Longform

Who Wants to Be a Billionaire?

The little boy cried. His mother's words didn't make sense, but he knew enough to be afraid. "You'll never see me again," she said in the car. Then she dropped him off at his stepmother's house and drove away.

Sam Gross was 9, his mother's only son, a boy everyone described as respectful and sweet, the perfect child. First his father--a respected man in black Dallas, a pharmacist, who'd recently been sent to prison on drug charges--and now this.

Across town, in West Dallas, Annie Lee Gross stepped into the home she'd paid off with her own money, no small accomplishment in 1970. Daughter of a blind Baptist preacher and his alcoholic wife, a poor couple who were unable to care for their children, Annie spent some of her early years in foster homes. She ran away, dropped out of school. But as an adult she pulled herself together. Always a hard worker, she'd landed the best job she ever had--an assembler at Texas Instruments--a little more than a year earlier.

But there was always the past, the busted relationships, the heartbreaks. There was the little girl who followed her everywhere, the one she'd put away. Annie would see a child in the street, a girl in pigtails or a Sunday dress, and she'd ask her friends, "Do she favor me?" She never got over her decision to put up her baby daughter for adoption in 1958, even though the authorities had assured her the girl would be better off in a stable home, something far different from Annie's upbringing.

Then there was her second husband, James Gross. Though they'd divorced years ago, Annie had never really let him go. Now he was married to another woman, and his prosperous career had dissolved into a 10-year prison sentence.

There was also the influence of a strange woman named Ella Mae Walker, owner of a famous motel in South Dallas where many black entertainers stayed in segregation days. But she had another side; she was rumored to be a high-class "lady of the night," and she dispensed voodoo remedies on the side. For years in her old age, up until her death in 2005, she prowled the ruins of her Rainbow Terrace Hotel, keeping watch at the empty property. Annie had drifted away from some of her longtime friends, becoming closer to Walker, who gave her a red, greasy potion in a bottle that was supposed to salve her inner pain.

Looking back, there were clear signs of mental illness. Annie's first husband, Bobby Calhoun, saw indications that she was emotionally off from the first day he met her. And sometime after her second marriage ended, Annie would end up at Terrell State Hospital. When she came home, she was heavily medicated. Agitated, restless. Her tongue was thick in her mouth. She wasn't her jolly self anymore.

Everything came bearing down on her on Monday, June 29, 1970. Annie took Sam to his stepmother's house, then withdrew some money from the bank and bought a gun--a .38, the neighbors would say.



In the early evening, around 5:15, she eased into a sofa in her back room. She propped the gun in her lap, aimed it at her heart.

One shot.

Her sister Liza scrambled out of the bathtub in another part of the house and ran to her. Annie was still conscious; she sighed heavily and fell back into the sofa.

She was 30.



At the funeral, the little boy was too numb for tears.


Anderson Cooper is smiling, almost giddy. A billion dollars! The gray-haired CNN newscaster appears on the screen beside 45-year-old Sam Gross, who is in Dallas. The graphic beneath them reads "BILLIONAIRE-TO-BE." It is the February 16, 2006, edition of Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees.

"Sam, this is just an incredible story," Cooper says. "Your mom died in 1970 when you were 9 years old, didn't have a will. You didn't find out until you were 29 that she had stocks from her former employer, Texas Instruments. How did you finally find out about the stocks?"

"Well," Gross says in a calm, soft voice, "I went back to the old neighborhood where I was raised, and when I asked one of the ladies who was considered like a godmother to my mom, and after she recognized who I was...next thing she say, 'Did you ever get the money in trust?' I said, 'No, what money?' And that's how I found out."

"I know you're waiting for a judge to sign the final papers this week," Cooper says. "Does it seem real? I mean, you are on the verge of getting more than a billion dollars!"

"Well, I guess, um, it's the reality of it," Gross says. "I may not fully understand it till it happens. I know the long fight and the struggles that I've had to endure. It's going to make a difference in my life."

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