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Maryland Mega Millions winners claim prize, anonymously

By Yvonne Wenger, The Baltimore Sun –

BALTIMORE — If the three Maryland public school educators want to hold onto a sense of normalcy after Tuesday’s announcement that they are splitting a share of the record-breaking Mega Millions jackpot, experts say they should stay tight-lipped.

For now, “The Three Amigos,” as they call themselves, have allowed lottery officials to reveal only the barest details about their identities: a woman in her 20s, a man in his 40s, and a woman in her 50s. The Marylanders work in three separate schools, as a special education teacher, an elementary school teacher and school administrative worker.

Each of them will have a $35 million lump-sum payment wired to their bank account in the next two weeks — and they would be pummeled with requests to spend the money if their identities were known, experts say. Ellwood “Bunky” Bartlett, who won $32.6 million in 2007, and now has only about half of the money left, says if he had to do it over, he would remain anonymous.

Charities, scammers and relatives who feel entitled to the money are among those who could approach the winners with their hands out, Lowell Herman, chair of the trusts and estates group at the Baltimore-based Gordon Feinblatt law firm, warned. The winners should assemble a team of trusted advisers, including legal counsel, to help protect their fortune — and their secret, he said.

“A good adviser, more than anything, can turn into a good armchair psychologist,” said Herman, whose firm has counseled lottery winners in the past. “Just like you see with athletes and movie stars, that money could be gone quickly; the wealth could disappear suddenly.”

Stephen Martino, director of the Maryland Lottery, said the Maryland winners have a good shot at keeping their anonymity. Only one of the Maryland’s eight Mega Millions jackpot winners had agreed to be identified.

“It depends on how you conduct yourself, how discreet you are with the information,” Martino said.

In the last year alone, the state had two Powerball jackpot winners — $128.8 million in December and $108.8 million in September — and both wanted to remain anonymous, a protection available through state law.

“To my knowledge they have never been identified in the media,” Martino said.

But that didn’t stop the guessing-game Tuesday about the latest winners.

Abby Beytin, president of the Baltimore County teachers union, said they were rumored to be county educators. “Everyone is trying to figure it out,” she said.

Each winner’s share is a third of the $105 million cash option available after taxes from the $656 million jackpot. The state will collect $13.4 million in income taxes.

Two other jackpot-winning tickets were sold in Kansas and Illinois. The Kansas winner came forward Friday and also chose to remain anonymous. No one has claimed the prize in Illinois.

The three Maryland winners have acknowledged letting some of their relatives know, Martino said. One of the winners told lottery officials that she drove the winning ticket to her mother’s house at 1 a.m. on March 31, a couple of hours after the winning numbers were drawn.

The three had pooled their money to buy 60 tickets at three locations, including the 7-Eleven on Liberty Road in Milford Mill where the winning ticket was purchased at 7:15 p.m. on March 30.

On the night of the drawing, the youngest of the winners had the tickets laid out on her floor as she watched the drawing.

“Once I realized one was the winner, I called my two friends right away,” she said in comments provided by the lottery. A second winner was sleeping and had forgotten about the drawing.

“It was around 11:30 p.m., and my phone just kept ringing and ringing. I finally decided to answer it, thinking something was wrong,” that winner told lottery officials. On the phone were the other two winners who said, “Get dressed. We’re coming over right now.”

The winners took 10 days to come forward, Martino said, because they were seeking legal and financial advice.

The winners have consulted with money managers and investment bankers, he said. One of the winners told lottery officials: “We’re going to be careful with how the money is spent. I watched coverage of the jackpot win on television all week, just so I could listen to the financial advice the professionals were offering.”

When the group arrived at lottery headquarters Monday, Martino said, one of the winners took from her purse a small white envelope that contained the winning Mega Millions ticket. The winners had made three copies of the ticket and each signed the copies, he said.

The actual ticket was signed by all three winners that day at the lottery’s conference room table, Martino said. It was then handed over to lottery security and its authenticity was verified, he said.

The winners announced Tuesday told Maryland lottery officials that they plan to continue working. The two classroom teachers couldn’t imagine leaving their jobs, Martino, the lottery director, said.

“They were so clearly committed to their kids,” he said. “When we asked them, ‘Are you going to continue to teach?’ They both said, ‘Yes, I can’t give up my kids.’ ”

To make ends meet, the educators each worked more than one job, including one of the winners who had two full-time jobs, Martino said.

Martino said one of the women mentioned that she had visited church recently and prayed silently for money to cover her bills.

Even their plans to spend the money are not ostentatious.

One plans to go backpacking through Europe with her brother, Martino said. Another wants to take a tour of Italy’s wine country. The third plans to help pay for his daughters’ college education, pay off his house and buy his sister a house.

“They were modest. They were down-to-earth,” Martino said, adding, “These are the kind of people you’d like to see win.”

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