Illegal immigrant faces deportation after Houston County jury declared him lottery winner

bpurser@macon.comMarch 23, 2012 

WARNER ROBINS -- An illegal immigrant whom a Houston County jury declared the winner of a Georgia lottery ticket, is back at the Stewart Detention Center awaiting removal to Guatemala while his attorneys scramble to keep him in the United States.

Jose Antonio “Tony” Cua-Toc, 27, who had been living in Fort Valley after an Atlanta immigration attorney won him the right in September to stay in the country for the lottery ticket dispute, had been serving 44 days in the Houston County jail on a Jan. 31 drunken driving conviction.

Cua-Toc’s drunken driving arrest and conviction immediately placed in jeopardy his ability to stay in the country, said Julio E. Moreno, his immigration attorney.

On March 14, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement picked up Cua-Toc from the Houston County jail and transported him to the Stewart Detention Center where he is awaiting removal, Moreno said.

Meanwhile, Herb Wells of Perry, a criminal defense attorney representing Cua-Toc, filed a motion in Warner Robins Municipal Court to set aside the drunken driving conviction. Wells could not be reached for comment.

Cua-Toc may not have understood his rights when he entered his plea, Moreno said. It was unclear whether Cua-Toc had the benefit of an interpreter. An interpreter was provided for Cua-Toc during the four-day civil trial about the rightful ownership of the lottery ticket. Jurors sided with Cua-Toc after deliberating only 35 minutes March 8.

Cua-Toc, who entered the country illegally in 2000, had filed a lawsuit against Erick Cervantes, a Fort Valley business owner who claimed the winning Jingle Jumbo Bucks lottery ticket from Georgia lottery officials.

Cua-Toc purchased the winning ticket Nov. 17, 2010, from the OM Food Mart at 700 Feagin Mill Road in Warner Robins. But because Cua-Toc was undocumented, Erick Cervantes claimed the winnings on Cua-Toc’s behalf but then kept the money. Cervantes had claimed he was the rightful owner of the ticket, having given Cua-Toc $20 to purchase the ticket for him.

Cua-Toc’s winnings after taxes total $517,500, according to his attorneys. But attorneys for Cervantes estimated the amount at $460,000. A hearing is expected to be held to determine the actual amount due Cua-Toc after taxes.

The jury also awarded Cua-Toc $207,000 in attorney’s fees, as well as $25,000 in punitive damages.

The court hearing may also include how Cervantes may be required to come up with the money owed Cua-Toc such as selling a home, vehicle or other belongings if needed. About $223,000 in lottery revenues had been spent by Erick and Sonia Cervantes before a judge froze the lottery winnings after Cua-Toc filed the lawsuit. The couple has since divorced.

When the news of Cua-Toc winning the ticket first reached his native country of Guatemala, news crews reportedly went to his family’s home to interview them, Moreno said. Shortly afterward, the family’s home was broken into, and the family believes the culprits were looking for the winning lottery money. His family is concerned for his safety if he returns home, Moreno said.

Moreno said he is looking into the reports to see if Cua-Toc has a valid claim to seek asylum protection to remain in the United States.

Cua-Toc is extremely happy about being awarded the lottery ticket but is worried about what may happen next, Moreno said.

“He’s going through a whirlwind of emotions,” Moreno said.

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.

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