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Unclaimed $1.5 billion Mega Millions jackpot mystery: Winner died? Ticket lost?

SIMPSONVILLE, S.C. (AP) – Nearly everyone in this small South Carolina town has a theory for the city’s billion-dollar mystery: Who won the $1.5 billion Mega Millions jackpot announced last October?

Maybe the winner was so overwhelmed upon seeing the winning numbers that she or he died on the spot? Maybe the winner is on the run from police and fears a background check? Maybe that winning ticket fell from a car visor, ended up in a trash can and is forever buried at the Twin Chimneys Landfill. Or maybe, the winner is still going on with life as usual, before quietly taking the $878 million lump sum.

With less than two months to go, the clock is ticking. Whoever won the second largest lottery in U.S. history has until 5 p.m. on April 19 to walk into the South Carolina Lottery office in Columbia with the signed ticket and claim the jackpot.

The winning ticket was sold at the KC Mart in Simpsonville sometime between Oct. 20 and the drawing at 11 p.m. on Oct. 23. Store employee Jee Patel said State Law Enforcement Division agents were waiting in the parking lot when workers came to open at 6 a.m. the next day.

“We didn’t even know we sold the winner yet,” Patel said, adding agents immediately took the surveillance tapes away. “We haven’t seen them. I don’t know when we sold it or who we sold it to.”

Simpsonville is a rapidly growing suburb of about 22,000 people south of Greenville. The store is away from the suburban core on a two-lane road past the four-way stop and several recently constructed subdivisions. Everyone entering the store on a recent cold winter day figured the winning ticket was sold to someone living or working nearby.

Christian Porchak lives a mile from the KC Mart, where he bought tickets for the big drawing. He felt a brief rush when he heard it sold the winner. Just as quickly, though, his hopes were dashed as he checked his numbers over — and over — again: “I know I checked every ticket I bought. But there’s that nagging feeling that maybe I didn’t check every one.”

As with all great mysteries, there are some far out conspiracy theories. Chris Watson prepares hot dogs and hamburgers at the KC Mart’s grill. He wonders if Mega Millions ever planned to award the jackpot at all, instead using it as an excuse to sell more tickets.

“What I don’t understand is why does the money have to go back? Why can’t they just use it for another jackpot?” Watson said.

If the ticket goes unclaimed, the $1.5 billion prize will be redistributed to the 44 states along with the U.S. Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia. One big loser could be South Carolina, which had budgeted a $61 million income tax windfall from the winner but had to remove that estimate — about 0.5 percent of the state’s annual spending plan.

Every taxpayer in South Carolina could have a dinner out on the line. A lawmaker has placed a proposal in the state budget that would give up to a $50 rebate to each person who files income taxes — but only if the state gets its taxes from the lottery winner.

Another big loser would be the store’s owner, who won’t receive his $50,000 bonus if the ticket isn’t claimed.

But Patel said the store got a big boost in sales in the weeks after selling the winning ticket and still gets people who think the luck will rub off on them. That’s why the half-dozen signs saying “WE SOLD A WINNING MEGA MILLIONS TICKET WORTH $1.5 BILLION” will stay up, Patel said.

Jackpots, even big ones, have gone unclaimed before. But this one dwarfs them all.

Gordon Medenica, lead director for the Mega Millions consortium, said the biggest Mega Millions jackpot to go unclaimed was a $68 million prize in 2002. That ticket was sold in New York. Two winning tickets were sold for a $103.5 million jackpot in 2002 but one ticket — sold in Indiana — was never claimed, said Wendy Ahlm with the New Mexico lottery that currently oversees Powerball.

States differ in how long players have to claim their prizes. Medenica said he wouldn’t expect someone to come forward immediately. Winners often first get legal and financial advice, and he’d heard theories that the winner was waiting until 2019 for tax reasons. And in South Carolina, as in a handful of other states, winners can remain anonymous, avoiding publicity.

“Now we’re sort of running out of reasons on why anyone would wait this long,” he said.

But there have been waits in the past for winners to step forward.

The biggest jackpot in U.S. history, a $1.586 billion Powerball prize, was won on Jan. 13, 2016, by buyers in California, Tennessee and Florida. The California winners didn’t come forward until about six months later, officials said.

“The larger the prize the longer it takes,” said Russ Lopez, from the California Lottery. “That’s an amazing amount of money. Their life is going to change.”

Back in Simpsonville, theories continue to swirl. Lloyd Hall cuts hair in town. He heard one rumor that the winner worked at a large transmission plant miles (kilometers) away but is now just waiting because he doesn’t want co-workers to know. Another rumor has it that an office pool at the plant bought the ticket but now they’re arguing while lawyers negotiate.

“I’m starting to think we will never know,” Hall said.

Associated Press researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed to this report.

Nearly everyone in this small South Carolina town has a theory for the city's billion-dollar mystery: Who won the $1.5 billion Mega Millions jackpot announced last October?

Biggest Unclaimed Lottery Prizes

The clock is ticking as we wait for the winners of three huge recent jackpots won within a two-week period to come forward.

  • $70 million Powerball jackpot won in Pontiac, Michigan on February 12, 2020. The winner must claim within one year of the draw date, according to state law.
  • $202 million Mega Millions jackpot won in Edison, New Jersey on February 11. The claim period is one year from the draw date.
  • $396.9 million Powerball jackpot won in Bonita Springs, Florida on January 29. Florida law gives the winner 180 days from the draw date to claim.

These winners still have plenty of time left. But it is possible that they will never collect their incredible prizes, because they’ll never even know they won.

It is very unusual for a huge Powerball or Mega Millions jackpot to expire unclaimed, given all the media attention on the winning numbers and the store that sold the ticket – but sometimes it does happen.

What is much more common than you might think is the number of prizes – sometimes very big ones – that expire every year all across the country.

Billions of dollars in prizes go unclaimed every year

Incredibly, lottery players let billions of dollars in winnings expire every year. Winners missed out on a total of $2.89 billion in the 12 months to June 2017, according to research by lottery expert Brett Jacobson, who crunched numbers from every state lottery.

Everything from a couple of bucks through to millions of dollars is routinely left on the table. There were 167 unclaimed prizes of $1 million or more in fiscal year 2017 alone!

Most recently, a $14.6 million prize expired in Arizona in December 2019. The ticket holder never came forward, so we’ll probably never know whether the ticket was lost, tossed in the trash, or maybe even now is sitting quietly in the back of a drawer.

Unfortunately, the prize is now gone for good. Once the claim period expires, so does the prize.

There are currently 29 Powerball prizes of $50,000 or more that will expire in the next six months. Two of those, sold in Kentucky and Missouri, are worth $1 million each, while another two sold in Kentucky and Louisiana are each worth $100,000.

Some of these prizes will be claimed before they expire – but some likely will not. Sometimes even the prizes for instant win scratch-off tickets are never claimed, Jacobson said.

Why do players let lottery prizes expire?

Below are the three major reasons why ticket holders never claim their winnings.

Mistake #1: Losing tickets

It’s quite common to outright lose tickets, whether it’s behind the couch or stuffed into a coat pocket.

That was the situation of California mechanic Hung Nguyen in 2015. The father of a five-month-old was unaware that he’d won a $1,098,624 Powerball prize after he matched all five main numbers.

In an effort to locate the winner, the California Lottery publicized surveillance video showing the purchase of the ticket. Nguyen’s boss recognized him and told him that he had won, but Nguyen thought it was a prank.

Unfortunately, he’d lost the ticket he bought six months previously. Winners must have a ticket to claim, so he was not able to get his prize. The unclaimed winnings were distributed to California schools.

Nguyen said that although he was sad about the missed opportunity, he would keep playing – and would be much more careful with his tickets in the future.

Mistake #2: Not checking your numbers

Another common mistake is not checking your tickets. Players often don’t bother if the jackpot didn’t go off or the winning ticket wasn’t sold in their area.

People also put tickets away, intending to check them, and then simply forget about them until it’s too late.

Mistake #3: Not knowing there are more prizes than the jackpot

Many players are simply not aware that there are more prizes – sometimes big ones – than just the jackpot. “People don’t even realize there are secondary prizes,” said Jacobson.

One of those was former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, who won a $150,000 Powerball prize on January 22, 2020. “Sort of a word to the wise: Check your numbers. It matters,” he advised.

“There are different ways to win. I didn’t realize that. I honestly didn’t realize you could win by not having all of the numbers. And so people sometimes walk away from some resources and some money when they don’t check their ticket.”

The bigger the jackpot, the bigger the number of unclaimed prizes tends to be. More people buy tickets when there are huge jackpots, but often don’t check whether they’ve won a lower-tier prize – which could still be $1 million or more.

How to never miss out on a prize

Here’s how to make sure you never let winnings expire:

  • Sign the back of your ticket as soon as you buy it
  • Keep the ticket somewhere safe
  • Check your numbers:
    • Check Powerball tickets
    • Check Mega Millions tickets
  • Find out your state’s claim deadline – see below

One way to ensure you’ll always receive any prize you’ve won is to play online. You’ll be notified if you’ve won, and your ticket is stored securely in the online system.

How long do you have to claim?

Below are the claim periods for each jurisdiction. Times are from the date of the drawing.

90 days: New Mexico

180 days: Arizona, Arkansas, California (non-jackpot prizes), Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico,South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington State, Washington D.C., West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming

182 days: Maryland

Six months: U.S. Virgin Islands

One year: California (jackpot winners), Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont

What happens to expired prizes?

Once the claim period is over and the prize expires, there’s nothing the winner can do about it – the winning ticket no longer has any value.

So what happens to the prize money?

For lottery games that are only played in one state, most of the money is returned to the state. Sometimes it’s earmarked for good causes. For example, Florida law gives 80 percent of expired prizes to the Educational Enhancement Trust Fund, which benefits state schools. The remaining 20 percent is returned to the lottery.

For multi-state games like Powerball and Mega Millions, the funds each lottery contributed towards the jackpot from its ticket sales are returned.

Top 8 unclaimed jackpots

Unclaimed jackpots are very rare, but they do happen. Here are eight big jackpots that have expired unclaimed, from smallest to largest. Unfortunately, even if the tickets were turned in now, they’re no longer worth anything.

  • $14.6 million The Pick ticket purchased in Arizona on June 5, 2019
  • $16.6 million Powerball ticket purchased in Florida on May 25, 2013
  • $31 million Mega Millions ticket purchased in New York on August 1, 2006
  • $46 million Mega Millions ticket purchased in New York on April 25, 2003
  • $51.7 million Powerball ticket purchased in Indiana on September 14, 2002
  • $63 million Super Lotto ticket purchased in California on August 8, 2015
  • $68 million Mega Millions ticket purchased in New York on December 24, 2002.
    • A man sued for the prize, saying he “lost the ticket in a non-retrievable situation.” Officials investigated but found no ticket matching his description in the Lottery’s archive or the place where he claimed to have purchased the ticket.
  • $77.1 million Powerball ticket purchased in Georgia on June 29, 2011.

The biggest near-misses

There are a surprising number of big jackpot winners who, having overcome overwhelming odds to win, almost lost their tickets and came this close to never claiming their life-changing prizes.

Lerynne West: $343.9 million Powerball jackpot

Lerynne West, the Redfield, Iowa woman who won half the $687 Powerball jackpot on October 27, 2018, thought she had put her ticket into her purse as she sat in the passenger seat of her sister’s truck.

But the day after the drawing, West realized she didn’t have her ticket.

She called her sister, who finally found the precious item on the floor of her truck. Her sister sent a photo, and West realized she’d won the jackpot.

“I told my sister to get in her truck and get that ticket and get up here right now! And, drive slow,” West smiled.

Michael Weirsky: $273 million Mega Millions jackpot

Michael Weirsky of Alpha, New Jersey, won the $273 million Mega Millions jackpot on March 1, 2019. After buying his tickets, Weirsky left them behind on the store counter when he got distracted by his phone.

But his good luck hadn’t run out yet. Another customer saw the tickets and gave them to the clerk.

Eventually, Weirsky realized he’d misplaced the tickets. He searched his house, and finally returned to the store the day after the drawing and found the tickets safely waiting for him.

Jimmie Smith: $24.1 million New York Lottery jackpot

Jimmie Smith, a 68-year-old grandfather from East Orange, New Jersey, had no idea that he had won a multimillion-dollar prize on May 25, 2016.

As the one-year deadline to claim got closer, local news reported the winner hadn’t come forward. Luckily, Smith saw the story and checked a shirt pocket where he’d stashed old tickets – incredibly, the winning ticket was there.

Unable to believe his luck, “I had to stick my head out the window and breathe in some fresh air,” he said. “I was in serious doubt. I really had to convince myself this was real.”

More winners that almost weren’t

The near-misses below are just a few examples of how easy it is to leave a prize on the table. Luckily, these were caught just in time.

Snow day millionaire (January 15, 2016)

As snowstorms hit Oregon in January 2017, Joemel Panisa used the time inside to clean his home office. And he picked a great time to tidy, uncovering an old Mega Millions ticket.

Panisa said that he’d put the ticket in an envelope, left it in his office, and forgotten about it for nearly a year.

After recovering the ticket, he checked the numbers online and realized it was worth $1 million. He recalled media stories about a prize about to expire, and realized he had to claim as soon as possible.

Luckily, he was able to make it out to collect his prize the same day despite the bad weather.

Cat burglar (February 23, 2019)

A Baltimore, Maryland woman put her Powerball tickets on her nightstand, but some mysteriously disappeared. Two months later, she found that her cat had hidden the tickets behind her bed – and one turned out to have won $50,000.

“When I buy Lottery tickets, I never watch the drawings or even check to see if I won until a few days later,” she said. “What I didn’t know is that after my cat knocked some papers off my nightstand, a few of my tickets ended up falling behind my bed. I didn’t see the additional papers behind my bed until I did some spring cleaning.”

“I don’t have big plans for the money,” she said. “I will pay off some home improvement projects and donate 10 percent to my church. I will use some of this money to help people.”

Second-chance luck (February 2019)

Sean Winn of Greenville, Kentucky thought his Tennessee Lottery Gigantic Jumbo Bucks ticket was a loser. “I scratched it and thought it wasn’t a winner, so I threw it in the back of my truck,” the Kentucky state park worker said.

Winn decided to enter the ticket in a second-chance drawing. Good decision – he learned his ticket wasn’t eligible, because he’d won $4 million the first time.

Trash to treasure (April 3, 2019)

Harrison, Michigan man Jeff Heinig also tossed his ticket in the trash after believing he hadn’t won. However, the next day he checked the winning numbers again and saw some he recognized.

Luckily, 59-year-old Heinig hadn’t taken out the trash yet, and retrieved his Lucky For Life ticket to recheck it. He realized he’d looked at the wrong result and had thrown the ticket away before the drawing had even taken place.

The ticket turned out to be worth $25,000 per year for life.

“We’ve had a rough start to the year,” his wife Wendy said. “Earlier this year, Jeff had a massive heart attack and actually died three times before they saved his life. We’re all so fortunate to still have him with us, and winning this prize means we can enjoy doing some fun things together that we couldn’t have afforded before.”

Paper trail (September 7, 2019)

A 33-year-old Laurel, Maryland woman left her Powerball ticket in a pile of papers. Several weeks later, her mother was helping her prepare to move and found the buried ticket.

“By then, the ticket had disappeared from my mind. I just had so much to do and everything I owned was in boxes here and there. If she hadn’t noticed the ticket in a pile of papers, I never would have,” the winner said.

“I was snooping a bit, figuring out what was trash and what wasn’t, when I saw the ticket. I decided to check on it – just in case,” the player’s mother said.

She checked the numbers and the ticket was a $50,000 winner.

After giving her daughter the big news, “she stayed calm,” her mother said, “but I could tell she was shocked and very excited.”

The winner planned to invest the money and maybe take a vacation.

Counter-offer (November 3, 2019)

A 70-year-old Baltimore, Maryland woman won $12,327 on the Racetrax virtual racing game after using family birthdays as her numbers.

She’d stopped at the shopping center with her partner after he got hungry.

“I just looked up at the screen and saw my numbers,” she said. “To be honest, I don’t even know how to play Racetrax! I usually just tell the cashier, ‘Straight for $1 on Racetrax’ and they know what I mean.”

She rushed to the cashier to confirm her prize – but in her excitement, left the ticket behind on the counter.

She told her partner about the win as they drove home. “I didn’t believe it was that much,” he said. “I needed her to show me the ticket.”

Suddenly, the winner realized the ticket was still at the store. “She made me turn around in the middle of Taylor Avenue,” her partner recalled.

They were relieved to find that the clerk had kept the ticket safe and sound.

What are the largest U.S. lottery jackpot prizes that have expired unclaimed, why does it happen, and how can you prevent it?