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What Are the Odds?

A lucky Starbucks barista wins the lottery in Los Angeles and suffers a fatal case of bad luck in a Pioneer Square parking lot.

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Jamie King

On Saturday night, young men and women pour into Tiki Bob's Cantina to get lucky. The Pioneer Square club is cavernous, crammed with close booths, TV screens, a dance floor, and a bar serviced by women in outfits that don't tax the imagination. Near the middle of the night, when the place is packed, the energy is wonderfully raw. There's an honesty to Tiki Bob's. No one comes here for cutting-edge music (it's strictly Top 40 hiphop), or for conversation (the Top 40 hiphop is played at top volume). Simple and plain, this is a popular destination for straight young men and straight young women whose minds are on one track; a place where they can drink beer out of plastic cups and dirty dance to get to know one another.

On October 10, 2004, around 1:30 a.m., a 32-year-old Federal Way man named Rick Camat and his 28-year-old brother Brian drove into the massive Qwest Field parking lot across the street from Tiki Bob's Cantina and parked their car. They had come from another nightclub, the Downunder in Belltown, in hopes of catching the tail end of the party going on at Tiki Bob's. But the Camat brothers were too late. People from Tiki Bob's and other Pioneer Square clubs were pouring out onto the streets after last-call. On this particular night, a number of minor and major brawls broke out. According to witnesses, most of the fights were over girls--girls who were drunk, girls who were not interested, girls who had enough and now just wanted to go home. For many of the young men out on the sidewalks that night, these were the final, desperate minutes of their evenings, a time when any means justify the ends if it means getting a girl, any girl.

The Camat brothers somehow got sucked into a swirling sea of threats, fists, and blows. Four police officers who had just diffused a disturbance in front of King Street Bar & Oven were returning to their squad cars when they noticed another boozy storm across the street. Brian Camat and his bigger brother Rick were at the heart of the storm. Seeking to calm or control the storm, Rick went to his car and returned to the chaos with a 9 mm.

At this point, what exactly happened next depends on whether you are a member of the Camat family or a member of the Seattle Police Department. The Camat family's version paints the final minutes of Rick's life in the colors of a wronged man, a fallen hero: Rick returns from his car with a gun and fires a few rounds into the black sky with the honorable intention of dispersing the fight and restoring peace in the largest parking lot in Pioneer Square. Suddenly, from nowhere, several bullets puncture his body. The police don't give any warning; they cowardly shoot Rick Camat in the back, killing him.

The Seattle Police Department's story portrays the last stand of a gangster: Rick returns from the car with a gun and shoots at another car speeding away from the parking lot. The cops pull out their Glocks and give "verbal commands for the suspect to 'Drop his gun,'" officer K. C. Jones writes in his report. With his back turned to the officers, Rick has to make a choice about how he wants this confrontation to end. With his hands on his head or with his finger on the trigger of his gun? Camat elects the latter, ducking behind a parked car, where he prepares for a showdown with the law. One officer, Officer Nicholus Bauer, a 12-year veteran, decides Rick is a danger to the public and fires several rounds at the suspect. Hit by three or four bullets (the official number has yet to be made public), Rick drops his gun, falls--warm blood spreading over the cold asphalt--and dies. A menace to society has been erased.

When the police in New York City killed the unarmed Amadou Diallo on February 4, 1999--he was hit by 16 of the 41 bullets that the NYPD blasted at him--his family's version of events prevailed. Diallo was an innocent victim of police brutality, and the public was outraged. But because Rick Camat had a gun that night, a gun he discharged (be it in the air or at a car), his family's version of events has not prevailed. His murder generated news, but it didn't spark any outrage.

The Luckiest Man Alive Rick Camat's name would have been quickly forgotten if it had not been for an amazing coincidence: Camat was one of the 13 people who on October 21, 2000, shared an astounding $87 million prize in the California State Lottery. The story made news all over the country. Mary Champaine, a manager of a Mid City Los Angeles Starbucks owned by 'hood developer Magic Johnson, bought 13 lottery tickets for her employees at a liquor store across the street from the coffee shop where they all worked. The next day they were millionaires. Rick Camat, an American-born son of Filipino immigrants (his parents came from Pangasinan, Philippines), was an employee at this particular Starbucks. Even though he wasn't working on the day that his manager purchased the winning tickets--he was visiting Seattle, the city where almost exactly four years later, October 10, 2004, he would meet his bloody end--he got a fair share of the prize.

Mary Champaine appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show shortly after her winning lottery ticket and selfless act of generosity made the news. She is the kind of person Winfrey's audience adores: She had experienced tragedy--her son was slain, her husband died of cancer--and she knew how to share. Smiling that mad, radiantly toothy smile that's always the mark of someone who has been struck by a great bolt of luck, Champaine explained to the richest black person in America that she bought the tickets for her employees (even the ones who weren't there that day) because she believed in Starbucks corporate philosophy of "One Team, One Purpose." If she hadn't been a strict adherent of Starbucks core values--the core values of a company founded and based in Seattle--then she would never have shared with Rick Camat the millions that would change his life forever.

And what does a person do when, against all imaginable odds, they win a staggering sum of money? Usually, they quit their day job and spend the rest of their lives doing absolutely nothing. "[I] plan to quit my work immediately," said Mack Metcalf, a Kentucky forklift driver who won $21 million in July 22, 2000; "I plan to close up my video shop," said Hazel Sundby, a Canadian who won $10 million on May 10, 2003. This is precisely what Rick Camat did--he stopped working. The California Lottery owed him exactly $6,692,307 and he wisely chose the "annuity payment option," which meant he would receive 26 annual checks that would gradually rise from $167,307 to $341,307. Rick received his first payment at the end of 2000, and was to receive his last in the distant year 2026, when he would have been in the soft middle of his 50s. Some guys have all the luck.

So, in a flash, Rick Camat now made the kind of money that successful lawyers or corporate sharks make--only he didn't have to lift a finger ever again. In this way, winning the lottery means losing your future. You no longer have to plan ahead. All that matters is the ever-sunny present. The only thing Rick had to do was, as that Euro pop song goes, "just breathe."

Four Glorious Years The two extreme events that bracket Camat's last four years have eclipsed everything else about him. Indeed, it's hard to find out anything concerning who he was before he became permanently rich and momentarily famous. The most you will learn reading the local, national, and web-based reports about Camat is that he had a mother, a brother, a cousin, an uncle; that he was Filipino; that he had worked at a Starbucks and won the lottery. There is also an improbable rumor, spread primarily by the Seattle Times, that says Rick was a member of a gang--this seems improbable because he never had a criminal record. There is nothing in the public record about his life, nothing about his education (was he an A or F student?), the jobs he held (what did he do before Magic Johnson opened the fateful Starbucks?), the friends he kept (were they Lakers or Clippers fans?). All the news reports focus on the fact that he won the lottery, lived four comfortable years, and then was killed by the Seattle Police Department.

We do know that Rick Camat moved from L.A. to Federal Way this spring, buying a house that was made the same year that he would die in. Bluish, bulky, with two floors, four bedrooms, three bathrooms, a fireplace, and an attached garage, the second house Rick bought with his fortune--the first being one for his mother, Rufina Manansala, in California--cost him $304,500 dollars. It's an average house, in an average neighborhood. The front of it faces a Park & Ride lot; the eastern side abuts a property owned and apparently neglected by the City of Federal Way. Behind the house is a large backyard, in the middle of which is a cluster of plastic garden furniture. It's not exactly a dream house.

Rick's brother Brian now lives in this house, and on the cloudless November day I paid him a visit in an attempt to learn more about his brother, the place seemed totally eerie. One wouldn't expect a house that's not even a year old to be so spooky. At first I thought the spookiness had something to do with Rick's violent death, but after a longer look at the bluish bulk I became convinced that it had less to do with the house itself and more to do with my awareness of Camat's stunning luck. The odds on the lottery tickets Mary Champaine bought and shared with her employees were 44 million to one--the odds against Rick, however, were even higher. Indeed, what are the odds of your manager buying you a lottery ticket in your ignorance, winning the lottery, and then fairly sharing the multimillion-dollar reward with you? By any measure Rick Camat was an unbelievably lucky man, and as a consequence, a bona-fide freak. People who win lotteries are no longer one of us (working people, people who have to worry or plan for an uncertain future)--they are forever one of them (people who have been transformed by a flash of luck into glowing creatures of surprising wealth). One lottery winner, Rebecca Jemison, who won $67.2 million dollars on December 30, 2003, was so acutely aware of her new and terrible freakiness that she attempted to keep it a secret, and returned to her job (as a phone receptionist at a hospital) on January 1, 2004, in a desperate effort to go back to normal. Her cover-up might have succeeded had not a petty criminal claimed that she had bought and lost the winning ticket that Jemison had in her possession. To defend her prize, Jemison had to go public.

This was the setting on the day that I visited Rick Camat's lottery-haunted house: On the steps leading up to the front door there was a pile of bagged garbage; on the right side of the driveway leading up to the house's closed garage, a green gardening hose wastefully spewed cold water onto a cold lawn; and parked by the side of the road directly across from the house was what appeared to be a remnant of Camat's L.A. years--a blue Buick lowrider with bling-bling hubcaps and a velvety interior. As the house showed no signs of life, I walked to the one next door (an equally bulky and bland affair with a garage that seemed twice as big as the house itself) to see if its residents could provide me with information about their deceased neighbor. A Mexican woman answered the door. She did not speak a lick of English; I do not speak a lick of Spanish. A bunch of kids (ranging from toddlers to tweens) were noisily playing in the large, sun-filled living room behind her; she turned to these kids, yelled something in Spanish, and a pimpled boy of 11 or 12 with a cast mending a broken arm appeared at the door. He was her translator. I asked the boy to ask his mother if she knew Rick Camat. He asked her in Spanish, she responded in Spanish, and he told me in English that she had no idea whom I was talking about. The only information she could offer me was that the people next door "party very much." I asked through the boy if there had been any parties recently. "They party all the time," the woman said through her boy.

The third and last house on the road also has an enormous garage, which was open and contained an enormous ship of a pickup truck. A tall white man was on the lawn talking on a cell phone. When I convinced him I wasn't a salesman, he told me all that he knew about Rick's house: "Come here at night, my friend, and you will see them partying. Cars are parked everywhere. That's all they do there is party." So the Camats like to have fun. And why not? What else is there to do with lottery money?

A moment later, a white Camry pulled into the Camat's driveway. It was Brian, in his late 20s, of medium height and build, mildly handsome, mildly melancholy, with attire that made his interests easy to determine--professional sports, executive cars, Top 40 hiphop. He looked at me as I approached his house, this man who had seen at very close range his older brother die on the football stadium's stark parking lot. I informed Brian of whom I was and what I wanted to talk about--mostly his brother's past. What was Rick like as a boy? Did he ever fall in love? What were his dreams for the future before the lottery stole them away?

"No! I can't talk to you," Brian said.

He looked at me as if I were an army of cameramen and reporters with microphones--but it was just me, in a well-worn cardigan, holding a notepad and a faulty pen. There was also something in Brain's look that expressed shame or embarrassment at his new, secure situation. Clearly he was grieving over the loss of his brother, but the lottery-haunted house would most likely become his house, and a considerable part of the multi-million-dollar prize (there are 22 checks left) would most probably find its way into his bank account. Brain was fast becoming one of them. "My lawyer told me not to talk to the press," he finally said. He returned to the shelter of his automobile, ignited its engine, and drove away. I never heard from him again.

I tried to contact Mary Champaine to learn more about her former employee--what exactly did he do at Starbucks? Were his lattes good? Was he always late to work?--but she never returned my calls. None of the other 11 winners were available.

Winning the lottery will never happen to millions of us (on average there is a one in 18,009,460 chance of winning California's SuperLotto); being shot by the police will never happen to thousands of us (last year, 13,090 died in King County, none of them were shot by the Seattle Police Department). Both happened to Rick Camat. This is why no one is particularly interested in the main part of his life--that could happen to anybody. There is nothing extraordinary about being born in L.A. to Filipino parents, attending high school, and working at Starbucks in your 20s. What makes Rick's life interesting is that at one point he had all of the luck in the world and at another point he none at all. And that is now his official biography.

Are You Marked? Rick Camat was a marked man.

Considering the extreme bizarreness of Camat's two defining moments, he can only be viewed in mystical terms. Indeed, to understand the forces that shaped his fate, we are better off reading tea leaves at the bottom of a cup than we are pouring over police reports or hunting down his relatives.

Also, we can't help but scrutinize the wider world for signs that pointed to Camat's rise and demise. For example, is it at all meaningful that the president who stole the election a month after Rick won the lottery was reelected the month after Rick's violent death? And what to make of the role of Seattle in Camat's fate? Not only was Rick visiting the city when this prize fell on him from out of the sky, but, more significantly, it was the corporate philosophy ("One Team, One Purpose") of Seattle-based Starbucks that handed him his first fortune, and a member of Seattle's police department that handed him his final misfortune.

Then there is Magic Johnson's role. His company's joint venture with Starbucks--Urban Coffee Opportunities--established Seattle's whitest business in some of the blackest neighborhoods in America. The Mid City Starbucks that once employed Camat was opened by Urban Coffee Opportunities, as were a couple of Starbucks in Seattle's more ethnically diverse neighborhoods. I went to one of these inner-city Starbucks and tried to give its multiracial baristas 13 lottery tickets I had purchased. But the manager politely returned the tickets, explaining that it was against company policy for employees to accept gifts. When I asked if she could talk with me about Rick Camat, she to told me it was also against company policy for her to speak to the press without permission from Starbucks' public-relations office.

After stuffing the live lottery tickets in my pocket, I ordered a cup of tea, tore open the tea bag, stirred, and drank. When done, I tried to read the leaves at the bottom of the paper cup--the green and soggy remains made no more sense than the amazing events that marked Rick Camat's short life.

 

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