Home > 2016 > Personal Finance

The Mistake That Nearly Cost a Powerball Winner His Jackpot

Advertiser Disclosure Comments 0 Comments

A week after a man from West Virginia won the largest jackpot in Powerball history, I was at a party in South Carolina. My friend introduced me to a cute girl who worked at his TV station, and left us alone to talk.

“You work in TV too?”

I nodded.

“You’re from West Virginia, right?” she said.


“Things probably got crazy with that Powerball guy, right?”

They did.

“Do you work at the station that got the numbers wrong?”

I shrugged my shoulders. No use in denying it. She’d never know, of course, that I was the one who screwed it up.

“You weren’t the one who screwed it up, right?”

I froze. I hesitated. I didn’t answer right away, which was all it took to confirm to her that, yes, I was —

“Oh my God,” she said, interrupting my thought. Now wide-eyed and covering her mouth with her hands, she couldn’t think of anything more to say, except for another round of ohmigod’s.

In 2002, the only way to immediately know if you’d won a Powerball jackpot was to watch television. I was 22, and I’d just started working the overnight shift at an NBC affiliate in Huntington, W. Va. Part of my job was to put the Powerball numbers on the air during the 11 p.m. news. Even though the drawing aired live on a competing station, a huge number of viewers would watch us for the numbers instead — a big draw in a viewing area where the people were largely old, poor and computer-illiterate.

The lottery numbers would air on my station around 11:13 p.m. or so, and had the potential to keep sleepy viewers awake through at least the first commercial break. So every Wednesday, I’d stop what I was doing at 10:59, watch the other station, jot down the numbers, and walk them to the control room. If I forgot, I’d get yelled at the next day. “Powerball is huge!” my old boss would say, gesturing with wide open arms to emphasize just how huge it was. “People watch just for the numbers, and when you don’t have them, you’re letting them down.”

On Christmas night in 2002, the top prize had grown to legendary proportions: more than $314 million. At the time, this was the largest Powerball jackpot ever. My boss decided that the numbers wouldn’t air at 11:13, but rather 11:05, five minutes after the drawing. There would be no walking.

That night, as the balls came out of the machine, I scribbled down the numbers as quickly as I could, sprinted down the hallway, and tossed the slip of paper to a production tech, who entered the numbers into the system just seconds ahead of time. Well, I mused as I gasped for breath, at least the losers would know how close they came.

I walked back to the newsroom with a sigh of relief. I’d made it. I’d beaten the clock. My boss wouldn’t yell at me.

And as I heard the anchor read the numbers, I realized I’d gotten one of them wrong.

So here’s something I didn’t realize until that moment: The faster I write, the more my sixes look like ones. Instead of 16 showing up on the screen, the graphic showed an 11. I turned and sprinted back to the control room. The only thing going through my head was the word “s*-!,” set on repeat. I flung the door open and everyone turned to look at me.

“S*-#!,” I blurted out. It was the only thing that came to mind.

After I regained my composure, I told them about my mistake. Then I stood there and watched the clock. We had misinformed the public for only two minutes before the anchor apologized and read the correct numbers. At least we’d corrected my mistake quickly, I thought. And besides, the chances of anyone winning were small. The likelihood that the winner would be from our area? Even smaller. The odds of that person being a viewer of that night’s 11 p.m. newscast? Smaller still.

I was the only one in the newsroom when the first Associated Press flash came, shortly after midnight. There was a winner. Then the next flash. The winner was in West Virginia. Then the next one. The winner had bought the ticket at a gas station in the next county over.


During the two minutes between mistake and correction, Jack Whittaker had apparently turned off the television and went back to sleep. Whittaker was a construction company owner from Scott Depot, W.Va., who bought the ticket that included the five winning numbers and the Powerball. His wife had been watching my station’s newscast that night, wrote down the numbers, checked his ticket, and seen that he had guessed four of five numbers and the Powerball correctly, making him only a $100,000 winner. She woke him up to tell him. He quickly went back to bed. No big deal, he must have thought. I’m only $100,000 richer.

Whittaker turned on the TV early the next morning, presumably watching my newscast, and saw a reporter speaking live from the C&L Super Serve where he bought a biscuit and a Powerball ticket several days before. Huh, he thought. Someone else must have bought a winning ticket there too. Then he double-checked the numbers and realized he was the winner.

Whittaker spent the following week standing in front of cameras, holding giant checks, shaking hands, with a big grin underneath his glasses and large black cowboy hat. The coverage was one long West Virginia stereotype wrapped in lottery clichés. Whittaker went on Today and CNN saying what good luck he’d had all through his life. He’d be donating to his church. He swore he wouldn’t change. He vowed that his granddaughter would, through the power of his new money, achieve her lifelong dream of meeting Nelly.

Oh, and he also said he’d gone to bed thinking he was a loser, because my television station had aired the wrong numbers. He repeated that part of the story several times on several different shows.


This became the teasable part of a national story. A Powerball winner who goes to bed thinking he’s a loser is just the sort of anecdotal twist a news writer dreams about. My name never made it into the narrative, of course. I was just a faceless producer. There was no social media horde to dox me. My news director had to answer questions from reporters. She explained how it happened and vowed it would never happen again. Luckily, the story went away after one news cycle. Our ratings didn’t go down, and I kept my job.

A few years ago, I tried to contact Whittaker. He no longer lives in Scott Depot, never returned my messages, and doesn’t seem interested in talking anymore. In 2012, he told a Bloomberg reporter who tracked him down in person that he would only agree to an interview for a $15,000 fee.

Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems

Whittaker’s problems started less than a year after he won the jackpot. He had a propensity for being robbed of hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time while frequenting the Pink Pony and other West Virginia strip clubs. He left suitcases of cash in plain sight on the front seat of his Hummer, which he would later crash. He was arrested several times for drunk driving and assault. He was sued by a casino. Five years after he won $314 million, he claimed he was broke. His granddaughter died of a drug overdose in 2004. She never met Nelly.

“I wish I’d torn that ticket up,” Whittaker told ABC News in 2007. His wife, who left him a year later, said the same thing.

Sometimes I wonder: What would have happened if he had? What if, on Christmas night 2002, I’d screwed up not just one but two numbers? What if Whittaker would have thought, right then and there, that his ticket was only worth a few bucks? What if he would have thought that it wasn’t worth the effort to redeem it? I, albeit unwittingly, was the only person who actually could have made him tear that ticket up. How would his life have changed by staying the same?

Whittaker himself would be defined by the mistakes he made, starting on the day after Christmas, 2002. The last moment of anything approaching normalcy for him was the night before, when my wrong number led him to believe that nothing in his life had changed. My only regret about my mistake, in hindsight, is that I didn’t make a bigger one.

Even today, I’m just an anonymous bit player in a cautionary tale about the dangers of sudden wealth. Only once was my name connected to my mistake: That party in South Carolina. Once the cute girl I’d been talking to had outed me, I hoped my embarrassment might be, at the very least, a good conversation starter.

Instead, she ran off and joined her friends, saying, “That’s the guy! That’s the Powerball guy who got the numbers wrong!” Her friends responded by looking over at me, that guy in the corner who’d now gone from mysterious stranger to naked loner. They pointed and giggled and said things I couldn’t hear.

They had to perpetuate the moment. People wanted to have a lasting image of themselves grinning next to the Powerball F#!*er-Upper Guy. I smiled for a few of their pictures. After the third or fourth photo, my smile was gone. For the group shot, I wore a blank stare. Sure, we’d all like to be remembered for something good. Something kind. Something heroic. But most of us are just going to have to settle for being the person whose six looked too much like a one.

This post originally appeared on TheBillfold. It’s an op/ed contribution and does not necessarily represent the views of Credit.com or its partners.

More From TheBillfold:

Image: iStock

Comments on articles and responses to those comments are not provided or commissioned by a bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by a bank advertiser. It is not a bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

Please note that our comments are moderated, so it may take a little time before you see them on the page. Thanks for your patience.

Certain credit cards and other financial products mentioned in this and other articles on Credit.com News & Advice may also be offered through Credit.com product pages, and Credit.com will be compensated if our users apply for and ultimately sign up for any of these cards or products. However, this relationship does not result in any preferential editorial treatment.

Hello, Reader!

Thanks for checking out Credit.com. We hope you find the site and the journalism we produce useful. We wanted to take some time to tell you a bit about ourselves.

Our People

The Credit.com editorial team is staffed by a team of editors and reporters, each with many years of financial reporting experience. We’ve worked for places like the New York Times, American Banker, Frontline, TheStreet.com, Business Insider, ABC News, NBC News, CNBC and many others. We also employ a few freelancers and more than 50 contributors (these are typically subject matter experts from the worlds of finance, academia, politics, business and elsewhere).

Our Reporting

We take great pains to ensure that the articles, video and graphics you see on Credit.com are thoroughly reported and fact-checked. Each story is read by two separate editors, and we adhere to the highest editorial standards. We’re not perfect, however, and if you see something that you think is wrong, please email us at editorial team [at] credit [dot] com,

The Credit.com editorial team is committed to providing our readers and viewers with sound, well-reported and understandable information designed to inform and empower. We won’t tell you what to do. We will, however, do our best to explain the consequences of various actions, thereby arming you with the information you need to make decisions that are in your best interests. We also write about things relating to money and finance we think are interesting and want to share.

In addition to appearing on Credit.com, our articles are syndicated to dozens of other news sites. We have more than 100 partners, including MSN, ABC News, CBS News, Yahoo, Marketwatch, Scripps, Money Magazine and many others. This network operates similarly to the Associated Press or Reuters, except we focus almost exclusively on issues relating to personal finance. These are not advertorial or paid placements, rather we provide these articles to our partners in most cases for free. These relationships create more awareness of Credit.com in general and they result in more traffic to us as well.

Our Business Model

Credit.com’s journalism is largely supported by an e-commerce business model. Rather than rely on revenue from display ad impressions, Credit.com maintains a financial marketplace separate from its editorial pages. When someone navigates to those pages, and applies for a credit card, for example, Credit.com will get paid what is essentially a finder’s fee if that person ends up getting the card. That doesn’t mean, however, that our editorial decisions are informed by the products available in our marketplace. The editorial team chooses what to write about and how to write about it independently of the decisions and priorities of the business side of the company. In fact, we maintain a strict and important firewall between the editorial and business departments. Our mission as journalists is to serve the reader, not the advertiser. In that sense, we are no different from any other news organization that is supported by ad revenue.

Visitors to Credit.com are also able to register for a free Credit.com account, which gives them access to a tool called The Credit Report Card. This tool provides users with two free credit scores and a breakdown of the information in their Experian credit report, updated twice monthly. Again, this tool is entirely free, and we mention that frequently in our articles, because we think that it’s a good thing for users to have access to data like this. Separate from its educational value, there is also a business angle to the Credit Report Card. Registered users can be matched with products and services for which they are most likely to qualify. In other words, if you register and you find that your credit is less than stellar, Credit.com won’t recommend a high-end platinum credit card that requires an excellent credit score You’d likely get rejected, and that’s no good for you or Credit.com. You’d be no closer to getting a product you need, there’d be a wasted inquiry on your credit report, and Credit.com wouldn’t get paid. These are essentially what are commonly referred to as "targeted ads" in the world of the Internet. Despite all of this, however, even if you never apply for any product, the Credit Report Card will remain free, and none of this will impact how the editorial team reports on credit and credit scores.

Our Owners

Credit.com is owned by Progrexion Holdings Inc. which is the owner and administrator of a number of business related to credit and credit repair, including CreditRepair.com, and eFolks. In addition, Progrexion also provides services to Lexington Law Firm as a third party provider. Despite being owned by Progrexion, it is not the role of the Credit.com editorial team to advocate the use of the company’s other services. In articles, reporters may mention credit repair as an option, for example, but we’ll also be sure to note the various alternatives to that service. Furthermore, you may see ads for credit repair services on Credit.com, but the editorial team isn’t responsible for the creation or implementation of those ads, anymore than reporters for the New York Times or Washington Post are responsible for the ads on their sites.

Your Stories

Lastly, much of what we do is informed by our own experiences as well as the experiences of our readers. We want to tell your stories if you’re interested in sharing them. Please email us at story ideas [at] credit [dot] com with ideas or visit us on Facebook or Twitter.

Thanks for stopping by.

- The Credit.com Editorial Team