$319M jackpot goes to 7 New York state tech workers

Posted March 31, 2011, at 6:59 p.m.

SCHENECTADY, N.Y. — An early morning phone call on a Saturday usually means one thing for the IT workers at the New York state Division of Housing and Community Renewal.

“I said, ‘Great, the server’s down,’” said John Kutey, 54, of Green Island.

Nope. Instead, he and six colleagues had hit the jackpot: $319 million in the multistate Mega Millions game’s fifth-largest prize in its history.

“It still seems unreal to us,” Kutey said Thursday at a news conference at state lottery headquarters in Schenectady. “We’re pretty average folks. This really hasn’t sunk in for anybody.”

Each of the seven winners will collect a check for $19.1 million, after taxes.

Some of their colleagues might be kicking themselves. Co-winner John Hilton, 57, of North Greenbush said there are about a dozen workers in the information technology department who start playing the lottery at $2 a person when the jackpot hits $100 million.

“We keep a checklist of who’s in and who’s out for any particular drawing,” he said. This time, five names were crossed off the list when they declined to play.

A hankering for a Snickers bar and an impatient patron may have provided just the extra bit of luck needed by those who opted in.

Mike Barth, 63, of Bethlehem said his colleagues designated him to go to the newsstand next door and buy the ticket. Another lottery customer cut in front of him in line when he reached for his favorite candy bar.

The Snickers bar became a payday instead.

“I’m thinking later on, when we found out we won, that this guy who jumped in front of me could have been the one with the winning ticket,” Barth said. “It just goes to show — you never know.”

On Friday night, Barth’s co-worker Gabrielle Mahar, 29, of Colonie learned that she and her fellow IT workers at the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal had hit the jackpot when she saw the winning numbers scroll across her TV screen during the late-night news.

“I looked at my photocopy of the ticket, then rechecked it and rechecked it and rechecked it,” she said. “I just couldn’t believe it was real.”

After calling her mother and her best friend, Mahar called her boss, Kristin Baldwin of Clifton Park, and left a message on her answering machine saying they had won.

Baldwin, 42, said she got up and listened to her answering machine around midnight. “I was numb. In total disbelief,” Baldwin said. “I’m really not prepared for it. It’s a wonderful thing, but it’s so much to sort out and deal with.”

Several of the winners thought it was going to be bad news from work when the phone rang Saturday morning.

Tracy Sussman, 41, of Colonie said she took the good news call after initially thinking, “What’s wrong now?”

“When Gabrielle called me at 6:45, I was still in bed,” said Leon Peck, 62, of Johnstown in Fulton County. “I said, ‘What’s the problem?’ She said, ‘We hit the Mega.’ I thought I was still dreaming.”

Kutey went to the office to retrieve the ticket from Barth’s desk.

“I didn’t know where to put it,” he said. “I had a bucket of rock salt and a 5-gallon bucket of bird food in the garage. I thought the rock salt, it might eat the ink off the ticket. So I put the ticket in the bird food and hid it in the basement.”

The winners said they haven’t decided whether to quit working or exactly how to use their newfound wealth.

“I really don’t know what I’ll do,” Baldwin said. “It hasn’t even been a week yet. It hasn’t really hit me.”

“I just want a dishwasher,” Mahar said.

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