10-27-2016  9:24 pm      •     

DUNN, N.C. (AP) -- Kecia Nehring Parker's favorite lottery numbers turned out to be lucky in more than one way.

Not only did they win her a prize of nearly $88,000, but her clockwork regularity in playing them enabled North Carolina State Education Lottery investigators to track her down after they took the winning ticket from a convenience store owner accused of trying to steal her jackpot.

"I was very surprised," she told The Associated Press Friday. "But it's definitely a good surprise."

Dunn police say that when Parker brought the winning ticket into a Pop Mart, about 40 miles south of Raleigh, the store's owner, Sureshbha Patel, told her it wasn't a winner and kept it, later trying to claim its winnings for himself. On Wednesday, Patel was arrested and charged with felony larceny and attempting to obtain property by false pretenses. He was freed after posting $50,000 bond.

The telephone at Patel's home in Dunn was disconnected Friday. A person who answered the phone at the Pop Mart store hung up on a request for comment.

"I had no idea I had won," Parker said. "I didn't check my tickets anymore. I just let them scan them in and tell me."

Although Parker bought her winning ticket in August during a family vacation in Carolina Beach, Patel didn't bring it into state lottery headquarters until Feb. 8, according to officials. When retailers at locations with lottery sales claim winnings, officials use extra scrutiny in examining their tickets, lottery spokesman Van Denton said.

He declined to detail the enhanced security procedures but said the prize was never awarded to Patel. Lottery sales were indefinitely suspended at the Pop Mart in Dunn on Wednesday.

"People play the lottery and when they win, they should get their prizes," Denton said. "We take that very seriously."

It was Parker's persistence that allowed lottery investigators to find her once they had the ticket. Ever since North Carolina's lottery began in 2006, Parker has played the same five numbers every week, almost always buying her tickets at the same BP gas station on Saturday morning in Dunn.

That station - different from the Pop Mart owned by Patel - was able to provide investigators with months of surveillance footage showing Parker come in to play the combination of 9-13-16-17-21 in the Cash 5 game. She says the numbers don't have any particular significance and are just her lucky numbers.

Parker, who has two children, plans to put the money aside for college costs. In the meantime, she's also sticking to her regular Saturday routine of playing the lottery - same lucky numbers and all.

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