Lotto Luck


No one knows how many people have played the lottery since California voters approved it in 1984, but one thing is certain: 106 people in the Sacramento area have become lottery millionaires. Who are these millionaires next door? Are they living large in Los Lagos, or quietly living off the land somewhere out in the country?

We tracked down two local lottery winners and found that they fall somewhere in between. And I will say this: The problem with interviewing lottery winners is that the 41 million-to-one odds disappear and winning Lotto seems like a reasonable possibility. After all, if these people did it, why not me?

We all have lottery dreams. Here are a couple of the realities.

Biker Bucks

Angels Camp resident Dennis Sanfilippo’s lucky numbers are 7 and 11. Why? “Those numbers have always been lucky in numerology,” says Sanfilippo. “Plus if you drop the S from seven and the EL from eleven, it spells even, although they are both odd. I guess it takes a nut like me to dwell on that, but it worked for me.”

So on March 7, 1992, he bought 11 Quick Pick Lotto tickets as the store clock’s second hand hit precisely 11 o’clock. Sounds crazy, but he won $30 million.

Before his windfall, Sanfilippo owned a roofing company that was on shaky ground. He was about to lose his house. Today, he owns a record label—Big 7 Productions—a commercial art company, a home in Belize, 50 rental homes, a 900-acre ranch, and Murphys Nugget Bar and Restaurant in the Calaveras County town of Murphys.

Sanfilippo has never been married but he has three kids (ages 22, 15, 14). He says the lottery hasn’t changed him.

“I’m still running around with the same people I always have,” says Sanfilippo, 52. “I haven’t really changed, but some people around me have. I enjoy working. I’m not the kind of guy to go sit at a fancy hotel poolside drinking cocktails. It is boring. It is not me. People driving by see me cutting firewood, working on the roof, and it really pisses them off (that he’s not hiring someone to do it for him), but I enjoy doing it. The point is, as long as you feel right about what you do in life, it doesn’t matter what other people think. No matter what you do in life, someone isn’t going to like it.”

Although he owns many larger homes, Sanfilippo prefers to live in the house he built before the lottery. He’s a rare lottery winner who, despite the state of his roofing business at that time, was almost a millionaire on paper when he won. He started buying land when he was 18. Because he was so young, when he bought his first home for $7,000 in 1968, his parents had to sign the contract for him.

The real estate in Calaveras County has appreciated almost as much as his Lotto ticket. Ranches Sanfilippo bought for $500,000 a few years ago are now worth $2.5 million. Homes with 20 acres that he bought for $80,000 are now worth $600,000.

“I’m lucky that the real estate I bought appreciated unbelievably,” says Sanfilippo. “I’m not trying to become the richest guy in the cemetery. Music is my passion. I enjoy doing real estate but [before Lotto], it really was just a way to fund the music.”

Although he’s been in the music business since 1977 as a record producer (he won BAM magazine’s Bammie award), Sanfilippo has found success with his Big 7 Productions label. He has recorded the legendary John Lee Hooker, Greg Allman, the Charlie Brechtel Band (named “Best Biker Band in America” by Easy Rider, opening for ZZ Top in August nationally) and produced a CD with Eddie Money and Deacon Jones called Jonesen for Money. “Every song is about money—wanting it, having it, needing it,” says Sanfilippo.

These days, Sanfilippo is philosophical about finances. “What I’ve really learned about money is that it buys time. You could do something yourself, but do you want sell your time?”

And for lottery winners, he offers this advice. “I would definitely not take the money all at once. I am so glad I got it over a 20-year period so you can go through this training period. When you get the money all at once, you do stupid things and then the money’s all gone. It is hard to bankrupt someone getting a few million a year.”

Lottery winners don’t pay any state or local taxes. This year, the federal bite out of a lottery check in general is 25 percent.

Last year, Sanfilippo received $1,085,000. He has used the money to forward his record label, and to buy a museum-level collection of meteorites and a 5,200-carat emerald that’s considered a national treasure. He has two sleek Dodge Vipers but “I feel more comfortable driving my ’98 Ford Ranger,” he says.

With 7 and 11 being his lucky numbers, Sanfilippo is in a numerically interesting spot: He has seven years left of lottery checks until 2011. “As you get older, seven years seems like tomorrow. I can’t believe it has been 12 years. But I’m sure not dwelling or worrying about the day the checks stop. It is all good. You can’t say winning the lottery brings you happiness, but I’m the happiest camper there is.”

Lightning Strikes Twice

Talk about luck running in the family. Tom Hamner, 65, of Placerville, won $115,000 on the lottery’s “The Big Spin” television show in 1998. The next year, his wife, Judy, 57, won $1,000 a week for 20 years for a total $1,040,000.

Before playing the lottery, Tom was a third-generation logger for 45 years (he started when he was 12), and Judy spent 25 years as a building inspector for El Dorado County.

“We couldn’t see a way to retire,” says Judy. “I was a working, school-going mom.” Aside from Judy’s art classes, the Hamners did not have many indulgences.

After Tom stopped logging, he played $5 on Fantasy 5 lottery tickets once or twice a week. Then one day, he got a coupon for a chance to try his luck on the Dream Machine game on “The Big Spin.”

Tom owes his big win to a miscommunication. “When Tom got notice he won the Fantasy 5 game,” says Judy, “the whole family and friends came down to Sacramento to watch him play ‘The Big Spin.’ On the Dream Machine, he got $75,000 and looked up to me to decide whether he should take another chance or quit. I gave him a thumbs-up meaning ‘that’s good enough,’ and he interpreted it to mean ‘go ahead.’ He won $115,000 on the next ball.”

After taxes, the check came out to $82,000. When Tom asked Judy what she wanted to do with the money, she said she wanted to buy a tractor with all the attachments.

“I told her, I can buy a whole room of new furniture,” remembers Tom. “But we bought this farmland in early ’98 and we needed a tractor out here. She’s strictly a farm girl with a green thumb who wanted to raise grapes and grow things.”

So they bought the tractor. Then they splurged and took the trip of a lifetime: a month in Italy.

“With seven kids (ages 26 to 44), we’ve always been conservative financially. There was never an extra penny,” says Judy. “We’ve never gone anyplace in our lives more than three or four days. To have a whole month there not having to worry about finances was wonderful. We went to Tuscany because we wanted to raise grapes and wanted a better perspective on how the mother country did it,” says Judy.

Thinking the excitement was over, they settled back into their routine.

“Up here, we didn’t have any garbage service, so every Saturday we’d do our garbage-dump run, have a cup of coffee, play some Scratchers and then go home,” remembers Judy. “My Scratcher turned out to be an entry form for the Weekly Grand contest. I mailed it in and forgot about it.”

To celebrate Tom’s 60th birthday in 1999, they went with another couple to Lake Tahoe. Then they got a call. “Tom was on the phone and his face was expressionless,” recalls Judy. “All I heard was his half of the conversation: ‘Uh huh, uh huh, Really? Unreal!’ My mommy instinct told me something had happened to one of the kids. And then he hands the phone to me and says, ‘How does it feel to be a millionaire?’”

Judy was the winner of $1,000 a week ($750 after taxes) for 20 years until 2019. (The lottery no longer runs the Weekly Grand contest.)

“My first reaction was that there is probably another Judy Hamner in California,” says Judy. “This is just a mistake, but let’s enjoy it. So we had dinner, three bottles of wine rather than two. When we got back, I saw [on a friend’s videotape of “The Big Spin”] that it was my full name; I started shaking. Part of you is so excited, but another part of you is so scared your life is going to change.”

Once her co-workers found out, they all started screaming and “doing the chicken dance” throughout the building. But the happy feelings soon turned sour. When Judy continued working, her co-workers said, “‘You’re holding down someone’s job that needs it.’ Things got ugly.”

Like many lottery winners, the Hamners have lost a friend or two to jealousy. “Maybe because we’d all been through so much together, when none of us had a pot to pee in,” says Judy. “It bothered them that we’ve gotten out of that.”

Aside from retiring, the Hamners’ lives remain constant, living in the same house they did before the lottery. They’ve used the money to help out their kids, helping one to buy land to build a house and helping another who has cancer.

With Judy’s money, they built a barn, put in more grape vines and bought Tom all the equipment he needed to make wine. As far as indulgences go, Tom got a Harley-Davidson Dyna Super Glide motorcycle and Judy bought a Volvo SUV.

Today, Judy is achieving success with her art. Her plein-air landscape paintings are fetching healthy prices at local galleries and are being reproduced and sold at 500 Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouse centers around the nation.

But the rewards surpass what the checks say. “It is not about the money,” says Judy. “There’s satisfaction in building something with your hands and mind that far exceeds anything else. To imagine someone wanting my paintings to look at in their home all the time is an internal reward.”

Finding her bliss (and a new income that replaced her old salary) in the art she once gave up, Judy offers this advice to people who want to live a lottery winner’s life without purchasing a ticket: “When you get to that crossroads in life where you want to pursue a dream or be real practical, hit the dream with everything you’ve got,” says Judy. “That’s where the fulfillment comes from. The practical side is OK for paying the bills now, but really pursuing your dream does the same thing [eventually over time] and gives you what your heart needs.”

Tom has gone from logger to winemaker. He’s in the fields most mornings by 6:30, cultivating his 1,300 cabernet sauvignon vines. “The first year was a disaster,” says Tom. “The birds were eating us alive out there, so we picked the whole field. The sugar wasn’t high enough—and we made some really good vinegar.”

They planted 50 vines before Tom won his money. “It took off like gang busters,” says Tom. With the lottery money, they planted the rest.

Now in his third year of winemaking, although he won’t sell his wine to the public, Tom is getting kudos from friends, neighbors and art lovers who have tasted his Pleasant Valley Vineyards wine at a number of Judy’s art shows.

Tom feels he’s not finished with the lottery; he spends about $20 a week on tickets. “I feel lucky, like it is going to get us again,” says Tom. “If we won the third time, I’d make all of our relatives very happy—give the better part of it to them to make their lives easier.”