Mega Millions Media Frenzy Recalls Surreal 1998 Powerball Scene in Streamwood, Ill.

USA Today Powerball lawsuit

My December 1999 feature story in USA Today.

All of the buzz about the world record Mega Millions jackpot has gotten me reminiscing about the surreal events of May 21, 1998 that played out in Streamwood, Illinois.

At the time, I was a reporter for The Courier News, and was dispatched to Bill’s on Bartlett Pizza Pub, a neighborhood joint that I’d frequented a few times over the years. Word had circulated that the winner of the then-record Powerball lottery ($195 million), Frank Capaci, was celebrating his mind-boggling fortune.

As I came upon the scene, all was jubilation as the 67-year-old Capaci, a regular at the pub, was bellied up to the bar and treating everyone to a round or two of drinks (capping it at $500–he hadn’t, after all, yet cashed in his ticket).

Perhaps the most compelling part of the story was how Capaci’s ticket had been purchased a day or two earlier on his behalf by a pair of bartenders, Patti Rooney and John Marnell.

Because Illinois did not partake in Powerball at the time, the duo had made the effort to trek north across the state line, to Wisconsin, to buy the tickets for him and other customers.

Later, as so often occurs when big, big bucks are involved, this feel-good story of honor and integrity descended into controversy. The bartenders contended Capaci reneged on a promise to give them $1 million from his take-home winnings (he had opted for a $104 million lump-sum payment, which became a `mere’ $68 million after taxes).

In December 1999, I wrote about the saga for USA Today. The bartenders’ lawsuit against Capaci was later settled out of court, for an undisclosed sum. (And believe me, I tried repeatedly to coax this piece of information from the plaintiffs’ attorney, Bob Winter.)

It’ll be intriguing to see what becomes of the new record sum, especially since only one name, from the winner in Illinois, is guaranteed to become public.

I can’t imagine that the other two winners, from Kansas and Maryland, would willingly go public with their identities, though that doesn’t mean their names won’t surface, at least at some point and in some fashion.

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