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Lottery winner stayed mum about his millions

Tue., Aug. 18, 2009, 7:42 a.m.

Got a secret? Feel free to share it with Curtis Eldred.

He knows how to keep them.

The 61-year-old Yakima resident told nobody but his mother he was a millionaire after winning the state lottery.

“I wasn’t really in a hurry,” said Eldred on Monday, when he claimed his 3-month-old prize at the Washington State Lottery headquarters in Olympia.

All those news reports about an unclaimed $3.4 million winning lottery ticket purchased May 11 at Cruisin’ Bill’s Convenience store on West Yakima Avenue? Eldred just clipped them and pasted them in a scrapbook, while keeping that coveted ticket hidden under a floor mat of his shed.

Shortly after discovering his good luck, Eldred retired from his job as a prep chef at the Heritage Inn Restaurant in Toppenish. His friends there threw the 16-year employee a farewell party and gave him a watch as a gift. His co-workers had often discussed right in front of him the perceived insanity of the mysterious ticket holder.

“Who would not claim that much money?” they would ask, said Angel Ruiz, a waitress at the restaurant.

He never said a word.

“I can’t believe it,” said Ruiz, who called Eldred a quiet, hard worker.

Eldred, an Eisenhower High School graduate and former Navy communications specialist who is single and has no children, wanted to prepare for the windfall before being blasted with unsolicited advice.

“I wanted to make sure I had my plans solid,” he said.

Among those plans: Care for his aging mother, who also lives in Yakima, share some with family and friends, pay off his Hyundai, donate some to homeless shelters and food banks, and invest to ensure a “comfortable retirement.”

He had planned to retire in a year or so anyway.

He may buy a house; he hasn’t decided. He currently rents a home from a family member.

He also plans to spend his free time pursuing abstract visual art either professionally or as a “serious hobby.”

Eldred said he played the lottery three times a week for almost 20 years, reading financial advice on what to do if he were to ever win. Keeping his mouth shut was one of the tips.

It’s rare, but not unheard of, for people to wait several weeks or months to claim a lottery prize, said Jacque Coe, Washington State Lottery spokeswoman.

“Some people, they want to make sure they’re comfortable with it,” she said.

Lottery winners have 180 days to claim their money or it goes back into an unclaimed prize fund, but most come forward within 24 to 48 hours, Coe said.

Eldred claimed the winnings Monday seemingly almost as an afterthought. He was in the Olympia area for a family reunion over the weekend, told a few family members Sunday night, then went straight to the Olympia office Monday morning.

Eldred chose a single $1.2 million payment after taxes instead of 25 annual payments of $102,000 after taxes.

“It’s hard to believe even now,” he said.

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