When she won the $1 million Maryland lottery April 12, 1976, "I thought I'd be on easy street the rest of my life," said Erika Earnhart.
But eight years later she is in debt, unable to work because of a bad knee and she occupies her time watching television and reading mystery books at Lot L-10 in the Lord Calvert Trailer Park in this southern Maryland town.
Sometimes she does not leave home for five or six days at a time. She often watches her favorite TV show, "Wheel of Fortune," three times a day, at 11 a.m. and 7 and 7:30 p.m.
"I'm living comfortably," said Earnhart, 44, "and doing the best I can. But I never thought I'd buy a trailer."
The lottery win guaranteed her $50,000 a year for 20 years. By her own admission she "blew" the first $50,000 on a four-bedroom, four-bath house, gifts of money to her parents and sister, a Volkswagen and some travel. She did not pay taxes on the first $50,000, so when her next check came, she had to pay $18,000 in taxes on the first year's winnings, plus advance taxes for that year.
Thus the second windfall she was looking forward to spending plunged immediately from $50,000 to about $20,000, and the fun began getting scarce.
Now, after two divorces, a messy and still-unresolved child custody case, two knee operations without health insurance, moves to Michigan, Colorado, California and back to Maryland, plus the perennial demands of the taxman, "I'm broke," said Earnhart.
Last week she visited her bank. It wasn't the first time. "I told the vice president, 'You know what I'm here for,' " she said. "He said, 'Yes, I just need to know the amount.' " Earnhart is borrowing against her next lottery check, which will not come until April 12. It's becoming a familiar pattern. "When I got this year's check, I already owed the bank $10,000," she said.
There are 12 checks yet to come, a before-taxes total of $600,000, but somehow that prospect no longer thrills Earnhart.
If she had known what the million dollars would bring her, she said, "I'd have torn up that ticket, or put it in someone else's name."
Still, she continues to play the Maryland Lottery periodically in hopes of winning again, "to pay off my debts. I'd like to win that $4 million," she said this week. "I just bought a ticket yesterday."
Earnhart sold her house and lives alone in a nearly new, extra-wide trailer. "For a while I rented out the spare bedroom," she said, "but a trailer is really too small for two unrelated people."
Her only child, an adopted daughter named Danielle, lives with a former husband in Michigan. Earnhart said she pays $4,000 a year alimony to him and has just been ordered to pay an additional $100 a week in child support, "but I can't pay it."
Additionally, she said, she was ordered to pay a $12,000 settlement to a later ex-husband but is unable to do so.
Earnhart figures she has spent $7,000 in medical bills for her knee, which she says was injured in a scuffle when Danielle was taken by agents of her adoptive father two years ago. Earnhart breaks down in tears when she recalls the incident.
"The doctor says I need a third operation, but I can't afford it," she said. With the bad knee she cannot work anymore as a bartender at Pat's Bar here, the job she had when she hit the jackpot.
Simple arithmetic sheds a harsh light on Earnhart's millionaire status. Deduct $18,000 in taxes from $50,000. That leaves $32,000. Deduct another $9,200 in child support and alimony and it is $22,800, or about $440 a week.
Throw in some doctor and lawyer fees at $75 to $100 an hour, trailer and car payments, and payments on loans from the bank, and Earnhart is left carrying her own trash to the dumpster every day.
"I live from April to April," she said. "I admit I've had some fun, but, it's sure not everything it's cracked up to be."