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Co-Worker Sues 'Lucky 7' Lotto Winners

Garden Grove lab tech says an oral agreement makes him part of the group that won $315million. The other employees disagree.

December 15, 2005|Sara Lin | Times Staff Writer

The way Jonathan De La Cruz figures it, his day off cost him $39 million.

The Orange County medical lab technician has sued seven co-workers who last month won a $315-million Mega Millions multi-state lottery jackpot, saying he deserves a cut because he'd always been part of the group when they bought lotto tickets.

But the self-named "Lucky 7" employees at the Kaiser Permanente medical office in Garden Grove remember it differently. The winners -- six lab technicians and a receptionist -- said it was the first time the group had gone in to buy lottery tickets together and that it had been almost a year since any of them had pooled money with De La Cruz for tickets.

At stake is a huge chunk of cash. The purse is the second largest in state history and one of the largest in the United States.

The seven winners were working a Saturday shift when they decided to chip in $3 each to buy a handful of lottery tickets for the Nov. 15 jackpot. But De La Cruz wasn't working that Saturday.

Several days later, the seven co-workers rolled up to the lottery offices in Santa Fe Springs in a stretch limousine to claim their prize. Several then took leaves of absence from the medical center to ponder their newly won fortune.

De La Cruz, meanwhile, says he was left to return to work, none the richer.

"They had their money. They had good motives to leave," said Mark H. Williams, De La Cruz's attorney. De La Cruz, however, has "still got to [work to] pay the bills."

In his suit, De La Cruz, 34, contends he and the others had a long-standing oral agreement that they all would be included whenever they pooled their money to buy lottery tickets. De La Cruz relied on the group so much that he stopped buying his own tickets and assumed that he didn't need to tell the group whenever he wanted to be in on their purchase, according to the lawsuit filed last month in Orange County Superior Court.

But the lottery winners say there was no such group that regularly bought tickets together. And on the occasions when they did buy tickets with De La Cruz, they said they always checked with him first.

The winners said that they were caught off-guard by the lawsuit and that De La Cruz had never told them he thought he deserved a cut. He even congratulated the group after the win, they said.

"I treated him like a son, always lecturing him," said Joyce Onori, 60, one of the winners. "I would not have expected this from him."

Michael J. FitzGerald, a lawyer representing the seven winners, agreed. "There was never any indication that he felt he was a winner. He never said, 'We all won, great.' "

The group opted for a lump-sum payment, meaning each will receive about $25 million before taxes. According to lottery rules, a single payment is about 40% to 50% of the jackpot amount.

Despite the windfall, the winners appear to be going on with life as usual with no tales of new jewelry, expensive sports cars or beachfront mansions. One winner is paying for a 6-year-old nephew's open-heart surgery; another bought a new truck to replace his 18-year-old car.

"Somebody asked me, 'What did you buy?' and I said we bought tennis shoes -- and mine were on sale!" Onori said, chuckling.

"It'd be so easy to go and blow it all, but I couldn't live with myself if I did that," said Brenda Heller, 40.

Heller said she finally gave in to her 12-year-old daughter's request for an iPod and would buy her 18-year-old son a Toyota truck before he starts college next year. She also plans to help her sister pay off her mortgage and make her home wheelchair-accessible for her husband, who has muscular dystrophy

But other than that, she said, nothing much will change.

"We're not going to get expensive clothes and expensive things. I don't want the kids to change and get snobby."

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