By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Many have the same dream: finding the six magical numbers that unlock the treasure known as the Texas Lottery. Then life would be good. Problems would vanish. There are even the collective fantasies of what to buy and with whom to share this new, instant wealth.
Billie Bob Harrell Jr. shared those common visions of the salvation of sudden fortune.
And in June 1997, he found it.
He sat in his easy chair one evening, looked at his Quick Pick and then at the Sunday newspaper. Harrell studied the sequence of numbers again and began to realize the wildest of notions. He and wife Barbara Jean held the only winning ticket to a Lotto Texas jackpot of $31 million.
Harrell, a deeply religious man, knew he had a godsend. After being laid off from a couple of jobs in the past few years, Billie Bob was reduced to stocking the electrical-supply shelves of a Home Depot in northeast Harris County. He was having a hard time providing for himself and Barbara Jean, much less for their three children.
Every Wednesday and Saturday those kids were on his mind when he would scrape together a few spare dollars to purchase lottery tickets. Sometimes he would use the sequence of his children's birth dates to choose his numbers. Other times he would let the state's computer choose for him. That random selection finally paid off, transforming Harrell into an overnight millionaire on a warm evening in June.
The hard times were history when he arrived in Austin about a month later with an entourage that included his family, his minister, and his attorneys to collect the first of 25 annual checks for $1.24 million.
Life had been tough, he said at the formal Lottery ceremony, but he had persevered through the worst of it.
"I wasn't going to give up," said Harrell, then 47. "Everyone kept telling me it would get better. I didn't realize it would get this much better."
In fact, it was great -- at least for a while. Harrell purchased a ranch. He bought a half-dozen homes for himself and other family members. He, his wife, and the kids got new automobiles. He made large contributions to his church. If members of the congregation needed help, Billie Bob was there with cash.
Then Harrell suddenly discovered that his life was unraveling almost as quickly as it had come together. He relished the role of being an easy touch. But everyone, it seemed -- family, friends, fellow worshipers, and strangers -- was putting the touch on him. His spending and his lending spiraled out of control. Those tensions eventually splintered his already strained marriage.
And on May 22, 1999, Harrell locked himself inside an upstairs bedroom of his fashionable Kingwood home and stood at the point of no return. Investigators say he stripped away his clothes, pressed a shotgun barrel against his chest, and fired.
Billie Bob Harrell was gone forever. So was the fortune, and even the family that had rejoiced with him when the shower of riches had first rained upon them. A schism has widened between the children and grandparents, who cannot even agree on whether Billie Bob took his life. An intrafamily war looms over the remnants of the fortune, which may not even be enough to pay estate taxes.
Perhaps the only thing not in dispute about his life and death is the jarring impact of money: It may not have caused his problems, but it certainly didn't solve them.
Shortly before his death, Harrell confided to a financial advisor, "Winning the lottery is the worst thing that ever happened to me."
A name like "Billie Bob" easily conjures up images of beer-swilling good ol' Texas boys, but nothing was further from the truth for Harrell.
No-nonsense quests for wages and work brought his parents to the Houston area from Beaumont when he was 11. His father got a job as a pressman, working first for the Houston Chronicle and later Gulf Printing. According to relatives, Billie Jr. had few extracurricular interests even by high school. Instead, he spent most of his time with his family and at church -- much like he'd later do as an adult.
"Billie Bob's family was always his life," says Sharon Muldine, Harrell's only sibling, who now lives in Spring, north of Houston.
After graduating from Sam Houston High School, Harrell set his sights on the ministry. He enrolled at Texas Bible College in Houston with the intent of becoming a preacher of Pentecostalism, a faith in which the Harrell family is deeply rooted. At least a couple of Harrell's uncles were Pentecostal ministers.
Harrell, darkly handsome but stocky at 5-feet-10, served a short stint as an assistant pastor at an Aldine Pentecostal church in northeast Harris County. An uncle, Guy Broadway, was the head minister. When Broadway retired and was replaced by another minister, Harrell joined the Marines and served three years at Camp Pendleton in Southern California.
While home on leave in December 1971, Harrell attended a Christmas banquet at his old church. Matchmakers in the congregation arranged for Harrell to be introduced to a young woman named Barbara Jean Abernathy, a good-hearted woman so small that she sometimes wore platform shoes to make her appear taller. It was apparently a match made, well, in heaven. After three dates, Harrell returned to Camp Pendleton, but he and Barbara Jean wrote each other regularly. Before his next trip home in 1972, Harrell told his father to buy him a car so he and Barbara Jean could drive back to Camp Pendleton together -- as their honeymoon.