Unlucky strike

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

"It is not legal in Texas for a lottery winner to assign their stream of payment [to someone else] in order to obtain any kind of loan or purchase anything," Gerstner says. She assumed that after she relayed her concerns to Bonner, that would be the end of it.

It wasn't. Gerstner says Harrell and Bonner then began pestering Barbara Jean about getting in on the deal. Harrell said it somehow involved the acquisition of bonds through a company called H&H Worldwide, and a man named Paul Hulse. As Billie Bob explained it to Gerstner and Barbara Jean, the bond would service the debt that he would have after doing the loan with Stone Street. That explanation left even a financial expert like Gerstner, as well as Harrell's family, with their heads spinning.

"In talking with him about the deal," Ben says, "I found he could never actually completely explain to you how the deal would work. Every time it was something different. Something would change, and something off-the-wall would come in."

David Hollenbach
Billie Bob Harrell Jr. dreamed of winning the lottery. When his dream came true, his life ended.
Billie Bob Harrell Jr. dreamed of winning the lottery. When his dream came true, his life ended.

Despite the warnings of his financial attorney and the misgivings of his family, Gerstner says, Billie Bob plowed ahead. She still believes the arrangement circumvents the spirit of the state law, if it doesn't violate it. According to the contract, Billie Bob's half of 10 years' worth of payouts was placed in the control of TrustCorp America Inc. It would receive the annual lottery payments, which would be used to repay the Stone Street loan.

"They are getting around the lottery by creating a second step," Gerstner says. "But I think it's really a distinction without a difference. They're still skirting the lottery rules."

A state lottery spokesman says he is unaware of any complaints filed with the Lottery Commission regarding Stone Street. Nor, he says, have there been a significant number of complaints about buyout companies in general. Citing confidentiality agreements, a spokesman for Stone Street Capital declined to comment on the company's dealings with Billie Bob Harrell Jr. Neither Hulse nor H&H Worldwide could be reached for comment.

When the Houston Press, the Dallas Observer's sister paper, reached attorney Vic Bonner by phone at his Houston law office, he first asked, "Do you want me to name names?" Told that was indeed the idea, Bonner said he would like to collect his thoughts before responding to any questions. He is apparently still collecting those thoughts, as he did not return subsequent phone calls.

Financial advisor Steve Drake spoke with Billie Bob Harrell Jr. for the last time in early May 1999. During the phone conversation, Drake urged Harrell not to go through with the deal with Stone Street, but Harrell wouldn't listen.

"He told me that, at that point, he was in so deep that if he backed out, he was afraid they would sue him," Drake recalls. He also encouraged Harrell to take out insurance to cover estate taxes that would be due if he died suddenly.

Three weeks later -- five weeks after he signed the loan agreement with Stone Street -- that unheeded advice would prove to be prophetic.

May 22 approached as the kind of Saturday that held the prospect, however faint, of a rebound for the Harrell family.

Since his divorce three months earlier, Harrell hardly had millionaire looks. His children say he'd suffered a drastic loss in weight, dropping from 220 pounds to about 170. Harrell had lapsed into a personality that was moody or outright depressed.

He told Barbara Jean he wanted to reconcile. She didn't give him that, but she did consent to have a Saturday dinner with him and their children. Maybe it would be a small taste of the old times they'd had together.

At about 4 p.m. Harrell stopped by his daughter's place of work to pick up the keys to Barbara Jean's house because, he said, he wanted to drop off some flowers. Around 5:40 p.m. Barbara Jean, Billie III, Michelle, Ben, and Ben's girlfriend arrived at Barbara Jean's house. They went through the house, but there was no sign of Billie Bob. The only area unchecked was the upstairs master bedroom, which was locked.

One of the sons broke open the door. Inside, they found Harrell's nude body lying face down on the floor. Beside the body was a Winchester Model 37 shotgun with a spent shell. An unfired shell was in a front pocket of a pair of blue jean shorts on the floor. A police report notes that the butt of the shotgun was shattered, indicating that the weapon had been placed against the floor or a wall beam at the time of discharge.

An autopsy by the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office lists the cause of Harrell's death as a suicide from a contact shotgun wound to the chest. "The shotgun blast struck the heart and went toward the left side striking the lung and hemidiaphragm," the report reads. There is some indication of a downward trajectory, since the report also mentions that Harrell's spleen was shredded by the blast, although veteran crime investigators note that because of the small size of the pellets, it is not unusual for the BB-like ammo to travel in odd directions inside the body.

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