Instant Millions Can't Halt Winners' Grim Slide
CORBIN, Ky., Nov. 30 - For Mack W. Metcalf and his estranged second wife, Virginia G. Merida, sharing a $34 million lottery jackpot in 2000 meant escaping poverty at breakneck speed.
Years of blue-collar struggle and ramshackle apartment life gave way almost overnight to limitless leisure, big houses and lavish toys. Mr. Metcalf bought a Mount Vernon-like estate in southern Kentucky, stocking it with horses and vintage cars. Ms. Merida bought a Mercedes-Benz and a modernistic mansion overlooking the Ohio River, surrounding herself with stray cats.
But trouble came almost as fast. And though there have been many stories of lottery winners turning to drugs or alcohol, and of lottery fortunes turning to dust, the tale of Mr. Metcalf and Ms. Merida stands out as a striking example of good luck - the kind most people only dream about - rapidly turning fatally bad.
Mr. Metcalf's first wife sued him for $31,000 in unpaid child support, a former girlfriend wheedled $500,000 out of him while he was drunk, and alcoholism increasingly paralyzed him. Ms. Merida's boyfriend died of a drug overdose in her hilltop house, a brother began harassing her, she said, and neighbors came to believe her once welcoming home had turned into a drug den.
Though they were divorced by 2001, it was as if their lives as rich people had taken on an eerie symmetry. So did their deaths.
In 2003, just three years after cashing in his winning ticket, Mr. Metcalf died of complications relating to alcoholism at the age of 45. Then on the day before Thanksgiving, Ms. Merida's partly decomposed body was found in her bed. Authorities said they have found no evidence of foul play and are looking into the possibility of a drug overdose. She was 51.
Ms. Merida's death remains under investigation, and large parts of both her and Mr. Metcalf's lives remain wrapped in mystery. But some of their friends and relatives said they thought the moral of their stories was clear.
"Any problems people have, money magnifies it so much, it's unbelievable," said Robert Merida, one of Ms. Merida's three brothers.
Mr. Metcalf's first wife, Marilyn Collins, said: "If he hadn't won, he would have worked like regular people and maybe had 20 years left. But when you put that kind of money in the hands of somebody with problems, it just helps them kill themselves."
As a young woman, Ms. Merida lived with her family in Houston where her father, Dempsey Merida, ran a major drug-trafficking organization, law enforcement officials say. He and two of his sons, David and John, were indicted in 1983 and served prison sentences on drug-related convictions.
John Murphy, the first assistant United States attorney for the western district of Texas, who helped prosecute the case, said the organization smuggled heroin and cocaine into Texas using Mr. Merida's chain of auto transmission shops as fronts.
Mr. Murphy described Mr. Merida as a gruff, imposing man who tried to intimidate witnesses by muttering loudly in court. Mr. Merida received a 30-year sentence but was released in 2004 because of a serious illness, Mr. Murphy said. He died just months later in Kentucky at age 76.
When Dempsey Merida and his two sons went to prison, his wife moved the family to northern Kentucky. Virginia Merida married, had a son, was divorced and married again, to Mack Metcalf, a co-worker at a plastics factory. But he drank too much and disappeared for long stretches of time, friends of Ms. Merida said, leaving her alone to care for her son and mother.
She worked a succession of low-paying jobs, lived in cramped apartments, drove decrepit cars and struggled to pay rent. For his part, Mr. Metcalf drifted from job to job, living at one point in an abandoned bus.
Then one July day in 2000, a friend called Ms. Merida and gave her some startling news: Mr. Metcalf had the winning $3 ticket for a $65 million Powerball jackpot. Ms. Merida had refused to answer his calls, thinking he was drunk.
"Mack kept calling here, asking me to go tell Ginny that he had won the lottery," said Carolyn Keckeley, a friend of Ms. Merida. "She wouldn't believe him."
At the time, both were barely scraping by, he by driving a forklift and she by making corrugated boxes. But in one shot, they walked away with a cash payout of $34 million, which they split 60-40: he received about $14 million after taxes, while she got more than $9 million.
In a statement released by the lottery corporation, Mr. Metcalf said he planned to move to Australia. "I'm going to totally get away," he said.
But problems arrived almost immediately. A caseworker in Northern Kentucky saw Mr. Metcalf's photograph and recognized him as having been delinquent in child support payments to a daughter from his first marriage. The county contacted Mr. Metcalf's first wife and they took legal action that resulted in court orders that he pay $31,000 in child support and create a $500,000 trust fund for the girl, Amanda, his only child.
Ms. Collins, his first wife, said Mr. Metcalf abandoned the family when Amanda, now 21, was an infant, forcing them into near destitution. "I cooked dinner and set the table for six months for him, but he never came back," said Ms. Collins, 38. They were divorced in 1986.
Even as he was battling Ms. Collins in court, Mr. Metcalf was filing his own lawsuit to protect his winnings. In court papers, he asserted that a former girlfriend, Deborah Hodge, had threatened and badgered him until he agreed, while drunk, to give her $500,000.
Ms. Hodge vowed to call witnesses to testify that Mr. Metcalf had given money to other women as well. Mr. Metcalf's suit was dismissed after he walked out of a deposition, according to court papers.
Still, there were moments of happiness. Shortly after winning the lottery, he took Amanda shopping in Cincinnati, giving her $500 to buy clothing and have her nails done. "I had never held that kind of money before," Ms. Metcalf said. "That was the best day ever."
Pledging to become a good father, he moved to Corbin to be near Amanda, buying a 43-acre estate with a house modeled after Mount Vernon for $1.1 million. He collected all-terrain vehicles, vintage American cars and an eccentric array of pets: horses, Rottweilers, tarantulas and a 15-foot boa constrictor.
He also continued to give away cash. Neighbors recall him buying goods at a convenience store with $100 bills, then giving the change to the next person in line. Ms. Metcalf said she discovered boxes filled with scraps of paper in his home recording money he had given away, debts he would never collect.
His drinking got worse, and he became increasingly afraid that people were plotting to kill him, installing surveillance cameras and listening devices around his house, Ms. Metcalf said. Then in early 2003, he spent a month in the hospital for treatment of cirrhosis and hepatitis. After being released from the hospital, he married for the third time, but died just months later, in December.
Virginia Merida seemed to handle her money better. She repaid old debts, including $1,000 to a landlord who had evicted her years earlier. She told a friend she had set aside $1 million for retirement.
But she splurged enough to buy a Mercedes and a geodesic-dome house designed by a local architect in Cold Spring for $559,000. She kept the furnishings simple, neighbors said, but bought several arcade-quality video games for her son, Jason. For a time, Ms. Merida's mother lived with her as well.
"I was at her house a year after she moved in, and she said she hadn't even unpacked," said Mary Jo Watkins, a neighbor. "It was as if she didn't know how to move up."
Then in January, a live-in boyfriend, Fred Hill, died of an overdose of an opiate-related drug, according to a police report. No charges were filed, and officials said it was not clear if the opiate was heroin or a prescription drug. But neighbors began to believe that the house had become a haven for drug use or trafficking.
"I think we all suspected that some drug problems were going on there because so many people were coming and going," Ms. Watkins said.
In May, Ms. Merida filed a complaint in Campbell County Circuit Court against one of her brothers, David, saying that he had been harassing her. In June 16, a circuit court judge ordered both brother and sister to keep away from each other. It was unclear why she filed the complaint, and David Merida would not comment.
When Ms. Merida's son found her body on Nov. 23, she had been dead for several days, the county coroner's office said. There was no evidence of a break-in, or that she had been attacked, officials said. Toxicological studies on her remains will not be completed for several weeks.
It is unclear how much of Ms. Merida's estate remains, but it appears she saved some of it. That may not have been the case with Mr. Metcalf, his daughter said. Six months after his death, his house in Corbin was sold for $657,000, about half of what Mr. Metcalf had paid for it.
In a brief obituary in The Kentucky Enquirer, Ms. Merida's family described her simply as "a homemaker." On a black tombstone, Ms. Metcalf had this inscribed for her father, "Loving father and brother, finally at rest."
Al Salvato contributed reporting from Cold Spring, Bellevue and Dayton, Ky.