PHOTOS: Arkansas lottery's $177M winner cashes in

Published 19 April 2017

A 71-year-old Texan who travels from one construction job to the next turned a stop for coffee into a dream come true.

Eliberto Cantu of Abernathy, Texas, was announced Monday as the buyer of the winning ticket for the $177 million Mega Millions jackpot March 31. The ticket was sold the day before at a Valero convenience store in Stuttgart.

Cantu spends about $6 a week and sometimes more on Mega Millions tickets, said his son Rodrigo Cantu, who spoke on behalf of his father and 67-year-old mother, Anita. He said his father lets the computers pick ticket numbers.

"I thank the Lord," Eliberto Cantu said in a brief interview after a news conference at the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery headquarters in Little Rock. "I don't have to work more."

Cantu decided to take the lesser lump-sum payment rather than an annuity with the full prize amount, "so they will be leaving here with a check in the amount of $72,901,274, which is pretty incredible," lottery Director Bishop Woosley said.

The lottery deducted $26,801,939 in federal taxes and state taxes of $7,504,543, Woosley said.

"This is the first winner I have met that really this is a generational change in their life," the director said. "Their children are here. They are just an absolutely fun family."

Cantu won the largest Arkansas Scholarship Lottery jackpot since the lottery started selling tickets in September 2009. The lottery has helped fund more than 30,000 Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarships during each of the past seven fiscal years.

The state's previous record-holder was Harold Bailey, a Conway man who won a $25 million Powerball jackpot in January 2010. After state and federal taxes, Bailey's takeaway was $8.26 million.

Rodrigo Cantu, who has a real estate company and lives in the Dallas area, said his parents "are doing a lot for the family" with their winnings. Their family includes several children and 17 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

"But on top of that, they have been going to the same church [Bethel Baptist Church] for about 35 years and the church is going to be leveled and be rebuilt, and the sister church of that church is also going to be leveled and rebuilt, so they are going to spend quite a bit of it on building churches," he said. "The church just told the congregation who the anonymous people were [on Sunday]."

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Rodrigo Cantu said his father has worked in construction for about 50 years and travels from town to town through Texas and Oklahoma and sometimes in New Mexico and Arkansas.

"They travel around in their little travel trailers and they kind of go from job to job," he said.

Rodrigo Cantu said his father worked on a power-line project at the time he bought the ticket.

"They were here for about five weeks outside of Hazen, in those RV parks outside Hazen, and he goes to work at 6:30 in the morning and goes in at 7 ... and he just happened to stop" at One Stop Valero on East 22nd Street in Stuttgart, he said.

"His co-workers didn't want to stop. He convinced them to stop and get a coffee. So that's where he bought it," Rodrigo Cantu said. He said his father has also played the Texas lottery for a while.

Rodrigo Cantu said he realized his father had won on the Saturday morning after the $177 million Mega Millions numbers were chosen the night before.

"My dad called me and told me he started checking his ticket at a gas station and it was blocked," he said. "So he called me ... he gave me the numbers ... and I checked the numbers ... and saw that they matched."

Rodrigo Cantu said he drove for five hours that Saturday from Dallas to Arkansas.

"So I was here for a few days with them, trying to settle things out. They literally sold their travel trailer for $1 to one of their co-workers," he said.

"Then, my dad and I went back to that Valero Tuesday morning after the lottery and about the same time the same girl was there and so we talked to her," he said.

"She said they thought they knew pretty much who it was and my dad said, 'So, they're wrong, I bought it Thursday morning at 6:30,' Rodrigo Cantu said. "And she said, 'Oh, that's funny.' And he said, 'You're looking at the winner.' She didn't believe him, so I showed her a picture of the ticket. And she immediately started crying.

"We gave her a little bit of money. We laughed and came back and gave her a little bit more and she was very, very thankful," he said.

Rodrigo Cantu said the woman at the Valero store "kept her word and didn't tell anybody," so that's why the news media didn't know about the winner until Monday's announcement.

The Valero station will receive a $50,000 commission for selling the winning lottery ticket.

Woosley said he hopes the Mega Millions jackpot winner helps boost lottery ticket sales and net proceeds for college scholarships.

In fiscal 2012, lottery revenue peaked at $473.6 million and net proceeds for scholarships reached $97.5 million, before falling for three consecutive years. With the help of a record Powerball run in January 2016, revenue rebounded in fiscal 2016 to $456.3 million, and net proceeds hit $85.3 million.

Woosley has projected revenue of $463.4 million and net proceeds of $80.9 million in fiscal 2017, which ends June 30.

The Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship is financed with lottery net proceeds plus $20 million a year in state general revenue. A lottery reserve fund of $20 million covers temporary cash shortages to cover scholarships and is later replenished with net proceeds.

The Legislature has cut the size of the scholarships three times during the past seven years, because of net proceeds falling short of initial projections and more students than initially estimated receiving the scholarships.

A Section on 04/18/2017