SAN JOSE, Calif. — With each passing day, the mystery deepens.
Someone, somewhere, is in possession of a lucky Mega Millions lottery ticket worth $324 million that was purchased at a small San Jose shop on Dec. 17.
We know the winning numbers: 8, 14, 17, 20, 39 and a mega number of 7. But what's still unknown is who holds the golden slip of paper that represents a passport into the land of unfathomable riches.
"We're still waiting," said Russ Lopez, a California Lottery spokesman. "But we're urging them to just come forward, let us help you with the initial madness, and then start the next chapter of your new life. It's going to be a heck of a ride."
But outside Jenny's Gift & Kids Wear, a store tucked away in a Tully Road strip mall where the precious ticket was sold, security guard Mel Cruz said Saturday that he just hopes it wasn't somehow lost.
"Everybody here is happy," said Cruz, 64. "It's exciting. But we're all asking: 'Why hasn't it been claimed yet?'"
So for now, the focus has centered upon store owner Thuy Nguyen, and he's not exactly enjoying the spotlight. Sure, at first he was thrilled with the attention. After all, he smiled for the cameras while holding an oversized, honorary check for $1 million that he will receive sometime in the coming weeks for selling the lottery ticket.
But Nguyen's voice has become raspy from too much talking and he's weary of posing for pictures with customers. He talks about "a lot of drama." And he has been asked the same question over and over.
"I know everybody wants to find out, but I don't know," said Nguyen, who emigrated from Vietnam 20 years ago and has owned the store for four months. "I want to know who won, too. But it's up to that person about what to do. I just sold the ticket. This is a gift from God, and I'm happy for them."
Nguyen spoke between waiting on a steady stream of older Vietnamese men who entered to buy a variety of lottery tickets. They had to pass under a new California Lottery sign that read: Millionaire Made Here. Are You Next?
"People ask me, "Can you sleep?'" he added. "Well I sleep good. I still have to get up early every morning, go to work and take care of my family. I'm just very tired. I was excited for about 15 minutes, but now it's so over."
The ticket he sold was one of two winners in the $648 million drawing — the second-largest jackpot in U.S. history. The other newly minted multimillionaire, Ira Curry of Georgia, claimed her winnings and immediately dropped out of sight. She is taking her bonanza as a lump sum — $123 million after taxes.
The mystery ticket will carry less of a tax bite because unlike Georgia, California does not take a share of lottery windfalls. It's worth $173 million, before Uncle Sam's cut, if taken as a lump sum.
The winner has up to a year to claim the prize.
By this point, lottery officials are assuming that whoever holds the ticket knows that they struck it rich and are seeking legal and financial counsel — something they say is smart.
But Lopez has his own advice to add. He suggests the winner end the suspense, claim the prize and speak publicly because it will be impossible to keep a low profile.
"This is such a big winner and there's so much attention," Lopez said. "The media all want to ask the same questions. How does it feel? What were you thinking when you bought the ticket? Do it once and that way, you satisfy the public's curiosity."
While the winner doesn't have to appear at a news conference — Curry didn't in Georgia — the name is required to be made public in the interest of transparency.
"There is no hiding," Lopez added. "There is no anonymity. There is no claiming a prize as a trust. You will be known."
While it may sound inconceivable, winning tickets often are not returned. Lopez said this past fiscal year, which ended in June, saw $22 million in winnings go unclaimed. That money instead went to California schools, which is the lottery's beneficiary.
Another example came in November when the winner of a $465,539 Powerball prize sold in Los Angeles missed the 180-day deadline to claim the prize.
But this is a winning ticket on a completely different scale.
It's also why Cruz, the security guard, said he has met people in recent days from as far away as Salinas and Sacramento who have bought lottery tickets at the San Jose store.
"Everyone knows this is a lucky place now," he said.
Meanwhile, the waiting game continues.
"Everything we do at the lottery is about this moment — someone buying a $1 ticket and changing their life forever," Lopez said. "We're like Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and every other magical creature who makes dreams come true, all rolled up in one."
But apparently they don't know who won, either.
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