As the third anniversary of what has come to be known as the $7.5 million Hot Lotto Mystery approaches, official from the Iowa Lottery and Attorney General’s Office say the investigation remains “actively open.”
“Not in the sense of just being open because it’s unsolved, but it continues actively and we have made progress,” insisted Assistant Attorney General Thomas H. Miller, who said he worked on it with a Division of Criminal Investigation agent as recently as Dec. 19.
Dates are important in the case because there is a three-year statute of limitations on the state’s opportunity to solve the puzzle and file charges against the person or persons who they believe attempted to defraud the state and Iowa Lottery.
“We have that obviously always in mind and, not to tease you too badly, but I can say that I know substantially more about the matter than I did one week ago,” Miller said Monday.
Three years ago – Dec. 29, 2010, a Hot Lotto ticket that had an after-tax value of at least $7.5 million ticket was drawn. However, questions about the ownership of the winning ticket arose when an attempt was made Dec. 29, 2011, to redeem the winning ticket and claim the prize of $400,000 a year for 25 years. It was delivered to the Iowa Lottery by FedEx. Less than two hours before the deadline for claiming the jackpot, Crawford Shaw, a New York attorney, came forward to file paperwork to claim the prize. Shaw said he was acting on behalf of an investment trust in Belize, which is known as a tax haven.
After Lottery officials began to question the authenticity of the claim, Shaw withdrew -- forfeited -- the claim on Jan. 26, 2012, according to Lottery Vice President Mary Neubauer.
Earlier this year, investigators met with an unidentified Canadian who provided information that helped identify persons in Houston, Texas, who may have had information about the Hot Lotto ticket, Miller said.
Miller said the Canadian did not buy the Hot Lotto ticket, but would not say whether the man ever held the winning ticket or knew who did. He was promised immunity from prosecution after it was determined he was not a prime suspect and all other efforts to obtain his cooperation had failed.
“That helped us acquire a bit more (information) and provided additional names and particulars of the history of the ticket,” he said.
Still, the pool of suspects or persons of interest is relatively small. Miller only would say it’s more than two or three, but less than 10.
That pool does not include Lucas Henandez of Des Moines, who has repeatedly tried to persuade investigators that the winning ticket is his. Hernandez has met with investigators and attempted to get attorneys to take his case. He claims a convenience store clerk recognized the winning numbers on his Hot Lotto ticket and switched his ticket with another.
DCI agents and Miller have dismissed his story.
“He has not been the focus of the investigation or the source of additional worthwhile information,” Miller said.
The most popular theory about the ticket is that the winner was involved in some illegal activity and tried to “sell” the ticket to someone else to claim the jackpot, Iowa Lottery Vice President Mary Neubauer said.
Another possibility is that it was a syndicate of people from outside the U.S. who bought the winning ticket but couldn’t redeem it, so it was illegally sold for more than the $1 ticket was worth.
In either case, the Lottery would not pay the prize because Iowa law disallows lottery ticket scalping.
The mystery is more than academic for Neubauer.
“There are millions of dollars at stake,” she said. Neubauer isn’t talking only of the $7.5 million Hot Lotto prize, which was distributed through the Lottery’s Mystery Millionaire promotion in 2012.“We have jackpots 10 times, even 100 times the size involved here,” she said. “It’s important that we have systems in place to ensure the Lottery is protected against whatever may have transpired or someone might attempt in the future.”