New Jersey town eager to identify mega-millionaire in its midst

$390 million lottery co-winner bought ticket in Woodbine

has yet to claim prize

March 11, 2007|By New York Times News Service

WOODBINE, N.J. --Long before the lottery came to Woodbine, a Frenchman named Baron de Hirsch had his own dream of riches, buying 5,300 acres in 1891 for what he imagined would become a Jewish agricultural paradise.

By the 1970s, most of the Jews had left, and Woodbine is not particularly noteworthy now, a blue-collar city of 16,600 in southern New Jersey. For the moment, though, it feels to many who live here like the center of the universe.

"Whoever purchased that ticket put us back on the map," said Jim Schroder, who owns Campark Liquors on DeHirsch Avenue, where the winning ticket was sold.

On Tuesday evening, after six numbers were drawn in a multistate Mega Millions lottery worth $390 million - the richest lottery payoff in United States history - America's family of millionaires grew by two. One of them was a truck driver from Rocky Face, Ga., Ed Neighbors, who has already pinched himself and claimed his $195 million in winnings. But there was one other winning ticket, sold in Woodbine, and that person remains eerily anonymous.

"Everyone is wondering why the person hasn't come forward," said Kevin Francis, a 43-year-old food service handler walking out of Smokey's Meat Market with a bag of groceries. "We want to know if it's one of us, or maybe a passer-by, who bought that ticket."

Schroder sat on a wicker chair early yesterday, coffee in hand, his tired eyes a bit bloodshot. "I've done about 50 interviews since Wednesday morning," Schroder said. "CNN, Good Morning America, Fox - you name it, they've been here."

Schroder, whose store now has a sign out front that reads "Home of the Mega Million winner," estimates that he has sold about 27 million lottery tickets in the 22 years he has owned Campark Liquors. He said that the person who purchased the winning ticket is likely to be a resident.

"Eighty percent of the tickets that are sold here are purchased by people who live here," he said.

On Wednesday morning, the city thought it had discovered the man who purchased the other ticket to paradise. Richard Wilson, a cook at the Bellevue Tavern on Main Street in the Cape May Court House area of Middle Township - where Wilson lives with his wife, Frances - had apparently told family, friends and his boss that he was the man sitting on a pile of newfound cash. But it was soon learned that Wilson's story was nothing more than fiction.

"Richard came into the restaurant, gave me a big hug and told us he had won, and word spread quickly," Dennis Roberts, a co-owner of the Bellevue Tavern, said yesterday morning. "An hour later, his lawyer was back in here, telling people it wasn't true. In that hour, the mood of this entire town went from complete joy to total pain."

According to Wilson's stepson, Donald Fitzpatrick, Wilson mistook a lottery printout containing the winning numbers for the ticket he had bought.

In an interview Friday, Wilson denied telling anyone that he had won the lottery, and even dismissed his stepson's account.

"Maybe he's the one who looked at the numbers and thought he was the winner," he said. "Like I said, I didn't win anything. But yet, people keep calling and calling, treating me like I really was a millionaire, but unfortunately I'm not."

Before becoming a focus of curiosity, Woodbine was best known as a Jewish agricultural community dating to the late 19th century. De Hirsch, who bought the land from a local judge for $37,500, believed that the Jewish community in America would thrive if it left big towns for what he considered greener pastures, a society built on agriculture.

De Hirsch then recruited Jews who had escaped oppression in Europe and moved to major cities such as New York and Chicago.

By the early 1970s, most of the Jewish population had vanished, having left for more comfortable lives in big cities across the country.

But for the moment - perhaps longer, since the winner has a year to claim the jackpot - the country has returned to Woodbine.

"It's all people have been talking about," said Sunny Patel, the manager at Smokey's Meat Market. "Who won? Who won? Who won?" he said, his arms flailing, his voice rising. "That's all I've been hearing lately."

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