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.
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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, grey 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 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.