Nine years after cashing her $10.5-million cheque, Hamilton lotto winner Sharon Tirabassi is catching the bus to her part-time job so she can support her kids and pay the rent.
Tirabassi, 35, has gone from rolling in dough to living paycheque to paycheque.
The Lotto Super 7 payout didn’t come with a financial adviser and before she knew it — big house, fancy cars, designer clothes, lavish parties, exotic trips, handouts to family, loans to friends — the money was gone.
“You don’t think it’ll go (at the time), right?” Tirabassi says.
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She’d check her account now and again, but there were always so many zeroes that she figured it was fine — until one day there was just three-quarters of a million left.
“And that was time for fun to stop and to just go back to life,” she says.
Tirabassi is happier today, she says, adding life has more purpose now than when she was shopping.
She works part-time as a personal support worker and is raising her six kids in a rented house in downtown Hamilton.
Her husband, Vinny, 35, has another three kids from a previous relationship.
Asked about how life turned out for them, Vinny shrugs, smoking a cigarette in the doorway of their home.
“I lived like this my whole life, I never was rich,” he says. “We grew up like this, so we’re used to it.”
Pretty much all that’s left now is in trust for Tirabassi’s kids when they turn 26.
“The moment I got it, I divided it among my family,” she says. “All of that other stuff was fun in the beginning, now it’s like . . . back to life.”
Before her win, Tirabassi had been living in an east Hamilton apartment with her three kids at the time, each from a different father.
She was Sharon Mentore then, not yet married. She had just landed a job as a personal care provider, fresh off welfare, and couldn’t afford a car.
But on Easter weekend in April 2004, she hit the jackpot, winning $10.5 million from a Super 7 ticket.
For someone who spent her teen years bouncing from shelter to shelter, Tirabassi was unprepared for the millionaire lifestyle. That cheque might as well have been a money tree in the yard — it felt like cash for life.
Suddenly, life was but a dream.
She took friends on wild, all-expenses-paid trips to Cancun, Florida, Las Vegas, California, the Caribbean.
She bought a house, and married Vinny. They eventually had three children.
In 2006, the newlyweds and blended Tirabassi family moved to a massive $515,000 home in Ancaster. Despite the lottery win, Tirabassi took out a $360,000 mortgage on the house.
Vinny says they owned four vehicles: a bright yellow Hummer, a Mustang, a Dodge Charger and a $200,000-plus, souped-up Cadillac Escalade, Tirabassi’s baby. The vanity licence plate read “BABIPHAT,” after one of her favourite designer clothing lines.
Ancaster neighbours hated that Cadillac. Equipped with interior turntables and sound mixers, it blared hip hop in the driveway that shook their quiet suburban street.
Tirabassi didn’t like her neighbours. “They didn’t like young people,” she says.
Besides the extravagant vehicles, a lot of the cash went to family and friends. Too much, Tirabassi now admits.
She gave her parents $1 million. Another $1.75 million was divided between her four siblings.
She bought several houses in Hamilton, renting them out at affordable rates to families. She said she paid people’s rent, loaned money to help out a friend when her husband went to jail, and helped another two friends start a business in Toronto.
A lot of friends came out of the woodwork when news broke of her win — and a lot of them she never heard from again.
“Money is the root of all evil,” Tirabassi says, shaking her head.
Vinny agrees. “Friends that she hadn’t talked to in a long time came calling.”
“Money doesn’t buy you happiness. It caused her a lot of headaches,” he says. “She lost a lot of friends, a lot of family.”
By 2007, according to a Hamilton Spectator interview at the time, Tirabassi had already blown through half of her winnings, and was living off interest from investments on the other $5 million.
That year, Vinny crashed the Mustang.
He pleaded guilty to two counts of driving impaired and causing bodily harm. He was sentenced to 18 months in jail and his licence was revoked for five years.
He would serve time again in 2011 after breaching his conditions and driving with a disqualified licence.
In 2008, while Vinny was in jail, the couple lost the Ancaster house.
She moved to Hagersville, Ont., and, once Vinny was out of jail, they spent some time in Edmonton. They moved around a lot.
Today, Hamilton’s penniless millionaires live on a quiet industrial street not far from where she started.
The walls of the modest home are covered in family photos and the odd relic from flashier times — Michael Jackson memorabilia for her, Maple Leafs mementos for him.
The Tirabassis worry about people knowing where they live. The win didn’t make them a lot of friends and they fear being robbed.
“A lot of people do still think she has lots of money,” Vinny say
The Dodge Charger and Hummer are nowhere in sight. The Cadillac’s in storage; it needs work Tirabassi can’t afford right now. When she’s not taking the bus, she drives a hot pink electric bike.
A lot of friends are gone, too. Loans were not repaid.
“(They said) ‘they’ve got enough so they’re OK, right?’ ” Vinny says.
The Tirabassis advise other lottery winners to be wary of sharing their winnings too freely. “Keep it to yourself and don’t trust anybody but family,” she says.
But as she heads to work in her scrubs Wednesday, Tirabassi says she couldn’t help give so much away.
“That’s the way I was brought up. Help those who can’t help themselves.”
Rather than mourn the millions, she’s concentrating on raising her kids with those same family values.
“I’m trying to get them to learn that they have to work for money,” Tirabassi says.
“Every so often they ask for money and I say I don’t have any money till payday. You have to wait till payday.”
TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN
The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. does not have a system for following up with winners. There is also no requirement for winners to work with a financial adviser.
“There’d be no way for us to make that requirement of winners … people are adults and need to be able to make their own decisions,” said spokesperson Don Pister.
He said it is “quite, quite rare, thankfully” that winners blow through their funds so quickly, although without a system to check in, it is impossible to know.
“We do remind people it’s their money. It can be difficult, but there is a need to say no,” Pister said.