He Takes His Time to Claim His Prize

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sometimes it pays to remember. In the case of Melvin B. Milligan, it paid $46 million.

The 40-year-old computer technician collected his prize Friday, days after lottery officials declared no winner existed for a multi-state lottery jackpot.

It turned out Milligan, who has a forgetful streak, had stuffed the winning ticket into a drawer full of junk and losing lottery stubs.

Last June, he bought the Big Game ticket at Krauszer's Convenience Store in Montvale, N.J. On June 9, 2000, his numbers won.

Then the waiting began. Winners usually rush forward to collect. But months passed, and lottery officials grew puzzled, then increasingly anxious. Theories abounded: The winner was dead; the ticket had been tossed in the trash.

As the one-year anniversary of the drawing loomed--the deadline for collecting the prize--news stories told about the unclaimed ticket from the Montvale market.

On Friday, Milligan appeared at a Newark news conference with New Jersey's acting Gov. Donald T. DiFrancesco to claim his money and explain what happened.

"I was telling my wife, 'You know I happened to be in the area at that time,' " Milligan said. " 'Well, you better start tearing up this house to find that ticket,' " she ordered.

Milligan said it took about 10 minutes to find the $1 ticket.

But still he procrastinated.

"I drove around all day doing my calls," he said. "At 7:30, it dawned on me that I had this ticket in my pocket. I went into a store and had the guy validate it for me."

"He said, 'You're the one.' "

"I was in shock for a while and just drove around," Milligan said. "There was an envelope attached to the claim form, so I just mailed it in. Somehow, I knew the lottery would get it, and I knew they'd call."

When Milligan drove up to the post office in Clifton, N.J., it was closed for the night.

He simply dropped the envelope into the mailbox in front of the post office.

The envelope arrived Tuesday at lottery headquarters in Trenton, N.J. Lottery workers were amazed when they opened it. The letter wasn't even certified or insured.

But it had the requisite validation by the store before the June 9 deadline. The circumstances were so bizarre that lottery officials from other states participating in the game converged on Trenton to determine the ticket's authenticity.

Milligan said that his wife, Kim, was not happy when he told her he had dropped the envelope in the mailbox.

" 'Are you crazy? You mailed it?' " Milligan said his wife replied.

" 'Yeah, I mailed it,' " he answered.

But his wife was all smiles Friday, joking what would have happened if the ticket hadn't arrived properly validated.

"I guess we'd be out at the jailhouse today," she said with a grin. "He'd have been dead."

The computer technician said he would use the money paid in installments over 26 years to buy a home, take a cruise and care for his family. The annual pretax payout would be $1.7 million, according to the New Jersey State Lottery Web site.

Neighbors in Passaic, N.J., were astonished at Milligan's good fortune but not at his response. They said he didn't get excited easily and was a laid-back kind of guy.

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Times researcher Lynette Ferdinand also contributed to this story.

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