Nine years after cashing her $10,569,000.10 cheque, lotto winner Sharon Tirabassi is catching the Barton Street bus to her part-time job. She’s working to support her kids in their rented house in northeast Hamilton.
Tirabassi, 35 — one of this city’s biggest lotto winners — has gone from rolling in dough to living pay cheque to pay cheque.
The Lotto Super Seven payout didn’t come with a financial adviser and before she knew it — big house, fancy cars, designer clothes, lavish parties, exotic trips, handouts to family, loans to friends — the money was gone.
“You don’t think it’ll go (at the time), right?” she says.
She’d check her account now and again, but there were always so many zeroes that she figured it was fine — until one day there was just three quarters of a million left.
“And that was time for fun to stop and to just go back to life,” she says.
She’s happier today. Says life has more purpose now than when she was shopping.
She’s working part-time as a personal support worker and raising her six kids in a rented downtown house off Barton and Sherman.
Her husband, Vinny, also 35, has another three kids from a previous relationship.
Asked about how life turned out for them, Vinny shrugs, smoking a cigarette in the doorway of their rented home.
“I lived like this my whole life, I never was rich,” he says. “We grew up like this, so we’re used to it.”
Pretty much all that’s left now is in trust for her kids when they turn 26 — her children will be OK, and that’s what’s important to her.
“The moment I got it, I divided it among my family … all of that other stuff was fun in the beginning, now it’s like … back to life,” she says.
Before her win, Tirabassi had been living in an east Hamilton apartment with her three kids, each one from a different father.
She was Sharon Mentore then — not yet married. She had just landed a job as a personal care provider, fresh off welfare, and couldn’t afford a car.
But on Easter Weekend in April 2004, she literally hit the jackpot and won $10.5 million from a Lotto Super Seven ticket.
For someone who spent her teenage years bouncing around from shelter to shelter, she was unprepared for the millionaire lifestyle. That cheque might as well have been a money tree in the yard — it felt like cash for life.
Suddenly, life was but a dream.
She took friends on wild, all-expenses paid trips to Cancun, Florida, Las Vegas, California, the Caribbean.
She bought a house on West 5th, and she married Vinny.
In 2006, the newlyweds and blended Tirabassi family moved to a massive $515,000 home on Kitty Murray Lane in Ancaster.
Despite cashing a $10.5 million cheque just two years earlier, Tirabassi took out a $360,000 mortgage on the house.
The pair, Vinny says, owned four vehicles: a bright yellow Hummer, a Mustang, a Dodge Charger and a $200,000-plus, souped-up Cadillac Escalade — Tirabassi’s baby.
Her customized licence plate read “BABIPHAT,” after one of her favourite designer clothing lines.
Ancaster neighbours hated that Cadillac. Equipped with interior turntables and sound mixers, it blared hip-hop music in the driveway and shook their quiet suburban street.
Tirabassi didn’t like her neighbours.
“They didn’t like young people,” she says.
Besides the extravagant vehicles, a lot of the cash went to family and friends.
Too much, she admits now.
She gave her parents $1 million.
Another $1.75 million was divided among her four siblings.
She bought several houses in the city, renting them out at affordable rates to families. She said she paid people’s rent. Lent money to help out a friend when her husband went to jail. Helped another two friends start up a business in Toronto.
A lot of friends came out of the woodwork when news broke of her win — and a lot of them she never heard from again.
“Money is the root of all evil,” she says, shaking her head.
“Friends that she hadn’t talked to in a long time came calling.”
“Money doesn’t buy you happiness. It caused her a lot of headaches,” he says.
“She lost a lot of friends, a lot of family.”
By 2007, according to a Spectator interview at the time, Tirabassi had already blown through half of her winnings, and was living off interest from investments on the other $5 million.
Also that year, Vinny crashed the Mustang.
He pleaded guilty to two counts of driving impaired and causing bodily harm. He was sentenced to 18 months in jail plus two years’ probation. And his licence was revoked for five years.
He would serve time again in 2011 after breaching his conditions and driving with a disqualified licence.
In 2008, while he was in jail, the Tirabassis lost the Ancaster house.
From there, they moved to Hagersville, then out west to Edmonton once Vinny was out of jail.
They moved around a lot and today, Hamilton’s penniless millionaires are back downtown, living in a rented house on a quiet industrial street — not far from where she started.
It’s modest, the walls covered in family photos and the odd relic from their flashier days — Michael Jackson memorabilia for her, Maple Leafs memorabilia for him.
They have two cats and a rabbit named Princess.
The Tirabassis are worried about people knowing where they live now. Their win didn’t make them a lot of friends, and they’re worried about being robbed.
“A lot of people do still think she has lots of money,” Vinny said.
Between the two of them, there are nine kids. Three each from previous relationships, and three more together.
The Dodge Charger and the Hummer are nowhere in sight on their new street. She drives a hot pink electric bike these days, when she’s not taking the bus.
The Cadillac’s in storage; it needs work done that she can’t afford right now.
A lot of friends are gone too.
People took advantage of them, didn’t pay them back when they loaned them money.
“(They said) ‘they’ve got enough so they’re OK, right?’” Vinny said.
Hamilton resident Gayle Zolaturiuk accepted a $30-million cheque from the OLG last week, and local convenience store owner Myungsu You is waiting to collect his $16.1 million on March 22.
If the Tirabassis can give Zolaturiuk and You one piece of advice as they collect their wins, it’s to be wary of whom you share it with.
“Try to keep it to yourself. Keep it to yourself and don’t trust anybody but family,” Tirabassi says.
But as she heads to work in her scrubs Wednesday, she says she couldn’t help giving so much away.
“That’s the way I was brought up. Help those who can’t help themselves,” she says with a shrug.
Rather than mourn the millions, she’s concentrating now on raising her kids with those same family values.
“I’m trying to get them to learn that they have to work for money,” Tirabassi says.
“Every so often they ask for money and I say I don’t have any money till payday. You have to wait ’til payday.”