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Associated Press Writer

The Winners: A New Lexus For Mrs. Rodriguez, And One For A Friend


June 21, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. 

MARIETTA, Ga. (AP) - You can find the Rodriguez couple most days at a McDonald's in this Atlanta suburb, ordering milkshakes and chatting up the manager they've known for years.

You'd have to look outside in the parking lot for a hint that Rafael and Ileana Rodriguez are a little richer than the average McDonald's regular. There's a tricked-out Lexus convertible with a polished wood dash and one of those huge phony sweepstakes checks in the back seat.

The check is made out to the Rodriguezes for $11.8 million, the amount the Marietta couple from Puerto Rico won in a February Lotto South drawing. They won playing the same numbers they've tried two or three times a week for years.

The Rodriguezes sound like a lottery commercial when they talk about the prize. They've never missed a big lotto drawing since the Georgia Lottery began 10 years ago. Before that, they bought tickets in Florida. Even after winning more money than most will see in a lifetime, the couple buys tickets for every Mega Millions and Lotto South drawing.

"You've got to play if you want to win something," Rafael Rodriguez said.

Rafael and Ileana say they knew they'd win a big jackpot eventually. They talked about the lottery all the time and faithfully played a six-number combination drawn from their birthdays and the birthdays of their four grown daughters.

One morning in February, Rafael called the lottery hotline to check the Lotto South numbers. He thought he heard wrong, so he hung up and called again.

Running to his wife, he told her to call and check the numbers. Ileana balked.

"I thought he was joking," she said. Even after she heard the recording herself, it seemed unreal. Then she heard the winning ticket was sold in Marietta. After that it's kind of a blur, she said.

First she called their four daughters. Ileana said only that it was urgent they call this phone number immediately. The daughters were confused and worried, Ileana recalls, but they recognized their parents' lotto numbers and called back shrieking with excitement.

Then the couple had a little more fun. They called a few close friends, people who knew they were huge lottery players, and told them they were out of town and asked if they could check the Web site for the numbers. The friends each thought they were the first to tell the Rodriguezes the news.

That was a Sunday. Monday morning, Ileana asked if she could be a little late to her job at a health care office. Rafael had already retired. They drove together to Georgia Lottery headquarters in downtown Atlanta and waited while a machine checked the authenticity of their slip.

When the machine verified they won the $22 million jackpot, the couple immediately claimed their one-time payout of $11.8 million after taxes. They got to keep the big cardboard check.

Claiming a lottery jackpot is surprisingly easy. Once the ticket is proven real, winners are simply given a check. No waiting period, no offer of financial counseling from the lottery office.

But the Rodriguezes didn't mind. They never considered waiting a few days to claim the prize, hiring a lawyer or sketching out how they wanted to manage the money.

First Ileana wanted a Lexus to replace the one with more than 300,000 miles on it. They bought a brand-new SC430 hardtop convertible in gold. While they were there, they picked up a new Lexus SUV for Rafael. Then they came back and bought four more Lexus SUVs, one for each daughter.

There was one more Lexus to buy. For years, Ileana had talked several times a week with Dora, a woman who worked for her company in Dallas. The two women phoned each other regularly for business, and they became friends without ever meeting.

Dora liked to play the lottery, too. They would always joke that whoever won the lottery would buy a Lexus for the other.

A few weeks after winning - about the time Ileana quit her job - she called Dora.

"You're getting your Lexus," Ileana told Dora. The car was sent to Texas, but the women still have not met in person.

"I kept my word to her," Ileana said.

Now the Rodriguezes are concentrating on building a new house, still in Marietta. To keep busy they're planning a Caribbean cruise for all their children and grandchildren.

The Rodriguezes say they're looking forward to the ship's swimming pools, the climbing wall for the kids, the buffets. And the casino.

"We love to play at the casino just like we love to play the lottery," Ileana said. "We only play $20. That's our limit. But it is probably the most fun you could have with $20."

And they'll keep playing the lottery.

"Now we are trying for the Mega Millions," Ileana said.

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