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West Virginia home to plenty of Powerball winners

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CHARLESTON, WV (AP) -

West Virginia is having a big influx of lottery millionaires this year.

Since Jan. 1, nine Powerball tickets worth at least $1 million have been sold in the state of 1.8 million residents. That nearly doubles the state's previous record of five, set last year.

While the odds of winning are the same anywhere Powerball is played, for some reason, West Virginians are on a roll.

"It's just a lucky streak that we're on that's amazing," said Randy Burnside, a spokesman for the West Virginia Lottery. "Hopefully we'll have a lot more this year."

So far this year, there have been 155 Powerball tickets nationwide that have matched the first five numbers in the six-number game.

Entering Saturday's drawing, only four states sold more of those $1 million-plus tickets than West Virginia, all with much larger populations: New York (18), Florida (16), California (13) and Pennsylvania (10), executive director Chuck Strutt of the Urbandale, Iowa-based Multi-State Lottery Association, which oversees Powerball, said Friday.

California is the king of the grand-prize winners, with two of the four Powerball tickets matching all six numbers sold there this year. The others were in Florida and Missouri.

But when taking population into account, West Virginia is No. 1 per capita, averaging one Powerball ticket worth at least $1 million for about every 200,000 residents. Vermont, with two Powerball millionaires and 626,630 total residents, is second and Louisiana, with seven winners and a population of 4.6 million, was third.

"We're just tickled to death to be able to create life-changing money for folks in the state," Burnside said.

All of the winning tickets sold in West Virginia belong to residents of a state that could use the help. The median household income in West Virginia is among the worst in the nation.

Susan Dennis regularly buys lottery tickets when traveling outside the state. She always comes up empty.

"I think I just better stick with West Virginia," she said.

She has a good reason to. Dennis was among 12 people from a Winfield-based mattress business to share a $1 million Powerball prize in February.

Powerball rules were changed in early 2012 to help increase jackpots and payouts. The odds of matching the first five numbers in the Powerball game are about 1 in about 5 million.

In addition to Powerball, two tickets from the popular Mega Millions game worth at least $1 million have been claimed in West Virginia this year.

West Virginia has had its share of grand-prize winners over the years, too, with eight tickets matching six numbers in Powerball. Among those were Jack Whittaker, a West Virginia contractor who won a nearly $315 million Powerball jackpot in 2002. He quickly fell victim to scandals, lawsuits and personal setbacks.

West Virginia's winners have come from all walks of life and all corners of the state. Three Powerball tickets worth at least $1 million were sold for one drawing on May 3, the first time that's happened, Burnside said.

Some of the recent winners have won big more than once. Twins Pam Garretson and Penny Fitzpatrick of Crab Orchard, who claimed $1 Powerball winnings for the May 3 drawing, shared a $100,000 Powerball prize 12 years ago.

Dennis is hoping to add her group to that list eventually. Her group still plays Powerball whenever the jackpot reaches $100 million and planned to buy more for Saturday's drawing, whose jackpot was at $173 million. The jackpot currently stands at $192 million.

"I don't think it's luck," Dennis said about winning. "It's whatever God wants to give us and when he wants to do it."

The state's latest winner, Hartzell "John" Lancaster, a small-business owner from the Northern Panhandle community of Weirton, buys five tickets for every Powerball drawing at a convenience store just down the street.

He didn't realize he'd won big in the May 17 game until he went to the store the next day to buy his tickets for the next Powerball drawing.

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