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

The legal specialist explains that the lottery allows only one claimant for the prize, so she suggested that the Harrells establish a trust to receive the payments. When they won, the Harrells elected to take their winnings in annual installments for 25 years.

Gerstner says married couples who win often don't realize that if their spouse dies, the estate is suddenly faced with a huge, sudden tax burden that includes tax due on future lottery payments. A trust avoids that tax overload, she explains.

Although Billie Bob and Barbara Jean were champing to move into a higher tax bracket, Gerstner convinced them to let her set up the trust first.

Tina and Billie Bob Harrell Sr. refuse to believe their son killed himself.
Steve McVicker
Tina and Billie Bob Harrell Sr. refuse to believe their son killed himself.
Guy Hargrove, Harrell's minister, traveled with the family when they claimed the jackpot.
Steve McVicker
Guy Hargrove, Harrell's minister, traveled with the family when they claimed the jackpot.

At the Harrells' insistence, both Drake and Gerstner accompanied them to Austin to pick up the first installment check three weeks after the lottery drawing. Following the presentation ceremony, the Harrell family, their parents, their minister and their advisers all lunched together to celebrate -- over hamburgers, french fries and onion rings. Gerstner says she could tell that Barbara Jean and Billie Bob were each close to both sets of parents, although the trust contained no benefits for the parents. The Harrells agreed with her that the trust should be modified to provide those benefits.

Gerstner drafted a revised trust with provisions for the parents and mailed it to the Harrells. It was never signed and returned, she says, although Gerstner was not concerned. Soon after getting their hands on the money, the Harrells took a trip to Hawaii. Gerstner also learned that Billie Bob became interested in purchasing art and real estate. She attempted to contact them several times, by both phone and mail, about finishing the trust modifications and doing more tax planning. She never heard back.

"I just figured they were too busy," says Gerstner. When Barbara Jean called her six months later, the Harrells' marriage was unraveling.

In February 1998 Barbara Jean and divorce attorney Mike Stocker instructed Gerstner to revise the trust so her money would be separate from Billie Bob's.

The estranged wife, says Gerstner, explained that Billie Bob was spending money like mad and had a young girlfriend.

"I was very sad to hear about the divorce," says Gerstner. "But I could understand that Barbara Jean was fed up with Billie Bob's case of the middle-aged crazies."

Barbara Jean Harrell refused to speak with the Press. However, her three children -- Billie Bob III, Ben, 22, and Michelle, 20 -- agreed to be interviewed, but only if their attorney was present.

According to the kids, not long after Billie Bob won the lottery, life in the Harrell household was forever altered.

"First of all, we had to change our phone number about seven times," says Ben, the executor of his father's estate. He did most of the talking for his older brother and younger sister. "It was supposed to be unlisted, but then someone would call. People seemed to have no trouble getting the number. We also got a mountain of mail."

Letters, says Ben, were usually handwritten notes from people who said they felt moved to write to the Harrells and explain to them their own dire situations. And yes, they all wanted to know if there wasn't some way the Harrells could help them financially.

Harrell family members were at times prisoners in their home. People drove by outside, hoping to catch a glimpse of these lottery winners. Others wanted to touch them, for luck. During a shopping trip at Wal-Mart, a woman approached Barbara Jean and told her that she had purchased $500 worth of lottery tickets in the same drawing won by the Harrells, and she expected them to refund her money. The incident frightened Barbara Jean.

"People would tell you that their daughter was dying, and couldn't we just send a check to help her live," says Ben. "They'd tell you their life story, and you'd like to believe them, but you just can't."

At least most of the Harrells didn't buy the sob stories. Billie Bob was different, say his children. In addition to his new interest in art, antique cars and real estate, Billie Bob also enjoyed helping other people, his kids say. Perhaps too much so.

Upon receiving the first installment, a check for around $1.2 million, Harrell first handed over 10 percent -- his tithe -- to Calvary Tabernacle Pentecostal, the church in Trinity where he worshiped. A family friend became pastor of a church in Colorado, so Billie Bob wrote a check to that congregation. One Christmas Billie Bob ponied up the cash for 480 turkey dinners for needy families. The kids also say anytime a member of Calvary Tabernacle was in a tight spot, Billie Bob was there with his ever-present checkbook and pen.

"I think a lot of people just came to expect him to do that," says Ben. "People would make a fuss over him, and he really enjoyed that a lot. He enjoyed the attention. He'd rather have that attention more than buying himself something."

There were also, the children say, gifts for another admirer: Billie Bob had found a young girlfriend. She worked at the pharmacy where he got prescriptions filled for high blood pressure, depression and acid reflux. And she got from him a car, jewelry and other presents.

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