Top winner: ‘I’ve never won’

Louis Tillman Johnson says he owes the IRS $50,000 in taxes.

Louis Tillman Johnson’s eyes grew wide when a reporter showed up at his modest 1,200-square-foot Pompano Beach rental home.

He’s the most prolific lottery winner of the past decade, having cashed in a big lottery ticket an average of once every 11 days — 252 tickets totaling $719,000.

How’d he win so often?

“Lottery? I’ve never won the lottery,” Johnson, 68, responded.

That’s despite the lottery’s massive list of winners crediting him with a winning pattern that defies logic.

He has no wins from 1993 until October 2007, when he launched into a streak that includes unlikely wins in 55 different games from 69 different stores, from North Lauderdale to Vero Beach.

He believes someone else is cashing in tickets in his name, and he’s now in trouble with the IRS.

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

It would be possible to cash in a lottery ticket with someone else’s photo ID and Social Security number. And that would be lucrative for identity thieves: They could cash in tickets at will and stick someone else with the tax bill.

Johnson, a retired tire repairman from Vidalia, Ga., said the IRS sent him a certified letter in 2008 or 2009 claiming he owed roughly $50,000 in taxes from lottery winnings. He called them, confused.

“I told them it wasn’t me,” he said. “They didn’t believe me.”

He said he tried to hire a lawyer, but the lawyer’s fees were too expensive. He’s since received a few more letters but didn’t keep them. He’s stopped worrying about it.

“What can you do? When you’re poor, you can’t do anything,” he said. “Lock me up, I don’t care. There are a lot of people in jail for stuff they didn’t do.”

Johnson never filed a police report and couldn’t provide the letters he said he received from the IRS. An IRS spokesman wouldn’t comment specifically on Johnson’s case. Records indicate they’ve never filed a lien against Johnson, but that’s not surprising — he doesn’t seem to own anything worth putting a lien on.

The Post asked Robert Warren, a retired 29-year special agent in the IRS’ criminal investigations division, for his thoughts on Johnson’s case.

Warren said an IRS collections officer wouldn’t aggressively pursue a case if the officer felt the information was wrong. And, he said, Johnson’s situation sounds like that.

“Either he’s the luckiest man in the world, or there has been some identity theft and mixup in the records of who won these lottery tickets and who was paid,” he said.

The lottery has been penalized by the IRS when winners don’t report their correct information, a February state legislative audit noted.

The lottery recently joined an IRS pilot program to verify players’ information in real time. But in most cases, when someone cashes in a ticket at a district office, the lottery won’t match the ID to the Social Security number until later.

Lottery officials said Johnson’s tickets were redeemed at district offices in Miami and West Palm Beach, but declined to comment on his case, citing “the potential for an ongoing investigation.”

Warren said it’s easy for criminals to obtain a driver license and Social Security card.

Johnson, who has no criminal record, wondered if his son with the same name could be responsible for the wins. But the son was in prison for cocaine possession while many of the tickets were cashed.

The Post interviewed the son in January in a Broward County jail, where he was being held for violating his probation. He said he knew nothing of lottery tickets and couldn’t remember giving anyone his personal information.

Most of Johnson’s lottery wins were sold from stores within a 20-minute drive of his house, including the Akel Market, which he visits nearly every day for a cup of coffee and to hear the neighborhood gossip. He said he asked the store clerk about the wins, but the clerk pleaded ignorance.

The Post also asked a store clerk there about a frequent winner at the store. He said he didn’t know anything about it.

Only one thing is certain: Johnson’s chances of winning by playing the lottery are remote.

He would have had to spend a minimum of $1.62 million, or $10,270 per month, to have a 1-in-20-trillion chance of winning so often, according to one mathematician. Another statistician calculated Johnson would have to buy 1,050 tickets per day to have a 1 percent chance of winning so often.

Johnson says that didn’t happen, no matter who bought the actual tickets:

“Nobody’s that lucky.”

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