RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In the 1990s, a McDonald's purchase might come with something extra - a small Monopoly peel-off game piece promising the possibility of winning something, possibly some free fries or a million dollars. It was a hugely popular promotion, a kind of McMonopoly (ph) game. But unbeknownst to those hoping to uncover riches, the game was rigged for over a decade. The reason - a scam right out of a crime caper orchestrated by an ex-cop known as Uncle Jerry and the mafia. The new documentary series called "McMillions" explores how Uncle Jerry got away with it for so long defrauding one of the world's biggest companies out of $24 million. Brian Lazarte and James Lee Hernandez directed the HBO series, and they join me from our studios in Culver City, Calif. Welcome.
JAMES LEE HERNANDEZ: Hey, thanks for having us.
BRIAN LAZARTE: Yeah, thank you.
MONTAGNE: This story is slightly insane. I mean, there are so many unbelievable components to it. But briefly outline what the scam was.
LAZARTE: So this is Brian. The game started in 1987. And from 1989 to 2001, almost every person who came forward to claim any high-value piece turned out to be part of a criminal ring to defraud the game. And the FBI got a tip in 2001 and ultimately took down this entire conspiracy through this incredible undercover operation.
MONTAGNE: This Uncle Jerry person who was at the top and quite mysterious - how, basically, was he making this work?
HERNANDEZ: Well, that is - this is James. That is a big reveal from within the show later on, but, basically, Simon Marketing was the company who actually designed the game and created the entire thing for McDonald's. And so Uncle Jerry worked for this company. Being the head of security, he was able to find the loopholes on how to get things out of the security protocol.
MONTAGNE: That's the big mystery to be solved.
MONTAGNE: And the undercover operation is in an office in Jacksonville, Fla., a very sleepy office we're led to understand initially until this practically took it over. The star agent is named Doug Matthews. He's quite a character and dying to go undercover.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MCMILLIONS")
DOUG MATTHEWS: Every single meeting, I'm the one over there going undercover investigation, undercover investigation. I didn't think anybody was listening. As a matter of fact, I think a couple of them started out with, Matthews, I don't want to hear anything about an undercover investigation. I'd come in, and I'd say undercover, and I'm gone. I was out.
MONTAGNE: Tell us his idea.
LAZARTE: Yeah, we talked about Jacksonville FBI being such a small office and small division. They didn't really do a great deal of undercover work. And so Doug Matthews pitched this idea that what if they pretend to be a McDonald's commercial production company that goes to the winner and presents a giant check? And they'll just show up and film the commercial just to be able to ask the people who were winners how they won the piece, so they can compare it to whatever they gave to McDonald's when they first claimed the prize and then to find out what they did with the money because that's what they're going to go and seize. Well, his immediate superiors really, you know, aren't sure that this is the right idea. But ultimately, they get behind him and support him in this effort. And it's straight out of a movie. They created a production company called Shamrock Productions and...
MONTAGNE: Because you're lucky (laugher).
HERNANDEZ: Yeah, because he was just lucky.
MONTAGNE: You were just lucky. Unfortunately, not in this case. In a way, this is all extremely entertaining and kind of weird how many regular people seem willing to join in on the scam until we meet one woman who gets drawn in. And her name at the time was Gloria Jean Brown. And here's a clip of her...
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MCMILLIONS")
GLORIA JEAN BROWN: When I first got the offer, I thought to myself that it was a blessing that came knocking at my door. This couldn't come to me if it wasn't meant for me. I put all this stuff I worked hard for on the line.
HERNANDEZ: Yeah, with Gloria, it was such an interesting thing to experience it through her eyes because at first, you find out that she's involved in this crime and you can think oh, she's just a criminal. You write it off as that. And then you start to understand that she was struggling. She's a single mom. And she was waiting for her miracle. And she was willing to be willfully ignorant.
LAZARTE: Everyone in the '90s wanted to win. Everybody who played that game, if a friend or family member came to them and said, hey, I have a chance for you to win a million dollars, all you have to do is tell a little white lie. And we felt with Gloria when she said that this was - you know, she thought this was her blessing. And she never anticipated that she was going to have to do press and continue to do press. And in each case, it felt like she was lying and lying and lying and - you know, when we met with her the very first time, we had no idea if she had a huge criminal background. We didn't know much about her. And it was evident immediately just how incredible of a person she was and is.
MONTAGNE: You've been publicizing the series as, quote, "the biggest fraud you've never heard of" even though it's very exciting and strange story. I mean, wasn't it in the news at the time?
LAZARTE: Yeah, this story did hit all the major news outlets and did make a huge splash. The problem being when the first wave of arrests took place and then the indictments and the arraignments ultimately were happening literally the days before 9/11. So once 9/11 hit, the story was lost, really, for the last, you know, almost 19 years now.
MONTAGNE: Brian Lazarte and James Lee Hernandez are the directors of the new HBO documentary series "McMillions."
Thanks very much for joining us.
HERNANDEZ: Thanks for having us.
LAZARTE: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.