Unlucky strike
David Hollenbach

Unlucky strike

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.

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.

"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.

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.

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.

"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."

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.

Two veteran homicide investigators, who requested anonymity, reviewed the police and autopsy reports for this story. They indicated that while there are some minor discrepancies, Harrell's death appears to be a clear-cut case of suicide.

That finding, however unanimous among authorities, has yet to be accepted by two of the people closest to Harrell: his parents.

At their home in Trinity, east of Huntsville, Billie Bob Sr. and Tina Harrell, who are still taking their son's death hard, cautiously greet a reporter. Their minister, Guy Hargrove, who was also their dead son's pastor, is there too. The interview begins with Billie Sr. reading from Isaiah 57:

"The righteous perish,

And no man takes it to heart;

Merciful men are taken away,

While no one considers

That the righteous is taken away from evil.

He shall enter into peace;

They shall rest in their beds,

Each one walking in his uprightness."

That Bible verse, he says, has given him and his wife great comfort since the death of their son, a man who they say always tried to do the right thing. They cannot conceive that their son would take his own life under any circumstances.

"He never showed any signs like that at all to us, or to anybody we've talked to," Billie Sr. says. "That's what puzzles us so much."

The eldest Harrell is also puzzled by his and his wife's suddenly strained relationship with their grandchildren and former daughter-in-law. The grandparents say their son had intended to make the payments on their new house and motor home. Now, they say, their grandchildren do not intend to honor their father's wishes.

But what the elder Harrells do not seem to understand is that, at the moment, their grandchildren are trying to figure out how to pay the estate taxes they now owe as a result of their father's death. The Harrell children also want to know what happened to the $2.25 million their father supposedly received in exchange for 10 years' worth of lottery installments. To find out, they recently hired attorney Norman Riedmueller, who says he has some questions for Vic Bonner, Paul Hulse, and Stone Street Capital.

"So far there is no definite evidence of wrongdoing," says Riedmueller. "But I think it's safe to say that there's supposed to be some money in this estate. Yes, he was generous to churches, but the present state of affairs is that [the kids] can't raise the money to pay the taxes that are owed. There's nothing there. You'd think they'd be rolling in dough. And that's my assignment: Where's the money? This estate should not be in the condition it's in."

While their grandparents live 20 miles away and are in denial that Billie Bob Jr.'s death was a suicide, the Harrell children attend classes at Sam Houston State in Huntsville, living in a house that their father bought for them. From time to time, they reflect on what they had, what they've lost -- and what they really need.

"You've got to be happy with yourself," says Ben, "and happy with your loved ones. You don't take that for granted."

Ben's words are hauntingly similar to what are believed to be among the last thoughts of his father. In the bedroom where Billie Bob Harrell Jr. took his life, there were also three handwritten, unsigned notes. One was apparently meant for his ex-wife. It might as well have been addressed to his entire family:

"I didn't want this. I just wanted you."


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