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

McMillions tells the true story of how for 12 years, all the $1m winners in the burger chain’s promotional game were fraudsters, and the lengths the FBI went to to trap them. Louis Chilton talks to directors James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte about their six-part Sky Documentaries series

Friday 22 May 2020 11:58 BST
James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte wrote and directed ‘McMillions’, about the criminal ring that defrauded McDonald’s throughout the Nineties
James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte wrote and directed ‘McMillions’, about the criminal ring that defrauded McDonald’s throughout the Nineties (HBO/Sky UK)

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, along with Brian Lazarte, wrote and directed HBO’s six-part true-crime docuseries McMillions, now knows exactly why.

From 1989 to 2001 in the US, the fast food chain’s promotional competition, in which customers would collect Monopoly-style pieces which could be exchanged for prizes worth up to $1m, was hijacked by a mysterious crime ring. FBI investigators believe that almost every person who came forward to claim a high-value prize during those years was part of one giant scheme to defraud the game.

McMillions airs in the UK on Wednesday on Sky Documentaries, and tells the story of the Monopoly scam 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,” says Hernandez. “Brian and I both grew up during this time. My first job when I was 16 years old was at McDonald’​s.”

The story begins midway through, in an FBI field office in 2001, as rookie investigator Doug Mathews settles into the bureau’s branch in Jacksonville, Florida. It was an office with a reputation as a “sleepy hollow”, where big, headline-grabbing cases seldom reared their heads.

At the time, the Jacksonville office was primarily focused on investigating healthcare fraud. On a whim, Mathews, who claimed he was “bored to death with this healthcare garbage”, chased up a lead scrawled on a Post-It Note: a tip-off claiming that the lucrative McDonald’s Monopoly game was rigged.

FBI agent Doug Mathews was at the heart of the investigation into the fraud
FBI agent Doug Mathews was at the heart of the investigation into the fraud (HBO/Sky UK)

Digging into the claim, the FBI worked out that three of the game’s winners, who claimed to have chanced upon the winning Monopoly pieces, were related. After determining that McDonald’s weren’t just rigging the game themselves, the bureau began an elaborate investigation that involved wiretaps, informants and even an undercover sting operation, which is thrillingly recreated in what is perhaps the series’ best sequence.

“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.”

Through their wiretap, the Jacksonville FBI recorded conversations between the competition winners and mutual third parties, known as “recruiters”. Patterns emerged. Several of the suspects made reference to a figure known only as “Uncle Jerry”, whom the Feds soon identified as the scheme’s ringleader.

As McMillions painstakingly details the FBI’s search for “Uncle Jerry”, we are afforded an intimate look at the human side of the bureau, the conflicting personalities that were thrown into the mix. “Everyone has seen movies about federal officers, FBI agents, federal prosecutors,” said Hernandez. “Usually they’re just robots with suit jackets.”

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“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.”

Mathews, in particular, is a jovial personality with a childlike grin; the antithesis of what FBI agents are “supposed to be”. Early in McMillions, he describes his partner and superior, Rick Dent, as having “about as much personality as this piece of wood right here”, tapping on his desk. The series’ creators say that the humour was in-built; the story couldn’t have been told any other way.

“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”.

Eventually, the FBI succeeded in tracking down “Uncle Jerry”, and obtained enough evidence through the wiretaps to press charges. Warrants were handed down, criminal proceedings were initiated. The trial began in a flurry of press attention, on 10 September 2001. By the next day, the Twin Towers had fallen, McDonald’s had vanished from the headlines entirely, and the FBI was a completely 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 investigation – which FBI agents had jokingly called “Operation Fallen Arches” and “Operation Unhappy Meal” before settling on “Operation Final Answer” – no longer seemed like a career-defining case, even though, by this point, investigators had exposed ties to the Italian mafia, and had indicted more than 50 people. The 9/11 terrorist attacks seem to reinforce the idea that defrauding Ronald McDonald was, ultimately, pretty low-stakes stuff.

One of the coveted winning Monopoly game pieces 

 One of the coveted winning Monopoly game pieces 
 (HBO/Sky UK)

But, insists Lazarte, the severity of the crime 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 McMillions’ extensive interview footage – the six-episode structure allows ample time to conduct a “deep dive” into the investigation’s more charismatic personnel – there are some voices missing from the finished product. For some, this is because they are no longer alive; others simply refused to participate, such as the taciturn, “very gracious, very private” FBI agent Rick Dent.

McMillions untangles its mystery slowly, leaving you guessing until the very end. How did the winning pieces make their way into the hands of the mafia? Who tipped off the FBI in the first place? Where did all the money go? Who was “Uncle Jerry”? Hernandez and Lazarte comprehensively, and patiently, answer most of the questions, leaving just enough room for a bit of speculation. As Hernandez points out: “Sometimes, the legend is better than the real thing.”

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

McMillions is airing on Sky Documentaries and NOW TV on Wednesday 27 May at 9pm

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