NPR Story
2:14 pm
Thu January 16, 2014

Florida Man In Assisted Living Squanders Lottery Winnings

It’s every scratch card lottery player’s dream — seeing those matching numbers that mean big bucks. And that’s exactly what happened to Florida resident Malcolm Ramsey, whose winning numbers added up to $500 a week, for life.

But Ramsey’s story hasn’t ended well. The 55-year-old, who lives in an assisted living facility and has been deemed mentally incompetent to care for himself, blew through nearly $300,000 of his winnings in only two months — at one point spending $1,500 for a taxi fare and $14,000 in cash checking fees. And then there was his family, who were given watches, new phones, cash gifts and car repairs.

So why did the state issue a man deemed incapable of caring for himself a check for more than $400,000? Susan Taylor Martin of the Tampa Bay Times talks to Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson about the story.

Guest

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Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

And now for a story about every scratch card lottery player's dream, seeing those matching numbers that means you win $500 a week for life. That's exactly what happened to 55-year-old Malcolm Ramsey of St. Petersburg, Florida. He declined the weekly payout and went with the single payment, which after taxes added up to a few hundred thousand dollars. But Ramsey's story has not ended well.

Joining us to tell us what happens is Susan Taylor Martin of the Tampa Bay Times. And Susan, we should say that Ramsey suffers from mental illness, has been deemed mentally incompetent to care for himself. But he was still able to get cash in his winnings. How did he do that?

SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN: Well, he apparently had some help from a friendly cab driver who often parked at the convenient store where Malcolm bought his ticket. The cab driver phoned lottery headquarters in Tallahassee, Florida, found out that Malcolm needed an identification card, which he did not have. So the cab driver loaned him money to get a birth certificate first, which he used to get his identification card. Then the cab driver drove him to Tallahassee. Malcolm presented his ID card. And with $50 also borrowed from the cab driver, he opened a Wells Fargo bank account so the Florida Lottery would have some place to wire the money.

HOBSON: And then he got the money through money orders, right? He went to a store.

MARTIN: Exactly. What he did, instead of leaving the money in the bank, he cashed a check for $302,000 at Amscot - 302,000 being the after-tax winnings - and then he converted most of that into money orders worth a thousand dollars apiece and then he ,started spending.

HOBSON: Why did he do it that way?

MARTIN: I don't know. I asked him that. He could not give me a clear answer other than the fact that he said, I wanted my cash.

HOBSON: And then in a matter of a weeks, almost all of that cash gone. What happened?

MARTIN: Well, it appears that relatives that previously had paid very little attention to him started showing up at the assisted living facility where he stays. He started buying them Timex watches for 19.95 apiece. He says he bought about 40 of those. He bought flat-screen TVs. He bought clothes. He bought 23 pairs of shoes. He fixed relatives' cars. But that still doesn't account for where a $170,000 disappeared in three weeks.

HOBSON: And at some point, police and a judge actually became involved in the situation.

MARTIN: Exactly. And at that point they were able to go to his room at the assisted living facility and recover a $118,000 in unspent money orders. But they cannot account for how he managed to spend a $170,000 in the meantime.

HOBSON: Well, in your reporting of this, did you get any sense of who failed Malcolm Ramsey?

MARTIN: Well, I think it was just sort of this - an unfortunate sequence of events where the assisted living facility called his guardian. The guardian was unable to get any information out of Malcolm because there was nothing she could find on the Internet to confirm that he had won the money. She called police. The police felt that it was an issue for our state family services organization. They were slow to get into investigating. And by the time all the ducks were in order, so to speak, three weeks had elapsed and he had spent about a $170,000.

HOBSON: Does it appear that any laws were broken?

MARTIN: That's what the police are investigating. In Florida, it is a felony punishable by 30 years in prison to exploit the elderly or disabled. And the police investigation is pending, so it will be interesting to see what they find, whether it was relatives, whether it was somebody else who maybe took some of these money orders or got him to cash them for their benefit.

HOBSON: Well, what about the store you mentioned where he got those money orders? He paid $14,000 in fees. They're going to give that money back now, I hear.

MARTIN: Right. Exactly. After the story appeared, they said that they felt that that was the right thing to do, that they were unaware that he had been declared incompetent to handle his finances. And they thought it was appropriate to return the fees.

HOBSON: And then that cab driver you talked about early on who drove him to go and collect the check charged him $1,500 for the cab ride.

MARTIN: Exactly. He claimed that that's what the meter fare was, although that does seemed a little bit high for a trip of about 200 miles one way.

HOBSON: How much money does he have left?

MARTIN: He has a $118,000, which the judge is now holding for him in a safe at the court clerk's office while his new guardian tries to determine if there is some way that that money can be put into a special needs trust where it can be used for his benefit, and his benefit alone, while still preserving the government benefits like Medicaid that he will probably need for the rest of his life, because he is chronically, mentally incompetent.

HOBSON: Well, yeah, because these winnings have brought into question whether he can continue to receive government assistance, right? Do we know where that's going to go?

MARTIN: Well, that's a matter for the guardian to try to figure out. They seemed to think that they might be able to preserve at least partial benefits. Apparently, Social Security is not affected by winnings such as this. However, Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid, you cannot have a lot of money in the bank, as he now does.

HOBSON: Has this case in Florida sparked any kind of a push for new regulations to protect people like this? Because we should note that the place where he bought the lottery ticket is actually one of the busiest lottery ticket sellers in the state, right? And I assume that many of those people are coming from the very place that he lives.

MARTIN: Yeah. And that was one of the things that was interesting to me. The lottery does keep track of the total sales at every licensed lottery retailer. This little convenience store in kind of a poor section of town, across from an assisted living facility, had over a million dollars in lottery ticket sales last year, ranking it 34th among 800 outlets. So that gives you an idea of how many people are going in there buying these $1 and $2 scratch-off tickets.

HOBSON: So, is there a push for new regulations?

MARTIN: Not so much on that score. However, there's a feeling that the lottery should start checking to see if people have been declared by a court to be mentally incompetent. And in such cases, they should not give the person the money directly, but should go through a guardian or a judge.

HOBSON: You write that Malcolm Ramsey is still buying tickets, and is hoping for an even bigger prize.

MARTIN: He is. He is now trying to get the 2,500 a week for life. And just yesterday, I talked to the store manager, who said that he'd already been in there several times.

HOBSON: Susan Taylor Martin, joining us from the Tampa Bay Times. And we've got a link to her article at hereandnow.org. Susan, thanks so much.

MARTIN: Thank you.

HOBSON: Just an amazing story. We'd love to hear your thoughts at hereandnow.org. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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