washingtonpost.com  > Print Edition > Sunday Sections > Washington Post Magazine
Page 3 of 5  < Back     Next >

Rich Man, Poor Man

In the fall of 2003, the Jack Whittaker Foundation announced it was overwhelmed with requests for help and was suspending operations.

On the first anniversary of his win, Jack told an Associated Press reporter that he'd spent $45 million of his windfall, much of it to buy property for industrial development. Profits were down at his construction firm, Diversified Enterprises, because he was expanding for the long haul. He'd tripled his staff to more than 300 people and geared up to handle $35 million a year in contracts, up from $15 million. Jack estimated that he'd given away $14 million in acts of charity, about half through his foundation.

West Virginians Jack and Jewell Whittaker won a $314 million Powerball jackpot on Christmas Day 2002. (John Sommers - Reuters)

_____Live Discussion_____
April Witt will discuss her story on Monday, January 31 at 1 p.m. ET.

His plans to spend more time with his family weren't working out. He was busier than ever, he said. "If they want quality time with me, they have to get up earlier or go to bed a lot later."

Jack's Powerball fame was proving rough on his granddaughter, Brandi, who called him Paw-Paw. She had lost almost all her friends, he said: "They want her for her money and not for her good personality. She's the most bitter 16-year-old I know."

When Brandi was a little girl dressing up for Halloween, Jack would dress up, too. "He's been an M&M, a clown, and I can't remember what else," says Jack's niece Melissa Harris. "He was a good Paw-Paw when Brandi was a little girl."

Jack and Jewell had one child, Ginger, who had one daughter, Brandi. Brandi's father committed suicide when she was small. Ginger battled lymphoma. Brandi lived off and on with her grandparents. The minute Brandi stepped off the school bus, she had to get on the phone with Paw-Paw to tell him about her day, Harris says. If Brandi said she was too sick to go to school, Jack took her to work with him. Even after Brandi got older, she and her Paw-Paw loved to stretch out on the bed together, watching TV and eating popcorn.

Brandi was Jack's world, he liked to say. In the jubilant but disorienting months after the Powerball Christmas win, Jack's world turned upside down -- and Brandi's with it.

Suddenly, Brandi had large sums of cash. It wasn't unusual for her to be handed $5,000 in a single day, according to family friend Becky Layton.

Concerned about security, the family pulled Brandi out of high school. Old friendships frayed. "Before the lottery, she was normal, real friendly," says Tim Cobb, 18, who describes himself as one of Brandi's best friends at the time. "She let the money go to her head."

Meanwhile, the adults around her were busy celebrating. On a hillside in Jumping Branch, where Jack had spent his impoverished boyhood, his daughter, Ginger, who did not respond to an interview request, oversaw construction of a mansion so outsized that some locals thought she was opening a hotel. Down the road in the gated community of Glade Springs, Ginger overhauled an existing multimillion-dollar home. Among the fanciful flourishes she ordered up was a suite for Brandi with a circular room. The room, Harris says, was designed to look like the inside of the genie's bottle from the 1960s television series "I Dream of Genie."

But the genie was out of the bottle for Brandi, who began doing drugs to escape feelings of isolation, a family friend says. Brandi became "a crackhead, if you want to know the truth," says J.C. Shaver, 20, who saw her smoke "a lot of crack. Big rocks of crack."

Teenage boys around Scott Depot started flashing expensive gifts from Brandi. More than one told his parents that Brandi's grandfather was paying them more than $500 a day just to drive her around.

"We've all got nice things out of the whole situation," says Shaver, who grew up in nearby Winfield in a house illuminated by the glow of the Exxon sign at the service station his family ran next door. "She gave me diamond earrings one time -- three-quarter-carat diamond earrings -- and $500 cash. I drove Jack's Navigator for, like, four weeks. I drove his Maxima and his Cadillac."

Last January, the Lincoln Navigator was parked outside Jack's house on Rosehill Acres in Scott Depot when thieves reportedly smashed the driver's side window and stole $100,000. Police said it looked like an inside job, as if the thieves knew just where to find Jack's cash. Putnam County sheriff's deputies later arrested three young men who had been hanging around Brandi. All three ended up behind bars, facing multiple felony charges and years in prison.

Other young men eagerly stepped in to take their places in Brandi's entourage. "This is a hole, West Virginia," explains Josh Smith, 20, who hung out with Brandi for a time. "There's nothing to do. Nobody has money. So if someone comes along flashing money, it seems like an easy way out, easy money."

Eight days after Jack's Navigator was burglarized, a treacherous storm blew as Jack tried to make his way to Tri-State Racetrack on a Sunday afternoon. State troopers found him slumped over the wheel of a green Cadillac on the shoulder of Interstate 64. The Cadillac was running. Troopers "attempted to wake the defendant up numerous times," police records say.

Charged with driving under the influence, Jack sounded unrepentant. "It's been a rough few weeks," he told reporters. "My wife is having a hard time. It doesn't bother me, because I can tell everyone to kiss off . . . I tell everybody my personal life is my own business."

M&J stands for Melissa and Jack. That's what Melissa Farley, a Charleston businesswoman, testified in a Putnam County courtroom as she explained how she and the Powerball millionaire -- partners in an entity called M&J Development -- bought and renovated a house secluded behind a barbed-wire-topped fence in Fraziers Bottom, not far from Hurricane. Jack and Farley kept clothes there and visited the house to do things such as watch television, especially "The Sopranos," she testified.

On June 1, Farley was gambling

at Tri-State Racetrack and won big: $25,000, she said.

The next afternoon, she and her sister had just stepped into the Fraziers Bottom house when a man popped up from behind a kitchen counter, Farley testified. The man had a bandana over his face, which kept slipping down. He tried to yank the bandana back up, but it was tough because he had a pistol in each hand, Farley said.

"He kept saying 'Don't f-ing look at me!'" Farley testified.

"We're not [expletive] looking at you," she testified that she told the gunman.

As she recounted her ordeal, Farley paused to explain her salty language to the court. "When I get scared, it's F, F, F, F, F, F."

Farley was terrified of the gunman: "When somebody has two nine-millimeters at you, in your back, and down on you, there's a pretty good damn chance that somebody is going to die."

"I don't want to kill you," Farley recalled the gunman saying. "I just want your money."

"And I was, like, 'Well . . . just [expletive] take it."

He did, Farley said. He drove off in her black 2003 Cadillac Escalade -- taking her $25,000 Tri-State winnings with him.

Fearful that Jack, who was supposed to meet her at the house, would encounter the fleeing gunman and be kidnapped, Farley used a cell phone to try to warn him, she said.

The gunman didn't get far, according to police, who found Farley's Cadillac stuck in the mud just 100 yards from the house. Nearby, they found Charles Wayne Morgan, his clothes covered with mud. Morgan, a Florida grandfather, owns a masonry business, which began going under after his arrest, his son testified. Morgan has pleaded not guilty. His sister testified at his bond hearing that her brother was visiting West Virginia to gamble at Tri-State.

If the robbery unnerved Jack, it didn't show. A few weeks later, he held a news conference to defend his construction company after a county commissioner criticized its work on a public project. Jack was growing a ponytail, driving a Hummer and still reveling in his Powerball fame. "I've been a celebrity every day of my life," he told reporters. "Or at least I've felt like one."

Brandi's life as a teenage addict with abundant cash took on a strange rhythm, according to young people who spent time with her. She and her friends of the moment would sleep much of the day and drive aimlessly much of the night. They shopped incessantly. They rarely sat down to hot meals. "We'd stop and buy $80 worth of junk food," Josh Smith remembers.

Brandi's custom-painted, pale-blue Mitsubishi Eclipse was a trash bin. Floor and seats were mounded with candy wrappers, empty pop bottles, packaging from electronic gadgets and DVDs and the crumpled change from Brandi's $100 bills: loose fives, tens and twenties. As the kids cruised, money would "fly around the car," Smith says. "Sometimes it would fly out the window."

Once, they reached a mall 45 minutes before closing. Smith and another boy spent $800 on shoes and jerseys in a sporting goods store before moving on to a clothing store to buy "whatever we wanted." Brandi was back in the car scoring crack, says J.C. Shaver, who was with her.

Eventually, Brandi wasn't just smoking crack, she was injecting drugs, too, her cruising buddies say. Brandi's family sent her to drug rehab more than once, says Harris, Jack's niece. But Brandi kept her habit and the means to indulge it.

When Brandi dated one of Josh Smith's friends, she'd give him half of whatever cash she received that day, Smith says. In turn, the boyfriend would "give me $1,000 or $500," Smith says. Brandi took her boyfriend and Smith on a trip to Atlantic City with her grandfather and his friends, Smith says. Jack chartered planes and put up his large entourage at Caesars.

< Back  1 2 3 4 5    Next >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company