Jul 10, 2008, 8:53 pm
Lottery waits until 1-year claim deadline expires before awarding
Sometimes Lady Luck is slow-footed.
Degli Martinez, 55, of Queens, New York, claimed the biggest single Lotto jackpot in state history on Wednesday, a $65 million prize that took over a year and a police probe before he was allowed to have it.
"It was a lot of pain waiting," said the 55-year-old Paraguayan immigrant at a lower Manhattan press conference. "You never know whether you're going to get the money."
A maintenance man at a Park Ave. apartment building, Martinez defied 1-in-22.5 million odds, becoming the only player in the June 30, 2007, drawing to pick all six winning numbers.
When he took his ticket to the Queens Mini Market, he ran into some bad luck. While a clerk gave him a jackpot receipt, Martinez lost the original ticket in the exchange.
That began a year-long odyssey of hand-wringing and heartburn before Lottery officials were finally able to hand Martinez his check yesterday.
"He was a good sport," said state lottery spokesman John Charlson. "But we had to conduct an investigation because we didn't have the original ticket."
Martinez's wild tale began on June 29, 2007, when he bought a handful of tickets at a minimart in Sunnyside.
He returned the following day and had store clerk Supriyo Bhattacharjee scan the ticket bar codes to check for winners.
Bhattacharjee found a $2 winner and a couple of losers, and then his eyes widened with surprise.
"He was the jackpot winner!" the clerk recalled yesterday.
Bhattacharjee printed a receipt, handed it to Martinez and urged him to go to the Lottery office in lower Manhattan to claim his winnings as soon as possible. Martinez headed home but accidentally tossed the ticket in the trash. He still had the receipt, and Lottery officials confirmed the winning ticket had been sold at the store.
But Martinez had to cool his heels for a year because, by law, whoever turned in the actual ticket would be entitled to collect, and officials had to make sure no one did so by the 365-day deadline.
Martinez, a maintenance man at a posh Park Avenue apartment building, and wife Maria waited with bated breath.
"I was nervous. You never know how these things will turn out," Maria said.
Martinez's receipt was checked against the state lottery's computer records. State police detectives were sent to interview staff at the mini market and check store surveillance videotape to verify Martinez had turned the ticket in.
Finally the deadline passed and Martinez was declared the winner.
He opted for a lump-sum payment that — after taxes — amounts to $21,176,066.
"I'm happy for him," said Jhilam Chowdhury, 43, owner of the Queens Mini Market. "I'm glad that everything was resolved."
"I am very happy," Martinez said. However, he said he won't breathe easy until the check clears.
"When I get the money I'm going to relax. To take it easy," said Martinez, whose wife, Maria, is a housekeeper in the building where he works.
He said he wasn't sure exactly what he was going to do with the money — except pay his daughter's college tuition. And he isn't ready to quit his job.
"Now I can look forward to retirement without worry," Martinez said. "I can pay my daughter's college tuition and take care of my wife. Simple wishes for a simple life."
"For now I'm going back to work. At least until I can find someone to replace me. It's hard to leave a job you love," he said.
Lottery spokeswoman Carolyn Hapeman said that about $70 million in prize money goes unclaimed annually.
Also collecting yesterday was 59-year-old home health aide Linda Holley of The Bronx, who won a $19 million Lotto jackpot in May.
"I thank the Lord for allowing me to win this," she said.
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