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Unhappy Meal Operation: How the FBI trapped McDonald’s million-dollar Monopoly cheats

“Everyone thought you never had a chance to win the McDonald’s Monopoly game,” says James Lee Hernandez, “but you never really knew why.” Hernandez, who together with Brian Lazarte wrote and directed McMillions’ six-part real-crime docuseries for HBO, now knows exactly why.

From 1989 to 2001 in the US, a shadowy criminal group infiltrated the sales market of the fast food company, in which consumers can obtain monopoly-style bits that could be traded for rewards worth up to $1 m. FBI authorities suspect that nearly any person who came forward during those years to demand a high-value reward was part of one big conspiracy to defraud the game.

McMillions airs on Sky Documentaries in the UK on Wednesday, and tells the Monopoly scam story through extensive interviews with the perpetrators and investigators. “It harkens back to growing up during the time of this thing, the heyday of this game, through the Nineties” Hernandez says. “Brian and I both grew up during this time. My first job when I was 16 years old was at McDonald’s.”

The tale starts at halfway though, in 2001 at an FBI field station, when new investigator Doug Mathews settles down in Jacksonville , Florida, station division. It was an office with a reputation for being a “sleepy hollow,” where large, headline-grabbing cases rarely reared their heads.

The Jacksonville office at the time was focused mainly on prosecuting fraud in the healthcare industry. On a whim, Mathews, who was “bored to death with this healthcare garbage” believed that a lead scrawled on a Post-It Note was followed up: a tip-off that the lucrative McDonald’s Monopoly game was fixed.

The FBI worked out, digging into the claim, that three of the game’s winners who claimed to have chanced on the winning Monopoly pieces were related. After determining that McDonald’s were not just rigging the game itself, the office started an elaborate investigation involving wiretaps, informants, and even an undercover sting operation, which is thrillingly recreated in what may be the best sequence of the series.

“We had really never seen anybody show the FBI in a light that really, truly represents them,” Lazarte says. “It’s always ‘the FBI finds one clue, they make one phone call, and they know everything’. No! It’s a series of people working together to make this case happen.”

The Jacksonville FBI, through their wiretap, recorded conversations between the winners of the competition and mutual third parties, known as “recruiters.” Patterns surfaced. Some of the perpetrators pointed to a person described simply as “Uncle Jerry” who was quickly named by the Feds as the ringleader of the scam.
As McMillions details the search for “Uncle Jerry” by the FBI painstakingly, we are given an intimate look at the office’s human side, the conflicting personalities thrown into the mix. “Everyone has seen movies about federal officers, FBI agents, federal prosecutors” Hernandez added. “Usually they’re just robots with suit jackets.”

“Meeting people, and meeting Mathews, and seeing what goes into an actual FBI investigation – taking this really small kernel of information and exploding it into a huge case – was fascinating to us.”

In particular, Mathews is a jovial personality with a childlike grin; the antithesis of what FBI agents are ” supposed to be”. He describes his partner and superior, Rick Dent, early in McMillions, as having “about as much personality as this piece of wood right here” taping on his desk. The creators of the series say the humor was built in; no other way could have been told to the story.

“We always liked the idea of letting funny characters be funny. We’re not making fun of them; we’re just letting them be who they are,” Lazarte says, adding that they “chose to lean into the levity in every instance we could”.

Ultimately, the FBI was able to track down “Uncle Jerry,” and obtained enough evidence through the wiretaps to press charges. Warrants have been handed down, criminal proceedings have been opened. The court opened on 10 September 2001, with a whirlwind of coverage from the public. The Twin Towers had fallen by the next day, McDonald’s had completely vanished from the headlines and the FBI was an entirely different place.

“Before 9/11,” says Lazarte, “these are white collar crime agents. They’re busting insurance fraud, they’re busting wire fraud and bank fraud. These are the crimes that are important: making sure that people aren’t getting defrauded. The McDonald’s Monopoly case comes in, and it seems important because it’s a large fraud that’s nationwide. But immediately, when 9/11 happened, the lens completely changes. All of a sudden, FBI agents are full force becoming anti-terrorism agents.”

“They rightfully just shifted gears and something like the McDonald’s Monopoly game doesn’t seem so bad any more. That’s a big reason why people don’t even know about it, because the news completely focuses for the next year or more on the fallout of 9/11.”

The probe – which was jokingly named “Operation Falling Arches” and “Operation Unhappy Meal” by FBI agents before deciding on “Operation Final Answer” – no longer looked like a career-defining event, although by that point prosecutors had revealed links to the Italian mafia and arrested more than 50 individuals. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 tend to confirm the impression that, in the end, defrauding Ronald McDonald was fairly low-stakes material.

Yet, Lazarte maintains, the severity of the offense shouldn’t be undersold. “People assume that this was a victimless crime” he says. “Stealing from a major billion-dollar corporation, ‘you won’t hurt anybody – you’re just cheating at the game’. But the actions that all these people participated in had a dramatic effect: on their own lives, on the relationships of those people, on their job opportunities. They’re forever painted as federal criminals as a result of this greed.”

Despite extensive interview footage from McMillions – the six-episode structure allows ample time to conduct a “deep dive” into the more charismatic personnel of the investigation – some voices are missing from the finished product. For others, that is because they are no longer alive; some have actually declined to engage, such as the taciturn, FBI agent Rick Dent, “very gracious, very private”.

McMillions slowly untangles his mystery, leaving you guessing right up to the very end. Why have the winning pieces got it into the mafia’s hands? Who was the first to tipp the FBI off? Where the money went? Who happened to be “Uncle Jerry?” Comprehensively and politely, Hernandez and Lazarte address several of the questions, leaving just space for a bit of imagination. As Hernández points out: “Sometimes, the legend is better than the real thing.”

The Monopoly scam story is a tale of human fallibility, weakness and manipulation, but for its perpetrators the McMillions directors retain some sympathy. “You could easily villainize them, but then you realize they were just opportunists,” says Hernandez.

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