AUSTIN, Texas – A $25,000 lottery ticket was easy money for Mike Sargent — until he lost it.
Then it meant days of searching fields and ditches — even sifting through a trash bin — before help arrived from an unexpected source.
Sargent scratched off the winning Wheel of Fortune ticket Nov. 15 at a convenience-store counter in his hometown of Alvarado, about 25 miles south of Fort Worth. He signed the ticket and filled in his name and address as he called his wife and said he was bringing her the best Christmas present ever.
By the time he got home, however, the ticket was gone.
"I was thinking that God just took it out of my hand," Sargent said.
He and a friend from church spent the rest of the night searching the fields along U.S. Highway 67. He even called 911 and asked firefighters to shine lights on the search area. (They declined.)
Later, friends combed the fields and roadside ditches while Sargent and his neighbor sifted through all the garbage in the convenience store's trash bin. Sargent posted signs all over town and even called a radio station offering a $2,000 reward.
Finally, five days after he lost the ticket, Sargent got a call from Gerardo Ruiz, a water meter reader from Midlothian who found it while working five houses down from the store.
Ruiz hadn't seen the signs or heard Sargent on the radio. And his first thought wasn't going to give the ticket back.
"I went home and I showed my wife and I said, 'Look, Jesus gave us a $25,000 ticket,"' Ruiz recalled. "She said, 'Well you better call that guy, maybe you can get a reward, because God is going to punish you if you don't return it."'
Sargent gave Ruiz $2,500 and immediately wrote a $1,750 check to his own church, but he's had to wait a little longer for his payoff.
His signature had been partially scratched off the ticket — Ruiz speculates it happened when he stepped on it — so Texas Lottery officials have been conducting forensic test to ensure Sargent's win is legitimate.
Sargent is hoping he gets the money in time for Christmas, but he and his wife, who founded a prison ministry, aren't going to buy each other extravagant gifts. Instead, they plan to help a prisoner get a paralegal certificate and use the rest to pay off their card debt.
And Sargent is taking his lost-and-found saga as a sign to stop playing the lottery.
"I think God was telling me ... that I need to be dependent on Him and not on lotteries and jobs and anything else," he said.