Jerome Jacobson and his network of mobsters, psychics, strip club owners, and drug traffickers won almost every prize for 12 years, until the FBI launched Operation ‘Final Answer.’
On August 3, 2001, a McDonald’s film crew arrived in the bustling beach town of Westerly, Rhode Island. They carried their cameras and a giant cashier’s check to a row of townhouses, and knocked on the door of Michael Hoover. The 56-year-old bachelor had called a McDonald’s hotline to say he’d won their Monopoly competition. Since 1987, McDonald’s customers had feverishly collected Monopoly game pieces attached to drink cups, french fry packets and advertising inserts in magazines. By completing groups of properties like Baltic and Mediterranean Avenues, players won cash or a Sega Game Gear, while “Instant Win” game pieces scored a free Filet-O-Fish or a Jamaican vacation. But Hoover, a casino pit boss who had recently filed for bankruptcy, claimed he’d won the grand prize–$1 million dollars.
Like winning the Powerball, the odds of Hoover’s win were 1 in 250 million. There were two ways to win the Monopoly grand prize: find the “Instant Win” game piece like Hoover, or match Park Place with the elusive Boardwalk to choose between a heavily-taxed lump sum or $50,000 checks every year for 20 years. Just like the Monopoly board game, which was invented as a warning about the destructive nature of greed, players traded game pieces to win, or outbid each other on eBay. Armed robbers even held up restaurants demanding Monopoly tickets. “Don’t go to jail! Go to McDonald’s and play Monopoly for real!” cried Rich Uncle Pennybags, the game’s mustachioed mascot, on TV commercials that sent customers flocking to buy more food. Monopoly quickly became the company’s most lucrative marketing device since the Happy Meal.
Inside Hoover’s home, Amy Murray, a loyal McDonald’s spokesperson, encouraged him to tell the camera about the luckiest moment of his life. Nervously clutching his massive check, Hoover said he’d fallen asleep on the beach. When he bent over to wash off the sand, his People magazine fell into the sea. He bought another copy from a grocery store, he said, and inside was an advertising insert with the “Instant Win” game piece. The camera crew listened patiently to his rambling story, silently recognizing the inconsequential details found in stories told by liars. They suspected that Hoover was not a lucky winner, but part of a major criminal conspiracy to defraud the fast food chain of millions of dollars. The two men behind the camera were not from McDonald’s. They were undercover agents from the FBI.
This was a McSting.
At the FBI’s Jacksonville Field Office in Florida, Special Agent Richard Dent added the Hoover videotape to his growing pile of evidence. Sandy-haired and highly-organized, Dent was a 13-year veteran of the Bureau, who spent his days investigating public corruption and bank fraud. But in the last 12 months his desk had filled with fast food paraphernalia. Leaflets for “Pick Your Prize Monopoly” and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” described McDonald’s games played in 14 countries. He read small print that revealed how the odds were stacked against the customer: McDonald’s makes one piece from each set of properties extremely rare, so while thousands have three of the four railroads, the odds of pulling the Short Line Railroad—and winning a PT Cruiser—were 1 in 150 million.
Dent’s investigation had started in 2000, when a mysterious informant called the FBI and claimed that McDonald’s games had been rigged by an insider known as “Uncle Jerry.” The person revealed that “winners” paid Uncle Jerry for stolen game pieces in various ways. The $1 million winners, for example, passed the first $50,000 installment to Uncle Jerry in cash. Sometimes Uncle Jerry would demand cash up front, requiring winners to mortgage their homes to come up with the money. According to the informant, members of one close-knit family in Jacksonville had claimed three $1 million dollar prizes and a Dodge Viper.
When Dent alerted the McDonald’s headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois, executives were deeply concerned. The company’s top lawyers pledged to help the FBI, and faxed Dent a list of past winners. They explained that their game pieces were produced by a Los Angeles company, Simon Marketing, and printed by Dittler Brothers in Oakwood, Georgia, a firm trusted with printing U.S. mail stamps and lotto scratch-offs. The person in charge of the game pieces was Simon’s director of security, Jerry Jacobson.
Dent thought he had found his man. But after installing a wiretap on Jacobson’s phone, he realized that his tip had led to a super-sized conspiracy. Jacobson was the head of a sprawling network of mobsters, psychics, strip club owners, convicts, drug traffickers, and even a family of Mormons, who had falsely claimed more than $24 million in cash and prizes. But who among them had betrayed Jacobson, and why? Dent knew agents had to move carefully. If they apprehended a “winner” too soon, he or she might alert other members of the conspiracy who would destroy evidence, or flee. With the scheme still in full-swing, the FBI needed to team up with McDonald’s to catch Uncle Jerry and his crew red-handed.
JEROME PAUL JACOBSON always dreamed of becoming a police officer. He was born in 1943, in Youngstown, Ohio, and moved to Miami, Florida, as a teenager. Chronic allergies and a series of unlucky injuries always seemed to ruin his ambitions, like when he applied for the Marines, but was discharged from basic training with high arches. In 1976 he was sworn in to Florida’s Hollywood Police Department, but just a year later he injured his wrist in an altercation. During a prolonged medical leave, in 1980, Jacobson collapsed with a severe paralysis in his arms, legs, eyes and respiratory system. Doctors diagnosed a rare neurological disorder, and Jacobson’s police officer wife, Marsha, took a leave of absence to care for him. “I became his private nurse, I bathed him… massaged his muscles, fed him,” she recalled. With Jacobson unfit to return to work, the city terminated him. By 1981 the couple had moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where Jacobson recovered enough to work as a mechanic, building alternators for cars he couldn’t afford.
Luckily, Marsha was offered a job as a security auditor for the accounting firm Arthur Young, and was assigned to one of their clients, Dittler Brothers. In 1981, she recommended her husband for a job there too, but the couple constantly argued at work, and by 1983 they had divorced. Finding his feet in private security, Jacobson started to climb the ranks until he oversaw all production for Dittler’s client, Simon Marketing, and their $500 million McDonald’s account.
When Jacobson marched through the printing works, with his slicked-back hair and a little paunch that overhung his belt, he looked every part the ex-cop. He was quick with a joke, but commanded respect for his hard work and obsession with loss-prevention. “He inspected workers’ shoes to check they weren’t stealing McDonald’s game pieces,” one colleague told me, while a truck driver who transported game pieces recalled: “I couldn’t even go to the bathroom without someone going with me.” Impressed by Jacobson’s attentioned to detail and police credentials, in 1988 Simon Marketing poached him.
“It was my responsibility to keep the integrity of the game and get those winners to the public,” Jacobson would later tell
Before each bi-annual game, Jacobson arrived at the drab Dittler Brothers’ office at 5 a.m to observe their Omega III supercomputer making the McDonald’s prize draw. He watched the printing presses that roared for 24 hours a day for three months, using 100 railroad cars of paper to print half a billion game pieces. Laid end-to-end, the paper tickets would stretch from New York to Sydney–nearly two tickets for every American. Jacobson observed technicians applying the “INSTANT WINNER!” stamp to blank game pieces, and pioneered random watermarks that deterred counterfeiters. He locked the winning pieces in a vault behind coded keypads and dual-entry combination locks. It was Jacobson who personally scissored out the high-value game pieces and slipped them into envelopes, before sealing each corner with a tamper-proof metallic sticker. In a secret vest, of his invention, Jacobson transported the winning pieces to McDonald’s packaging factories across the country.
Everything he did was overseen by an independent auditor. On flights she sat in coach, while Jacobson flew first class, where he tried to impress other passengers by flashing his old police badge. On one flight, Jacobson and another security manager sent an air steward back to show the accountant the empty liquor bottles they’d guzzled. When they arrived at the factory, Jacobson would summon a forklift of french fry containers, hide the winning game piece, and send it into the wild. Then he liked to hit a Ruth’s Chris steakhouse and order “everything”–more than he could eat, and charge it to his expense account.
The 1980s was America’s “decade of greed,” and it was Jacobson’s job to create instant millionaires. Playing God was intoxicating, as was holding a stranger’s fate in the palm of his hands. Female employees among the 30 staff he controlled complained that he criticized how they dressed, and he often wrote up workers for mistakes. Jacobson’s $70,000 salary was six times his police officer’s pay, and he was obsessed with achieving the gold medallion airline status, sometimes flying to factories via several cities to accrue airline points, to the irritation of those who had to shadow him.
Jacobson was also deep into his own get-rich-quick scheme. He boasted to colleagues that he was waiting to collect his “riches” from a mysterious “investment.” All he needed was to find 10 more people to sign up and invest. “A psychic had told him to invest money and he would be richly rewarded,” one former colleague told me. But they believed he’d invested in a Ponzi scheme. One colleague told me Jacobson swore by the advice of a local fortune teller, and often excused himself from work, saying: “I think she needs to tell me something.”
This was the man entrusted with creating a theft-proof system for one of America’s largest corporations. It was a thrill to protect the Monopoly promotion, and only a natural part of his job to consider the system’s fallibilities. But soon the temptation to steal had become irresistible.
One day in 1989, at a family gathering in Miami, Jacobson slipped his step-brother, Marvin Braun, a game piece worth $25,000. “I don’t know if I just wanted to show him I could do something, or bragging,” Jacobson later admitted, but he just needed “to see if I could do it.” When his local butcher in Atlanta heard that Jacobson was in charge of the McDonald’s Monopoly prizes, he said he’d like to win a prize. Jacobson boasted that he could make it happen, but it would look too suspicious because they were friends and neighbors. The butcher offered to find a distant friend to claim a $10,000 prize, and gave Jacobson $2,000 for the stolen ticket. It was easy money.
McDonald’s was already overwhelmed with employee theft. In Sheboygan, Wisconsin, a 17-year-old restaurant employee was arrested for stealing 3,000 Monopoly game pieces. In response, McDonald’s started handing out game pieces from a secure roll at the counter. As a result, Jacobson was removed from the “seeding” process for several years. But in 1995, as McDonald’s ramped up the scale of the promotion, game pieces were ‘blown’ onto soft drink cups and hash brown wrappers. That year, Ronald McDonald and Monopoly’s Rich Uncle Pennybags rang the opening bell on Wall Street, and Jacobson found himself back in charge of distributing the game pieces.
During that 1995 prize draw, something happened that would change the game. According to Jacobson, when the computerized prize draw selected a factory location in Canada, Simon Marketing executives re-ran the program until it chose an area in the USA. Jacobson claimed he was ordered to ensure that no high-level prizes ever reached the Great White North. “I knew what we were doing in Canada was wrong,” Jacobson recalled. “Sooner or later somebody was going to be asking questions about why there were no winners in Canada.” Believing the game was rigged, he decided to cash in too.
Not long afterward, Jacobson opened a package sent to him by mistake from a supplier in Hong Kong. Inside he found a set of the anti-tamper seals for the game piece envelopes—the only thing he needed to steal game pieces en route to the factory. “I would go into the men’s room of the airport,” he later admitted, the only place the female auditor couldn’t follow him. “I would go into a stall. I would take the seal off.” Then he’d pour the winning game pieces into his hand, replace them with “commons,” and re-seal the envelope. First, he stole a $1 million “Instant Win” game piece and locked it in a safety deposit box. Then he stole documents that he claimed proved the Canada conspiracy. “I thought I would need that to protect myself,” Jacobson recalled. If his employer ever fired him, he had a “get out of jail free” card. But when he stole another $1 million game piece, Jacobson did something awesome.
On November 12, 1995, a donations clerk at the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Tennessee ripped open the morning’s mail, and discovered a brightly colored card. At first, Tammie Murphy assumed it was junk mail, until she noticed the tiny Monopoly game piece inside. McDonald’s officials descended on the hospital and examined the game piece under a jeweler’s eyepiece. Ronald McDonald himself attended a press conference, where the hospital was announced the $1 million winner. Despite an investigation, the New York Times could not uncover the identity of the generous donor.
Back in Atlanta, Jacobson’s butcher was ready for another win. This time, he proposed that he’d travel with his sister to Maryland where she would “find” the lucky game piece on a box of fries. Jacobson gave the butcher a stolen game piece worth $200,000 in exchange for $45,000 of the winnings. “I figured I could trust him because he paid me the first time,” Jacobson recalled. But the butcher double-crossed him in Maryland and claimed the prize himself. All Jacobson got was $4,000, and a big surprise. One evening, Jacobson was watching television when he saw a commercial for the McDonald’s Monopoly game. To his complete disbelief he watched his butcher celebrating his big win. He reached for the phone.
“You live here,” Jacobson protested. “You know me.”
LOTTERIES AND SWEEPSTAKES have been mired in corruption since biblical times, when lots were drawn to read the will of God. But it was the Medieval Italians who first used prize drawings as a sales promotion. In 1522, a Venetian man was condemned to death after tampering with the prize draw for 1,500 golden ducats, a parcel of silk and a live wild cat. Allegations of fraud and abuse shuttered an English lottery in 1621, which funded America’s earliest colonies. In the New World, centuries of sweepstake chicanery followed, until 1890 when lotteries were banned in every state except Delaware and Louisiana. This ushered in an era of promotional “contests” in which marketers could avoid prosecution by making no purchase necessary. Today, you can enter a McDonald’s contest without buying a burger—just write in for a free ticket and take your chances.
It was by chance that Jacobson met the man who would industrialize his Monopoly scam. Jacobson was sitting in Atlanta’s airport one day in 1995, when a giant gentleman folded himself into the next seat. Gennaro Colombo, 32, looked like Al Capone, and when Jacobson enquired where he was headed, Colombo unzipped a bulging purse full of $100 bills, and said: “Atlantic City.” Colombo said he was born in Sicily and raised in Brooklyn, New York, before moving to South Carolina, where he operated adult nightclubs, underground casinos and a sports betting ring. He claimed he was a member of New York’s infamous Colombo crime family.
When Jacobson revealed that he worked in promotional gaming, Colombo was intrigued. He enjoyed finding new ways to cheat a system. When Charleston County, Georgia passed new laws restricting where strip clubs could be operated, Colombo opened a house of worship named The Church of Fuzzy Bunnies. “I want them to read the Bible for two hours every night, and then we’ll drink and let the girls dance,” said Colombo, who claimed that God came to him in a dream with the idea. By November of 1995, Jacobson had slipped Colombo a game piece for a brand new Dodge Viper. The Italian, who was obsessed with The Godfather and had ambitions of becoming an actor, agreed to wave a giant car key in a McDonald’s commercial. Instead of the sports car he took the money, his wife, Robin Colombo, told me. “He was a big guy. A Viper? No.”
With a mop of black curly hair and a contagious laugh, Robin, 34, had become engaged to Colombo after a two-week romance. She was thrilled with the trappings of a Mafia wife: bodyguards, chauffeurs, two rottweilers and a last name that commanded fear and respect. By now, Colombo was traveling with friends from Atlanta to Boston, where they’d “win” $1 million prizes, thanks to stolen tickets from Jacobson. Soon Colombo introduced Robin to Jacobson, calling him “Uncle Jerry,” and in 1996, her father, William Fisher, received a stolen $1 million winning ticket. Fisher traveled from his home in Jacksonville, Florida to Litchfield, New Hampshire, to claim his prize, before Robin’s brother-in-law in Virginia became a millionaire too. Every winner sent a kickback in cash via the Colombos to Jacobson.
In 1997, Robin introduced Colombo to her friend Gloria Brown, 37, at an Applebee’s in Jacksonville. “He asked… how much money I could come up with…in order to be eligible,” Brown recalled. A few weeks later, on the side of the I-95 freeway, Brown handed Colombo $40,000 in cash. He showed her a tiny bottle containing the $1 million game piece, dwarfed by his giant hand. “I’ll let you know the rest later,” he mumbled.
Brown traveled to South Carolina to “find” her prize, because too many recent winners now lived in Jacksonville. “It was so secretive,” she recalled. Colombo and a cousin drove Brown to a McDonald’s and parked a safe distance away. They coached Brown what to tell McDonald’s staff, but doubts suddenly consumed her. “I had to just tell, you know, outright lies,” she realized. She thought about running. Do I lose it all or do I keep going? But she did the deed, and afterwards found the two Italians sweating. “They were a little nervous because it took so long,” Brown recalled. They helped her fill out the prize form, writing her name along with the cousin’s South Carolina address. To make it appear like she lived with the cousin, Brown recorded the message on his answering machine, and later told reporters a long-winded story about finding the winning ticket while cleaning out her car.
Robin told me that Uncle Jerry’s money soon funded certain Colombo-run businesses, including a private members’ club in Hilton Head. She thought he was sophisticated and liked the way he dressed. In return, Jacobson sent other “opportunities” to the Colombos, Robin told me. Late one night, she was stoned and rifling through the kitchen for a snack, when she found in their freezer a mysterious plastic bag. Inside was a single gray-colored M&M candy, which was part of a promotional contest, she said. In 1997, the Mars candy company launched a competition to find an “imposter” M&M, along with a game piece that made the winner an instant millionaire. (Mars did not respond to enquiries, but records show that Cyrk, a company that produced promotional materials for Mars, merged with Simon Marketing in 1997.) Colombo suddenly appeared behind her, grabbed the bag and yelled:
“Do not eat this!”
Meanwhile, Jacobson was now living with a huge secret—he had not even told his new wife, Linda, what he was doing. By now he had given his step-brother, Marvin Braun, three more game pieces including one for $1 million. Braun, who owned a chain of maternity clothing stores, claimed he didn’t need the money. “I dropped tickets into Salvation Army tins,” he told me, “Jerry would give me a million dollar ticket… I would give it away… I’ve flushed million dollar tickets down toilets.” By 1998, Jacobson’s nephew, Mark Schwartz, had taken a $200,000 game piece after a meeting in Miami. “I told him what I wanted and the rest was his,” Jacobson recalled. “I wanted $45,000.” At Schwartz’s wedding that year, Jacobson was discussing the Monopoly game when a distant cousin fell into the conversation and also agreed to win a prize. Uncle Jerry’s family tree was sprouting money.
“To make it appear like she lived with the cousin, Brown recorded the message on his answering machine, and later told reporters a long-winded story about finding the winning ticket while cleaning out her car.”
By the end of 1998, Jacobson had become Rich Uncle Pennybags, and America was his game board. He tooled around the United States stealing almost all the big-ticket game pieces, acquiring new properties on a whim, and collecting kickbacks from other players. Now he was hanging out with powerful Italians, he dressed in sharp suits and sometimes used the name “Geraldo Constantino.” He and his wife moved into a fine, red-brick home in Lawrenceville, Georgia, where he tended to its perfect lawn. He purchased a plot of land on Lake Hartwell, a recreation lake on the Georgia border, and paid for expensive cruises, and joined a classic car club. There, he sold one member four game pieces and used the $65,000 to buy a handsome Oldsmobile. Bill LaFoy, who lived opposite Jacobson, lost count of the new cars appearing on the driveway: “I used to kid him about where the winning tickets were,” he said.
After three years married to Colombo, Robin had tired of life as a mobster’s wife. Since the birth of their son, Frankie, her husband seemed to spend all his time at his gentleman’s clubs and casinos. Meanwhile, Robin felt that the Colombos had cut her off from her friends. “They were the type of people who don’t like outsiders,” she said. Lonely and bored, she began confiding in Jacobson during late night phone calls. One night she told him that Colombo was sleeping with her personal trainer. “I was upset about my husband,” she said, “and he goes, ‘Well, you could marry me.’”
“No, I can’t. I’m married,” she said quickly. “I love my husband.”
Robin tried to make her marriage to Colombo work. “He had done some things in Charleston that I freaked out about,” she said, “I told him I needed to get out of South Carolina.” On May 7, 1998, they drove to the Georgia state line to look for land on which to build their dream home. Colombo’s pager had been bleeping all morning, but he ignored it. Robin was behind the wheel of their Ford Explorer as they approached the entrance to the expressway. At the on-ramp, a tractor trailer blocked Robin’s view. When she swung onto the freeway, a speeding F-150 truck smashed into them, dragging their car 250 feet and into a concrete wall. Colombo crawled from the wreckage, but emergency crews had to use the Jaws of Life to cut Robin and her son free.
“The policeman told me he thought I was gonna be the one to die because I was the one covered in blood,” Robin told me. But at the hospital, Colombo’s blood pressure dropped so low they wrapped his body in refrigerated blankets. “My mother-in-law ran over to me and told me she knew this was going to happen,” Robin recalled. “She had a vision in a dream the night before. That’s why she was trying to page him all day.” At his bedside, Robin shook Colombo’s giant arm, and begged him to wake up. “He was my soulmate,” Robin said. But two weeks later the doctors turned off his life support.