A small-town Illinois oil and gas entrepreneur apparently bought millions of dollars in Virginia lottery tickets using money wired from Australia in an effort to ensure a victory in last week's $27 million lottery, according to published reports confirmed by sources.

Although it is not yet known whether the man is the winner, the Virginia Lottery Board has said that the winning ticket was bought at a Farm Fresh store, a chain through which the man bought $2.4 million in tickets.

The man was identified by the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot yesterday as Anithalee Alex Jr., president of Paramount Oil and Gas, of Teutopolis, Ill. Attempts to reach Alex in Norfolk and Teutopolis were unsuccessful.

The man reportedly operated out of an office park in Norfolk in an attempt to cover all 7.059 million number combinations in the lottery, which involves picking six numbers from 1 to 44. An unidentified person or group transferred $7.2 million from Australia to Crestar bank, where the money was used to buy high-value cashiers' checks, sources confirmed.

However, ticket sellers were not able to process the requests fast enough to cover all the number combinations. Farm Fresh, for example, had to return $600,000 of the $3 million it was given to process tickets. A person also bought 1.5 million tickets from Uni Mart stores, and lottery officials say bulk sales also were made at six other store and restaurant chains. If all those purchases were by the same person, the total cost could have reached $5.5 million, according to store chains.

Lottery officials said they will not know who the winner is until he or she appears at their Richmond headquarters. The winner has 180 days from last Saturday's drawing, until mid-August, to report.

Although buying large blocks of tickets is legal, lottery board officials said yesterday they would consider limiting ticket purchases in the future.

"We never anticipated a group trying to make such a large purchase," said lottery director Ken Thorson, who plans to raise the issue of limiting purchases at a Monday board meeting. "To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time anything like this has happened in the country.

"We might remember Thomas Jefferson's view of a lottery," Thorson added, "that it is an opportunity for the common man to spend a small sum for the possibility of a higher prize."

Financial specialists have questioned the wisdom of the bulk-purchase plan, pointing out that the winnings are taxable and are paid out over a 20-year period and that other investments would be more profitable. For a U.S. citizen, 20 percent in federal taxes and 4 percent in state taxes are withheld from the winnings. Nonresident aliens have to pay a 30 percent tax off the top.

Other observers have pointed out how much effort such a plan takes, involving filling out by hand all 7.059 million number combinations.

"My view is there's some guy sitting down in Virginia with 5 million pieces of paper in a big room, and he's trying to find the right one," said Bill Bergman, of the Northern American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries.

People working near the office park in Norfolk, where the offices Alex reportedly used are now empty, said they first saw a group of about a dozen young people moving into the space about 10 days ago. They were last seen there Wednesday night.

A Farm Fresh spokeswoman said the investor paid for all the tickets in advance at Farm Fresh's corporate offices in Norfolk. Then couriers carrying business cards with the words "Alex" and "U.S. Oil" for identification ferried batches of pre-printed and pre-sorted lottery slips to the stores during a three-day period, said Susan Mayo, a Farm Fresh spokeswoman.

"They had very specific instructions on how the tickets would be processed. They wanted them back in the order they had given them to us, so that they would be able to cross-reference them," Mayo said. At each store, "someone would come in and drop off the tickets and pick up the ones {that} had been completed. They had their people running back and forth."

Residents of Teutopolis, a town of about 1,400, who know Alex described him as a private person who runs his oil business out of his home and keeps to himself rather than joining in the local passion for basketball and high school sports.

Special correspondent J.P. Sherwood contributed to this report from Norfolk.