the fact that several deputies have worked for Jack Whittaker.
“They are compromised,” argues Jimmy, who lies awake nights wondering what he could have done to save his son.
“Maybe I should have moved away,” he says. “I just want to say this, and I’m not trying to be bitter, but if Jack Whittaker had never won the Powerball and my son had never hooked up with Jack’s granddaughter, Brandi, he’d be alive.”
When Brandi came to the door, she looked nothing like the girl whose Paw-Paw won the single largest undivided lottery jackpot in history. That girl had a proud, beaming face framed with fluffy light-blonde hair. This Brandi was disheveled. Her baggy clothes hung on her. Her face was sunken. The Hurricane townhouse where she sometimes stayed was in spectacular disarray: furniture askew, drawers pulled out, walls defaced with graffiti.
“Talk to my lawyer!” Brandi barked at a Washington Post Magazine reporter who knocked on her door in late November. Brandi slammed the door without waiting for a reply. “Go awayyyy!” she shrieked from inside the townhouse. “I’m calling the cops.”
It was a tough time for the whole family. Jack and Jewell had become estranged. They tried reconciling, Melissa Harris says, and spent Thanksgiving together. But a few days later, on November 30, Jack ran his Hummer into a concrete median, near Beckley, state police said. He was charged with driving under the influence and failure to submit to a Breathalyzer. Troopers found $117,000 in Jack’s Hummer and a pistol tucked in one of his boots. “Jewell changed the locks on him,” Harris says.
On December 9, Jack informed the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department that Brandi was missing.
Brandi had, of late, been coming to Jack’s construction office to collect a daily check, instead of the larger sums of cash she’d been accustomed to, an office worker says. Suddenly, Brandi stopped showing up for her money.
One of her buddies, Brandon Crosier, told police he’d last seen Brandi at his family home, a rundown property littered with junked vehicles. Brandon claimed that he had fallen asleep and awakened to find Brandi gone, police said. But the car she’d been driving was still parked outside.
“We have no leads,” Chief Deputy Dailey told reporters. Police said Brandi had several expensive cars, and all of them were accounted for. That set people clucking. Who in their right mind, they asked, would give a 17-year-old all those cars?
Jewell, despairing over Brandi’s disappearance, blamed the Powerball jackpot for destroying her family. “I wish I would have torn the ticket up,” she told a Charleston newspaper reporter.
On Monday, December 20, almost two years after Jack bought the winning Powerball ticket, police found Brandi on the Crosier property. She was dead. Her body had been wrapped in a plastic tarp and dumped behind a junked van in a place called Scary Creek.
Steve Crosier, Brandon’s father, said he believed that Brandi had overdosed and that his son had “freaked out.” Crosier, whose own daughter died of cancer that very week, blamed himself. He lamented that he’d been an absentee father to Brandon during his daughter’s long illness.
At Brandi’s Christmas Eve funeral, Jack and Jewell sat side by side in a packed funeral home listening to the song “Nobody Knows” by Nelly, their granddaughter’s favorite rapper: “Nobody told me nothing that would help me to ease my pain . . . I’ve been searching for something, for someone to help me find my way.” White doves were released at her graveside.
Weeks after the funeral, Brandi’s family and the state police were still awaiting the results of a toxicology report. But Jack had already reached some conclusions. He didn’t blame the Powerball for his family’s sorrows. He didn’t blame himself. “All of the problems I have had are because of my granddaughter’s drug-using friends,” he angrily told an Associated Press reporter. “I’m going to find them and put them in jail.
“She was my world, you understand that?”
Coming up on this past Christmas, West Virginians heading to grandma’s house stopped to gas up and buy Powerball tickets, even though the jackpot was a measly $28 million.
Over at the C&L Super Serve, Brenda-the-biscuit-lady got a raise. She now makes $6.50 an hour serving breakfast and lunch from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays. She has to get up an hour earlier than she used to because she has such a long commute in her Jeep.
After she sold her Powerball house, Brenda, now 41, moved way out into the country. She doesn’t have neighbors. That suits her fine. Her new house is half the size of the old one. She likes it better. She doesn’t have a phone; she doesn’t want one.
Brenda is warier now that she knows how mean some folks can be, but she won’t let herself be bitter. She’s real sorry for the cowboy-man’s troubles, but she can’t be sad, leastways not for long. Some gifts do last a lifetime.
Brenda beams at a construction worker during a recent lunch rush. The fellow looks tired. He needs Brenda-the-biscuit-lady to dish out a little of her special love.
Brenda’s shirt is covered with food stains. Her hair is unruly from her sticking her head in that biscuit oven all morning. Her smile is as warm and sustaining as the macaroni and cheese she spoons into a foil container.
“You want a roll with that, baby?”