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The $18-million Dollar Headache

(page 1 of 3)

Seven years ago, Alex Snelius won big in the lottery—and things went steadily downhill from there.
by David Bernstein

 

Alex Snelius, Chicago lottery winner
Photography by Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee

In the early evening of September 12, 2000, Alex Snelius, a semiretired truck mechanic, stopped by Burbank Food and Liquor, the neighborhood grocery store where he plunked down $5 four times a week on different lottery games. After buying his ticket, Snelius drove home and turned on the White Sox game—another of his regular habits—but switched to the evening news when it was time for the lottery drawing. The jackpot for that night’s Big Game, the multistate drawing today called Mega Millions, had swelled to $64 million. Snelius jotted down the numbers, but didn’t bother to check them with the ticket; his wife, Ursula, always did that.

Later that night, Ursula returned from playing bingo at their church, St. Albert the Great. “She was mad as a hornet,” recalls Snelius. “For the second week in a row she needed one number more [to win], but they didn’t call her number, and she didn’t get the $500 [prize].” Still in a huff, Ursula asked to see the lotto numbers, and she scanned the Quick Pick ticket for matches. First one matched, and then two. Then three. Four. Five! “When she told me we got the [sixth] big ball,” says Snelius, “I said, ‘Thank you, Lord!’”

On September 18th, the week after he won, lottery officials presented Snelius with an oversize check for $64 million—at the time, the Illinois Lottery’s second-largest payout for a sole ticket holder. Of course, the grand figure printed on the big promotional check isn’t the amount that winds up in the winner’s bank account. Snelius could choose to take the money in one lump sum—roughly half the advertised jackpot—or 26 annual installments. He chose the lump sum. “The rest went to Uncle Sam,” he says, referring to the taxes deducted from his winnings. Ultimately, he ended up with $18.5 million.

Snelius, a Lithuanian immigrant whose 70 years have been mostly hard toil, knew his life would be different after he won. But he didn’t foresee the profound changes brought by the bounce of six numbered balls and 175,711,583-to-1 odds. The improbable windfall meant the end of years of blue-collar struggle—and almost overnight Snelius developed an expensive appetite for big houses, fancy cars, and materialistic excess. Before long, however, he decided that he was less happy than before—that the burdens of newfound wealth overwhelmed the pleasures. As he tells it, his is a cautionary tale for anyone who dreams of getting rich quick.

“When you do win it, you say, ‘Thank you, God’—you know, you’re blessed,” says Snelius. “But you’re not blessed—you’re cursed. Money is not happiness—it’s a curse: People don’t leave you alone; charities come from every direction you can think of; the government taxes the heck out of you. I don’t like it.”


"Money is not happiness—it’s a curse," says Snelius. "People don’t leave you alone; charities come from every direction you can think of; the government taxes the heck out of you. I don’t like it.”


Whether he likes it or not, there is no mistaking Alex Snelius’s post-lottery bonanza on a recent afternoon as he leads me on a tour of his large, red-and-beige-brick house in Westgate Valley Estates, a pricey subdivision of 160 McMansions in south suburban Palos Heights. Actually, Snelius owns four homes in Westgate Valley, and at one point, he owned eight of them, each a “dream home”—two for himself and Ursula, one each for his four children, and one each for his wife’s two sisters. Over the past several years, he has sold off the three homes he bought for his sons, and last August, he sold his 10,000-square-foot, 16-room Georgian-style mansion (the former DePaul basketball star Quentin Richardson, now with the NBA’s New York Knicks, paid $2.2 million for it).

One of Snelius’s remaining Westgate Valley properties, the home belonging to his daughter, Cindy Sanocki, and her husband, Tom, is worth mentioning: lifelong Elvis Presley fans, they built a $1.5-million replica of Graceland, the King’s legendary mansion, complete with the iconic towering white columns and marble lions at the front door (the likeness doesn’t extend to the interior—for example, there’s no repeat of Elvis’s Jungle Room, with leopard print chairs and green shag carpet covering the floor and ceiling). The Sanockis say their home has become an off-the-Memphis-beaten-path tourist destination for Elvis fanatics. “We have a lot of people come by, take pictures—Elvis impersonators, tour buses, you know,” says Cindy.

After selling the mansion, Snelius moved into a smaller (though still big) 4,200-square-foot house down the block. In person, though, Snelius is not remotely a showoff. On this day, he is dressed plainly in a bright red button-down and blue jeans and his demeanor remains unpretentious. He speaks in a heavy eastern European accent—a hint of his Lithuanian roots—flavored by traces of a working-class Chicago dialect. A devout Roman Catholic who attends Mass weekly, Snelius gets more excited showing me his in-house chapel (formerly a spare bedroom) than the $50,000 basement theatre room with a wall-size screen and nine plush stadium seats.

The house is crammed with stuff, mainly religious objects and collectible dolls, arranged museum-style in vitrines on every wall of the dining and living rooms. The feeling is of a cross between the Vatican museum shop and the American Girl store. But to see the really expensive stuff, you have to go to the garage, where Snelius parks his 1956 Ford Sunliner convertible, his 1934 Mercedes kit car, and his top-of-the-line, stretch-version Lincoln Town Car. In a few nearby garages, he keeps more than a dozen other antique cars, including a 1922 Ford Model T, a 1950 Buick convertible, and a 1958 Bentley.

Despite all the fancy trappings, Snelius insists that he prefers to keep life simple. Which brings us to the for-sale sign stuck in the front lawn. After nearly seven years of living the high life, Snelius wants to downsize, a decision he made around the time Ursula died from complications of pneumonia more than two years ago. “I always wanted to see what the other side of the tracks was, and I had it,” he says. “Now, it doesn’t make no difference if I don’t have it.”

Snelius has already begun the process of liquidating his assets. It is an everything-must-go sale: his properties, his cars, and the hundreds of dolls and porcelain figurines that belonged to his wife. (He’s not going to evict any relatives, but even the Elvis house is likely to be sold.) Whatever money is left over, he says, will go to help his family, particularly his grandchildren, and to aid various charities, but he has not worked out the specifics. “What do I need it for?” asks Snelius. “I can’t take it with me.”

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