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Massachusetts awards lottery prize to rightful owner

Mar 4, 2004, 4:19 am

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Massachusetts Lottery

For someone who said she only had $400 to her name before yesterday, Erika Schmitt is smiling at 35 times that amount after finally getting the $14,000 she won playing a Lucky Stars lottery game.

"This is a lot for me," Schmitt said yesterday after Joseph Sullivan, director of the Massachusetts State Lottery Commission, handed her a check. "I'm going to get a haircut and a car."

The 18-year-old Westborough resident waited more than a month for the money because a Westborough store clerk allegedly snatched the winning ticket from her hand, telling her she had won just $100 playing Lucky Stars.

A joint investigation by Westborough Police and Worcester County Assistant District Attorney Harry Johnson turned up the winning ticket last month, but Schmitt did not know when she would be proclaimed the $20,000 winner -- or if she would ever get the $14,000 check, after taxes.

But yesterday, Schmitt emerged from behind closed doors inside Lottery headquarters and was greeted by nearly a dozen television cameras and reporters.

Schmitt, a student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, was smiling broadly -- partly because she just became $14,000 richer, and partly because her ordeal involving the $2 scratch ticket was finally over.

"I am completely surprised," she said. "I went to court a couple of days ago, but I didn't know this was going to happen. I got a (phone) call (Tuesday)," she said.

"It's been an overwhelming past month and a half. I don't know how to explain what it feels like to have money stolen from you from someone you thought you knew."

The store clerk, Antoine Reiche, 34, of Westborough, has been charged in connection with the incident. Reiche, who pleaded not guilty, faces one count of larceny over $250 in the $20,000 jackpot case.

On Jan. 19, Schmitt reported to police that she bought a $2 scratch ticket at the Quik Mart on Milk Street in Westborough. She said she scratched the ticket and 10 stars appeared -- a grand prize of $20,000.

Once she discovered she won, Schmitt said she exclaimed, "Tony, I won. Oh, my God, I have 10 stars."

That's when Reiche allegedly snatched the ticket from her hand, telling Schmitt that she only scratched six stars, which amounted to just $100.

Convinced she had hit the jackpot, Schmitt questioned the payout and asked for the ticket back. When Reiche refused, she left the store. Minutes later, Schmitt said she returned to buy a second ticket so she could read the rules.

Lottery officials say that's the best thing Schmitt could have done -- because the sequential bar code numbers bolstered her case. With the back-to-back bar codes, the Lottery Commission was able to confirm there was a $20,000 winner.

That ticket was found by police, but authorities refuse to say where it was located.

Reiche was in Westborough District Court on Monday, where his case was continued until March 26.

That same day, state Rep. John J. Binienda, D-Worcester, filed legislation to make sure Schmitt would get her payday.

"I wouldn't know (Schmitt) if she walked in my office. I have nothing to gain -- she can't even vote for me. I just saw a wrong there," Binienda said yesterday.

"When I read in the paper that the police were going to keep the ticket as evidence, that's what got me."

Citing backed-up court cases and trials that don't proceed for months, never mind appeals, Binienda said his main concern was that the ticket would expire.

"I just said to myself (that) before long this ticket could be null and void," he said. "I just thought this young girl had been put through so much already."

Amy Morris, spokeswoman for the Lottery, said plans to announce Schmitt as the winner and present her with the check were in the works before Binienda filed his bill.

She did say, however, that the Lottery was aware of the legislation and shared the same concerns for Schmitt, although the tickets do not expire until a year after the game is discontinued.

Lucky Stars first started in January 2001. To date, Morris said there have been 11 winners of $20,000, including Schmitt, with 29 possible jackpot winners left.

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