Mega Millions winner buys ticket in Baltimore Co.

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.
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)

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.

Maryland will collect $13.4 million in taxes if the Maryland winner takes the cash option, or $714,872 a year for 26 years if the winner decides to take the annual payout, Everett said. The money will go to the state's general fund and can be spent at lawmakers' discretion.

And ticket sales were record-setting as well. The Mega Millions game reached $11.8 million in sales on Friday, more than doubling the state's previous one-day record of about $5.8 million.

"It's a tremendous opportunity," Maryland Lottery Director Stephen Martino said. "We're very excited that it happened in Maryland."

The owners of the 7-Eleven also win. They will collect a $100,000 winning bonus, on top of the 5 cents retailers collect on every ticket sold, Martino said. He said the store has been owned by the same family for about 10 years. When reached by phone Saturday, one of the owners declined to comment.

In addition to the jackpot ticket purchased in Baltimore County, Maryland retailers sold four $250,000 winning tickets. Tickets for the second-tier prize were sold at the Redner's Warehouse Markets at 2126 N. Foundation Green Road in Bel Air, the Sheetz at 20723 National Pike in Boonsboro, the 7-Eleven at 9709 Beaver Dam Road in Timonium and the 7-Eleven at 4918 Harford Road in Baltimore.

Among the many who didn't win was Tom Kreft of Catonsville, a 25-year-old graduate of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Kreft, who works as a video editor and at a grocery store, used Photoshop to edit a Mega Millions ticket to show the winning numbers, which were 2-4-23-38-46 and Mega Ball 23. Next, he posted the picture along with "I can't stop shaking" as a status update on Facebook.

He had to give up the prank when reporters as far away as the United Kingdom tried to track him down for interviews.

"Sorry to say it was a prank; all I won was a little attention," Kreft said in an email.

Brad Klipner of Perry Hall, aka BeerInBaltimore on Twitter, said he picked up about 400 followers on the social networking site after he got the idea to post, "Do these look right? Know me? You know how to reach me. Peace. I love you all. Life begins now! #megamillions" with a picture of a ticket with the winning numbers — but bought on a different date not shown in the picture.

Klipner, 35, said he was caught off guard when his hoax went viral.

"I was surprised," he said. "I thought a couple of my buddies would see it and say, 'When are we going out?' I feel a little guilty."

At the crowded, lucky 7-Eleven, as he stood in line to buy a few Mega Millions tickets for the next drawing Tuesday, James Martin of Garrison quipped that the only network not clamoring to tell the story of the big jackpot winners was the Cartoon Network. Though the new jackpot is much smaller at $12 million, he was willing to take a chance.

"Maybe lightning will strike twice," Martin said.

Terell Blackwell of Pikesville said he stops at the 7-Eleven every day before he heads to work for Amtrak in Washington. He spent $20 on tickets for the $656 million jackpot, but turned up empty.

"Maybe it's someone I know," Blackwell said, as his cellphone rang from a friend who saw him on TV in the background of a live shot from the store parking lot.

His advice for the winner: "Spread the wealth. Who can be selfish with all that money?"

Lottery officials have some recommendations for the winner as well.

"Our advice to the player is: Safeguard the ticket, sign the back of it," Martino said. "We would encourage them to seek out legal and financial advice."

Baltimore Sun reporter Steve Kilar contributed to this article.