It turns out the story of the lucky guy who turned in a lottery ticket worth $75,000 to a Palmdale gas station and was mistakenly given only $75 in return wasn't all that it seemed -- the ticket was fake and its owner a state compliance officer, lottery officials said Monday.
But in a twist that caught lottery officials off-guard, videos and photos of the man from the store's surveillance camera began circulating over the weekend in an attempt to find him -- blowing the investigator's cover and making what was initially a routine, confidential investigation into lottery fraud very, very public.
"This is an odd situation," said Russ Lopez, a deputy director with the state lottery. "We don't want the public looking for a winner that doesn't exist."
So on Monday, lottery officials were forced to acknowledge that the man seen in the video was an undercover compliance investigator and the gas station a current target of a state investigation.
The probe centered around a March 25 exchange at a Chevron gas station off Avenue S and Sierra Highway in Palmdale. Authorities are trying to determine if what the clerk did -- giving the investigator $75 instead of telling him the ticket was worth $75,000 as was printed on a receipt -- was deliberate or accidental.
The gas station has kept the ticket since then, but no one has filed a claim for the money. Investigators are trying to determine if the employees ever notified the lottery about the ticket, which store manager Shamsun Islam claims they did.
"I know my guy, he's a really, really honest person. He would never do anything wrong," Islam said. "He made a mistake. He realized after the guy left."
That's a conclusion lottery officials have yet to reach. Up until the weekend, they were quietly waiting to see if someone else would file a claim for the money and if it was a scheme.
But the store manager may have thrown a wrench into that plan on Friday. When a news van pulled into the Chevron to fill up, she hustled over with video and photos of the investigator and retold the story of the mistaken $75 payout for the $75,000 ticket. She said it was a sincere attempt to find the ticket's owner, albeit more than a month later.
"It clicked in my mind, the media! It's quicker than door-to-door," Islam said.
If the clerk did commit fraud, not only could the store lose its ability to offer lottery games but so could all Chevron stations in California, though that's unlikely, a lottery official said. In some cases when the fraud is large enough, criminal charges are involved.
Lottery ticket procedures require that when a person wants to collect winnings, the ticket has to be scanned and a receipt with the ticket's value will be printed at the store.
In the March 25 case, officials say, the clerk scanned the ticket but did not give the investigator the receipt showing its value. Islam said her employee just read the "75" and didn't notice the extra zeroes behind it. If the clerk had realized the ticket's value, the man would have been given a claim form he could submit it to a state lottery office to claim his prize (a requirement for wins over $600,) Islam said.
The state's investigation is ongoing. Islam said she learned Monday that the man was an investigator and is now waiting to hear from the lottery agency.