Mega Millions Lottery Reaches Historic $321 Million — But If You Win, Don’t Be Like This Lottery Loser

The Mega Millions lottery saw its 20th straight drawing without a jackpot winner on Friday, and the jacked-up ticket sales total of more than 56 million propelled the jackpot up by a whopping $37 million — making Tuesday’s Mega Millions game worth a top prize of $321 million. That would be the 20th-largest jackpot in United States lottery history.

The last time anyone won the Mega Millions jackpot was more than two months ago — on August 22 when Rick Knudsen, a dad of five from Calimesa, California, hit a $180 million jackpot.

But the $321 million jackpot could soar even higher before gametime on Tuesday. The lottery generally announces the jackpot at a low estimate. When lottery prizes reach the stratosphere of the mid-nine-figures, ticket sales are often higher than expected, and that means jackpots rise.

The $321 million figure is the “annuity value,” which would go to a winner who chooses to take the Mega Millions cash in 30 annual, escalating installments. But winners always have the option of taking their jackpot as a single payment, which is less money — but it arrives all at once.

The cash value of Tuesday’s jackpot is estimated at $194.1 million — the 17th-largest cash value payout of all time.

Now, these mouth-watering sums are most likely already inducing fantasies of what you would do with the cash, if you just so happen to win the Mega Millions jackpot on November 4. But as incredible as it seems, as difficult as winning the jackpot is, losing the whole thing after you’ve won it is actually quite easy.

The textbook case of a lottery loser is Jack Whittaker, who on Christmas Day of 2002, won what was then the largest single lottery jackpot ever — a $314.9 million Powerball payout. The West Virginia businessman chose the “cash value” option, and after taxes were automatically deducted, pocketed a wad of cash worth more than $133.3 million.

What was truly amazing was that Jack Whittaker already had a fortune of $17 million from his successful construction company, so why he was buying lottery tickets in the first place is anyone’s guess. Whatever the reasons, Whittaker quickly proved that just being a millionaire doesn’t make anyone more qualified to handle a sudden nine-figure fortune.

First he donated 10 percent of his winnings to charity — that’s all good. Then he bought a series of expensive gifts — cars and even a house — for friends.

But Whittaker didn’t stop there. He had the astonishing habit of carrying his cash around in a briefcase — and taking it with him to the strip joints where he liked to hang out. At one such dive, someone stole more than a half-million out of his car. Then another $200,000 was stolen later in similar fashion. Swindlers also, he said, broke into his bank accounts and drained the money he kept there.

Personal tragedies also plagued Whittaker. His 17-year-old granddaughter was found dead of what police said was a drug overdose two years after his lottery jackpot win — but her body was found wrapped in a tarp and dumped in a friend’s yard. Whether her death was connected to Whittaker’s lottery winnings was never determined.

Gambling didn’t help Whittaker hold on to his fortune, either. A casino sued him for writing $1.5 million in bad checks to cover his losses.

In 2009, his 42-year-old daughter also died. Whittaker seemed to believe that her death, though not ruled foul play, was the result of his lottery win, telling reporters at the time, “I wish I’d torn up that ticket.”

Friday’s Mega Millions numbers were as follows:

112936 5867 Mega Ball15

If you win the $321 million Mega Millions jackpot Tuesday, here’s hoping you handle it better than lottery loser Jack Whittaker.