[Paleopsych] NYT: Instant Millions Can't Halt Winners' Grim Slide

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Fri Dec 9 01:54:10 UTC 2005

Instant Millions Can't Halt Winners' Grim Slide

[I've read in many places that a great happy event (marriage, promotion, 
having lunch with Hillary) raises one's happiness level for only about a 
year and that a terrible event (death of spouse, being fired, being forced 
to have lunch with Hillary) lowers it also for only about a year. The sad 
tale below is an exception.]


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I think we all suspected that some drug problems were going on
there because so many people were coming and going," Ms. Watkins

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.

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