The Ticket

A lawyer and a loving couple meet a lady who knew too much.

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Sheldon Starke: Think of him as Johnny Cochran - meets Maury Ballstein. - AP/Wide World Photos
AP/Wide World Photos
Sheldon Starke: Think of him as Johnny Cochran meets Maury Ballstein.
January 6, 1:30 p.m.

As a TV cameraman sets up his shot, Sheldon Starke makes his case. Yesterday, his client, Elecia Battle, offered a reward for the return of an errant lottery ticket. Today, someone else has turned in said ticket. Starke is arguing that it was lost and is still the property of Mrs. Battle.

"We intend to file a restraining order to get what is rightfully ours," he announces from behind stacks of papers on his cluttered desk.

He steps out of lawyer mode for a moment, looking quizzically about his desk. "For TV, I should leave these papers on the desk -- no?" He sits back and smiles. "I'll leave it -- it'll make me look busy." Starke tans evenly in the kliegs, and he is quarterbacking the media scavengers like a pro.

Inside Edition is camped outside his office, MSNBC wants a satellite interview, and Jimmy Kimmel Live wants Sheldon and his client on a plane to Los Angeles, pronto. Elecia is excited. "L.A.? Tell 'em I can do that," she says, looking at her husband. "Tell 'em I have a husband too." Starke's receptionist takes the message and nods. She's filled two legal pads with scheduled appearances.

In his black suit, red tie, and simple glasses, Starke is playing the lawyer's lawyer. A client who stakes a claim to a lost $167 million lottery ticket is the case of a lifetime, and you can see the dollar signs twinkle in his eyes. Lucky for him, he'd worked on a "mundane, routine lawsuit" for Battle three years before, and his name was top of mind.

What he didn't know was that Battle was something of a professional plaintiff, having been involved in three suits in three years. She liked to hunt big game. She was a plaintiff against East Ohio Gas for an unspecified injury to her ex-husband. She sued McDonald's when one of her kids got sick after drinking a milkshake. But her attorney in the latter suit, Jerome Bentoff, didn't find her particularly litigious. "I grew up off of Union, so there is no bullshitting me," he says. "She got a small, tiny settlement from McDonald's -- $600, I think -- and that was that. I don't remember even collecting a fee. It was more a favor than anything."

Starke didn't know about any of this. "I take everyone at face value," he says. But face value isn't what convinced him to take the case.

After Battle first told him about the lost ticket, Starke met with the owner of the Quick Shop in South Euclid where the ticket was sold. To the owner's surprise, Battle knew exactly which of his lottery machines had produced the winning ticket.

According to a report she filed with South Euclid Police, Battle also knew the date, time of purchase, and specific items that were bought along with the ticket -- five Double Doubler scratch-offs, pop, and a bag of chips. It was evidence enough for any lawyer to believe that his client was telling the truth.

"I know one thing," Starke says, pointing to Battle before the cameras get rolling, "this young lady bought that ticket -- that I know. I'd stake my reputation on it."

James Battle, Elecia's husband, looks on quietly. He's dressed in workingman's casual: a Carhart turtleneck, pants, and work boots. He appears passive -- whipped, maybe -- as his wife frequently intercepts questions directed to him. "I don't want to say anything that would incriminate myself or affect our case" is all he'll say today. It's an odd choice of words.

On Starke's advice, Elecia eventually turns down Kimmel, fearing the professional heckler will make sport of her on national television. In hindsight, it was sound legal advice. On MSNBC, she will appear disquieted and unsure -- a deer in the headlights. It's not a look that engenders public sympathy. And that's something Battle will need.

After all, she told the world that she lost her ticket in the parking lot of the Quick Shop. The story drew in scavengers from surrounding states, all caught up in Wonkaesque fantasy of a million-dollar fortune blowing in the wind.

When Rebecca Jemison of South Euclid emerged with the actual ticket, Battle filed suit to prevent her from cashing it in. But Battle's sordid past soon became comic fodder and cause for speculation, and she recanted. The public assumed that she had lied, but the question remained: How could she know so much?

January 8, 12:30 p.m.

With her husband by her side, Battle has just held a news conference to announce that she's calling off her legal action. She apologizes to the Lottery Commission and Rebecca Jemison, leaving others to infer what they will. The aggregation of her previous misdeeds -- domestic violence arrests, fighting with a store clerk, using someone else's credit card to buy $58.21 of groceries -- painted her as a ghetto drama queen looking for a big score. A week earlier, she was just another anonymous drugstore clerk. Today, she is an international laughingstock.

Starke's 84-year-old dad complains that his son is on every channel. After the press conference, the lawyer takes a call from his son, who's attending rabbinical school in Israel. Junior is bemused to see Dad all over Israeli TV. As the wire-service reporters stand in his lobby calling in their stories, Starke tells his son of the recalled lawsuit. "I also told him that this is the richest I've ever been. I've never seen as much courage as this woman right here."

He removes his glasses, cupping his hands around his eyes to hide the welling tears. "I'm not gonna collect a fee from this -- not one penny. For what these people have taught me today, I should be payin' a fee to them."

Without warning, he lets go of the waterworks, sobbing as Elecia, also crying, takes his hand. "Thanks for believing in me, Sheldon," she says. He could be mourning the loss to his reputation or his own payday; it's hard to tell.

He wasn't the one who called TV cameras, he insists; but he didn't push them away either. Starke's smug, determined sound bites screened all over the world like Johnny Cochran meets Maury Ballstein -- a strange mix of quixotic optimism, fuck-you advocacy, and low-rent show lawyer.

Starke says he got involved to help an "old friend." As is so often the case, the old friend pulled him into a world of shit.

Battle soon finds out from the newspapers that she's been fired from her $20,000-a-year job at Rite Aid. She neglected to note her legal skirmishes on her application. A week from now, she'll be charged with filing a false police report. The cameras will badger her as she flies out of the courtroom, blinking away tears.

Starke, meanwhile, will be charged with contempt. He had asked for a delay in another case, claiming a "bad back" precluded him from appearing in court. But the judge saw his posturing on TV, leading him to believe that Starke wasn't so injured after all. The lawyer dodges the charge by paying a fine.

This, by rights, is where the made-for-TV saga should end: As Starke himself would say, "End of story."

But his troubles won't go away.

Meet the Jemisons

"Wow!" says Rebecca Jemison as she takes the microphone. The perky young woman stands at the podium, taking questions. Samuel Jemison, her husband, pastes on a smile and stands by her side.

The couple seems more sedate than one might expect. There's none of the jump-up-and-down enthusiasm that comes from having just won $62 million dollars after taxes. "I don't know that I would describe them as lovey-dovey," says Merdele Cohen, communications director for the Ohio Lottery Commission. "I would describe them as 'together.'" Maybe they're just reserved. Maybe they have a past too.

Sam Jemison, originally from Alabama, was a neighborhood guy who endeared himself to the patrons of Johnny and Co.'s, a bar he owned on Euclid Avenue, and as a street-corner crusader who fought the drug trade one dealer at a time. Neighborhood gossips repeat a lot of things about Sam: He was a big man with a big heart and two big flaws: He liked the ladies, and he lacked discretion. "That ain't no well-kept secret," says one patron, who didn't want to be identified. Apparently not.

The couple wed in 1998, but barely a year after they married, Rebecca confronted Sam about an affair and demanded a divorce, according to a police report. As the couple hurled accusations of infidelity back and forth, Sam answered Rebecca's cell phone and heard a man's voice. He became enraged and "began punching [Rebecca] about the face numerous times, and even tried to choke her" in her eight-year-old daughter's bedroom, according to the report.

Sam left the daughter's room, but "came back twice and attacked her." He even charged toward her in the presence of police. Polaroids show minor bruising and scratching on Rebecca's arms, neck, and face. She filed an order of protection against Sam, and he pleaded no contest to domestic violence, ultimately receiving two years' probation. But true or not, tales of Sam's womanizing persist. And that's likely what prompted the rumors.

Three things

"Not long after it got on the news, I started getting calls," South Euclid Detective Kevin Neitart says of the rumors.

They go something like this: Sam Jemison and Elecia Battle were together on the night he purchased the ticket for Rebecca. Elecia's claim to the ticket, the theory goes, was an ass-backwards blackmail attempt gone awry.

Police acknowledge that Battle knew things only the buyer of the ticket could know. But Nietart never asked about the rumors -- they had nothing to do with false-report charges he was investigating. "I don't know if it's true, I don't care if it is, but I'll tell you one thing," he says. "It sure would explain a lot, that's for sure."

The Jemisons aren't interested in talking to the media, according to their accountant, Scott Snow. Quick Shop security cameras were on the fritz, so there is no video of who bought the ticket. Publicly, Battle denies through her attorney that there was a relationship. But at first, Starke isn't so quick to dispel the rumor.

"Don'tcha think I considered that?" he asks. "Y'got those three things [she knew] -- how do ya explain that?" While he concedes that the rumor is "one helluva thing," he won't pursue it. "I am still amazed by how she knew what she did," he says. "But I refuse to ask her how she knew. I simply won't."

In his conversations with police, he says, their general view was that there had to be some connection. Later, after consulting with his client, he'd denounce the rumors as "bullshit." But a month after her fiasco, from the comfort of her home, Elecia is more forthcoming.

February 6, 5:25 p.m.

During the week in which she went from anonymity to a mug shot appearing online, onscreen, and splashed across the front pages of newspapers, Battle acquired a heightened sense of media literacy. These days, she doesn't talk to reporters, and she definitely won't pose for pictures. Still, she's saved all the clippings, even the ones she doesn't like.

"Lila Mills? That bitch slandered me -- all the papers did," she says, referring to The Plain Dealer reporter who covered the story. "I wish I could sue everybody -- all the papers, TV stations, but especially The Plain Dealer." Her face sours in a frown as she rolls her eyes. "But y'all got -- what is that? Freedom of speech, freedom of press . . . something like that."

These days, Battle is inundated with business cards from reporters and would-be authors, as well as phone calls and fan mail from people who believe she was telling the truth. Count her husband among the believers. "I believe she bought that ticket," he says, leaning against the kitchen counter in their Lee-Harvard home.

To her friends and family, fame hasn't changed her -- she's still just Lisa. She finds the support gratifying -- vindicating in its own way. But gratification don't pay the rent.

"Everyone knows I got fired. They found out in the papers, just like I did." She leans against her refrigerator, arms crossed, her now-famous gaze framed in a smirk. "Now, all these people want to know what I know, but they know that I don't got a job. Are any of them gonna cut me a check?"

Asked about whether or not she gave up her lawsuit too soon: "Hold on to that thought," she says, "and I'll have the perfect answer for you." She's familiar with the gossip linking her to Sam Jemison, but has no idea where it came from. When asked if she knew, knows, or has ever known Sam Jemison, biblically or otherwise, she shoots a glance at her husband, who looks down at the kitchen floor. She lets a pause fill the room. Then she winks.

"I think I'm gonna take the fifth on that one," she says. "When I answer that question, I want the whole world to hear my answer."

With her credibility at zero, any answer she gives is suspect. In the end, it may not matter -- the damage has already been done. Her children have been teased relentlessly at their Cleveland Heights school. Their mom isn't likely to find gainful employment anytime soon.

On the upside, according to Battle, her ex-husband made a nice side-hustle selling information about her, though he didn't have much to say to Scene. And James, hoping to make hay while he can, is telling the boys at work that they'll be shopping the story to the highest bidder.

Starke just wants it over. "Of all the lawyers in the world this could have fell on, it fell on me," he says. Looking back, he wouldn't do it differently, except that he might "ask the cops to do a background check."

He's not sure where Elecia will land. "After something like this, I don't know what else a person does," he says. The lawyer likens her to Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter. "I wonder how Elecia will wear hers," he says.

February 12, 12:30 a.m.

After Battle pleaded no contest to the false-report charges 10 hours earlier, a probation officer convinced her to change her plea to not guilty, effectively reigniting the controversy. She told the P.O. she didn't lie. By law, the officer had to recommend that she maintain her innocence. "You shoulda seen the look on the prosecutor's face," Starke says.

Detective Nietart expects that she'll divulge new information. He's confident that he'll get a conviction, but he's dumbfounded that anyone would be willing to go through another round of public humiliation. "There have to be some mental issues that need addressing," he says. "That's the only thing that can explain the back-and-forth."

Had Battle kept low, she'd likely be looking at community service, court-ordered counseling, and a fade into obscurity. But a jury's verdict could throw her in the clink.

"This is pretty wild, isn't it?" asks Starke. "This is a fuckin' roller coaster, and I hate roller coasters."

He's already taken heat. Colleagues say that the case is causing him irreparable professional damage, but he won't dump Battle. When you buy a ticket to ride, he figures, you're strapped in for the duration.

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