Mystery surrounds lottery winner

2011-01-23 08:40

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Rathdrum - Holly Lahti burst into the spotlight a week ago in a feel-good story about a single mother who won a $190 million Mega Millions jackpot.

Then came the mugshot: a thin young woman with dishevelled brown hair, sporting a black eye and cuts and bruises on her face and neck. It turned out she was separated from a man who court records indicated had abused her, and now has a possible claim to some of the money through a quirk in Idaho law.

Lahti, 29, went underground with her two daughters immediately after learning she had won half of a $380 million jackpot in the January 4 drawing. She has not been seen or heard in public since.

The mugshot was taken after Lahti and her husband, Josh Lahti, both were arrested during a domestic dispute in 2003. The charges were later dropped, and the couple has long been separated.

Josh Lahti said he did not know Holly had won the lottery until told by a reporter from The Associated Press last week.

"That's awesome! I won't have to pay child support!" he said upon learning his wife was rich.

A chunk of the winnings

As it turns out, the husband could be entitled to a chunk of the winnings because he and Lahti never divorced and were never legally separated for that matter. Idaho's murky law on the issue requires a divorce filing to grant separation, which is a key factor in splitting up assets between spouses.

While the lawyers sort out the issue in the months ahead, Holly Lahti can rejoice in the fact that her troubled past has given way to riches beyond her wildest dreams.

She quit her job as a customer service representative for a bank after winning the jackpot, then she asked family and friends not to talk with reporters. She did not appear at the January 12 press conference in Boise in which her good fortune was revealed.

In a brief telephone interview, Josh Lahti said the two started dating in high school and got married in 2001.

Holly Lahti still lives in the couple's home in Rathdrum, a town in the Idaho Panhandle. Josh Lahti said he sees his daughters, age 12 and 10, most days.

Upset friends

Her friends are upset at all the attention paid to the decade-old mugshot, and say it does not reflect the devoted and hardworking young mother who has moved on from a troubled marriage.

"She is kind. She is friendly. She is shy," said Jennifer Mayberry, who has lived in the same neighbourhood for a decade. "My children play with her children."

Lahti opted Friday to collect her jackpot in a lump-sum payment, instead of annual payments over 25 years. She will get $120 million, which will be reduced to $80.6 million by federal and state taxes.

It will be a dramatic change for a woman who by all indications appeared to be of limited means.

A search of public records revealed that she grew up in California and moved with her parents to Rathdrum, where she graduated from high school. Her marriage appears to have included some violence.

Holly Lahti was arrested and charged with battery in 2003 in Kootenai County, but the prosecutor eventually dismissed the charges. Her husband was arrested on the same charge the same day, and those charges were also dismissed.

Law is unclear

In 2003, Josh Lahti was arrested for violating a no-contact order, and that charge was dismissed. He was also charged with second-degree kidnapping, possession of drug paraphernalia, domestic abuse, battery and false imprisonment. All but the kidnapping were dismissed. He was sentenced to 180 days in jail and three years probation.

In 2000, he was charged with domestic violence, but the charge was reduced to disturbing the peace. He was also cited in 2001 for failing to make child support payments.

Does Josh Lahti have a claim to some of the money? A University of Idaho law professor said it is unclear.

Nearly all other states except Idaho have laws that differentiate between separation and divorce, with division of assets clearly defined in each case, said Elizabeth Brandt, professor of family law. The Idaho statute muddles the concept of legal separation, and there is no clear case law on the issue.

But while the lottery winnings are almost certainly community property, Josh Lahti should not expect a huge windfall, Brandt said.

Holly Lahti can still file for divorce, and contend the winnings are all hers because the couple do not live together and do not support each other, Brandt said. A divorce does not automatically produce a 50-50 split of assets.

Holly Lahti could also negotiate a settlement with her husband, she said.

"I can't imagine he will have a significant claim to these earnings in the end," Brandt said.

- AP

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