You probably don’t remember what was on cable news the day before Coronavirus went around-the-clock. Same goes for 9/11, but it’s easy to understand how once the terrorist attacks took place, whatever was on CNN disappeared and was forgotten.
Arguably the biggest story in the world of justice on 9/10 was the first day of the trial for many people involved in the rigging of the McDonald’s Monopoly Millions Sweepstakes.
As it turned out, between 1989 and 2001, while McDonald’s customers were saving game pieces from the French fry boxes and drink cups hoping to match them up and win a prize, almost every major winning game piece was sold by a small group of people with access to the winning tickets. The FBI estimated that more than $24 million in prizes were diverted to this criminal conspiracy.
Then the planes hit the buildings and people largely forgot about the trial.
I don’t recall if I heard anything about this story when it was happening. In 2001, I was in my first big-deal lead editor job at a newspaper, which for a man-child of 24 with no college degree was impressive and rare. I was also living on my own, recently out of a long-term relationship, and was at a point in my life when I partied much too often, much too hard. When the owner of the company sent us home around noon on 9/11, I spent the next four days in front of the TV doing very little other than smoking weed, drinking beer, looking at porn and sleeping. There were probably harder substances or prescription pills mixed in that I just don’t remember. It’s easy to understand why I may have missed that story. I missed most of the first half of my 20s.
I first read the entire story about the McDonald’s game rigging in a magazine a few years ago. I remember it was convoluted to read because of how many people were involved, and the fact that the two guys most responsible were both named Jerry. But it was a crazy story because it was not a story of organized crime by well-connected mobsters. There may have been an element of that here or there, but it was mostly regular people in varying circumstances justifying getting themselves involved in a scam unlike any other in history.
The entire story, from its genesis to where people are today, was recently chronicled in the excellent HBO documentary series McMillions. If you have HBO, or you cable system is giving limited access to HBO during the pandemic, as many are, I urge you to watch this series. Unlike Tiger King, which was entertaining in a car-crash way, this is actually a well-told story with a beginning, middle and end. Sure, like any six-hour documentary, it drags in places, but I believe the final episode is one of the best hours of TV I’ve seen in years.
While I was convicted of a very different crime that was all of my doing, I drew many parallels to the situations of many of those who were part of the scam as depicted in McMillions, both as they were participating in and how they now look back on the ordeal years later.
There’s the single mother who always had trouble making ends meet or the LDS foster father who wanted to give his foster son a leg-up in life. There’s the crazy wife of the one guy in organized crime too scared to leave or disobey him and his oblivious flight attendant mistress who was just along for the ride. The show is rife with characters who are concurrently deeply flawed, yet sympathetic; smart and cunning, yet dim-witted and convincible.
I’ll try not to provide too many spoilers, but it’s my guess that most people watching will say that, depending on how the participant was presented in the documentary, the justice system was either too lenient or too harsh in its sentencing.
I heard a lot of that after I was sentenced, when my book came out and when I first started sharing my story on podcasts. For unintentionally, yet negligently engaging with a teenage girl in an online chatroom in 2013, encouraging her to behave sexually and taking two screen captures, I served six months in jail and three years of probation. I obviously never wanted anything like that to happen in my life, but I caused the entire thing to go down. While my mind was clouded by addiction, it’s not any excuse for my heinous behavior. I just was not of a mindset where I saw it happening to me in real time, nor one where common sense overrode my poor choices. All of these years later, I bet I still actively regret my decision a minimum of five times a day. It stays that front-of-mind, always.
There were people who openly called for decades-long sentencing for my transgressions and others who thought I shouldn’t have served a day based on my clean history, mental illness at the time and rehabilitation prior to sentencing.
What is the proper sentence for someone who convinces a teenage girl to expose herself online and takes a picture of it? There was no physical contact and I couldn’t actually make her do anything she didn’t want, right? But I was also taking advantage of a situation and manipulating it with depraved indifference against someone who was still a minor, right?
McMillions shows that even when people are doing the wrong thing, how they should be dealt with is not always a matter of black-and-white. If the “ringleader” gives a million-dollar winning game piece to his friend that will help pay for healthcare he wouldn’t otherwise receive and that friend cashes in the ticket with a phony story, is he any better than the former drug dealer who is given a winning ticket by the same ringleader, and is going to tell a similar story, yet spend his winnings on a yacht? What about if the ringleader sends a million-dollar winner to St. Jude Children’s Hospital? That actually happened.
I understand both sides of these kinds of debates. Instead of wading into the debate whether I got a lenient or tough sentence, I accepted it and tried never to question it too deeply. The judge decided what was proper, and radical acceptance was the fastest way to deal with it. I see both sides of the debate. You cannot get away with what I did, but did six months in jail teach me anything three months, or two weeks, wouldn’t have? Those questions can never be answered, so why waste energy asking? Because it makes for an interesting debate, I guess.
The most important theme for me in McMillions, though, was forgiveness and understanding. No matter how you feel about my ultimate punishment, I think we can all agree I made a mistake worse than most people ever will. Ignoring my professional life and the fallout there, my mistake was the kind of thing that echoes throughout relationships with family and friends, causing them to face introspection over what I did. Many friends dropped me and will never give me the chance to prove I’ve changed. Some family members are just starting to talk to me after 6-7 years and some still won’t. It’s nothing I can control, but it certainly is a situation I created, not them.
My transgressions caused a world of embarrassment and shame for my close relatives. My daughter had to switch schools. My wife was released from her job under BS circumstances. Emotionally, those close to me felt a lot of heartache seeing me in such dire straits, not knowing my legal fate. I’m sure it caused anger, pity and scorn that they hid well. My crimes, and the attention brought to them because of my community stature at the time, rocked a lot of people’s worlds. I didn’t really care what happened to me through most of it. I cared about what happened to all of the people who didn’t deserve the pain and inconvenience my horrible decision making caused because I knew none of them would ever do that kind of thing to hurt me.
When I was going through the legal process, I met many officials who I could tell thought I was just a piece of shit, didn’t give me a second thought and saw the world in black-and-white. I was a statistic, a charge on the docket or just another inmate. These are the kind of people who have helped make this world so divided. They refuse to see nuance in situations that deserve it. Thankfully, I also met a lot of deeply decent human beings in both the justice and law enforcement side of things. They understood I made a horribly rotten choice, but it didn’t make me a horribly rotten person. I just made a mistake I’d have to pay for, but it was not a reason to condemn me for life. It’s telling when a stranger working to prosecute you knows this, but someone close to you refuses.
Understandably, the web of people – dozens and dozens – who were involved in the McDonald’s Monopoly game scandal, saw many fractured friendships and relationships, but one of the final montages in the documentary showed that nearly two decades later, many bonds can be mended… some can even be forged. The lead federal prosecutor is now good friends with the first person to ever cash in a game piece, the stepbrother of the ringleader. That made me smile.
Speaking of the ringleader, he understandably got the longest sentence, and predictably, some thought it was appropriate and some thought it was far too short. He refused to participate in the documentary and is now living out his remaining years (he’d be around 80 now) with his seventh wife in Florida.
They show the horrible fallout of his choices. Companies went under. Many people lost their jobs and reputations who did nothing wrong. His lapse in judgment hurt so many people.
I thought about if he should have got more time and I thought about if he should have participated in the documentary as he is clearly the antagonist, but I respect the fact he did his time, has not reoffended and wishes to be left alone. It’s his right.
I’m guessing I enjoyed that last episode the most because it’s where I find myself now and where I’ll be the rest of my life: trying to live with a choice that hurt people both close to me and who I will never know, having to live with the consequences, fallout and limitations created by that choice and still trying to believe things can be better than they were before any of this happened. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s never black-and-white. Nothing ever is.