CHARLESTON, W. Va. – West Virginia lottery players are on a roll this year, with nine Powerball tickets worth at least $1 million sold in the state.
While five other states have had more people win $1 million or more, West Virginia is No. 1 per capita, averaging one Powerball ticket worth $1 million for every 200,000 of its 1.8 million residents.
"It's just a lucky streak that we're on that's amazing," said Randy Burnside, a spokesman for the West Virginia Lottery. "Hopefully we'll have a lot more this year."
The odds of winning are the same anywhere Powerball is played. So far this year, there have been 161 Powerball tickets nationwide that have won $1 million, matching the first five numbers in the six-number game.
After Saturday's drawing, only five states sold more of those $1 million-plus tickets than West Virginia, all with much larger populations: New York (19), Florida (17), California (13) and Pennsylvania and Texas (10), said executive director Chuck Strutt of the Urbandale, Iowa-based Multi-State Lottery Association, which oversees Powerball.
California is the king of the grand-prize winners, selling two of the four Powerball tickets matching all six numbers this year. The others were in Florida and Missouri.
But when taking population into account, West Virginia is No. 1. Vermont, with two Powerball millionaires and 626,630 residents, is second and Louisiana, with seven winners and a population of 4.6 million, was third.
West Virginia's median household income is among the worst in the nation.
"We're just tickled to death to be able to create life-changing money for folks in the state," Burnside said.
Susan Dennis regularly buys lottery tickets at home in West Virginia and when traveling outside the state, but those tickets always seem to come up empty.
"I think I just better stick with West Virginia," she said.
Dennis was among 12 people from a small mattress business in West Virginia to share a $1 million Powerball prize in February.
Powerball rules were changed in early 2012 to help increase jackpots and payouts. The odds of matching the first five numbers in the Powerball game are about 1 in 5 million.
In addition to Powerball, two tickets from the popular Mega Millions game worth at least $1 million have been claimed in West Virginia this year.
West Virginia has had its share of grand-prize winners, too, with eight tickets matching six numbers in Powerball. Among those were Jack Whittaker, a West Virginia contractor who won a nearly $315 million Powerball jackpot in 2002. He quickly fell victim to scandals, lawsuits and personal setbacks.
West Virginia's winners have come from all walks of life and all corners of the state. Three Powerball tickets worth at least $1 million were sold for one drawing May 3, the first time that's happened, Burnside said.
Some of the recent winners have won big more than once. Twins Pam Garretson and Penny Fitzpatrick, of Crab Orchard, who claimed $1 Powerball winnings for the May 3 drawing, shared a $100,000 Powerball prize 12 years ago.
Dennis and her group still play Powerball whenever the jackpot reaches $100 million and planned to buy more for Saturday's drawing, whose jackpot was at $173 million. There were six tickets worth $1 million sold Saturday, but there was no jackpot winner. The prize increased to $192 million for Wednesday's drawing.
"I don't think it's luck," Dennis said. "It's whatever God wants to give us and when he wants to do it."
The state's latest winner, Hartzell "John" Lancaster, a small-business owner from the Northern Panhandle community of Weirton, buys five tickets for every Powerball drawing at a convenience store.
He didn't realize he'd won big in the May 17 game until he went to the store the next day to buy tickets for the next drawing.
"I couldn't believe it when I found out," Lancaster said. "I must have been as white as a ghost."