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Top lottery winner: I redeemed tickets for fee

Louis Tillman Johnson, identified in a Post investigation, says owners and workers at three stores gave him tickets to cash in.

In 2011, Louis Tillman Johnson was fuming mad.

He had upheld his end of the bargain. Kaiser Akel had not.

Akel was buying winning lottery tickets from convenience store customers — for a fee — and paying Johnson a 10 percent cut to cash them, Johnson recently told investigators. That’s what made Johnson appear to be the Florida Lottery’s most prolific winner in a Palm Beach Post investigation.

But this time, Johnson hadn’t gotten his money.

“Me and him had a little altercation at the store,” he told investigators. “And I went home to get my gun to kill him.”

Johnson’s admissions, obtained through a public records request, reveals a thriving black market in lottery tickets, which allows winners to avoid taxes and proved lucrative to store owners and others collecting winning tickets by the hundreds.

A Post investigation found dozens of players throughout Florida whose winnings could not be explained by luck alone. Johnson initially explained his “winnings” by claiming he was a victim of identify theft.

Johnson didn’t kill Akel over the 2011 spat, but he did take a dramatic step. He called the lottery to turn Akel in.

That should have put lottery officials on notice. Johnson wanted to quit the scheme.

But the lottery did little to stop the deals.

“We may have been able to have done more,” lottery spokeswoman Connie Barnes concedes.

But now, the lottery is embarking on comprehensive reform in the wake of The Post investigation. Aside from ending ticket sales at three Pompano Beach stores, including Akel Market, they suspended sales at 11 others. They’re adopting software to track frequent winners, considering changes to lottery rules and re-evaluating contracts with some stores.

And in a few weeks, officials plan to roll out a public-awareness campaign to encourage players to sign the back of all their lottery tickets. That could help prevent theft and ticket transfers.

“We’re not happy about this at all,” Barnes said of the schemes. “Unfortunately, there are some people who have tried to game the system. We’ve identified, through your efforts and your help, who we believe the most prolific ones are.”

A new story behind winnings

On the morning of April 2, two lottery investigators and several Broward County sheriff’s deputies pulled up in front of Johnson’s tiny Pompano Beach home.

Lottery agent Don Mardis and analyst Ray Pace had tough questions for Johnson, who’s had 282 wins worth $773,000 through April.

Johnson, inside his 1,200-square-foot rental home, told them he had been cashing in tickets for people all over South Florida, according to a recording of the interview.

“That’s how I make my living,” Johnson told the investigators. “I just do it. I’m not gonna lie.”

Lottery records indicated he won at an amazing rate.

He had never won the lottery until 2007, when he began collecting winning tickets worth $600 or more every 11 days, on average.

The tickets came from nearly 80 stores, from North Lauderdale to Vero Beach. He won 282 times, playing 63 different games.

Mathematicians calculated he’d have to spend at least $1.62 million to have even the slightest chance of winning so often.

His explanation? He initially told The Post someone stole his identity and cashed the tickets in his name. The IRS was hassling him for at least $50,000 in unpaid taxes on winnings, he said, money they could not collect because he claimed to be broke.

“There’s something strange going on,” he said with a straight face earlier this year. “It hurts me. I’d like to know who this guy is.”

Ticket brokers cashing in

Lotteries around the country see winners like Johnson: People whose frequent winnings are so extraordinary that they defy logic and chance. The Post identified more than 200 people in Florida who had cashed in big winners at least 30 times.

Some lotteries have discovered the reason: The “winners” are cashing in tickets for other people.

Before paying out tickets above $600, the Florida Lottery, like many others, checks to see whether the winner owes any debts to the state, such as child support. And if the payout is more than $5,000, federal income taxes are taken out.

That provides an incentive for some winners to skirt the law and sell their tickets for cash. Cashing in tickets for someone else is a first-degree misdemeanor in Florida, punishable by up to a year in jail.

Johnson, who has not been charged with a crime, described to investigators how the scheme worked.

“Most of them (legitimate winners) can’t cash it because they owe child support or student loans, stuff like that,” Johnson told Mardis on April 2.

So they find someone who can cash the ticket. Johnson’s biggest clients came from Akel Market, a run-down corner store just minutes from his home, he told authorities.

The winners would sell their ticket at Akel Market, typically for 72 percent of the ticket’s face value, he said.

“I charged $100 a thousand, and they would buy the ticket from people,” he told investigators.

He said a clerk or store owner would call him up to cash it in.

“They’ll tell me, ‘Mr. Johnson, we got something for you for Monday,’” he said. “And I know then, they done bought a ticket.”

Johnson then would drive to redeem the ticket at the lottery’s nearest district offices, either in West Palm Beach at Okeechobee Boulevard and Florida’s Turnpike or in Miami. He would be required to sign the back of the ticket and show identification to get the winnings.

He’d return and hand over the check to the broker.

The scheme benefited those involved.

Winners ducked their obligations. Brokers received an 18 percent cut of the winnings. And Johnson took another 10 percent.

The losers included the IRS and single parents waiting for child support.

Odd endorsements

Beyond what appeared to be Johnson’s extraordinary wins, lottery officials had other reasons to think something was up.

The lottery pays winners with a check.

One check was endorsed by Foad Akel, co-owner of Akel of Boca Raton Inc., which owns Akel Market. Others were endorsed over to Akel of Boca Raton. Johnson said Foad Akel, Kaiser’s brother, also supplied him with tickets. He said he knew Foad as “Mr. Jackson.” Kaiser Akel used to own part of Akel Market, but records show he hasn’t been an owner since 2001.

On a $1,000 check issued in 2008, investigators noted that Johnson’s endorsement signature is spelled “Louise Johnson.” Whoever signed it misspelled Johnson’s name.

In addition to Akel Market, Johnson told investigators that two other Pompano stores were his main sources of tickets. They are Georgia Market at 1404 NW 6th Ave. and the Kwik Stop Food Store at 617 Hammondville Road. The lottery has stopped ticket sales at those stores.

Neither Kaiser nor Foad Akel responded to repeated requests for comment. Neither has the owner of the Kwik Stop Food Store. The manager of Georgia Market said he didn’t know Johnson and has never bought a winning ticket from a customer.

There were other stores involved, too.

“Everybody had my number,” he told investigators.

Fake winner taken

Lottery officials had his number, too.

In 2011, Johnson told Mardis, the lottery investigator, that he hadn’t been paid by Kaiser Akel for redeeming a $20,000 ticket.

Nearly all of the tickets Johnson cashed in were less than $5,000. The Florida Lottery automatically withholds taxes on tickets above that amount.

Johnson said he warned Kaiser Akel that the lottery would automatically withhold 25 percent.

Akel didn’t believe him, and when Johnson came back without the full $20,000, Kaiser Akel refused to pay him his 10 percent, Johnson said.

Skeptical lottery investigators first wanted to see if Johnson was really cashing tickets for others.

So an undercover lottery employee went to Akel Market with a dummy ticket that appeared to be a winner, according to the lottery. The employee asked the clerk to check if it was a winner.

The clerk told the employee the ticket wasn’t a winner and kept it.

Lottery investigators then waited for Johnson — or someone else — to cash the ticket.

They waited. And waited.

Nothing happened.

Rather than try again, they closed the investigation without digging deeper.

“I never heard from you no more,” Johnson told Mardis in April.

Johnson continued to cash in tickets, none topping $5,000.

Few investigators

The lottery has only six investigators to police 13,000 stores that sell tickets. By comparison, California has at least 40 investigators who cover 21,000 stores.

It’s a lean operation, Barnes said.

“We’ve really ramped up our investigations,” she said. “We’re doing anything we can at this point to identify retailers who are acting unscrupulous.”

The lottery already announced it would install additional self-checking machines and name stores where clerks have stolen tickets.

“Our top priority is to protect our players and generate money for education,” Barnes said.

No one has been arrested in the Akel market scheme or statewide, but the investigation continues.

‘Trying to quit’

Since his call to the lottery in 2011, Johnson has cashed more than 120 tickets worth $341,000.

“I’ve been trying to quit for three years. That’s why I called you,” Johnson told investigators. “Now you done threaten me, I ain’t gonna do it no more. You said if I do it, I’m going to jail. I don’t want to go to jail.”

“I’m not threatening you,” Mardis, a sworn law enforcement officer, replied. “All I’m saying is, if you continue to do it — ”

“I’m going to jail.”

“There’s a possibility you could go to jail, because — ”

“I don’t want to go to no jail. So you done made me stop already.”

Johnson didn’t stop, though.

Just hours after he gave a second, sworn interview with Mardis, Johnson tried to cash in an $800 Play 4 winner at the lottery’s West Palm Beach district office, The Post has learned.

Johnson told the lottery that his brother had won the ticket and gave it to him to cash. Cashing in tickets for a family member is not illegal, according to the lottery.

Officials said they checked security footage at the Fort Lauderdale store where Johnson claimed his brother bought the ticket. A man matching Johnson’s description of his brother was on the video.

They then paid the claim, without contacting the brother to check out his story.

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