Mega Millions jackpot

Maryland Lottery Account Executive Jennifer Stein hols up a $640 million promotional check for TV cameras inside a 7-Eleven store as a customer looks on. One of three winning tickets of the Mega Millions jackpot was sold at the store at 8014 Liberty Road in Baltimore County. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun / March 31, 2012)

The nation watched as winning numbers for the record-setting Mega Millions jackpot were revealed Friday night, and then waited all day Saturday to learn the identity of a lucky Baltimore County shopper who would split the $656 million.

His or her identity, however, remains a mystery.

Three winning tickets were sold for the multistate lottery — in Maryland, Kansas and Illinois — and the ticket holders will split the pot.

While the winners' identities remained unknown early Sunday, the buying frenzy in which 1.5 billion tickets were sold for $1 apiece turned to wild guessing as to who they are and why they haven't stepped forward. Perhaps someone left the winning ticket in an office desk drawer over the weekend, or accidentally put it through the wash. People called friends and relatives in areas where winning tickets were sold, asking: "Is it you?"

On the eve of April Fools' Day, pranksters and hoaxes added to the mystery. A man who goes by BeerInBaltimore on Twitter posted a photograph of a ticket with the winning numbers — bought after the drawing — and proclaimed "Life begins now!" A Maryland man sparked a media frenzy when he posted on Facebook an altered photo of a winning ticket and claimed he couldn't stop shaking.

And someone called the 7-Eleven in Milford Mill where the ticket was sold to say he was coming in to claim his winnings — but never showed.

The 7-Eleven was a mob scene Saturday as residents and national media gravitated to the store at 8014 Liberty Road where one of the nation's newest multimillionaires bought a ticket at 7:15 p.m. Friday and asked the clerk to let the computer randomly select numbers. It was less than four hours before sales stopped.

Erica Williams, who has lived a few doors down from the convenience store for a dozen years, said Saturday morning she couldn't drive down her street because it was clogged with onlookers. The store is less than a half-mile from the Route 26 Beltway exit, making it an easy place for people to turn in for a soda, cup of coffee or lottery ticket.

"Everybody knows I live nearby, and everyone's been messaging me on Facebook and my phone's been ringing off the hook," Williams said. "'Did you win? Did you play?' they keep asking. But, unfortunately, I didn't."

Maryland has had its share of jackpot winners, said Carole Everett, a Maryland Lottery spokeswoman.

Most of them have opted to remain anonymous, including a Baltimore County couple who won $183 million in 2003 and a Montgomery County couple who won $109 million in 2004. The law allows the winners to keep their privacy, unlike some states that require winners to be named publicly.

Ellwood August "Bunky" Bartlett and his wife, Denise, bought a winning Mega Millions ticket five years ago at Walther Liquors in Nottingham. They split the $330 million jackpot with four other winners and walked away with $82.5 million in cash.

Everett said lottery officials don't expect to learn the winner's identity until Monday, when their offices open again.

In all, Everett said, Maryland has had eight Mega Millions and two Powerball jackpot winners. In December, a $128.8 million Powerball ticket was sold at Wesley's restaurant and liquor store in Elkton.

But this Mega Millions took the game to another level. The previous record Mega Millions jackpot was $390 million, in 2007.

In the past three days, the jackpot skyrocketed. It jumped $100 million between Thursday and Friday as ticket sales reached a frenzy, and Maryland lottery officials had to stock retailers with extra rolls of paper to print tickets. Then it jumped from an estimated $640 million to $656 million, as lottery officials continued to crunch sales numbers Saturday.

The cash option pays $474.2 million, with $158 million available to the Maryland winner. The Mega Millions game is played in 44 states and jurisdictions, including Virginia, Delaware and the District of Columbia.

After taxes, the Maryland winner could take home $105.1 million in a lump sum payment or opt for a $5.59 million payment every year for 26 years.

And the ticket holders aren't the only winners.