As McMillions has wound down in the last two episodes, and the focus has shifted from how the McDonald’s Monopoly fraud was executed and foiled to how justice was actually meted out in the courtroom, it’s been fascinating — and more than a little sobering — to consider what that has looked like. Because by any reasonable measure, this was a well-executed case on the part of the FBI and the prosecution: The evidence was gathered in a methodical (and innovative) way, the guilty parties were rounded up swiftly and without incident, and the case was so persuasive that the vast majority of the 53 indicted pleaded guilty. It was, as one of the FBI agents says in the end, “a career-making case.”
And yet, the ripple effect of Jerry Jacobson’s greed is astonishing to consider. Two businesses, Simon Marketing and Dittler Bros., were shut down because Jacobson was able to exploit holes in their security protocols. Which, of course, was easy for him to do since he was head of security for Simon Marketing, and there was next to nothing either company could have done to keep him from scamming them. Factories and offices were shuttered, and hundreds of people were left jobless over one man’s action. In that context, three years and the very slow drip-drip-drip of restitution checks seems like the lightest of slaps on the wrist for a decade-long conspiracy that included numerous recruiters and “winners,” not to mention the innocent people who unwittingly sustained collateral damage.
The sentences all seem proportionally correct, with Jacobson getting the most time and the recruiters and winners getting the least, depending on their records. But the documentary does suggest that the law punished the winners more than necessary, since they didn’t know the winning pieces were stolen. (Though they also knew they were doing something wrong.) We’ve also seen how the winners are doubly victimized: The entire operation was a yearslong shakedown from the moment they agreed to participate, and so any sentence a judge handed down was like paying another tax. The silver lining for someone like Gloria Brown is that at least the whole ordeal was over.
To that end, this final episode opens with what turns out to be a ruse: Lee Cassano, the airline worker recruited by Jerry Colombo for a $100,000 prize, confesses that she was the informant on the case. After Colombo’s death in a car crash, she was left with a $50,000 tax bill that she couldn’t pay, so she told the IRS her story. We learn later that Cassano wasn’t the FBI informant, but it goes to show how fragile this conspiracy was as the spiderweb expanded. All it took was a firm tug of the thread to unravel the whole thing, and there appears to have been plenty of unhappy participants here, the winners especially. When Doug Mathews and others say that the case never could have happened without an informant coming forward, that may be true. But an informant coming forward also seems like an inevitability.
The question of how Jacobson stole the game pieces finally came out at trial, thanks to a plea deal he struck with the government. The winning pieces were tucked in an envelope with a special seal that would reveal evidence of tampering if broken. On top of that, the envelope was transported in a briefcase that required two separate combinations to open, one known by Jacobson and the other by Hilda Bennett, a CPA who was never supposed to let the briefcase out of her sight. But nature would call and Jacobson would excuse himself to a bathroom with the briefcase, open it with his combination and one he witnessed Bennett using, replace the winning pieces with losing pieces, and use the special envelope seals accidentally sent to his office to cover up the seal he broke to get into it. And so a system designed like the nuclear launch codes gets gamed on the john.
That last delicious taste of the scam’s mechanics calls back to the earlier episodes of McMillions, when it was still a wild caper that had yet to be unwound. The last two episodes have dealt with the reckoning, but it has taken some of the juice out of the show as a piece of entertainment. It’s the hangover that follows a truly epic bender. September 11 may have stepped on this case as a national news story, but the air was going to leak out of it eventually, and only the people directly involved would be affected by the aftermath. (AJ Glomb, who’s started to rival Doug Mathews as the show’s breakout star, has the line of the night in this regard: “Everybody forgot about it,” he says. Then, with a pause and a pause and a laugh, “Except the FBI and the Justice Department. They proceeded.”)
The letdown of this final episode is that the directors, James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte, have turned to manufactured “human moments” that have more in common with reality television than a proper documentary. Hernandez and Lazarte manufacture scene after scene of reconciliation: Dwight Baker and George Chandler sharing a laugh on Baker’s front porch; Gloria Brown and Robin Colombo reviving their friendship; and undoubtedly strangest of all, Marvin Braun and Mark Devereaux talking about their odd prosecutor-defendant bond at a diner. (Braun: “I could have got a real dick as a prosecutor.”) McMillions got criticized for the quality/necessity of its reenactments, but scenes like these are every bit as tacky and engineered.
Still, the series overall has been tremendous fun, and Hernandez and Lazarte deserve credit for following stories that fell outside the purview of the investigation and dropping a few bombs of their own. Those two elements converge in the final reveal that Jerry Colombo’s mother is the one who alerted the FBI, motivated by her wish to keep her grandson away from Robin Colombo. Hernandez and Lazarte probably don’t get that scoop without building relationships with their subjects and getting the full story long after the dust had settled. Ma Colombo is the toy surprise of their Happy Meal.
• McMillions recalls Three Identical Strangers in that it reveals the shortness of our cultural memory. Both were huge stories at the time — the three brothers in the latter film appeared in tabloids and on daytime talk shows, and were enough of a sensation to open their own restaurant — but few people actually remember them. Which gives documentary filmmakers the opportunity to treat real-life events as surprises you would never dare spoil in casual conversation.
• AJ Glomb’s life of crime is a Netflix miniseries waiting to happen.
• Good to see Devereaux poking a few holes in Chandler’s babe-in-the-woods routine. Arguments can be made about what constitutes justice for the “winners,” but all of them had to know they were doing something wrong.
• Two lessons to take away from this documentary: (1) Crime doesn’t pay. (2) Don’t wear high heels to the cemetery.