Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Frank Gagliardi: “I’ve dated a lot of girls, and you can’t tell if they like you or they like the money."
OCTOBER 12, 1991 — Frank Gagliardi reclined in the living room of his home in Quail Valley near Lake Elsinore, north of Temecula. His business, hauling trade-show exhibits, had kept him on the road to and from Washington, D.C., the previous two weeks. But now he was home recuperating for the next two, relaxing and watching a little TV, when his life changed forever. Five numbers announced on the television matched the five on the Quick Pick lottery ticket he held in his hand.
“I couldn’t think,” Gagliardi recalls of those first few minutes. “There were a million things racing through my head. I was by myself and my wife wasn’t home. I was running around the coffee table for three hours waiting for her to get home, and when she got home, I was saying, ‘Get in the house and lock the doors.’ She didn’t believe it. So I went up to the store [where I bought the ticket], and they were going to stick the ticket in the machine to see if it was a winner. I told them not to do that just in case (the machine] ate it by accident. So they did the serial numbers on the ticket and found out that I was the winner. So I hauled ass back home and told my wife that it was the [winning] ticket, but we didn’t know how much. So I went back to the store, and they told me, and then I really flipped out.”
Gagliardi — 5'8", wiry, black hair, tanned skin, the 34-year-old son of a Japanese woman and an Italian-American man — had won $26,660,000. The next few hours were even crazier than the first few minutes. They couldn’t turn in the ticket right away because the lottery office had shut down for Columbus Day weekend. The pressure of having the winning ticket without being able to turn it in began to weigh on Gagliardi. “It was kind of scary,” he remembers, “especially since we couldn’t turn the ticket in right away, and we were just holding onto it; this little piece of paper worth $26 million. Until I got to the office, I wasn’t safe. People will kill you for something like that. I hid the ticket so many times in the house that I kept losing it. So I called our lawyer, and he told us to go hang out at the nearest hotel with a safe deposit box.”
For the remainder of the weekend, Gagliardi and his family stayed holed up in the hotel, waiting for Tuesday. Over and over, reports came on the television that someone had won the Lotto jackpot of over $26 million dollars, hut nobody had stepped forward. Neither Gagliardi nor his wife could sleep. “Just when you’re about to fall asleep,” he describes the experience, “all the numbers and the money go through your head, and you can’t sleep for another couple of days.” Finally, Tuesday came and Gagliardi took the ticket to the lottery office in Riverside to claim his prize. They confirmed that he was the winner but told him that before he could collect the first of his 20 annual payments, he’d have to wait on a standard monthlong background check to “make sure you don’t owe any taxes or child support or something like that.” They also told him that he needn’t wait to start acquiring the expensive things every lottery winner should have. “The guy at the lottery office said, ‘Even though you don’t have the money right now, you can go out and get whatever you want because of this receipt.’ So I told my wife to jump in my truck, and we went down to the Benz dealer, and we test drove the best one they had, and I told the guy, ‘I’ll take it.’ But I also told him, ‘This is all I’ve got,’ and I showed him the receipt. He said, ‘Okay.’ So I wrote him a check for the car and he said, 'Just call us when we can cash it,' and I drove away.”
Did Gagliardi ever wish he hadn’t won?
“I said that to myself the first week,” he says, “because of all the people bugging me and stuff like that. When we first turned the ticket in, we held a news conference because if you didn’t, people would be jumping over your fences at your house just to get a picture of you, and we didn’t want all that stuff around our kids. So we went away from the house and held a press conference. Then they didn’t hound us that much. People were still driving from all over just to see where I lived. They were constantly going up and down the street and stopping in front of our house.” Along with the gawkers came the beggars. His family, friends, and acquaintances didn’t ask for loans and gifts, but total strangers did. Some came to the door, some called, and some wrote letters asking Gagliardi to share his winnings. Many of them were obvious frauds. Gagliardi leans back and smiles at the memory. “One guy from Texas, I’ll never forget that guy, he wrote that his wife was missing a leg and he had one foot in the grave. I didn’t think anything of it. A couple of weeks later, the same guy wrote a letter and forgot what he had written the first time and said that he was missing a leg and she had one foot in the grave.”
Though his friends didn’t ask him for money in the early days, Gagliardi did notice they started treating him differently, as if his new wealth had raised his status. “At first everybody said I was going to change,” he says laughing, “but everybody would change around me. People would come up, when it first happened, and it was, ‘Can I get you something, can I do this, can I do that?’ They just wanted to do everything for me, and I said, ‘Geez, settle down. I’m still the same guy, I can get my own beer.’ In a month or so, it all went back to normal with my friends.”
Before winning the lottery, Gagliardi had always promised his wife that if he won the lottery, they’d move up to Marin County to be closer to her parents. He held true to his promise and they moved, first renting a house and then buying one and settling in. Gagliardi started a custom motorcycle shop — a lifelong interest. But having grown up here in San Carlos, he felt far from his friends and out of his element in Northern California. His marriage, which had been rocky before, got even rockier and eventually crumbled. “I didn’t know a single person up there,” Gagliardi explains. “The whole reason behind us moving up there was because she was always saying that she never saw her parents and they were getting old. We saw them more when we lived here than when they just lived right down the street. So that kind of pissed me off. I came down here to be separated because we weren’t getting along, and about a week or two after I was here, she was dating someone. So I said, ‘Let’s just get a divorce.’ Now we are the best of friends.” Gagliardi insists that winning the lottery was not what ended his marriage; if anything, it only postponed an inevitable break. “The money had nothing to do with it We were always arguing before, but when we won the money, we thought all of our problems were over. That’s the first thing we said. Well, they were for a while, but then it went back to the same old routine. We told ourselves, ‘We are going to be happy now.’ That lasted a couple of months,” he says, “and we were back fighting again.”
A bachelor again, Gagliardi set out to find a house in San Diego County. He looked in La Jolla and the other coastal towns, but at heart he was an East County boy. Finally he found the deal he was looking for in Mt. Helix. “I bought this place because it was like a fire sale,” he explains. “This place was appraised at $3 million dollars and I bought it for $875,000. I’m going to fix it up and sell it and make some money off of it,” he says while sitting in his spacious family room.
The 8900-square-foot ’60s contemporary sits on two and a half acres overlooking the El Cajon Valley. From the street, you walk up a path through a manicured garden, over a pond with a cascading waterfall, and up a flight of steps to a glass front door. The house is low and sprawling with walls of sand-colored stone. As you walk in, to the right lies a large sunken living room furnished with two white settees on opposite sides of an oval wooden coffee table. To the left is a hall leading to two big bedrooms and an office. The three-car garage at this end of the house holds a Ferrari, a Mercedes, and a ’35 Auburn Boat-tail Speedster. A room leading from the garage into the master bedroom houses two Harley-Davidsons. One of them, a stretched-frame custom painted the official orange, purple, and green of the California Lottery, bearing a personalized license plate reading “QUIK PIC,” was featured in Big Twin magazine’s summer ’96 issue.
Straight ahead from the front door, a hall leads you past a living room-sized kitchen on the left, a dining room on the right, and down into the family room, which opens onto a patio with a pool and a Jacuzzi. Past that, a grassy lawn spreads out and gives way to a sweeping view of the El Cajon Valley. Right off the lawn is a tennis court “There’s a 30-car parking lot behind the tennis court from another entrance on a different street for parties and stuff,” Gagliardi says, pointing to the spot. “This is what sold me the house,” he adds, opening the automatic roll-up door on a full, outdoor wet bar between the pool and tennis court.
When he first won, Gagliardi gave his trucking business to his brother — “Hell, who wants to drive a truck when you don’t have to?”—and he left his custom motorcycle business to his ex-wife after the divorce. He keeps himself busy by redecorating and fixing up his house. ‘It was like being back in the 60s when you walked in here,” Giagliardi says. “There were yellows and lime-greens and oranges. Every room was a different color. Sitting here, you could see three different colors of carpeting. There were five layers of wallpaper on the walls and four layers of linoleum in the kitchen. I’ve been doing all the work myself. I’ve probably put in over a thousand square feet of tile and marble myself. I’ve been scraping wallpaper. I did all the wood trim and the paint', the carpeting. I did all of the kitchen, all of the tile work there.
I did all of the laundry room. That had light-blue carpeting and foil wallpaper. This house is almost done except for my kids’ room and my room and then the ceiling; I have to do all of the ceilings. The guest house is done. There’s a 1200-square-foot gym under the Jacuzzi — I’ve got to do that yet—and then the butler’s quarters, and then I’ll be done. It gives me something to do; I like working with my hands, and I’m going to make some coin off of it on top of that.” Along with his home-improvement tasks, Gagliardi owns Balboa Escrow company, which gives him the opportunity to do what he loves most. “I’m the president, but I’m actually the errand boy. I just deliver escrow instructions and run errands all day,” he explains. “I like to ride my Harley, and I do it all on my bike.”
Giagliardi formulates a financial plan every year, which not only ensures that his money will last a lifetime — “I know some lottery winners who are broke because they didn’t plan” — it gives him a way out of embarrassing situations. “There are strangers I meet, they want me to invest money into their ideas. So every year, I do a financial plan, and I just take the money that I need to live off of and the rest goes into investments, so it’s pretty much taken care of. If somebody asks me for some money, I can just tell them, ‘Well, it’s all tied up.’ ”
Included in his financial plan is money for his charities: the Christian Community Theater and the Los Angeles Rescue Mission. “I got hooked up to (the Rescue Mission) through the TV Guide. I thought, “This would be great to feed a bunch of guys.’ So I wrote them a letter, I said, ‘It’s real easy for me to write a check, but I want to help.’ So on Thanksgiving I’ll go up there and help feed the homeless people. last time I did it, it was over 5000 people we served. It was fun. You get to meet a bunch of movie stars who are helping out, serving the food. It makes you feel good, a lot better than just writing a check. When I leave there, I feel damn good. It’s better than anything I can buy.” For Gagliardi, the worst part of winning the lottery is people treating him as if he had no problems just because he is rich. “People treat you differently,” he complains. “They always say, ‘God, I wish I had your problems.’ They have no clue what the hell is going on. People always think they know, but they don’t know anything. Just having money doesn’t solve problems. Yeah, it’s great, but it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be all of the time. Sometimes you are miserable because you have all of that money and sometimes, you are happy. You are always going to have problems. Money, it’s like a temporary fix. I think the more money you’ve got, the more problems you’re going to have.”
One problem money has caused for Gagliardi is he can’t trust women who seem to like him. “I’ve dated a lot of girls,” he explains, “and you can’t tell if they like you or they like the money. It’s kind of screwed because you finally meet someone, and you think it’s the one, and then you check up on them, and you find out that they are lying to you. It’s terrible.” Another, much more serious problem is the rift between Gagliardi and his father. When he first won his money, Gagliardi gave an equal amount to each of his three brothers, his sister, and his parents; equal amounts “so they wouldn’t fight.” The trouble is, his dad thought that as the father of the family, he should get more. Now, Gagliardi says sadly, “I haven’t talked to him in over three years.”
But Gagliardi is enjoying his life as a millionaire. “I’m having fun,” he says. Why shouldn’t he? His work is a choice between fixing up his house, which he loves, or riding around all day on his Harley, which he loves even more. And it’s all on his own schedule. His recreation consists of throwing parties, playing golf, traveling to the best ski resorts, and riding his Harley.
Is he a different man from the one who won the lottery in 1991? Gagliardi shakes his head. “I’m the same dude,” he says, “just with nicer shit.”
— Ernie Grimm