Meat workers to carve up $365 million

Record Powerball jackpot is claimed by 8 employees of Nebraska ConAgra plant

February 23, 2006|By JEFF ZELENY | JEFF ZELENY,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LINCOLN, Neb. -- For a living, they processed hams. They worked the concrete floors inside a sprawling brick factory just across a row of railroad tracks from the downtown business district here, logging their time on the second and third shifts of a plant that doesn't sleep.

Yesterday, they stepped forward as millionaires.

Eight co-workers at a ConAgra ham-processing center, who each had contributed $5 to buy a pool of lottery tickets late last week, emerged from three days of seclusion to claim the record $365 million jackpot. They wore bright, yet anxious, smiles as they talked about their good fortunes and pondered their not-so-anonymous futures.

"I've been retired for about four days now," said Eric Zornes, 40, who first learned of his new wealth after returning home from an unsuccessful weekend trip to a casino.

It is the largest lottery jackpot in the nation's history and, as it turns out, is perfectly divisible by eight. The winners opted for the one-time cash payout.

Each will receive $15.5 million after taxes.

The gang of eight was introduced at a televised news conference here at the Cornhusker Hotel as though they were contestants on a game show. As they walked to a makeshift stage, the voice of a lottery official boomed: "Michael, come on down. Our next individual is Quang Dao. And we're happy to introduce Rob Stewart!"

The faces of the new millionaires represented a tapestry of the American industrial workforce: two are Vietnam refugees who came to Lincoln 16 years ago; one is a political refugee whose family fled the Congo in 1999. Five are married. Three are single.

The governor of Nebraska and other assembled dignitaries led the applause as the group of seven men and one woman strolled before a bank of television cameras. Three of the winners wore sunglasses and took questions from reporters with refreshing humor. Soon, all of them were presented giant checks as a symbol of their fresh prosperity.

At least three workers said they would stay on the job - for now, anyway.

"They would have been short of help," said David Gehle, 53, a supervisor who has worked at the plant for two decades. "The managers, we think a lot of them. We couldn't just leave them."

Four hours before the lottery news conference, Gehle had finished working the overnight shift at Cook's food processing, a division of ConAgra. He said he planned to report to work yesterday for his 10 p.m. shift and politely asked not to be disturbed until then, saying: "I need to get some sleep."

For the past five years, a group of workers at the plant pooled their resources every time the Powerball jackpot eclipsed $45 million. They employed a careful system of bookkeeping, photocopying their lottery tickets and keeping a log of the $5 investors.

As the game's payoff grew to $365 million, the group of eight formed their lucky alliance. Shortly after 3 p.m. Friday, Dung Tran, 34, walked into the U-Stop convenience store two blocks from the plant and bought the winning ticket.

He squirreled away the ticket - declining to reveal where - until turning it over to lottery officials Tuesday.

After the winning six numbers were drawn Saturday night, word slowly started to spread that one of the group's tickets was golden.

Alain Maboussou, who fled the Congo in 1999 to escape civil war in Central Africa, said he planned to quit his job and pursue a college business degree. His winnings, he said, would provide for his wife and 3-month-old daughter.

"She's going to be happy for the rest of her life," he said.

Jeff Zeleny writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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