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Virginia hoping the joke's not on them

Apr 1, 2004, 5:15 am

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Mega Millions

It's either an April Fools' joke for the annals or the beginning of an incredibly moneyed life for the nation's newest multimillionaire.

Virginia Lottery officials said yesterday that they believe that the winner of last month's $239 million prize has finally, through a lawyer, come forward and is expected to provide the winning Mega Millions ticket for confirmation today.

Lottery officials, who learned Feb. 20 that an individual purchased the single winning ticket at the Red Apple convenience store in Stephens City, Va., have been waiting an extraordinarily long time -- at least in the realm of instant riches -- for this moment. That left them bouncing between waves of joy and unease yesterday as they prepared for what they expect will be an international onslaught of attention.

"We have lots of questions," said Penelope W. Kyle, executive director of the Virginia Lottery. "Where have you been for six weeks? Did you know you had the winning ticket, or just realize it? . . . And where have you been keeping this ticket? It's all exciting. It's like a mystery."

Speaking by phone from the lucky store outside Winchester, clerk Linda Windle said yesterday that she'd been hearing buzz during the weekend that a Winchester area man, possibly a trucker, would come forward on April Fools' Day to claim the prize. She said she's heard the rumor from "enough different people that I thought it was probably more truth than not."

Kyle said such talk "makes you wonder whether somebody's starting the rumor, or whether they really know." She declined to say where the rumored winner is from, or to offer many other details, citing the need to confirm the ticket first by scanning it with an electronic reader. She did say that the winner was not part of an office pool, but rather part of "a family situation."

A Virginia lawyer approached Lottery officials in recent days claiming to represent the winner and to have seen the ticket, Kyle said. "The people have not offered the ticket to be validated yet, which is unusual," Kyle said. But, she added, the lawyer answered a series of questions that made the story credible. "I do believe it," she said.

Lottery officials had gotten previous calls, including one from a man who said he was representing a Michigan family who had the winning ticket, that appear to be fakes, Kyle said.

Among the first tasks for the winners will be to decide how they'd like the money: in 26 annual payments of $9.19 million or a lump sum of about $141. 5 million -- both before taxes. Lottery officials will also sit them down to watch a winners' video, with advice on the pleasures and pitfalls of sudden riches.

The Mega Millions game is played in 11 states from Georgia to Washington state. The winning numbers were 01-13-20-21-30, with 24 on the "Mega Ball."

Windle, the Red Apple clerk, said she hopes the end of lotto-mania is near. As the weeks have rolled by with no winner, "it has gotten a little old," she said.

Kyle said she is thrilled that the winner will probably be introduced to the world today. Since the huge jackpot was announced, she's gotten calls from everyone from Mexican lottery officials to the British Broadcasting Corporation. "The worst thing would be to have an unclaimed prize," she said.

The timing, though, has left her a bit unsettled, she said.

"These people could be playing an April Fools' joke," Kyle said. "I hope not."

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