By Reggie Ellis
Pete Santellan, 82, of Woodlake has been going to Eagle Mt. Casino to try his luck about once a month for the last 30 years.
Sometimes he wins but more often he loses, with the last six months closer to the latter. But Pete's luck changed on July 9 when he won $3.6 million on the "Wheel of Fortune" dollar slot machine.
"I probably just broke even," Santellan said a few days after the win.
Santellan was playing the progressive slot machine with a max bet of $3 for about 40 minutes before he hit it big. His son Ruben, who was at the casino when he won, said he came back to find the machine roped off and his father in a state of shock.
"My father doesn't show a lot but his whole face was white," Ruben said.
"I thought I had won a couple hundred dollars," Santellan said. "I was so surprised that I wasn't sure if I believed it or not when they told me."
"We definitely want to congratulate Mr. Santellan," said Tom Stuart, general manager of the casino.
"We are happy someone local won because without winners no one is going to try their luck."
General Manager Tom Stuart said Santellan's $3,643,537.44 is largest jackpot in Eagle Mt.'s history. He also said he had never seen the progressive slot machine jackpot hit at the casino. The casino located on the Tule River Indian Reservation has about 1,500 slot machines.
"We have pretty good jackpots that pay out pretty well," Stuart said. "We have the best paying slots in the area.
Santellan and his son run a farm labor contracting business he started in 1961 in Woodlake. The family also farms 50 acres of citrus between Exeter and Lemon Cove. Stuart said that Santellan has 30 days to decide if he will take a lump sum or 26 annual payments of about 140,000 before taxes. Santellan said he will use the winnings to pay bills at three ranches and save for future payments on the land.
"I have some pretty big bills to pay," Santellan said. "I don't think I'd be around when the last check came in."