SACRAMENTO — Somewhere in Riverside County a lucky person is in danger of letting a fortune slip away. A $20-million fortune.
That's the Super Lotto jackpot that was won Oct. 11 by someone who purchased a $1 ticket at a bowling alley in suburban Moreno Valley.
But ever since the winning numbers--4-9-15-20-34-44--were announced with much fanfare, there has been silence. No one has claimed the prize.
First one month passed. Then two. Then three. Now lottery officials say the 180-day deadline for collecting the winnings is fast approaching and the biggest unclaimed prize in lottery history may have to be turned over to the state's public schools.
"This is unusual," said Norma Minas, a spokeswoman for the lottery. "Mostly everyone comes forward within the first couple of weeks. Sometimes a week or so goes by but that's all."
At Brunswick Moreno Valley Bowl, where the $20-million winning ticket was purchased, the missing millionaire has become an object of speculation.
Linda Miller, the bowling center's program director, figures that the winner must be one of the regular customers from the surrounding working-class neighborhood.
"I think the ticket's been thrown away," she said matter-of-factly. "I can't imagine anyone hanging on to it this long. If someone knew they won, you would just think they would be so excited they would want to get their money. I just think it has to be lost."
Under state law, schools win big whenever a lottery prize goes unclaimed. The money is distributed to the school system, like the rest of the lottery's profits.
The lottery also pays an amount equal to one half of 1% of the prize money--in this case, $100,000--to the establishment that sold the winning ticket.
Since Lotto was introduced in 1986, 13 winners have failed to claim Super Lotto jackpots, pouring an extra $92.7 million into the coffers of education.
But never has a single prize as large as $20 million gone begging. Until now the largest unclaimed prizes were a $16.4-million jackpot drawn Sept. 12, 1990, and a $15-million pot drawn Jan. 20, 1996.
If the ticket is lost, Minas said there are ways for the lottery to reconstruct it. On rare occasions, she said, prizes have been awarded to people who didn't have the ticket but had enough information about their purchase to convince lottery officials that they were legitimate winners.
"We have records of every single transaction," Minas said. "We would actually have clues that we could use to reconstruct a ticket."
If someone comes forward claiming a lost ticket, she said the normal procedure is to wait until the end of the 180-day period--in this instance early April--and then check the information they provide against the records in the lottery computers.
The computer knows the date and time of each ticket purchase, and the terminal used to issue it.
Minas said there have been a few instances when winners who did have tickets took their time to cash them:
One lottery player tacked his tickets on the refrigerator door and forgot about them for several weeks before checking to see if he was a winner.
Then there was the woman in Pittsburg who casually tossed the tickets on top of her television set. Every day she would ride her exercise bike next to the TV but three months elapsed before she remembered to check the numbers on the lottery tickets.
When she did, they turned out to be worth millions. The local newspaper ran a story calling her the "procrastinating millionaire."
Minas said that a few shy millionaires have deliberately delayed claiming their prizes to keep friends and relatives in the dark about their newfound wealth. "I've had people whispering to me on the phone, 'I have the winning ticket,' " she said.
But so far the $20-million prize winner has waited longer than anyone at the lottery can remember.
Minas speculates that the winner may be someone who doesn't play the lottery regularly and hasn't established a routine for checking winning numbers.
"We just want to find the winner," she said. "We would prefer that the winner come forward and claim the prize."