They emptied their pockets. They emptied their desk drawers. And some even reread their ticket numbers just to make sure.

But yesterday, the search for the Lotto ticket with the winning numbers 3, 5, 7, 23, 26, 36 ended in vain.

As the clock ticked closer to yesterday's 4 p.m. Maryland Lottery deadline, a Lotto ticket worth $1.5 million faded into an empty memory.

The could-have-been-lucky person holding the uncashed ticket from the Jan. 25 Lotto drawing never showed up to claim the prize. Maybe the ticket was never found, said Maryland Lottery spokesman Tom Skarzynski.

The money will be returned to the unclaimed prize pool, which will be used in other jackpots, according to Maryland Lottery officials.

"Millions of people have been calling here all day," said a Lottery switchboard operator who asked not be identified. "They want to know the ticket number and the date the ticket was sold. It's really been a zoo around here."

Skarzynski said that last January a $970,000 prize was returned to the unclaimed prize pool after the ticket holder failed to show up for the prize.

"When people call with a reasonable suspicion that they could be the jackpot winner, we ask them questions that only the purchaser would know," noted Skarzynski. "They must tell our security advisors the 12 digits and the exact date and location of when the ticket was purchased."

At Elkridge (Md.) Liquors, where the winning ticket was purchased, manager Betty Meyer admitted that she "kind of figured someone must have lost the ticket. It's such a shame."