Top 10 New Jersey Lottery Jackpot Wins
The $202 million Mega Millions jackpot won by a single ticket in New Jersey on February 11 is a huge amount of money. However, it's only number 13 on the list of biggest Jersey lottery wins - although in this case 13 certainly isn't an unlucky number!
Maybe the number of big winners isn't surprising, given that Jersey is one of the top states that loves the lottery. Residents are the sixth-biggest spenders on lottery tickets in the nation, and 12 percent play the lottery every week.
The state is one of the few that doesn't tax lottery winnings, although winners do have to pay federal taxes.
New Jersey was also the first lottery to launch talks on allowing states to sell tickets for both Powerball and Mega Millions. Jersey paved the way for other state lotteries to join negotiations, resulting in the 2010 cross-sell agreement that expanded both games.
We don't know yet who the latest jackpot winner is, and they haven't come forward to claim their prize. There's no rush, because they have one year from the draw date to make their claim. Here's what the winner should do before claiming to make the most of their new wealth.
In fact, we may never know the winner's identity, due to a new state law just passed in January that allows lottery winners to stay anonymous. Before the law came into effect, the New Jersey Lottery was able to release a winner's name, city, and county.
Whether the winner remains anonymous or wants to revel in the limelight, the Lottery will announce when the prize has been claimed. While we wait for the big moment, let's count down the top 10 largest Jersey jackpot wins, from smallest to largest.
10. $258 million Mega Millions jackpot won on September 16, 2005
Rutherford residents Harold and Helen Lerner chose a lump sum cash payment of $156.1 million, which was about $117,075,000 after withholdings. The couple both worked in sales and left their jobs after they gained overnight wealth. At the time, the prize was the biggest win by a single ticket in the state's history.
"We still don't really understand what happened," said Harold, who was 60 at the time. The couple both come "from very hardworking families, growing up with not a lot," he said.
The couple had never won anything more exciting than a turkey from the supermarket, but they were tempted by the big jackpot. "I really only play when it's up to or over $100 million," said Helen, who purchased the Quick Pick ticket.
Harold heard that "someone in Rutherford had won" and read out the numbers. "Harold, I think we're millionaires," Helen said. "We checked the ticket 500 times that day," Harold recalled.
The lottery office was closed over the weekend, so "we were panic-stricken for 48 hours," Harold said. The couple went out on Saturday night, but first hid the ticket in Helen's lingerie drawer.
The Lerners stated at the time that they wanted to help Hurricane Katrina survivors and Seton Hall University, which Helen attended.
9. $273 million Mega Millions jackpot won on March 1, 2019
The big winner of 2019 was 54-year-old Michael Weirsky of Alpha in Warren County - but he almost lost his amazing prize when he left the ticket on the store counter after getting distracted by his phone.
Weirsky took the cash payout, which had a pre-tax value of $162.5 million.
The win came after a challenging year for Weirsky, who got divorced and had also been unsuccessfully looking for work for over a year. Finally, he got a call for a job interview - three days after hitting the jackpot.
His plans for the money were to "sit back and enjoy it." Weirsky quickly purchased a new truck he'd been wanting, and had plans to buy his mom a new car.
"I was down," he said. "Now, all of a sudden, I'm way up."
8. $315 million Powerball jackpot won on May 19, 2018
Accountant Tayeb Souami of Little Ferry opted for the cash option of $183.2 million before taxes.
"My day has come," the 55-year-old told the crowd as he was presented with his check from the lottery. "Hopefully one day it will come for you too."
"This is big. I am very emotional right now. I like the numbers and I always play with those numbers," he revealed.
Souami realized he was the winner when he stopped to check his tickets on the way to get his car washed. "The clerk kept saying 'oh my god, oh my god, oh my god,' and my heart went just like a 'Tom and Jerry' cartoon when the heart went boom boom ... and I found out after that I was the one."
Souami said he would use the money to take care of his family, including providing for his two children's education.
7. $330 million Mega Millions jackpot won on August 31, 2007
Retired couple John and Sandy Belawsky of Villas in Lower Township, Cape May County split the jackpot with three other winning tickets in Maryland, Texas and Virginia. The lifelong New Jersey residents chose the cash lump sum and took home around $48.6 million before tax withholdings.
John is a disabled veteran who worked in auto finance and banking. Sandy also worked in banking.
When John checked their ticket and realized they'd won, "I checked the last number twice, and thought about waking Sandy up to tell her we won," he revealed. " I decided to let her sleep, and that was probably a good idea - neither one of us has really had a good night's sleep since. It's been exciting and memorable - and it's still hard to believe we won."
"I think it took us both a while just to let the fact that we won sink in," John said, explaining why they delayed claiming the prize. "After that, we signed the ticket and put it into a safe place and started thinking about the future. We talked with some financial professionals - with our backgrounds in banking, we’re pretty good with money, but when you’re talking $48 million ... well, it doesn’t hurt to have an expert opinion or two.”
“In a lot of ways, we’re still in disbelief," John contined. “I know this means that our golden years can officially be golden, but past that, Sandy and I are still sorting all of this out - we have some ideas about what we want to do with this big win, but haven't made any big decisions yet.”
6. $331 million The Big Game jackpot won on April 16, 2002
Manalapan residents Jorge and Joanne Lopes split the jackpot with two other tickets sold in Georgia and Illinois. The couple took the cash option of around $58 million. At the time, it was the biggest single payout in New Jersey Lottery history. The Big Game became Mega Millions later that year.
Amazingly, before the Lopeses claimed, a group of co-workers at a Newark nursing home spent six days arguing about what they thought was their big win. One of the workers was accused of buying the winning ticket for their lottery pool and then trying to cheat the others out of their share of the prize. The drama was covered in newspapers and on TV.
Finally, the real winners stepped forward. The Lopeses had locked the ticket in a safe-deposit box, hired a team of four lawyers to help them manage their newfound wealth, and set up a company, Lucky Break LLC.
The couple had faced serious financial problems for years before their win, including being sued by creditors, having liens imposed, and unsuccessfully attempting to file for bankruptcy. A court dismissed the filing in October 2001, denying the couple's attempt to gain protection from creditors, to whom they owed almost $600,000.
"There's not too many words to say," said Jorge Lopes, who said his immediate plan was to pay bills. "I'm still dumbfounded. I'm just trying not to shake too much. I want to thank God for the miracle that happened."
Neighbors described the couple as friendly and hard-working. Mr. Lopes owned a Portuguese restaurant and managed another, while Mrs. Lopes taught at a daycare center and had a second job making deliveries for a florist.
5. $338.3 million Powerball jackpot won on March 23, 2013
Pedro Quezada of Passaic was the sole jackpot winner. The father of five took the cash payment of $221 million (about $152 million after taxes were deducted). At the time, it was the fourth-biggest win in Powerball history.
The 45-year-old, who immigrated from the Dominican Republic 26 years before he won, was the owner-operator of a deli, but said at his news conference "I can't work in that store anymore." Speaking mostly via a translator, he reflected, "Imagine ... so much money. But it will not change my heart."
He felt "pure joy" when he discovered he was the winner after his ticket was scanned at a retailer.
Quezada attended his check presentation ceremony with his wife, Ines Sanchez, four of his eight siblings, and two nephews. Sanchez said she was speechless when her husband revealed the big news: "My heart wanted to come out of my chest."
Quezada said "my mind is not clear yet," as to what he would do next and whether he would return to the Dominican Republic. He did know what he would buy first, though: "A good car." Reporters asked him what he currently drove and he replied, "My feet."
Neighbors described Quezada as a friendly, hard-working family man. He experienced financial problems when a house he bought in 2006 was foreclosed in 2009. The same year, a fire destroyed much of his small deli.
4. $390 million Mega Millions jackpot won on March 6, 2007
Harold and Elaine Messner, of Upper Township in Cape May County, divided the top prize from their winning Quick Pick ticket with a truck driver from Georgia. At the time, the prize was the largest jackpot in U.S. lottery history. The couple pocketed $87.4 million after taxes.
Harold Messner was 57 at the time of the win and earned a living as a self-employed builder, while Elaine, 56, helped him manage the business. "They keep to themselves, but they are really, really nice people," said neighbor Rosemary Trout.
After the drawing, Harold checked the number twice, then told his wife the good news. "She had a very hard time believing it. Then, we didn't sleep for the rest of the night," he said.
"We signed the ticket and put it in a safe place. Then we sought out financial advice ... when you're talking $88 million, it's always a good idea to let someone who manages money for a living lend a hand," Harold told lottery officials.
Like many lottery winners, it took some time for the big news to sink in for the Messners. "In a lot of ways, we're still recovering from the shock of winning all this money," Harold said.
"I know this means we're officially a retired couple, but past that, Elaine and I are still sorting all this out. We have some ideas about what we want to do with this big win but haven't made any big decisions yet."
"We feel very fortunate and blessed. Now we can do all those things we said we would do once we retired."
3. $429.6 million Powerball jackpot won on May 7, 2016
70-year-old Trenton woman Pearlie Mae Smith and her seven adult children took the cash payout of $284.1 million pre-tax, or around $204,480,000 after withholdings. At the time it was the sixth-largest Powerball prize ever won and the largest amount ever won by a single ticket in New Jersey.
The family believed that "divine intervention" had a hand in helping them choose the winning numbers, said the oldest child, Valerie Arthur. "It's the only way you can explain it," she continued. "No birthdays, no anniversary dates. Through a dream."
"It was a big shock," Arthur acknowledged. "It was a bigger shock when we learned we were the only ticket holder."
"I'm very, very proud of my children," said Smith. Of the challenges of raising seven children, she said "I made it through by the grace of God."
Some of the children said they would quit their jobs, but others planned to continue working. Cathy Smith had run a mentoring program for young women for 15 years at the time of the win. "It has been a struggle to get funding," Arthur said. "Now she has her own funding. She can go and change lives on her own accord."
2. $448.4 million Powerball jackpot won on August 7, 2013
In an amazing night for Jersey, two of the three jackpot-winning tickets were purchased in the state. Mario Scarnici of Monmouth Junction in South Brunswick and the "Ocean's 16," 16 co-workers at the Ocean County vehicle maintenance garage became millionaires overnight. The third ticket was sold in Minnesota.
"We're a happy bunch of a group," said one of the workers, Willam Seeley. "We're very happy, happy, happy."
Seeley said he would use some of his money to help his dad, who has cancer. "The first place I stopped was Pop's house, started crying in front of him and told him I love him and 'you got nothing to worry about now except getting better,'" Seeley revealed. He also planned to buy a log cabin.
Six of the group had their homes damaged by Hurricane Sandy. "The first thing I'm going to do is buy me and my daughter a home and bring my dog back home," said Darlene Riccio.
One of the "Ocean's 16," Barbara Riivald, is the daughter of late state Sen. John Brown, author of New Jersey's lottery laws. She described her win as a "miracle." Riivald's eyes filled with tears as she said, "My dad was bigger than life, always my hero. I couldn't ask for a better dad, and I wish he was here to share in the moment."
1. $533 million Mega Millions jackpot won on March 30, 2018
47-year-old Vernon man Richard Wahl chose the cash lump sum and received $324 million before taxes. "It's not only life-changing money for me, it's life changing money for others," he said at the time. "We're going to try to do good things with it."
When Wahl initially checked his tickets, he misread the number and thought he hadn't won. Luckily he looked a second time and finally realized he'd hit the jackpot.
"It was truly amazing. Some of my family members were sleeping so I didn't go and scream," Wahl said. "I just went and told my wife 'we get to go on vacation.' She said 'Don't be an idiot.' I said 'no, we won. We won the lottery.''"
As for what he planned to do with the money, "It's going to help my family and friends who struggle every day," Wahl said, mentioning that his mother lived on a fixed income. "It'll be good for me to be able to give back to them."
Wahl subsequently moved to Florida and in 2019 purchased a hurricane-damaged resort.