Originally created 09/10/01

From lucky lottery winner to down on her luck

ST. LOUIS - For eight years, Janite Lee lived the good life.

She moved into a gated community in Town and Country. She dined with world leaders. She had a reading room at Washington University's law school named for her.

But by July, the $18 million lottery winner had run through it all. Lee filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

Until she files documents related to her finances, it is unclear exactly how she fell into insolvency. Interviews, court filings and federal records show that Lee was generous to a variety of causes, particularly politics, education and the community.

"As you know, anybody who wins the lottery, everyone comes to them," said Kay-Song Lee, editor of the Korean-American Journal in St. Louis. Kay-Song Lee is a friend of Janite Lee but is not related to her.

Rochelle Stanton, an attorney representing Lee in the bankruptcy, declined to discuss the matter in detail. Lee, who is single and 60, was not available for comment.

In the bankruptcy filing, Lee listed $1.8 million in assets and $2.5 million in liabilities.

As of July 5, she claimed to have $700 left in two bank accounts, according to court filings. She had no cash on hand.

Her eight-year journey began on a Saturday in early February 1993.

Back then, Lee, who immigrated to the United States from South Korea with her husband and three stepchildren in 1972, was operating a wig shop in downtown St. Louis, according to Kay-Song Lee. She had raised her children on her own after earlier divorcing her husband, said Kay-Song Lee.

On that day eight years ago, Lee's cousin drove her to the Route 3 Gift Shop and Lottery in Sauget, just across the Missouri-Illinois state line, to buy only her second ticket for the Illinois Lottery. Lee, then 52, found out the next day that she had won $18 million.

She took her winnings in 20 annual installments of $620,000, after taxes. She soon bought a house in a gated neighborhood in Town and Country, paying $1.2 million. Some years later, she sold the rights to the winnings for a lump sum at an undisclosed time and for an undisclosed amount. But court records do show that for the last two years she received about $5 million from these winnings.

Among her dreams was to build a nondenominational church in the St. Louis area, she told the Post-Dispatch in 1993.

Across from the entrance to Washington University's School of Law library hangs a painting of Janite Lee dressed in a white hanbok, a traditional Korean dress.

To the right is the elaborately appointed Janite Lee Reading Room. Washington University declined to say how much or when Lee donated to the law school. Kay-Song Lee said Lee told him she donated $1.5 million.

In 1999, Lee, who had a stepdaughter who graduated from Washington University, made the Parents' Honor Roll as a Life Eliot Benefactor, a designation requiring a $500,000 to $1 million contribution.

Lee skyrocketed into political prominence in 1997, when she donated $100,000 for a local fund-raising event for sought to be the luncheon chairwoman for a local fund-raising event for President Bill Clinton.

Lee sat next to Clinton at that luncheon. Her generosity soon touched off a stampede among prominent Missouri Democrats seeking campaign donations. All told, she donated $277,000 to various candidates over the next three years. That included $2,000 to Hillary Clinton's successful New York bid for the U.S. Senate last year.

The largest chunk - $84,000 - went to Rep. Richard A. Gephardt's various campaign committees. Another $10,000 went to various committees tied to Attorney General Jay Nixon's unsuccessful 1998 bid for the U.S. Senate.

At Nixon's November 1997 fund-raiser, Lee sat next to Clinton again. In October 1998, she sat next to Vice President Al Gore when he held a fund-raising dinner here.

In 1997, Lee ranked 31st on a list of the top soft money donors to the Democratic National Party Committee, according to Common Cause, a citizens lobbying organization. That put her a notch below the Boeing Co.

In 1998, she was ranked in the top three of individual political donors in Missouri for that year.

Between these events, Lee attended a state dinner at the White House for South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung. Accompanying Lee was her stepdaughter, who now practices law in Chicago.

The St. Louis community also benefited from her generosity, and Lee maintained a high profile among Korean-Americans in St. Louis.

She held lunches for the homeless in Forest Park, supported a local association for families that adopted Korean children and contributed heavily to her church, gave $30,000 to the family of a Korean church pastor who died and paid his funeral expenses, according to several Korean-Americans here.

In 1999, Lee was president of St. Louis' Korean American Association and bought a house as a private club for the group. But she sold it before remodeling was finished, according to Kay-Song Lee.

It is unclear when Lee's finances took a tailspin, but several factors could have led to her bankruptcy.

She incurred a $750,000 penalty for prepaying a loan; the amount is currently in dispute. Details of when and what she prepaid are unclear. Then there was the lump sum for her remaining winnings, which was used to pay off debt and mortgages, court filings said.

She made some bad investments, such as one in a Bombay Bicycle Club restaurant. Gambling and credit card debt also cost her a bundle. Last year alone, Lee lost nearly $347,000 at several casinos in the St. Louis area, according to court filings. She racked up about $37,000 charged to several credit cards.

This February, she took a second loan from Royal Banks of Missouri, for $200,000, according to court documents; she borrowed $1.4 million from the bank in 1997. But she also leased a 2000 Mercedes Benz E-class auto in April, handing over $800 in her first payment.

She then missed her bank loan payments in May and her car payments in June.

Lee filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy a month later.


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