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Mega Millions: Lessons from a jackpot winner

March 30, 2012 | 10:45 am

Carmen and Al Castellano
Al Castellano used to play just a dollar or two a month on the lottery. He could not afford more. But  one Saturday in 2001, the retired grocery store clerk decided to splurge.

That day, he bought 14 tickets hoping for a $141-million California SuperLotto prize.

"The week before I had won $10, so I went to my lotto jockey and I said give me $10 and he couldn’t believe it," said Castellano, now 77, who lives in Saratoga, near San Jose. "My wife thought I was crazy. Then I went back down and spent another $4.”

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The next morning, he browsed through his Sunday paper for half an hour before plucking his tickets from the refrigerator door and returning to the front-page headline: “Do you have these numbers?”

"About the second paragraph, the article starts with where the ticket had been bought, and it was where I buy my ticket," Castellano recounted more than a decade later. "I said 'Oh my god.' Then I saw the numbers."

It was just after 6 a.m., and Castellano decided it would be a good idea to take a walk. After the walk, if the numbers still matched, then, and only then, would he wake his wife. Sure enough, they were the same when he returned.

"Come into the living room," he told his wife Carmen. "I want to talk to you."

"Check these numbers," he told her. "I think we won the lotto."

Almost immediately, his wife began the planning. She wanted to make a list of all the organizations that needed part of their $141-million jackpot, the largest individual prize in California Lottery history. 

Carmen Castellano now heads the Castellano Family Foundation, which provides funding for the arts and Latino organizations. But after she made her list of charities, she also laid out how her family’s next few days would go.

"We plotted every move," said Carmen, now 72.

They invited all three children to their San Jose home and broke the news. Then they hired a financial advisor, an attorney, and a public relations specialist, one by one. They decided not to turn the ticket in until the following Thursday, and told lottery officials they would hold their own press conference the next day.   

"At first, it was terrible, really," Al Castellano said. "But then we changed our addresses and our phone numbers."

Only after the circus died down did the couple buy cars, a new house, and other material items. They prioritized paying off their childrens' graduate school debt, and planted the $5 million seed money for their foundation. The $141 million ended up netting the couple about $51 million after taxes. Now they live in a "quiet" home in Saratoga, Al Castellano said.

The methodical planning aligns with the advice of Don McNay, author of the book, "Son of a Son of a Gambler: Winners, Losers and What to Do When You Win the Lottery."

McNay has consulted with multiple lottery winners and advises that winners keep a low profile, think before they spend, hire a money manager and take the money in payments instead of a lump sum. With the exception of the latter, the Castellanos followed that advice to the tee. 

“People say it's not going to change my life, but it is,” McNay said. “You have to get your arms around that idea. It changes your dynamics of who your friends are.” 

Al Castellano doesn't think he's changed much.

He'll buy tickets at the same lotto vendor Friday morning -- with one slight difference.

"Believe me, it'll be more than the two I bought in the past," he said with a chuckle. "I'm going to win it again."


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-- Matt Stevens


Photo: Carmen and Al Castellano hold their winning ticket for a $141-million California lottery jackpot in June 2001. Credit: Gary Reyes / San Jose Mercury News / Associated Press