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jag 03-03-2004 04:51 PM

lottery ticket remains unclaimed
In Va., 239 Million Reasons And 5 Months to Show Up

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 3, 2004; Page B01

Unclaimed lottery prizes are nothing new: Virginia alone makes about $10 million a year off winning $5 and $100 tickets that get stood up like bad prom dates.

But $239 million?

Officials of the 11-state Mega Millions lottery say it's almost unheard of for people not to claim large prizes, and the ticket sold Feb. 20 at the Red Apple convenience store in Stephens City, Va., is the second-largest jackpot in the world with a single winning ticket, said Penelope Kyle, executive director of the Virginia Lottery. And the winner is still missing.

Two mysterious "lawyers" did make separate calls to Kyle's office to say they represented the winner -- and then vanished. Otherwise, there has been not a peep in 12 days from the ticket owner or owners.

Meanwhile, residents of Stephens City, near Winchester in Virginia's northern tip, have taken to analyzing the owner's psychology, while lottery officials have resorted to jokes to get the winner's attention.

"What can a person do with $239 million? Here are some options . . . " reads a news release from Kyle's office. "Build a new lane in each direction on Interstate 95 from Newington to the Occoquan River ($68 million) and then drive on it with a fleet of 469 Rolls Royce Corniche Convertibles ($363,990 each)."

Or, the release says, the winner could send a $32.77 check to all 7.3 million Virginians.

"We're running out of things to say," Kyle said of the releases they have put out daily.

Although the winner hasn't cashed in, the Red Apple has. The owner receives $25,000 for selling the winning ticket, and business has doubled since it was sold, night manager Tina Dyke said. Why?

"That's what we'd like to know," she said. "People are coming in, buying, commenting, 'Oh, this is the place that won, maybe it will bring me some luck.' "

By Virginia law, the winner has 180 days to claim the money, and officials encourage people to take their time getting their financial and legal affairs in order before being submitted to a barrage of reporters and long-lost cousins. Although some states allow lottery winners to remain anonymous or create a trust fund and delegate the trust's lawyer to collect the winnings, Virginia law requires them to hold a news conference.

"This is public money, and the public wants to know where it's going," Kyle said. "It's a sad thing for the winner if he thinks he is going to claim this anonymously."

However, the winner can bring the ticket to lottery officials and have it verified and held -- then come back before the 180 days expires to do the news conference and claim the money.

"If you have the ticket, make sure you sign it. If you've signed it, you've laid claim to it," advised Joe Mahoney of the Multi-State Lottery Association, which runs the Powerball. "If you're going to take your time, put it in a safety-deposit box."

Powerball, which runs in 24 states, the District and the U.S. Virgin Islands, has had only one jackpot go unclaimed, when one of two winners failed to claim his or her half of a $103.5 million prize in 2002. Mega Millions has had only two unclaimed jackpots since the game began in 1996 under the name Big Game; one was $5 million that same year, and the other was $68 million in 2002.

Although it's unusual for huge jackpots to go unclaimed this long, the second and third prizes (and other, smaller prizes) do go completely unspoken for, said Ed Scarborough of the Virginia Lottery, which runs media operations for the Mega Millions consortium. He says that's because the mega-jackpots attract many people who aren't lottery regulars and don't realize that they might have won something even if only some of their numbers match.

If no one claims the winning ticket after 180 days, the $239 million will go back to the 11 states. Each gets a percentage based on its sales during the drawing. States' policies differ about what is done with unclaimed lottery winnings, but Virginia puts it all back into a fund for state education, including school construction and teachers' pensions, Kyle said.

Jennie Gentry, an assistant at the Stephens City Pet Salon/Animal Hospital, said she thinks the winner "is smart to wait to come forward. People can come out of the woodwork" seeking a share of the proceeds.

Of course, it's possible that the winner isn't busy strategizing with lawyers but simply has no clue that his or her finances are about to make history. Still, whoever it is has more than five months to figure it out.

"Unless," Kyle said, the ticket was lost. "That would be horrible."

2004 The Washington Post Company

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