Lottery winner Julie Cervera, center, looks at her recently dead son pictured on a tattoo, as she is hugged by her grandson Rudy Ray, left, and daughter Charliena Marquez, right, after a news conference in San Bernardino, Calif., Friday, Nov. 2, 2012. (AP)
SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. (AP) -- For more than five months - while Julie Cervera struggled to pay a $600 electrical bill, feed her family and keep the cable company from shutting off her service because she couldn't pay - she was a millionaire without knowing it.
Meanwhile, her $23 million lottery ticket languished forgotten in the glove compartment of her car.
On Thursday, someone texted her a photo of her daughter, Charliena Marquez, buying the winning ticket for her at a Palmdale Liquor store. The photo had been released by lottery officials searching for the mysterious winner of the May drawing.
"I put my 99-cent glasses on, and I had to put two pairs on to see it," said Cervera, 69, of Victorville. She recognized her daughter in the grainy photo, but she still couldn't read the caption.
"I thought she robbed a bank because I couldn't see the words on top," Cervera said with a laugh. "So I put on a third pair (of glasses) and it said she won. I was like, `No way!'"
Back in May, mother and daughter were driving home together when Marquez felt queasy and asked her mother to pull over so she could buy a bottle of water.
"She always gets carsick," Cervera said.
Cervera asked her daughter to buy her a lottery ticket and dug in her purse trying to find a dollar. Marquez protested but eventually used her own money to purchase a Super Lotto Plus ticket for her mom.
"I put it in my new car. It's an old car but it's new to me. It's been there for five months," Cervera said Friday at a news conference with her three adult children and half a dozen grandchildren lined up behind her. "I've got like 200 tickets laying around my house. I never check my tickets."
But when she finally looked in the glove compartment, the winning ticket was right where she left it. It was set to expire Nov. 26, so the California Lottery went looking for the winner.
Officials found the surveillance video from Michael's Market and Liquor and released the photo, which Cervera's other daughter spotted in the Antelope Valley Press.
Marquez initially dismissed calls and texts from friends and family who recognized her in the photo.
"My sister called at 11 o'clock at night and woke me up. She said, `This girl is you.' I said, `No, it's not me,' because I hadn't seen it yet," she said.
It wasn't until the next morning that Marquez realized she had bought the winning ticket that would help her mother and her entire family for years to come.
Cervera, a widow who has lived on disability for 20 years, said her family has been through difficult times recently. Last year her 47-year-old son Rudy was killed in a motorcycle accident, leaving four teenage children.
"I'd give it all up to have my son here again," she said and began to cry. Her oldest grandson, Rudy Jr., hugged her and the whole family wiped away tears.
"My grandkids are all going to be taken care of, and my (three) daughters," she said. "I'm just so happy. I'm going to buy me a pair of Reeboks."
She also has two adopted sons, ages 5 and 9, who have developmental disabilities.
"A big portion is going to them, so that when I'm gone they'll be OK," she said. "I'm going to take them to Disneyland. I really am! And we're going to pay for everything."
Cervera had only 180 days to claim her prize. If she hadn't acted, the millions would have gone to California schools. A $52 million jackpot winner in Fremont was found in August by a similar public appeal by lottery officials.
In the last fiscal year, more than $20.5 million in cash prizes went unclaimed.
Cervera said she would take a one-time cash payment of $17.8 million.
"I'm not going to be here 30 years from now," she said.