Unlucky strike

Less than two years after Billie Bob Harrell Jr. took the $31 million lottery jackpot, he took his own life

When Harrell was discharged from the Marines, he and his wife settled in the northeast Harris County enclave of Humble. Billie went to work for a drilling company called Hi-Drill and began building a family that would include three children: Billie Bob III, Ben, and Michelle. Hi-Drill ceased operations, so Harrell joined his dad at Gulf Printing and, over 12 years, worked his way up to shop manager.

But Gulf closed its doors in the early 1990s. Harrell had to take a low-level job at The Home Depot. The economic pressures put Barbara Jean into the work force as well, at EG&G Sealol, a maker of high-tech seals and O-rings.

But three years of stocking shelves with electrical supplies left Harrell discouraged. His children say the frustrations led him to fantasize regularly about the better life a winning lottery ticket would bring him and his family.

Harrell's parents, mother Tina and father Billie Bob Sr., don't believe that their son took his own life.
Harrell's parents, mother Tina and father Billie Bob Sr., don't believe that their son took his own life.
Harrell's children, Michelle, Billie Bob III, and Ben, are left trying to discover what happened to their father's fortune.
Houston Press
Harrell's children, Michelle, Billie Bob III, and Ben, are left trying to discover what happened to their father's fortune.

"He thought about it all the time," says son Billie Bob III, 25. "More than anything else, he fantasized about quitting his job. He was having a hard time with his boss and wanted to do the 'Take This Job and Shove It' routine.'"

Harrell was about to awake from his long dream.


Just like on every Saturday night, the Lotto balls did their brief wild dance in front of the television cameras before the local news broadcast on June 28, 1997, but Harrell didn't even bother to tune in that evening.

Sure, he had made his usual stop earlier, this time at the Texaco Star Mart on Loop 494 in Kingwood. He walked out with a few sets of numbers then turned his attention to other matters.

Sunday morning, when Harrell donned his work outfit and showed up at the job, everybody at The Home Depot was talking about the lottery news: The winning ticket, worth $31 million, had been bought in their own backyard of Kingwood. Still, Harrell didn't give it much thought.

That evening Harrell punched out from his shift, returned home, grabbed the Sunday newspaper, and settled into his La-Z-Boy recliner, the well-worn one he'd had for years. He finally pulled out his lottery numbers to compare them with the prior evening's winners -- 3, 11, 16, 28, 40, 44. Billie III walked through the room, and his father called to him.

"He said, 'Bill, come over here and take a look at this and make sure I'm reading this right,'" says the youngest Billie. "So I walked over there, and I was looking, and I was like, 'Uh, they match.'"

Barbara Jean, who rarely played the lottery, emerged from the kitchen to take a look for herself. The three of them just stood there for a while, looking at the ticket in stunned silence. They couldn't convince themselves it was the ticket.

"So he had me go down to the convenience store around the corner and get a computer printout of the winning numbers," Billie III says. "Even then, we still couldn't believe it." They tried the Lottery's 900 number but could not get through. The next day they tried again. A lottery official confirmed that, yes indeed, they held the only winning ticket in the $31 million drawing.

"So we headed straight to a safe-deposit box," says Harrell's oldest son. Additionally, before rushing off to Austin to collect his money, Texas' newest millionaire put financial safeguards in motion as well.

After taking the ticket to a safe-deposit box, Harrell contacted Steve Drake, the host of a financial talk show on KPRC-AM. He put the Harrells in touch with attorney Karen Gerstner, one of the few experts in providing legal and financial advice to those who have cashed in big on the lottery.

"Lottery winners are always in a hurry to get their money, so you have to rush around like crazy and put their documentation together," says Gerstner. A pleasant, dark-haired woman in her 40s, Gerstner has a nurturing demeanor. She seems likely to offer someone a glass of milk and a plate of cookies rather than cutting-edge financial advice.

Gerstner recalls that the Harrells were hardly an exception when it came to wanting their money yesterday; when she first met the Harrells, Billie Bob mentioned that his bank account was overdrawn. Instead of rushing to grab the winnings, Gerstner urged the couple to move slowly.

The legal specialist explains that the lottery allows only one claimant for the prize, so she suggested that the Harrells establish a trust to receive the payments. The Harrells elected to take their winnings in annual installments for 25 years.

Gerstner says married couples who win often don't realize that if their spouse dies, the estate is suddenly faced with a huge, sudden tax burden that includes tax due on future lottery payments. A trust avoids that tax overload, she explains.

Although Billie Bob and Barbara Jean were champing to move into a higher tax bracket, Gerstner convinced them to let her set up the trust first.

At the Harrells' insistence, both Drake and Gerstner accompanied them to Austin to pick up the first installment check three weeks after the lottery drawing. Following the presentation ceremony, the Harrell family, their parents, their minister, and their advisors all lunched together to celebrate -- over hamburgers, french fries, and onion rings. Gerstner says she could tell that Barbara Jean and Billie Bob were close to their parents, but the trust contained no benefits for the parents. The Harrells agreed with her that the trust should be modified to provide those benefits.

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