By Dana Feldman
SAN BERNARDINO, California (Reuters) - The belatedly crowned winner of a $23 million California lottery jackpot says she had stuffed the lucky ticket in her car and left it there forgotten for months, until a surveillance camera photo of the ticket's purchase surfaced on the Internet.
Only when she recognized her daughter in the picture, which state lottery officials had publicly circulated in a desperate attempt to locate the missing winner, did Julie Cervera, 69, realize to her amazement that she was a multimillionaire.
For Cervera, a resident of the high-desert town of Victorville who has been on disability for 20 years and described herself as broke, the unexpected turn of fortune could not have come at a more opportune time.
"I have maybe a dollar in my pocket, they just shut off my cable, my electric bill is $600 and my (bank) account is also overdrawn," Cervera told reporters on Friday, a day after coming forward to claim her prize.
The ticket, purchased May 30 for Cervera by her adult daughter in a liquor store in Palmdale, north of Los Angeles, was due to expire at the end of this month.
State lottery officials said Cervera's jackpot marks only the second time they have been forced to release a store surveillance photo to track down a winner.
The image was pinpointed using electronic records the California Lottery system electronically keeps on the time and place of its ticket sales. It was released earlier this week to news organizations.
In the California SuperLotto Plus, the contest Cervera played in, winners have six months from the date of purchase to claim their prize.
It was Cervera's daughter, Charliena, who was captured in the photo making the purchase with a dollar bill that Cervera said she had scrounged from her purse. Afterward, Cervera said, she stashed the ticket into the console of her car and never bothered to check it against the winning numbers announced later.
On Thursday of this week, another daughter texted her mother the surveillance photo of Charliena.
"I put on my 99-cent glasses, I saw it, and I thought she (Charliena) robbed a bank," Cervera said, explaining that she initially misunderstood the meaning and purpose of the photo. It took a few moments for it to dawn on her that she had won a $23 million lottery drawing.
Cervera said opted to take the money in a single, lesser lump-sum payment, which lottery officials said will amount to nearly $18 million before taxes, rather than receiving the full jackpot parceled out in installments.
Cervera, who has adopted two boys with special needs, said that she wants to share the winnings with her children, including Charliena, and her grandchildren.
(Reporting by Dana Feldman; Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Steve Gorman and Eric Walsh)