A few weeks before Thanksgiving, staff at the Loving Care assisted living facility in St. Petersburg realized something had changed in Malcolm Ramsey's life.
Relatives who had never paid much attention to Ramsey, 55 and mentally incompetent, suddenly started showing up in droves. Bulging bags from T.J. Maxx and Bealls filled his half of a tiny, shared bedroom. Boxes of new athletic shoes — Nike, New Balance, K-Swiss — towered against the wall.
Then there were the rumors that Ramsey had hit it big in the Florida Lottery.
Ramsey's legal guardian got involved. So did St. Petersburg police, an adult protective services worker and, eventually, a judge. And slowly, the story came out.
Sometime in October, Ramsey had won "$500 a week for life" on a scratch-off Florida Lottery ticket. With the help of a cab driver, he had gotten an ID, a copy of his birth certificate and a ride to Tallahassee to claim the prize. He took it as a lump-sum payout — $403,288.
In barely four weeks, Ramsey blew through more than half the money, with little of value to show for it. He says he wanted the cash, but by taking it all he is in danger of losing the government benefits he has relied on to survive.
Judge Lauren Laughlin, who monitors Ramsey's guardianship, sees another problem: Why was there nothing to keep the Florida Lottery from handing over thousands of dollars to someone that a court found incapable of caring for himself?
"You clearly can't be giving this kind of money to people who have had the right to manage their own financial affairs removed," Laughlin says. "You would like it to be a Forrest Gump time, good for you, but not with $170,000 walking out the door in 30 days."
• • •
Malcolm Ramsey, gray-bearded and missing most of his front teeth, can express himself but speaks in short sentences and a low, flat voice. He mowed lawns, washed dishes and worked in a warehouse before mental illness took hold and never let go.
Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, Ramsey "doesn't take his medications (and) has been involuntarily hospitalized several times," an adult protective services officer wrote in 2002. "It is your petitioner's belief that Mr. Ramsey is incapable of caring for himself and/or his finances."
A judge agreed and appointed the nonprofit Aging Solutions to be Ramsey's guardian, responsible for paying his bills and monitoring his care.
Over the next few years Ramsey spent time in a state mental hospital and a group home before landing at Loving Care, an assisted living facility near downtown St. Petersburg. Independent enough to come and go as he pleases, he often walks the neighborhood and pokes through thrift stores. The Supplemental Security Income program covers his room and board and gives him a $54 monthly allowance.
Right across the street, Ramsey found a handy place to spend it, a Quick Pick gas station, whose $1.1 million in annual ticket sales ranks it among Pinellas County's busiest lottery retailers.
"He's a good customer," says store manager Ajah Shah. "No headaches, no hassle, just come, buy and leave."
Early last year, Ramsey won $1,000 on a scratch-off ticket. He took a cab to the lottery office in Tampa to get the money.
Ramsey then set his sights on a bigger payoff. For $1 each, he started buying scratch-off tickets with a grand prize of $500 a week for life.
"He was chasing that ticket,'' Shah says. "He used to buy that ticket all the time.''
One morning in early October, Ramsey bought a ticket as usual. He took it back to his room, sat down on his bed and started scratching. The last number — 7 — matched the winning number.
Ramsey says he put the ticket in a shirt pocket, hung the shirt in his closet and padlocked the door. A few weeks later he told Shah he had a winner.
"There was no emotion on his face at all," Shah recalls. "People normally are very excited, jumping around."
Ramsey wouldn't show the ticket to Shah. Instead he turned to Charlie Springer, a driver for Bats Taxi who sometimes idles his cab at the Quick Pick when business is slow. Springer called lottery headquarters in Tallahassee to see what Ramsey needed to claim his prize.
With money borrowed from Springer, Ramsey rode a bus to Largo and got a copy of his birth certificate from the Pinellas County Vital Statistics Office. He used the certificate to get a new ID card from the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. Springer loaned him another $50 to open an account at Wells Fargo so the Florida Lottery would have a place to wire the winnings.
Finally, at 3:30 a.m. on Oct. 30, they set off for Tallahassee in Springer's cab. At lottery headquarters, Ramsey presented his ID and a woman asked if he wanted his photo taken.
Ramsey said no.
"St. Petersburg man turns $1 into $500 a week for life," read the lottery's brief press release.
Ramsey and Springer returned home the same day. The round-trip fare: $1,500.
It took a few days before Ramsey's winnings, $302,446 after taxes, became available. Shah, the Quick Pick manager, says he counseled him to be careful with all that money.
Instead, Ramsey got a cashier's check from Wells Fargo for $302,466 and immediately cashed it at an Amscot store. Amscot charged him more than $14,000 in fees.
Ramsey took $19,678 in cash and 268 money orders, each for $1,000.
Then he started spending.
As an investigator would later learn, Ramsey cashed 21 of the money orders on a single day, Nov. 6. Almost every other day after that, he cashed multiple money orders, including the big shopping day of Black Friday, Nov. 29, when he got $8,000 and bought flat-screen TVs at Walmart.
With Springer or one of his sisters driving, Ramsey also went to Tyrone Square Mall, the Ellenton outlet mall and the Wagon Wheel Flea Market, buying so many new clothes he had to get several plastic bins to hold them all. He also loaded up on $19.95 Timex watches for everyone in his family. "About 40 watches, I guess," he says.
It was the sudden appearance of Ramsey's relatives at Loving Care that prompted the facility to contact his guardian in mid November.
"It was people who were around that had never been around before," says Lona DiCerb, director of operations at Aging Solutions, the nonprofit then in charge of Ramsey's care. "That's troublesome when family he'd never spoke of prior began coming around."
Although rumors swirled that Ramsey had won the lottery, he wouldn't reveal anything to an Aging Solutions manager who went to see him. The organization called St. Petersburg police, who, DiCerb says, initially declined to investigate on the grounds it was a matter for the adult protective services program of the Department of Children and Families.
When DCF's investigator also failed to pry any information from Ramsey, she too contacted police. On Nov. 23 — more than two weeks after Ramsey started his spending spree — they opened a case of possible exploitation.
"A lot of time was wasted," DiCerb says. By then, he had gone through more than $100,000.
The last to learn of Ramsey's windfall was Judge Laughlin. She was in her chambers at the St. Petersburg courthouse Dec. 3 when she had a call from the court clerk's office.
"I got suspicious when they told me he was downstairs with a pocket full of money," the judge says.
Ramsey had come to get a copy of his guardianship file, all 662 pages, which he paid for with $662 in cash.
From there, things moved rapidly. A St. Petersburg detective went to Loving Care, where Ramsey unlocked his closet and handed over $118,000 in money orders. The judge told the clerk's office to put them in its safe along with the $662 Ramsey had paid for his file.
Laughlin also assigned a court investigator to try to determine where the rest of the winnings had gone. Relatives acknowledged receiving new phones, a $1,500 timing belt for a nephew's car, cash gifts of a few hundred dollars. They said Ramsey also took them out to eat.
"Giving $300 here, $400 there, that wouldn't account for the amount of money that is missing," Laughlin says.
One sister, Gwen Ramsey, who lives in Clearwater, said it was "months" before she learned about Ramsey's win. Did he buy her anything?
"No, 'cuz I didn't know he had won."
At the St. Petersburg home of another sister, a woman hollered to a reporter: "Go away!"
As for Springer, the cab driver, he says he doesn't want to talk about helping Ramsey claim his prize.
"Ain't nothin' to talk about except the ride. Ain't nothin' spectacular."
• • •
Police are still investigating whether anyone took illegal advantage of Ramsey. Exploitation of the disabled or elderly is a felony punishable by up to 30 years in prison.
Both the judge and Aging Solutions' DiCerb think the Florida Lottery should be checking to see if a winner has been adjudicated incompetent, just as it checks to see if winners owe child support.
"I can look online in public records and see if someone is under a guardianship," DiCerb says. "I spoke to an attorney at the Florida Lottery who said they had no legal authority or responsibility to do so and I think that's shameful."
Laughlin said she might ask Pinellas County's legislative delegation to consider a change in the law.
"This brings to light one of the problems that can come up," she says. "I don't know how many times lightning can strike but you can't give these people that kind of money."
Had she known of Ramsey's winnings early on, Laughlin says she could have set up a "special needs trust" that would have allowed the money to be spent for his benefit — but not for other people — without jeopardizing his government assistance. As it now stands, Ramsey could lose his Medicaid, which pays his medical bills, and SSI, a needs-based program that covers his $1,000-a-month room and board and would pay for costlier nursing care he might need in the future.
"There are certain income and resource restrictions in order for you to be eligible for the benefits," says Patti Patterson, a Social Security Administration spokesperson. "So you can only have so much in the bank."
Is it too late to set up a trust with the remaining $118,000? Judge Laughlin has appointed a new guardian and "that's something he has to figure out," she says. "We're hoping he can."
• • •
Ramsey has little to say about his lottery windfall except: "They took my money." He doesn't think he has a guardian, doesn't understand that the judge was trying to help him.
He still spends his days trolling through thrift stores and crossing the street to the Quick Pick.
"Now he's chasing the $2,500 a week for life," says Shah, the manager.
Even though he's down to his $54 monthly allowance, relatives still come to see him, Ramsey says. On a cold recent day, he waited for one sister to pick him up at 1 p.m. so they could go to lunch. At 1:40, she still wasn't there so he walked over to the Quick Pick and bought a ticket.
He scratched it off in the parking lot.
Then he walked slowly back to Loving Care and Room 128, with its bags from T.J. Maxx and 23 pairs of shoes.
Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at Susan@tampabay.com