Thursday, January 13, 2011

Idaho Woman Claims $190M Mega Millions Prize

RATHDRUM, Idaho - A northern Idaho woman has claimed the remaining half of a $380 million Mega Millions jackpot, Idaho Lottery officials said Wednesday.

Holly Lahti, a 29-year-old mother of two from the small town of Rathdrum, will split the second-largest lottery jackpot in history with Jim and Carolyn McCullar of Ephrata, Wash.

The McCullars appeared at a news conference last Thursday to announce they'd won half the jackpot, or $190 million.

Lahti wasn't on hand for Wednesday's announcement in Boise.

"She's requested that the media respect her privacy and not attempt to contact her until she's prepared to speak to you," Lottery Director Jeff Anderson said at a news conference.

He referred to Lahti as a "delightful young lady" and said he tried to persuade her to go public because there are "a lot of curious people out there." But he said she has a lot to get in order first.

"We expect she'll be coming forward shortly," Anderson said.

Lahti's age and hometown were not immediately released, but public records show she is 29 and lives in Rathdrum, a town of about 7,000 people in the scenic Idaho Panhandle.

Lahti had worked since 2007 as a customer service representative at Inland Northwest Bank in nearby Post Falls, but she resigned Monday, said Holly Poquette, the bank's chief financial officer.

Poquette works in Spokane, Wash., and does not know Lahti. But the manager of the Post Falls branch, Sussana Spencer, called Lahti an "amazing person."

"She's going to do wonderful things with the money," Spencer said. She had no details.

Lahti's estranged husband, Josh Lahti of Rathdrum, said Wednesday he did not know Lahti was the winner of the huge Mega Millions prize until he was told by a reporter. But he said she plays the lottery often.

He said the two have been married 10 years but are separated, and they have two daughters, ages 10 and 12.

Nobody was around Wednesday at the Rathdrum home of Holly Lahti's mother, Elaine C. Alford. But neighbor Eric Miller said Holly Lahti visits her mother almost daily. Miller, 19, also hadn't heard about Holly Lahti's winnings.

"I want to go over there and be her friend now," Miller said laughing. "But she's really nice, very friendly."

As the day wore on, word of Rathdrum's newest multimillionaire began to spread through the fast-growing town about 25 miles northeast of Spokane. Rathdrum's population has grown an estimated 44 percent since 2000.

Travis Herron, who works in a local tobacco shop, said he bought 10 tickets for the Mega Millions drawing but didn't win anything.

Herron, 23, said he didn't know Holly Lahti, but added that if he had won $190 million, "I wouldn't want to be talking either, the days and times the way they are."

Although Mega Millions is played in 41 states and Washington, D.C., the two winning tickets were purchased by people living in small towns just 125 miles apart in the Inland Northwest. Ephrata, Wash., has about 7,500 people.

The drawing was held Jan. 4, and residents began buzzing when they found out one of the winning tickets was sold in Post Falls, a suburban community of housing developments, big box stores and fast-food restaurants.

"Once people hear this, Ady's Convenience & Car Wash is going to become the luckiest place in northern Idaho," Anderson said of the store where Lahti bought her ticket.

The winners had to match five numbers plus the "Mega ball." The numbers were 4, 8, 15, 25 and 47, and 42 as the Mega ball.

Jim, 68, and Carolyn, 63, McCullar had played some combination of those numbers for years because they're based on the couple's birthdays.

Anderson said Lahti let the computer pick her numbers.

Lahti has claimed her winnings but not yet cashed in her ticket, he said. If she takes a lump sum payment, she would get $120 million before taxes. The federal government would take $30 million, while the Idaho State Tax Commission would take a $9 million slice, leaving her with about $80.7

Ady's Convenience & Car Wash receives a $50,000 award.

Lahti is not the first Idaho jackpot winner to try and avoid the media crush and public attention. In 2005, Brad Duke of Boise sought to keep a low profile after winning a $220 million Powerball drawing. Duke assembled a team of lawyers and accountants and asked the Idaho Lottery Commission for complete anonymity.

But former Idaho Lottery Director Roger Simmons denied the request, arguing that state law and the integrity of the lottery required that his name be made public to show he had no ties to lottery employees or vendors.

Duke later appeared at a news conference in Boise and made several appearances on national television talk shows.


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