Waitress tipped lottery ticket won multi-million prize – before life became hell

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Waffle House in Grand Bay, southwest Alabama is on first appearances a perfectly normal restaurant.

Set on a crossroads just a couple miles from the Mississippi state border, there's a McDonald's and an Arby's just yards away.

And March 7, 1999, probably began as a perfectly normal Sunday for Tonda Lynn Dickerson, a waitress at the suburban breakfast diner.

Divorced and in her late-20s, Tonda wanted change.

Maybe a new husband, a new family, a new life.

So when diner Edward Seward finished up his cheap meal and gave Tonda a Florida Lottery ticket for a tip, her brain got working.

For Mr Seward, it was a shortcut to leaving a few dollars behind.

For Ms Dickerson, it was life-changing.

On Sunday, March 13, the results were announced.

Tonda won the jackpot – and a whopping $10 million (£7.3m) – or, in today's money, $16.4m (£11.94m).

Florida Lottery advised Tonda take $375k (£275k) over 30 years instead of the whole shebang in one go.

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Experts recommend that to avoid big blowouts and, potentially, financial ruin.

There are plenty of horror stories about that.

So Tonda took the advice, quit Waffle House and started thinking about what was next.

Still in her late-20s, she had more than most of her life ahead of her – and little to anchor her in remote Alabama.

But when Tonda's Waffle House colleagues found out, they weren't happy.

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They accused her of breaking a promise the waitresses made to each other to share the winnings of a lottery ticket handed over by a tipper.

These are the sorts of deals made mostly as a joke, Tonda thought. You never expect to face the consequences.

Yet the Waffle House workers were convinced they deserved an equal share of the immense sum.

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Restaurants nowadays have stricter policies about whether tips are for individual workers alone or for the entire waiting staff.

And, at least in Britain, a lottery ticket for a tip might even be seen as an insult.

But when Mr Seward handed over the soon-to-be winning ticket, he was thinking about none of that – and had no reason to.

Tonda neither.

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Less than a month after her audacious win, Tonda faced an Alabama court after being sued for millions by four Waffle House waitresses.

After just 45 minutes, local news site AL.com reported, the jury decided against Ms Dickerson.

Despite the fact her lawyer described the opportunistic quartet as "rats coming out the woodwork," jurors weren't persuaded the money was Tonda's and Tonda's alone.

The nail in that particular coffin was a couple who ate at the restaurant.

They testified that Tonda had actually told them about the deal among Waffle House waitresses to share out any lottery winnings.

Still, she was certain she should keep the whole $10m for herself – and in fact turned down a court offer of $3m to keep.

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In the meantime, Tonda was funnelling cash to a family business she set up.

This was wise because the legal wrangling was far from over.

And Tonda was right to oppose the meagre $3m offer, because in 2000 the Alabama Supreme Court overturned the earlier decision on the grounds the Waffle House waitresses' deal was a form of illegal gambling.

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Even Mr Seward re-emerged to argue Tonda promised to buy him a new truck if the lottery ticket was a winner.

Presumably, this was another throwaway comment that, when the waitress became super-rich, was pored over by lawyers for months.

And just a few days after Edward was denied by the court, Tonda came upon another confrontation with a man from her past.

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Ex-husband Stacy Martin kidnapped Tonda, driving her to an isolated boat jetty in Jackson County on Alabama's northern edge.

Armed with a .22 calibre handgun, Stacy didn't let Tonda answer her ringing phone.

When it finally rang a third time, Martin let her – at which point canny Tonda grabbed his gun and shot him through the chest.

Stacy's wounds were so bad he drove them both to the hospital, with the police arriving soon later.

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Strangest of all, AL.com reported, no charges seem to have been brought against anyone for the bizarre kidnapping and shooting incident.

Yet that was just the latest reality check for Tonda, who realised her life was falling apart in front of her eyes.

For 12 years after that, the taxman argued Tonda must pay $1m in "gift taxes" on top of hefty income taxes.

In 2012, a tax court finally ruled the ex-waitress must pay extra taxes on the jackpot takings.

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But instead of paying a gift tax sum on the entire $10m winnings, Tonda only had to pay a percentage on the "gift portion" sized at $1,119,347.90, Forbes reported.

The upshot was that Tonda could keep the bulk of her winnings, helped by the fact she shared them with her family.

So after all the cynicism and shortcuts and screwing over, it was Tonda's kindness that paid off.

Yet she hasn't been able to quit working altogether: AL.com reported after checking her social media profiles that Tonda now works as a poker dealer at the Golden Nugget casino in Biloxi, Mississippi.

After all, gambling has been good to her – sort of.

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