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Lottery winner is ordered to share his $24m jackpot

Builder who was in syndicate claimed he bought ticket himself

A builder who won the lottery, quit his job and tried to keep his good fortune secret from co-workers who should have shared in the jackpot has been ordered to surrender $20m (£12.8m) to the men he defrauded.

Americo Lopes picked the winning numbers in New Jersey's $24m "Mega Millions" draw in November 2009, more than two years after forming a gambling syndicate with five colleagues at a construction business. Instead of cracking open champagne, he quietly pocketed the winnings and then quit his job, claiming he needed foot surgery. No such operation ever took place. Instead, Lopes devoted his time to successfully claiming unemployment benefits.

On Wednesday, a jury in Elizabeth, New Jersey, unanimously found Lopes, a Portuguese immigrant, guilty of defrauding his colleagues, ordering him to pay them $4m each. They are expected to receive $2m after taxes and legal fees are collected.

Dramatic scenes greeted the end of the trial, which at times mirrored the plot of It Could Happen To You, a 1994 film in which a police officer promises to share his lottery ticket with a waitress, in lieu of a tip, but is persuaded by his wife to renege on the agreement. The five plaintiffs leapt to their feet and embraced one another when the verdict was read out. "I feel like I could cheer," said one of them, Candido Silva Snr. "Justice was done today."

A colleague, Jose Sousa, added: "We proved we were not lying. That was the most important thing."

The court was told that Lopes and his colleagues at Berto Construction would while away the hours in their pick-up truck discussing how they might spend a lottery jackpot. They decided to form a gambling syndicate in 2007. Two years later, Lopes, 52, told them he would be quitting work to have surgery. He kept in touch but did not say that he had won the lottery until 2010, when he claimed he had scooped the jackpot on a ticket he bought himself.

When co-workers checked listings of previous state lottery winners, they discovered Lopes bought the winning ticket when he was part of their syndicate. When they confronted him, Lopes then claimed to have purchased it in a personal capacity. "The fact is Mr Lopes won the lottery by himself with his own money and numbers that he picked," claimed his attorney, Michael Mezzacca.

The jury saw things differently, noting that the winning ticket was brought as part of a run of 12, the number the six-man syndicate always purchased. Although Lopes had not signed any legal agreement to share any jackpot, they found the group had what was effectively an oral contract. Legal experts said the case illustrated the importance of dotting "i's" and crossing "t's" when setting up lottery syndicates.