Unlucky strike

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

Gerstner drafted a revised trust with provisions for the parents and mailed it to the Harrells. It was never signed and returned, she says, although Gerstner was not concerned. Soon after getting their hands on the money, the Harrells took a trip to Hawaii. Gerstner also learned that Billie Bob became interested in purchasing art and real estate. She attempted to contact them several times -- by both phone and mail -- about finishing the trust modifications and doing more tax planning. She never heard back.

"I just figured they were too busy," Gerstner says. When Barbara Jean called her half a year later, the Harrells' marriage was unraveling.

Deeply religious, Harrell's parents remain close to minister Guy Hargrove.
Deeply religious, Harrell's parents remain close to minister Guy Hargrove.
Harrell's church was one of the first beneficiaries of his newfound wealth.
Harrell's church was one of the first beneficiaries of his newfound wealth.

In February 1998 Barbara Jean and divorce attorney Mike Stocker instructed Gerstner to revise the trust so her money would be separate from Billie Bob's.

The estranged wife, Gerstner says, explained that Billie Bob was spending money like mad and had a young girlfriend.

"I was very sad to hear about the divorce," Gerstner says. "But I could understand that Barbara Jean was fed up with Billie Bob's case of the middle-aged crazies."

Barbara Jean Harrell refused to speak for this story. However, her three children -- Billie Bob III, Ben, 22, and Michelle, 20 -- agreed to be interviewed, but only if their attorney was present.

According to the kids, not long after Billie Bob won the lottery, life in the Harrell household was forever altered.

"First of all, we had to change our phone number about seven times," says Ben, the executor of his father's estate. He did most of the talking for his older brother and younger sister. "It was supposed to be unlisted, but then someone would call. People seemed to have no trouble getting the number. We also got a mountain of mail."

Letters, says Ben, were usually handwritten notes from people who said they felt moved to write to the Harrells and explain to them their own dire situations. They all wanted to know whether there wasn't some way the Harrells could help them financially.

Harrell family members were at times prisoners in their home. People drove by, hoping to catch a glimpse of these lottery winners. Others wanted to touch them for luck. During a shopping trip at Wal-Mart, a woman approached Barbara Jean and told her that she had purchased $500 worth of lottery tickets in the same drawing won by the Harrells and that she expected them to refund her money. The incident frightened Barbara Jean.

"People would tell you that their daughter was dying, and couldn't we just send a check to help her live," Ben says. "They'd tell you their life story, and you'd like to believe them, but you just can't."

At least most of the Harrells didn't buy the sob stories. Billie Bob was different, say his children. In addition to his new interest in art, antique cars, and real estate, Billie Bob also enjoyed helping other people, his kids say. Perhaps too much so.

Upon receiving the first installment, a check for around $1.2 million, Harrell first handed over 10 percent -- his tithe -- to Calvary Tabernacle Pentecostal, the church in Trinity where he worshiped. A family friend became pastor of a church in Colorado, so Billie Bob wrote a check to that congregation. One Christmas Billie Bob ponied up the cash for 480 turkey dinners for needy families. The kids also say that anytime a member of Calvary Tabernacle was in a tight spot, Billie Bob was there with his ever-present checkbook and pen.

"I think a lot of people just came to expect him to do that," Ben says. "People would make a fuss over him, and he really enjoyed that a lot. He enjoyed the attention. He'd rather have that attention more than buying himself something."

There were also, they say, gifts for another admirer: Billie Bob had found a young girlfriend. She worked at the pharmacy where he filled prescriptions for medication for high blood pressure, depression, and acid reflux. She got from him a car, jewelry, and other presents.

Most disturbing of all, say the Harrell children, were the companies that relentlessly attempted to get their father to sell his future lottery installments in exchange for a lump sum. One of the most persistent, they say, was Stone Street Capital, a company that operates out of Bethesda, Maryland, and specializes in cashing out lottery winners and other people who are to receive large payments spread over several years. And after several months of hemorrhaging money, Billie Bob apparently decided that he could no longer live on his half of the $1.2 million a year. He signed on with Stone Street for a quick infusion of cash. But to get the money, Billie Bob knew that the trust would have to be altered. He once again turned to attorney Karen Gerstner.

After splitting the trust in half, with Barbara Jean and Billie Bob getting equal shares of the lottery winnings, Gerstner assumed she had heard the last of the Harrells.

Instead, she says, things got worse a few weeks later when she began receiving calls from Houston attorney Vic Bonner, who claimed to represent Billie Bob. Gerstner says Bonner told her that he had finally hooked up Billie Bob with Stone Street. Bonner told her that Billie Bob would receive $2.25 million in cash in exchange for 10 years' worth of his share of the lottery winnings, worth more than $6 million gross. Gerstner says she immediately knew it was a very bad deal for Billie Bob. She was also concerned about the legality.

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