OAKWOOD, Ga. — On Sept. 10, 2001, in Jacksonville, Florida, a trial began that would see more than 50 people convicted of conspiracy and mail fraud.
The scheme, which defrauded fast-food giant McDonald’s out of more than $24 million by rigging the company’s popular Monopoly game, was widespread and complex.
According to court documents and a story by The Daily Beast, the plan involved a cast of characters led by an ex-police officer and populated by "mobsters, drug traffickers, a family of Mormons and a psychic."
The trial was big news to the millions who played McDonald’s game in the hopes of winning big prizes -- everything from cars to cash.
But on day two of the trial, bigger news hit: It was Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.
The interest in McDonald’s and the rigging of its Monopoly game took a back seat to what was happening in New York and Washington.
How did it happen and how was it found out? Here’s a look at the scheme and the key player.
WHO CAME UP WITH THE PLAN?
Jerry Jacobson, a former police officer, was the kingpin of the operation.
HOW DID HE PULL IT OFF?
Jacobson’s scheme involved stealing game pieces from Dittler Brothers Printing, the Oakwood, Georgia, printing company where they were produced. He would then pass them along to family members and acquaintances in exchange for a cut of the prize.
HOW DID IT GET STARTED?
The Daily Beast story tracked Jacobson’s scheme as it was hatched in the 1980s, when he took a job at Dittler Brothers Printing.
Jacobson oversaw production for Dittler’s client, Simon Marketing, and eventually, Simon hired him to oversee their $500 million contract with McDonald’s.
Simon Marketing managed the printing of the game pieces and was responsible for transporting them from Dittler Brothers to packaging factories for distribution.
Because Jacobson was on the ground in Georgia, the integrity of the trail of the game pieces fell to him. By all outward appearances, he took the job seriously.
"He inspected workers' shoes to check they weren't stealing McDonald's game pieces," a former colleague of Jacobson's told the Daily Beast.
HOW DID IT WORK?
Jacobson’s attention to detail became more than a source of pride in his work. It led to the plan to steal and cash in on the game pieces.
Jacobson pocketed the first winning game piece in 1989, according to the story, and gave it to his stepbrother just to “see if I could do it.” He could do it and get away with it, and the piece was worth $25,000.
In 1995, according to Jacobson, he said he witnessed Simon Marketing re-do a random drawing that would have sent a big prize to a winner in Canada. He decided to resurrect the scheme he pulled off in 1989.
From that point on, Jacobson reportedly spent the next decade stealing and then handing out winning game pieces to family members and a collection of "mobsters, psychics, strip club owners, convicts, drug traffickers, and even a family of Mormons” for a piece of the prize, according to the story. His network won almost every prize for the next 12 years, according to the FBI.
HOW WAS HE CAUGHT?
The scheme came to an end when the FBI received an anonymous call about a $1 million prize winner. The agency launched an investigation that unearthed the conspiracy.
After convincing McDonald’s leadership to continue the game in 2001 after they were informed about the FBI’s investigation, the agency set up a sting to nab Michael Hoover, the man who said he won the 2001 prize.
Hoover said he had purchased a People magazine and discovered an ad for an “Instant Win” game piece. According to Hoover, that ticket was the winner.
He notified McDonald’s that he had won the prize, but instead of getting his $1 million, he got arrested when, as part of the sting operation, two FBI agents showed up at his home pretending to be from McDonald’s documenting his win on camera. Jacobson and the others involved in the scheme were arrested soon afterward.
WHAT HAPPENED TO JACOBSON AND THE OTHERS?
Jacobson was sentenced to 37 months in prison and ordered to repay $12.5 million. He is now 76 and living in Georgia. According to the Daily Beast story, he is in poor health.
Of the more than 50 defendants convicted of conspiracy and mail fraud, no people other than Jacobson were sentenced to more than a year and a day in jail. Many received only probation and most were fined. Four had their convictions overturned.
Cox Media Group