Call it a demonstration of the perverse power of money.
Bill Helko, a maintenance mechanic from Arcadia, bought five chances at the big $15.5-million Lotto prize last weekend. Late Saturday night, he called the Lotto information number. The recording seemed to be telling him that one of his tickets, on which Helko picked four of the six winning numbers, was worth $610,000.
Actually, Helko realized later, that's not what the recording said at all. The $610,000 was the prize pool for all of the winners in the 4-of-6 category. There were, it turned out, 9,096 other winners to share the amount.
"In the heat of the situation, no one paid attention to the word 'pool,' " said Helko, sitting in his living room later last week, chastened and amused at himself.
A tall man with a bushy mustache, the good-natured Helko, 38, wore a T-shirt with the word "MINE" in block letters repeated down his chest in diminishing sizes, like a fading echo.
Lesson in Human Nature
What happened in the five days after Helko and his family leapt to the conclusion that they were half-millionaires amounted to a bittersweet lesson in human nature, Helko says now. "People change when a substantial amount of money comes into their presence," he has concluded.
Late as it was that Saturday, Helko and his wife, Glenda, decided to share the good news with friends and relatives. They called their parents, some relatives back in Michigan, co-workers and Helko's boss at Xerox Medical Systems in Pasadena.
"I had the audacity to call him up at a quarter to midnight Saturday night and tell him I wouldn't be in on Monday because I just won $600,000," said Helko.
Planned Dream Home
There followed a sleepless night. Helko paced the floor, planning a dream home--"a monster bedroom, a bathroom with a Jacuzzi, an indoor-outdoor swimming pool"--and a bar-restaurant called "Loco Bill's." His 12-year-old son, Jim, was going to get a gold-plated skateboard, and his 9-year-old daughter, Rachel, a roomful of Cabbage Patch dolls. Both would go to college. And there would be a new car for Glenda.
At noon on Sunday, the Helkos marched down to the convenience store where they had bought their Lotto ticket. Glenda saw the 4-of-6 prize posted on a board: a measly $67 per winner. But Bill walked to the window and plunked his winning ticket down before he realized his mistake.
The Helkos had been rich for a total of 14 hours.
"Well, that's not bad for a $5 investment," shrugged Glenda, the practical member of the family. Bill laughed.
However, word about Helko's "good luck" had already spread to long-lost relatives around the country. And when he returned to his job at the research facility last Tuesday, Helko discovered that he had a new, magical status among his co-workers.
"My name was no longer Bill, it was 'Lucky,' " he said. "Ladies would come up to me and wanted to rub my hands."
Helko didn't have the heart to reveal the truth. "It (the saga of Lucky Helko) just grew and grew and grew," he said.
The mythical prize seemed to sit there invitingly, like the pot of money on a television quiz show. It looked so good that some of his friends could almost taste it.
'I noticed a new pattern," Helko said. "People started to change their outlook."
There was, in some cases, a subtle progression from congratulatory back- slapping to hungry circling.
"One friend wanted me to buy him a washer-dryer set," Helko said. "Another suddenly had this dire need for $20,000. It was 'God, Bill, I'm glad to hear it.' And then, 'Hey, I need $20,000. Right now.' " By mid-week, total strangers were calling him with sob stories, and neighbors were
trying to sell him things.
Co-workers thrust into Helko's hands the business cards of relatives who were investment counselors. One acquaintance even offered a drug deal. "He said he could take $100,000 and build it into $1 million in 30 days," Helko said.
Some people seemed angry. "There were people who used to talk to me in the hall, saying, 'How you doin', Bill?"' Helko said. "All of a sudden they wouldn't even talk to me. They were really mad."
Others Genuinely Happy
But others seemed genuinely happy at Helko's good fortune. A senior vice president at the company counseled him about taxes. His boss, Charles Fantom, national facilities manager for Xerox Medical System, congratulated him. "He told me there wasn't a person more deserving of it than me," Helko said.
"There were really all kinds of reactions," he said.
By Wednesday morning, a harsher reality caught up with Helko. On his way to work, the family car, a 1964 Thunderbird, threw a rod. It was beyond repair. The $67 had been spent on groceries, and the Helkos will probably have a bill at least that big for all the long- distance phone calls they made.
On Thursday, Helko posted an apology on the company bulletin board, saying the story of his good luck had been "blown out of proportion." By then, co-workers had begun to suspect that the story was not true.
"I had read that there were two second-place winners who won over $600,000, and both of them were from the San Fernando Valley," said Fantom, Helko's boss.
Helko, rubbing his sore feet after the six-mile trek home from Pasadena when his car broke down, was philosophical. "We couldn't have had this much fun if we took the $67 and went to Disneyland," he said.
And there is, after all, this week's Lotto drawing to look forward to. Helko already has his $5 worth of tickets.