Two years ago West Virginian Jack Whittaker took home a lottery payout of $113,386,407. Since then, that money has cost him -- and everyone around him -- dearly.
April Witt -- whose article about Whittaker's fortune, fame and tragic folly, Rich Man, Poor Man, appeared in yesterday's Washington Post Magazine -- was online Monday, Jan. 31, at 1 p.m. ET to field questions and comments.
April Witt is a Magazine staff writer.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
April Witt: Good afternoon. Thanks for the great response to the article. Your questions and reactions are more interesting than anything I could say, so let's get started.
Jack's rapid transformation from beloved family man, "nice guy," and successful businessman to a boor who frequents strip clubs and alienates all around him seems a bit too rapid and sudden. By his age, a man's character is pretty well set. The money shouldn't have changed a man who was supposed to be so grounded. Did you investigate if he had a substance abuse problem in his past, or a secret love of strip clubs before he won the lottery? Did the money just exacerbate tendencies that were always there?
April Witt: You have hit upon the very questions that most fascinated me. I never fully answered them to my satisfaction, in part because Jack and his wife didn't grant me interviews. People I interviewed told me that Jack's life was pretty orderly before he won the Powerball jackpot. They say he worked hard and spent his spare time at home. He was an attentive grandfather. His marriage was solid, and appeared happy. For most of my life I agreed with your notion that by mid-life a man's character is pretty well set. That's generally true, but it's not the whole story. A friend recently reminded me that one theme of Marcel Proust's novels is that nobody can ever totally know another human being. My own experiences in life have taught me that every moment is an opportunity for people to act on their best or worst impulses. Spectacular events like war, natural disaster, and yes, maybe even winning the lotto, are just outsized stages upon which to act on our best or worst traits. I'd wager that not only can you not predict how somebody else would respond. You don't even really know how you'd respond until the moment arrived.
Great article! However, I found myself unsympathetic to the family. It seems they clearly took advantage of their new fame and fortune and brought this on themselves. Although there is no doubt many took advantage of them.
April Witt: You really think you wouldn't, at least to some degree, take advantage of new fame and fortune if you hit a major jackpot? Does anybody out there really think that?
After Mr. Whittaker won his big lottery prize, and it was widely reported that he would tithe to his church on his winnings, I used to joke with others about it, imagining the minister telling his secretary find his sermon on the evils of gambling and burn it. However, the problems detailed in your story that have followed the jackpot could make the definitive biblical parable on the subject.
Two other quick points: It was sadly ironic to read about people's hopes that Mr. Whittaker's lottery win would help dispel stereotypes about West Virginians; instead, what has followed in its wake has only served to reinforce them, however unfairly.
Also, I found the whole story simply sad and tragic up until the part about the sheriff department's unwillingness to investigate Jesse Tribble death, and their obvious conflicts of interest; that made me angry. Is there any chance that the West Virginia state police/attorneys office could get involved?
April Witt: I know Jack's troubles have, to some, reinforced stereotypes about West Virginia. I hope my story didn't. People I encountered, even in joints and gambling venues, were unfailingly polite. I was struck by the strong moral sense I found among many people there. People I interviewed from the former stripper to kids who ran with Brandi repeatedly said things to me like, "I didn't like the kind of person I was becoming." Obviously, this tale unfolded in West Virginia, but some of the issues it raises are universal. So nobody should fool themselves into thinking: only in West Virginia.
Regarding, possible action by or about law enforcement. I think that part of the story is still unfolding. I don't know what will happen on that front.
I may be stating the obvious here, but I think it's a real abdication of responsibility when people blame money for their personal troubles. It's not money but the choices people make that lead them astray. The real casualty here is Brandi (and her young friend), who obviously needed guidance and responsible adults looking after her, not wads of cash. Such a sad and cautionary tale. Thank you for writing it.
April Witt: I obviously agree with you that blaming the money is too easy. Everybody likes to think they'd handle it better. Glad you liked the piece. Thanks.
How to Cope:
Interesting article. In your research, did any experts give a checklist of how to "successfully" win such a large jackpot? How to live a normal life, and keep your friends?
I'm doing a survey for when I win big.
April Witt: Actually, I didn't ask any experts for such a checklist. If I were to write one, I think I might put at the top: Don't go to a strip club with more than $500,000 in your briefcase unless you are looking to buy a lotto trouble.
What a great piece of writing! I was riveted by your article. Do you get the sense that law enforcement will look further into the circumstances regarding Jessie's death or will they be content to have just "rounded up the usual suspects?" Could the state police or feds have any interest? Also, when do you expect Mr. Whitaker's winnings to be completely tapped out?
April Witt: There is a new sheriff in Putnam County as of this month. The state police are looking into various aspects of this. Just as I was going to press on the story, they began investigating testimony that a state trooper gave in one of Jack's drunk driving cases that ended up helping the defendant. Locals are certainly watching to see if law enforcement treats Brandi's death in the same manner it treated Jessie Joe Tribbles. That all remains to be seen.
Despite all you have learned:
Would you still want to win a big lottery?
April Witt: That is SUCH a good question. Here's the honest answer: I have, for a lot of reasons, probably only bought two or three lottery tickets in my life. One reason, since I'm being honest, is that I would simply be embarrassed to win.
I did, just for the heck of it, think about buying a Powerball ticket at the C&L SuperSave where Jack bought his. I never got around to it. But sure, like everybody else who has a stack of bills to pay each months, I could fool myself into thinking I'd like to win the lottery. And of course I fool myself into thinking I'd then spend all my free time feeding the poor and tending to the sick. Good thing this theory of mine is unlikely to be tested by such a win.
Great Falls, Va.:
When did you start working on this story? It's quite remarkable to have a major protagonist die while in the midst of reporting a story. How did that affect the tone and/or timing of the story?
April Witt: It was extraordinary, even shocking, to have one of the main people in the story die while I was still reporting. It didn't change the timing of publication, though. It was always slated to run about now.
(follow-up question) You wrote in the local dialect. Are you from the area? If not, do you think that affected how much the locals opened up to you?
April Witt: I'm not from West Virginia. Growing up, I spent summers visiting grandparents who lived in the Ozarks in Arkansas. No doubt those summers impacted my values and attitudes, and gave me some common ground with the West Virginians I interviewed.
Great article. I think I saw a poll a couple years ago that said that a year after winning a lottery, half where more unhappy and half where happier.
Are you going to do an article on the happy side?
April Witt: Yes. If I ever get around to buying a lotto ticket at the C&L - and win - I'll take a break from all the good works I'm doing on the Riviera to write and tell you all how happy I am.
Again, how much money does Jack have left. Also, have you heard from any family members after the story was published?
April Witt: I have not heard today from Jack's relatives and I don't know how much money Jack has left. He has indicated that a lot of the money he's spent on business ventures has been to acquire property for less than it is worth. If that's accurate, it suggests he won't end up broke as some other winners have. He'd have property to sell if needed.
A couple of questions about your process for this story: How long did it take to put together, and what surprised you most about what you found?
April Witt: I've been working on this for a few months. There were no real shockers for me in the reporting. Brandi's death was tragic, but not astounding given the reports of drug abuse.
All the little revelations I had along the way tended to echo lessons I'd already learned in life and journalism: the love of money is at least one root of evil and people are pretty unpredictable.
I got the impression that addiction made the difference -- alcohol for the lottery winner, crack for the granddaughter. If drugs and alcohol hadn't entered the picture, do you think this family could have handled the huge windfall?
April Witt: It seems obvious that things would have gone a lot better without the substance abuse, but it's impossible to know.
Potomac Falls, Va.:
Good afternoon! Thank you for a great article on one of the great cautionary tales of our age.
Do you think Mr. Whittaker exhibited any of these bad qualities before he won the lottery, and that these bad qualities were simply exaggerated by him coming into so much money so fast? For instance, was he a regular at The Pink Pony before the lotto?
April Witt: I was told that Jack didn't frequent places like the Pink Pony and the dog track before he won. But it's hard to say that for sure without cooperation from him. It's always possible that he went places relatively unnoticed before because he wasn't a famous lotto winner. We'll just have to wait on that one until somebody in the Whittaker family gets a book contract.
Did any of your research lead you to feel in any way sympathetic to Jack and his situation? Or was he so much of a boor that any good will towards him became impossible?
April Witt: I find it impossible to report on someone and to try to understand them without feeling some sympathy or compassion for them.
What a tragedy. I have been thinking all morning what I would do if I suddenly had $113,000,000. It is overwhelming and mind boggling. It is such an ancient tale. What will happen next, do you think, to poor Jewell? Are there interventions for this sort of thing? It seems with all the DUIs he should do more than a little jail time. I hope Jewell divorces him, takes her half of the money and gives it ALL away.
April Witt: Jewell is the one to watch. If anyone is going to try to learn and share the lessons of all this destruction, my guess is that it will be her.
I was riveted to your story and wanted more when it was over. I was wondering if you are (or ir anyone else is) planning to expand into a book.
April Witt: Hmmmm. You aren't, by chance, editor-in-chief of a major publishing house are you?
Silver Spring, Md.:
Was there much of difference between what you set out to write vs. what you finally wrote? Did events occurring during your reporting change the face of your story? Was this originally a story of a nice man who couldn't leave his house without being asked for thousands of dollars in handouts?
April Witt: There was a big difference. I set out to follow Jack around and write about what his life was like. I drove to Hurricane, W.V. on spec, then found out he wouldn't give me an interview. Once I met Brenda-the-biscuit lady, I knew I'd be writing a very different story, a tale of how this one windfall impacted other people's lives, not just Jack's.
I find it interesting that you say you felt sympathy and compassion for Jack and his family.
Did this compassion lead you to have any guilt over publishing the private, tragic details of one family's life. Do you really think there's a lesson to be learned here for everyone, or is this just sensational reporting?
April Witt: The reporting isn't sensational. The facts are simple stunning. The scope of the ruin is spectacularly heartbreaking. Two teenagers are dead. Families are grieving. How could I not have sympathy for the Whittakers or any other family that has suffered so much? That doesn't mean I shouldn't tell their story. One of the reasons to tell such stories is for other people to learn from them and apply the universal lessons in their own lives.
Great story. While Jack's misfortunes and bizarre behavior have been out in the public eye -- and subject of many an office joke around here -- I had no idea about the effect this had on so many of the people touched by it. Brenda the biscuit lady, for example. Here's a "good thing" that ended up alienating her from family, bringing out greed in her own daughter, the resentment of others for her good fortune, and then all the people involved with the granddaughter, whose lives were somehow corrupted, the loss of jobs, the destruction of a long and supposedly happy marriage -- I really feel for Jack's wife.
And while it's true this could happen anywhere, the pervasive abject poverty of the region had to be a contributing factor -- especially for all the jumpers-on and hangers-on, newly minted burglars, etc.
While I still will find myself plunking down my dollar for a ticket, this has certainly taken some of the shine off the idea of being a "big winner."
April Witt: Or, you could simply change your definition of "big winner" to mean those mortals who manage to make decent constructive decisions in life.
April,bless you for writing this story. These people have been on my mind since reading this story yesterday. How sad and tragic. Even sadder is that Mr. Whitaker is oblivious to how he (his money) has contributed to deaths, misery, and destroyed lives. This is lesson for anyone who thinks that money is the answer to all of their problems. In this case, the love of money has truly been the root of evil, death, and destruction.
April Witt: I'm glad the story touched you.
I just can't understand how someone has never gone to places like the Pink Pony suddenly dives into that lifestyle just because they have money. His wife didn't, so clearly there is more to this than just the $. He must have had these inclinations previously, but did not indulge them.
They question is, what was holding him back before? Was it just the money? or was it that having the money made him feel invincible and above the laws and social norms?
I mean, personally, if I won the lottery I can't say that I would be completely altruistic about how I spent my money, but I would probably lean towards things like manicures and pedicures and way too many fabulous shoes--because those are the things I'd tend toward anyway. Jack clearly had some unsavory tendencies to start with -- just well hidden.
April Witt: I'm not sure what I can add to that.
I was saddened to read about the effects of Jack's behavior on the owners and employees of the Pink Pony, and all the others associated with keeping that business running. A good example of "the butterfly effect," how one action causes so many different reactions. I'd never have guessed that one little strip club in WV could affect all those lives. Any word on how the Pink Pony is doing in the aftermath of all this chaos?
April Witt: Once I interviewed Brenda, I drove away from the C&L thinking that this might in fact turn out to be a story about the butterfly effect. I've leave it at that. Thanks everybody for joining me today.
Wonderful article. Made me think carefully about playing lotteries (I, too, play $1 Powerball once a week.)
But a question: Is Jack's story typical among lottery winners? I was looking for a paragraph or sidebar about past big-time winners and how they are doing now.
April Witt: The Whittakers are not the first lotto-winning family to reap outsized sorrow along with big money. Some winners unaccustomed to handling large sums blow the money and end up bankrupts. Others divorce. One of the articles I read about lottos posited that recent winners have the same happiness level as recent accident victims. I don't know if that's true. But the Whittakers' tale illustrates how sudden changes in fortune, even presumable good fortune, can be wildly disorienting.
One of the most depressing articles I have ever read. Just think had that jackpot been won by someone with half a brain...
April Witt: Ah, would that it were that simple. Jack Whittaker is not a stupid man. He worked himself up from poverty to business success before he won the lottery. One of his relatives told me he had a mind for numbers quicker than fingers on a calculator. It would be all too easy -- but wrong -- to say things went so horribly wrong because Jack wasn't bright.