MUNFORD, Tenn. — If they're wise, the three mystery winners of the world-record $1.6 billion Powerball jackpot will talk seriously with experts in tax law, financial planning, privacy, security and other safeguards before they become known around the planet.
The lucky trio did not immediately identify themselves, but they bought their tickets in the small working class town of Munford, Tennessee; in the quiet Los Angeles suburb of Chino Hills; and at a supermarket in affluent Melbourne Beach, on Florida's Space Coast.
They overcame odds of 1 in 292.2 million to land on all the numbers: 4-8-19-27-34 and Powerball 10. They can let their winnings be invested and thereby collect 30 annual payments totaling an estimated $533 million, or take their third of $983.5 million in cash all at once.
Getting such a windfall is the start of a "new journey" and the winners should be prepared with lawyers, accountants and financial planners before they come forward, California Lottery spokesman Russ Lopez said.
Too many lottery winners unaccustomed to sudden wealth have gone bankrupt, been victimized or experienced other losses because they were unprepared for an onslaught of unwanted attention, said Andrew Stoltmann, an Illinois attorney who has represented winners. He compared it to "throwing meat into a shark-infested ocean."
But they shouldn't wait too long: California gives its top winners up to a year to contact lottery officials before the money automatically goes to schools. Winners in Tennessee and Florida must claim their winnings within 180 days of Wednesday night's drawing.
State and local taxes can eat up nearly half the winnings for many lottery players around the country, but these three could be even more lucky if they live in Florida or Tennessee, which have no state income tax, or California, which exempts winnings from lottery tickets bought in-state. They would still owe federal taxes, topping out at 39.6 percent.
The huge draw also produced eight $2 million Power Play winners and 73 $1 million winners nationwide who matched all five white balls but missed the red Powerball, said Sally Lunsford of the Kansas Lottery.
The California ticket was sold at a 7-Eleven; the Florida ticket at a Publix supermarket and the Tennessee ticket at a family-owned grocery store, where the owner, Dana Naifeh, received a $25,000 check.
"I need to digest this," said Naifeh, who plans to share some of her modest bounty with store employees.
Florida's store collects $100,000, and California's $1 million bonus will be shared between the Chino Hills store owner and the 7-Eleven company.
California Lottery spokesman Alex Traverso said officials there heard plenty of stories about possible jackpot winners, but no one had come forward to cash in the ticket as of late Thursday afternoon.
Munford auto body shop worker Jerry Caudle said he was "freaking out" when he heard a winning ticket was sold in his town, but then saw that he matched only two numbers and the Powerball, for a prize of $14. He wore a wistful smile as he left the Short Stop gas station and convenience store, where Tipton County's "best chicken on a stick" costs $3.69.
"It's been tough," Caudle said. "The hardest winter for me here in 17 years."
The California store and its surrounding strip mall suddenly became a popular gathering spot in the rural suburb of 78,000, where cows still graze on hillsides. Hundreds of people crowded into the 7-Eleven store, chanting "Chino Hills! Chino Hills!"
Store owner Balbir Atwal worked as an electronics salesman after immigrating from India in 1981, and bought his first 7-Eleven franchise at the age of 27. Now he owns four. He said he has sold winning tickets before, but never like this one.
"I was just joking, I said, this is the time someone's going to hit it," laughed Atwal. He said he would share his part of the store's bonus with employees and family, and give some to charity.
Michael Fahim, 48, real estate broker from Chino Hills, said he bought 20 lottery tickets Wednesday night just up the street. "I'm happy it's in Chino Hills. I think it put us on the map — all over the world," he said, adding that his brother called from Australia overnight to learn if he won.
Melbourne Beach's 3,100 residents live on a spit of beachfront no bigger than one-square mile. Unlike parts of the Space Coast dominated by high rises, the affluent town has large single-family homes on its beaches. Nobody emerged to claim their winnings, but excitement was palpable outside the Publix where the ticket was sold.
"The winner could be as close as your neighbors!" said Lisa Londini, a professional caregiver shopping at the market. "I wish it was me!"
Ticket sales and payouts had risen steadily as weeks came and went without a winner since Nov. 4, when the jackpot amount was reset at $40 million. In addition to three jackpot winners, more than 26 million other winning tickets will pay out total cash prizes of $273,869,373, Lunsford said.
For Wednesday night's drawing alone, Powerball sales totaled $1,270,206,274. People were buying 37,000 Powerball tickets a minute in California, where $386 million in Powerball tickets were sold since Nov. 4, the most of any state and more than California sold in the entire previous fiscal year, spokesman Russ Lopez said.
"You get a lot of new players with a large jackpot," California Lottery Director Hugo Lopez said. "Our goal is to have a lot of people play a little bit."
A big chunk of the profits go to schools, although not enough to solve all their budget problems, officials said.
Sales for this jackpot generated nearly $115 million since November for education in Florida, which uses the lottery to provide 6 percent of the education budget, Florida Lottery Secretary Tom Delacenserie said. California's share represents $154 million for its schools, Russ Lopez said — not enough "to get schools out of trouble."