SALT LAKE CITY — A group of blue collar University of Utah workers will split $1 million in lottery winnings thanks to a set of keys left in a truck and an ornery little dog named "Stella."
Thirteen years after playing the same set of numbers every month in the Idaho lottery, the group of 33 workers who work on heating and cooling university buildings hit pay dirt when Steve Hughes left his truck running to keep his dog "Stella" warm while he went inside to a gas station near Lava Hot Springs, Idaho, on Jan. 6. Utah has no lottery.
When he returned to his truck, his miniature pincher had locked him out by putting her paw on the manual lock. Hughes, 29, planned to buy the ticket elsewhere, but instead he had his girlfriend buy it there while he tried to pick the lock with a slim jim.
He eventually coached Stella to put her paws on the electronic window button in the back seat, allowing Hughes to get in the car.
What seemed like an annoying delay that day turned out to be serendipitous when the group discovered Wednesday night that they had won second prize in the Idaho Powerball. They announced the great news during a morning meeting Thursday morning at the HVAC shop at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Hughes thought it was a joke — looking for the camera filming the prank.
"It was pretty exciting," said Richard Tison, 50, the supervisor.
About 25 members of the group made the 5.5-hour trip on a charter bus to Boise, Idaho on Friday to turn in their winning ticket and collect their checks. The rest had to stay behind to make sure the university's buildings were toasty on the cold winter day, Tison said.
It was a raucous ride on the bus, with the crew making it a "party bus" type atmosphere as they celebrated their good fortune. After collecting their money, the group planned to climb back on board the bus for the journey home — though some suggested they might stop off at a watering hole in Boise to contemplate their winnings.
Tison and Hughes say they will each get about $20,000 after taxes, or as Hughes said, "A nice little bonus during the year."
Hughes plans to save half of his share and buy a four-wheeler. Many in the group plan to buy four-wheelers or drag cars, he said. Some are going to save or invest it.
"I'm going to pay off some bills and probably get me a boat," Tison said.
Hughes' dog, "Stella," didn't get to go on Friday's "party bus" but the lucky winners had previously made sure she was rewarded.
"She got a couple of big surprises when I got home," Hughes said. "She got 18-inch rawhide bones."
The group began buying the tickets in February 2001 with just three people. The pool grew to 33 people, but the philosophy of using the same numbers never changed.
Recently, some in the group suggested they change the numbers — fed up with 13 years of futility. But Tison, one of the original three, insisted they stay the course. Hughes estimates that they've each put in $200 to $400 over the years, depending on how long they've been in the group.
Tison said they plan to keep playing the Idaho Powerball, taking turns making the monthly 1.5 hour drive to Millad, Idaho to pick up a ticket.
And yes, Tison says they'll keep playing the same numbers: 11-16-33-40-41.
"There is no need to change them," Tison said. "It worked once, why wouldn't it work again."