Billie Bob's (Mis) Fortune

Less than two years after Billie Bob Harrell Jr. took the $31 million lottery jackpot, he took his own life

Harrell, darkly handsome but stocky at five feet ten, served a short stint as an assistant pastor at an Aldine Pentecostal church. An uncle, Guy Broadway, was the head minister. When Broadway retired and was replaced by another minister, Harrell joined the Marines and served three years at Camp Pendleton in Southern California.

While home on leave in December 1971, Harrell attended a Christmas banquet at his old church. Resident matchmakers in the congregation arranged for Harrell to be introduced to a young woman named Barbara Jean Abernathy, a good-hearted woman so small that she sometimes wore platform shoes to make her appear taller. It was apparently a match made, well, in heaven. After three dates, Harrell returned to Camp Pendleton, but he and Barbara Jean wrote each other regularly. Before his next trip home, in 1972, Harrell told his father to buy him a car so he and Barbara Jean could drive back to Camp Pendleton together -- as their honeymoon.

When Harrell was discharged from the Marines, he and his wife settled in the northeast Harris County enclave of Humble. Billie Bob went to work for a drilling company called Hi-Drill and began building a family of what would be three children: Billie Bob III, Ben and Michelle. Hi-Drill ceased operations, so Harrell joined his dad at Gulf Printing and, over a 12-year period, worked his way up to shop manager.

Harrell gave a tithe, 10 percent of his first lottery check, to Calvary Tabernacle Pentecostal Church.
Steve McVicker
Harrell gave a tithe, 10 percent of his first lottery check, to Calvary Tabernacle Pentecostal Church.
Ben (foreground) and the other Harrell children wonder where their father's money went.
Houston Press
Ben (foreground) and the other Harrell children wonder where their father's money went.

But Gulf closed its doors in the early 1990s. Harrell had to take a low-level job at The Home Depot. The economic pressures put Barbara Jean into the workforce as well, at EG&G Sealol, which makes high-tech seals and O-rings.

But three years of stocking shelves with electrical supplies left Harrell discouraged. His children say the frustrations led him to fantasize regularly about the better life a winning lottery ticket would bring him and his family.

"He thought about it all the time," says son Billie Bob III, 25. "More than anything else, he fantasized about quitting his job. He was having a hard time with his boss and wanted to do the 'Take This Job and Shove It' routine."

For Harrell, he was about to awaken from his long dream.


Just like on every Saturday night, the Lotto balls did their brief but wild dance in front of the television cameras before the local news broadcast on June 28, 1997, but Harrell didn't even bother to tune in that evening.

Sure, he had made his usual stop earlier, this time at the Texaco Star Mart on Loop 494 in Kingwood. He had walked out with a few sets of numbers then turned his attention to other matters.

On Sunday morning, when Harrell donned his work outfit and showed up at the job, everybody at The Home Depot was talking about the lottery news: The winning ticket, worth a whopping $31 million, had been bought in their own backyard of Kingwood. Still, Harrell didn't give it much thought.

That evening Harrell punched out from his shift, returned home, grabbed the Sunday newspaper and settled into his La-Z-Boy recliner, the well-worn one he'd had for years. He finally pulled out his lottery numbers to compare them to the prior evening's winners -- 3, 11, 16, 28, 40, 44. Billie III walked through the room, and his father called to him.

"He said, 'Bill, come over here and take a look at this and make sure I'm reading this right,' " says the youngest Billie. "So I walked over there, and I was looking, and I was like, 'Uh, they match.' "

Barbara Jean, who rarely played the lottery, emerged from the kitchen to take a look for herself. The three of them just stood there for a while, looking at the ticket in stunned silence. None could convince themselves it was the ticket.

"So he had me go down to the convenience store around the corner and get a computer printout of the winning numbers," says Billie III. "Even then, we still couldn't believe it." They tried the lottery's 900 number but could not get through. The next day they tried again. A lottery official confirmed that, yes indeed, they held the only winning ticket in the $31 million drawing.

"So we headed straight to a safe deposit box," says Harrell's oldest son. Additionally, before rushing off to Austin to collect his money, Texas's newest millionaire put financial safeguards in motion as well.

After taking the ticket to a safe deposit box, Harrell contacted Steve Drake, the host of the KPRC-AM financial talk show. Drake put the Harrells in touch with attorney Karen Gerstner, one of the few experts in providing legal and financial advice to those who have cashed in big on the lottery.

"Lottery winners are always in a hurry to get their money, so you have to rush around like crazy and put their documentation together," says Gerstner. A pleasant, dark-haired woman in her forties, Gerstner has a nurturing demeanor. She seems more likely to offer someone a glass of milk and a plate of cookies rather than cutting-edge financial advice.

Gerstner recalls that the Harrells were hardly an exception when it came to wanting their money yesterday, that when she first met the Harrells, Billie Bob mentioned that his bank account was overdrawn. Instead of letting them rush to grab the winnings, Gerstner urged the couple to take it slow.

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