McMillions, the new true story series coming to Sky Documentaries this week, tells a story which on the face of it seems almost entirely improbable: that for several years in the 1990s and early 2000s the US version of the famous McDonald’s Monopoly promotion was hijacked by a network of criminals.
The story appears so far-fetched that it seems bizarre it hasn’t been given more coverage before now. But James Lee Hernandez, one of the directors behind the project, claims he stumbled upon the case pretty much by accident.
“It all started way back in 2012,” Hernandez tells RadioTimes.com. “I was laying in bed just going through the website Reddit as I do before I go to sleep sometimes. [And] in between funny cat videos and random articles I saw a TIL, Today I learned nobody really won the McDonald’s Monopoly Game.”
Hernandez’s interest was immediately piqued – he had been obsessed with the Monopoly promotion as a kid and his first job had been working behind the counter at the fast food chain during the time of the scam, so he was amazed when he found that the story of the case was so little known.
“I dove into the story and really couldn’t find much information beyond really basic surface info,” he explains. And so he set about looking further into the case, filing a Freedom of Information request with the US government – which took three years to go through – and eventually contacting FBI agents and bringing his collaborator Brian Lazarte on board to helm the project alongside him.
Lazarte too was hooked almost instantly. “If you grow up in that era you remember it, you remember the commercials, you played the game, you wanted to win.” he explains. “To be told that all of those years you never had a chance because there was a criminal ring defrauding the game, it’s like how did that happen, who was involved?”
As they continued to investigate, the pair quickly discovered that the story was so extensive that it would have to be told across a series rather than in one 90-minute documentary. Over 50 people had been indicted in the case, and when Hernandez and Lazarte started talking to some of those involved – both prosecutors and perpetrators of the scam – they realised that they were sitting on a wealth of material.
What was the McMillions scam?
The scam had first been discovered by Doug Matthews, an FBI Agent and at the time a new recruit at the Bureau’s office in Jacksonville, Florida. He learnt of the case due to an anonymous tip-off and quickly threw all of his boundless energy into the project – developing a reputation as something of a maverick as he proposed several schemes to help aid the investigation, and at one point flamboyantly arriving to a meeting with the head of McDonald’s Global Security office wearing a golden fry suit.
Matthews was one of the first people the directors spoke to – and according to Hernandez, discovering that the agent that had led the investigation was such a larger than life figure was like a gift for a documentary maker.
“That was a ‘sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good’ situation,” he laughs. “The first phone call with Doug Matthews was mind-blowing – the energy and the excitement, it was like ‘this guy is an actual FBI agent, we gotta meet this person!’
“And then meeting him in person for the first time he was ten times more entertaining. And at that point it’s just, put a camera in front of it and let him go and be himself. He’s a fascinating person because of his personality but also because of how good he is at his job – because he’s thought of as one of the best agents in the FBI.”
Uncle Jerry the former cop
As the documentary series shows, Matthews and his partner Special Agent Richard Dent – who did not wish to appear in McMillions – began to dig into the case, and quickly found that it was all linked to a mysterious man who went by the name ‘Uncle Jerry’. This, it turned out, was Jerome Jacobson – a former cop and the head of security at Simon Marketing, the firm that was charged with overseeing the Monopoly promotion. Through his job, Jacobson had been able to get his hands on the big money winning pieces and began selling them off to friends and family – ensuring that none of the key prizes were actually ever in play.
The scheme quickly grew, with Jacobson hiring many co-conspirators as recruiters and convincing them to transfer the winning pieces to people living in different areas of the US in order to dispel any building suspicion. Eventually, Jacobson hooked up with another Jerry – Jerry Colombo, a man with alleged Mafia ties, and the case began to spiral out of control, as the behaviour of those involved became increasingly erratic.
Of course, for the series to work, Hernandez and Lazarte had to ensure that they were not giving a one-sided account of the case. And so it was essential that they were able to speak to some of those directly involved with the scam rather than just the law enforcers going after them. The directors, therefore, presented the documentary to these participants as an opportunity to get their side of the story on record.
“We didn’t really treat it as persuasion, so to speak,” Lazarte explains. “We wanted them to participate and we felt that their voice would be far better to be included rather than only being told from the FBI’s point of view.”
Speaking to the victims
The directors imagined that viewers might be able to relate to some of the participants, even though they’d committed a crime – especially those involved at a lower level of the operation. Two people that appear prominently in the documentary and are presented in a particularly empathetic light are Gloria Brown, a single mother from Jacksonville who had been struggling financially before being told of the chance to win a $1million piece, and George Chandler, a single father, and entrepreneur from South Carolina who had been told of the scheme by his foster father. Both Brown and Chandler had no idea what they were getting into and Hernandez said it was very easy for him and Lazarte to feel sympathetic towards them.
“We felt a tremendous amount of sympathy,” he says. “You can look at it as black and white, there’s the FBI and there’s criminals, and criminals get what they deserve. But when you look underneath the hood you see that really these are good people who just made bad decisions. Every single person in their life has made at least one decision – probably one a week – that they regret and most of the time it doesn’t lead to being a federal criminal.
“With Gloria Brown it was about understanding the fear that she had and how she’d gotten in way over her head…and then George Chandler being a single father and thinking he’s doing something with his foster father… they’re real people that got caught up in something.”
The anonymous tip-off
Another aspect of the case that the docuseries explores is an attempt to decipher who was behind the anonymous tip-off that set the investigation in motion – and at the end of the series this is eventually revealed (we won’t spoil it here). Lazarte claims that they had always hoped they would be able to make the discovery, but that during production they went down a number of rabbit holes and it had often seemed they would never be able to find out. And he says that although the identity of the FBI informant came as a surprise, he could also see how it made a lot of sense.
“We were very fortunate that in the time frame of filming we were able to answer that because it was a question that we had really hoped to be able to answer from the outset,” he explains. “And I think that the way that we did it was respectful to the actual person who did it, you can justify their actions and can understand why they made that choice.”
Since the docuseries aired on HBO in the US earlier this year, it’s had a very strong response – and the directors claim they’ve been delighted with the reaction, especially that of those who had participated in the programme. Hernandez explains that both he and Lazarte are still in touch with every one of the participants – including Doug Matthews, Gloria Brown, and George Chandler – and that they were all very positive about the finished project.
“It was terrifying for them to see it for the first time and give their reaction, but everyone was very positive about it,” he says. “From the FBI side they were happy that people could see what work goes into something like this and have it be real and not just a sensationalised piece like in a movie.
“And from the criminal side of it you have, for example, Gloria Brown, who was so happy that her part of the story is now fully known – because before if you Googled her name, all that came up is that she was a criminal and part of this fraud ring. But now there is something that shows what she was going through and that she was a genuinely nice and caring person who just got roped into something that was much bigger than her.
“So they were all very positive about it and we’re really happy that they thought it was a true telling of their story.”