Maryland lottery officials were inundated Monday with nonstop calls fueled by rumors about the identity of the Baltimore County shopper who will share in the $656 million Mega Millions jackpot.
"Everyone says they know who the winner is," said lottery spokeswoman Carole Everett. "It's their cousin. It's a person who works at their doctor's office. It's the guy up the street who mows the lawn. We're not going to chase gossip."
Several hoaxes have flown across the Internet after Facebook and Twitter users doctored fake winning tickets and posted them online.
But the most persistent rumor, lottery officials say, stemmed from a New York Post article Monday — which was repeated by media outlets across the country — that stated that the Maryland winner was an employee of a McDonald's just down Liberty Road from the 7-Eleven. The newspaper reported that the employee, identified as Mirlande Wilson, 37, of Baltimore's Westport neighborhood, had bought tickets for a pool of co-workers and was fighting with them over whether the "winning" ticket was bought for her alone or for the pool.
Wilson initially told the paper she had won the jackpot but later changed her story: "I don't know if I won. Some of the numbers were familiar. I recognized some of [them]," she reportedly said.
She could not immediately produce the winning ticket but said she would contact lottery officials with it on Monday. As of Monday evening, lottery officials said they had heard from no winner and dismissed Wilson's story as likely nothing more than unsubstantiated gossip.
Wilson's cellphone voice mailbox was full Monday afternoon when The Baltimore Sun repeatedly tried to contact her.
"We've heard so much gossip," Everett said. "That one just happened to make the newspaper. We do not expect this woman to come in."
The mystery winner has up to 182 days after the drawing to claim the prize, which will be $218.6 million split between the three still-unidentified winners in Maryland, Kansas and Illinois.
Lottery director Stephen Martino said Maryland officials have video of the winning ticket being purchased. However, a differential between the clocks on the ticket distribution system and the video means officials cannot pinpoint the winning buyer using video alone, he said.
Martino said winners usually claim their jackpots within the first week but can take longer. He said he's seen red-eyed, excited winners report to his offices the morning after the drawing, but he has also had lawyers call on behalf of clients days later. Most big jackpot winners have remained anonymous, he said. There have been eight Mega Millions winners in Maryland history.
One winner who did go public, Elwood "Bunky" Bartlett, formerly of Dundalk, walked away with $32.6 million after he split a Mega Millions jackpot in 2007. He now says the winners should avoid taking the lump sum and remain anonymous.
"The American people seem to think that just because you win money, you're supposed to share it with everyone else," he says. "I have thousands and thousands of emails explaining that thinking process. My favorite came from the person who wrote '$34,000' in the subject line, and then included just their name and address. That was it. No explanation, no story. Just $34,000."
Martino said he now worries false reports could cause the real winner to think someone else has won.
"Could there be some truth to one of these rumors? There could be," he says. "But it's really not healthy to get involved with all this speculation."
Baltimore Sun reporter Mary Carole McCauley contributed to this article.
Officials inundated with Mega Millions rumors
Md. Lottery says reports of a McDonald's employee winning Mega Millions jackpot most likely false