Since Jack said he was going to give away much of his winnings, a lot of people thought it would be a fine idea if he gave some to them. They turned up at the C&L Super Serve in the wee hours and waited for the great man to show up for biscuits. People lurked in the parking lot wild-eyed, or paced the store aisles as if they were deciding whether to buy a folding knife, flag decal, work gloves or the hunter's best friend: a "hands-free grunter," promising authentic deer noises. Even an evangelist from Israel hit up Jack for cash. "A lot of them, they had cancer, or their child was dying," Brenda says. "Different stuff like that, which was heartbreaking. It would even make you want to reach in your own pocket."
One morning Brenda was trying to chat with Jack, when a distraught young man, who said he was out of work, interrupted. "I need a job!" he shouted. Jack was real nice to the fellow, Brenda says. "Jack was, like, 'Well, you come down to my office, and I'll see what I can do for you.' But mainly what the man wanted was money. He was, like, 'No, I need money right now!'"
West Virginians Jack and Jewell Whittaker won a $314 million Powerball jackpot on Christmas Day 2002.
(John Sommers - Reuters)
April Witt will discuss her story on Monday, January 31 at 1 p.m. ET.
Pretty soon, Jack stopped coming to the convenience store, Brenda says. But people still found him to ask for money. They telephoned his home and rang his doorbell. Given the size of Jack's fortune, some were reluctant to go away empty-handed. A few threatened Jack's family. Off-duty deputies from the Putnam County Sheriff's Department began providing private security for his family.
"I don't know if life will ever be normal again," Jack told a reporter for Channel 13 in Charleston.
Brenda knew how he felt. Jack made good on his promise to help her. He let Brenda pick out a new Jeep, bought her a $123,000 house and gave her a check for $44,000. She didn't know how he'd come up with that particular sum. She was too stunned to ask.
"It was overwhelming," says Brenda, who grew up on welfare in a family of seven children. Brenda's grown daughter, who didn't work, figured that since her ma was rich she should buy her a trailer and a new car. Brenda did. Other relatives demanded help Brenda couldn't give. Brenda and one of her sisters stopped talking.
Some people had the mistaken impression that Brenda and the clerk who'd sold Jack his winning ticket were now millionaires. Once, a man followed the other clerk home from work. Brenda's boyfriend started getting paranoid. "He'd say, I don't want anybody to try to kidnap you," Brenda recalls.
Meanwhile, Jack had so much mail that he hired three people to open the thousands of begging letters. He hired a private investigator to sort out which supplicants claiming to have a child with cancer didn't even have a child.
"At first, I didn't think anything would change, but everything has changed," Jack told a Charleston newspaper reporter. He sounded disenchanted with his role as West Virginia's richest moral exemplar. His health wasn't good. He had pancreatitis, and he'd had eight operations in eight years. He figured he had about 10 good years left in life, he said, and wanted to live it to the fullest: "If someone's got a problem with that, well, that's just too bad."
Not long after Jack's big win, he started staying out at night, a family friend says. Jewell was beside herself. She'd loved Jack since he was a broke boy from a hill clan with the unofficial motto: "Don't start a bar fight, but never lose one."
Jack had always been up for a good time and "happy-go-lucky," says niece Melissa Harris, who works for the construction company Jack owns with her father. Jewell believed in living by the word of God. She didn't favor drinking, Harris says. But she and Jack loved to dance for hours over at the Do-Wop, a '50s dance at a local park. "She was madly in love with him, and he worshiped her," Harris says. "I always thought they were the perfect couple."
Jewell declined to be interviewed for this article, but her nephew Billy Ray Wright describes his aunt and uncle as "the life force of our entire family. They were meant to be together."
Now Jack had new friends.
On March 24, 2003, Jack was at Tri-State Racetrack & Gaming Center, a 90,000-square-foot gambling mecca in Cross Lanes with 1,800 slot machines and 15 greyhound races daily. What happened there is the subject of lawsuits filed against Jack in Kanawha County.
Jack was in the high-roller room with a woman, not his wife, floor attendant Kitti French claims. He seemed to have been drinking. As his comely companion played the slots, Jack grabbed at her breasts and crotch, French contends. Jack's lady friend got lucky at a slot machine, and a floor attendant named Ronda Lilly waited for the go-ahead from security before counting out the woman's winnings. Lilly alleges that Jack grabbed her hair and laid hands on her backside. Another floor attendant, Charity Fortner, says she was leaning down to refill a slot machine with tokens when Jack grabbed her ponytail and shoved her head in the direction of his crotch. French, who also waited on Jack, claims that he snapped her bra.
Jack, in court filings, denies the allegations. But French says she stopped thinking of Jack as a West Virginia hero the moment she met him: "My opinion -- he's obnoxious."
The Pink Pony was always packed, especially on weekends and Wednesdays, when cars lined the road leading to the white stucco one-story building with the bright pink awning. Wednesday was amateur night. The club paid $50 to any woman willing to get up on the white Plexiglas stage and strip to the strains of her own musical selections. "Everybody likes to see the girl next door take her clothes off," explains assistant manager Don Springstead. The rest of the week, patrons were only too delighted to watch professionals swing buck-naked around the Pony's two gleaming dance poles.
At 24, Misty Dawn Arnold was the den mother to about 40 strippers. She'd audition and schedule dancers, stitch ripped costumes and referee fights. It was a management challenge. "You can't put that many women in one building and make them compete for money and not have problems," Misty says. "I made sure they kept their poise about them -- that they didn't go out there and act like trash."
After high school, Misty stripped under the stage name Diamond. Her alter ego was expert at parting men from their cash by telling them lies they were unlikely to hear at home, namely that they were very, very sexy and very, very hot.
"It hardens your heart really quick," Misty says. Eventually, Misty realized that she could no longer emotionally separate herself from Diamond even when she got off work. That spooked her, and she quit dancing for good.
Misty and her two kids moved in with one of the Pony's assistant managers, Jeff Caplinger. Together, they had a new baby and plans. Jeff took glamour shots of the Pony's dancers. One magenta wall of the club was lined with his photos. Misty was proud of him. The couple were saving money for Jeff to start his own promotions business.
Jack Whittaker patronized the Pony occasionally after that first New Year's Eve. Jeff says Jack usually came in with a boisterous entourage and an annoying habit: "Busy fingers." Jack tipped well, and the dancers liked that. But he was so frisky with women that the club began assigning a security guard to baby-sit him, Misty says. Sometimes Jack even grabbed at Misty, she says, but everybody talked nice to him because he'd won the Powerball jackpot.
Over the months, the once-dapper Jack grew slovenly, Misty says: "He would come in a sloppy shirt, all wrinkled. His hat would be dirty. He'd be unshaven." And he became demanding. "At first he was, like: 'I'm Jack Whittaker. I won all this money, yay for me,'" Misty says. "Later it was, like: 'I'm Jack Whittaker. You'll do what I say . . . I have more money than God.' Who talks like that?
"It was like the money was eating away at whatever was good in him," Misty says. "It reminds me, like, 'Lord of the Rings,' how that little guy -- what's his name? Gollum? -- was with his Precious. It just consumes you. You become the money. You are no longer a person."
One night in August 2003, eight months after he'd won the Powerball, Jack came to the club alone. He let it be known that he had more than $500,000 in a black briefcase sitting on the front seat of his Lincoln Navigator, which he'd left idling at the club door.
"Somebody should rob him," Misty said, according to a criminal complaint police later filed. A bartender told police she heard Misty make that remark and saw her open two blue capsules and dump their contents into a Hawaiian Punch fruit juice drink to try to knock out Jack.
According to police, Jeff went to the parking lot, pulled his sleeves over his hands so he wouldn't leave fingerprints, smashed the driver's side window of Jack's Navigator, grabbed the briefcase and hid it behind a dumpster. It was recovered after Jack realized it was gone and called police.
Misty and Jeff declined to discuss details of the allegations but contend they are innocent and never drugged or robbed Jack.
News cameras captured Jack sitting on a curb outside the Pink Pony, bleary and outraged. "My personal life is my own, and I make no excuses for my actions," he said in a statement issued through a publicist. A British tabloid summed up Jack's predicament with a three-word headline: A Lotto Trouble.
There was a lotto trouble to go around. The state revoked the Pink Pony's liquor license. No booze meant no customers. No customers meant no tips. No tips meant few gals willing to prance naked, even on amateur night. "Thirty or 40 people in this club alone lost their jobs," says Don Springstead, who helps keep the near-empty club open part time while the owners fight to regain a liquor license. "Cooks, managers, people who used to baby-sit the dancers' kids. Stretch it out to all the people we bought our liquor and food from. It hasn't just affected the Pink Pony. It's ruined dozens of lives."
Jeff and Misty tumbled into a legal hole so dark and mysterious it was as if the earth had swallowed them. Police charged the couple with robbing Jack, but they were never indicted. They spent more than a year under house arrest in a cramped, cluttered apartment with three children and no trial date.
"It's Hell," Misty says. "Even people in jail get, like, an hour out a day just to get some exercise, be outside in the sun. We don't. We're in Hell."
Brenda felt bad for Jack. People were making fun of him. An anonymous caller to the local paper's vent-line joked that Jack must have been in the Pink Pony trying to save souls. When Jack declined to give the city of Nitro, W.Va., $10,000 to make its water park handicapped-accessible, people sniped that Jack was more interested in strippers than in disabled children.
A few weeks after Jack's nudie-bar debacle, Brenda's own cheerful communion with her fellow man hit a rough patch. One of her new neighbors in the Hurricane sub-division of Moss Creek, where Jack had bought Brenda a three-bedroom split-level, began distributing fliers that said Brenda's live-in boyfriend was on probation for a sex offense involving a minor. The biscuit lady knew all about her boyfriend's crime and had long since accepted it. "We all make mistakes," was how she looked at it.
But she hadn't bargained on the reaction of her neighbors. "They would run in when they'd see me coming. It was like I had the plague," she says. People made bitter comments behind Brenda's back about how they'd had to work hard for a house in Moss Creek, and she'd had one handed to her. For the first time, Brenda saw herself through her neighbors' eyes. "It was like I was white trash moving into their posh neighborhood," she says.
Heartsick, Brenda sold the house that Jack bought and moved away. "I probably would have rejected the money in the first place if I'd known then what I know now," she says. "It seems like money brings out the ugly in people."