Single mum Gloria Brown is beaming, but who wouldn’t be when Ronald McDonald is handing you a $1million cheque?
At 39, the churchgoer seemed the ideal winner of McDonald’s Monopoly.
But this was a case of Big Mac and lies. A fast food fast fraud, if you like.
For Gloria had been sucked into a 12-year scam as a McDonald’s insider – a former cop – siphoned off big- money prizes for family and friends.
She found herself fearing for her life after being recruited by a mobster.
And her role is laid bare in new TV series McMillions, telling how more than 50 people duped the burger chain out of $24million.
It first hit the news when a court case opened on September 10, 2001.
Just 24 hours later the 9/11 terror attacks would consign the trial to relative obscurity.
Today, in her first British interview, 62-year-old Gloria tells how she was told she would win $1million but ended up a broke, convicted criminal.
“It was the dumbest thing I ever did,” the former social worker tells the Sunday Mirror.
“I was told McDonald’s choose the winners for all top prizes and I was one of the lucky ones. I thought God had answered all my prayers. But very quickly I realised I was in way over my head and there was no way out.”
The scam ran from 1989 to 2001. Gloria, who was raising her son Larry in Jacksonville, Florida, was recruited in 1997. She was earning just $24,000 and gave in to temptation when her friend Robin Colombo called her.
Robin said her husband Jerry could get a million-dollar winning game piece in the McDonald’s promotion – and Gloria could claim the prize.
Unbeknown to Gloria, Jerry – who appeared in a McDonald’s promo after scamming his own prize – was part of the Colombo mob family.
He got involved in the scam after a chance meeting with retired cop Jerry Jacobson on a flight to Atlanta.
Jacobson, then 46, had a $70,000-a-year job as head of security for LA firm Simon Marketing, which produced pieces for McDonald’s Monopoly.
Customers peeled off a sticker attached to their order and could win anything from a burger to $1million.
As part of his job, Jacobson was meant to deliver top prize pieces to McDonald’s packaging plants. But he sold them to friends and relatives.
For 12 years almost every winner of a prize above $25,000 was decided by the crooked ex-cop. But after ensuring his family and even his butcher had won big, Jacobson – known as Uncle Jerry – needed to spread the winners more widely.
That’s when he roped in namesake Jerry Colombo. The mobster started sharing prizes a little too close to home and his wife Robin knew they could be rumbled.
She says: “My husband, he picked the winners, but he kept picking Italians on the East Coast.
“They were kinda being stupid about it. Somebody was bound to get suspicious, so I told my husband I’ve got a friend in Jacksonville. Bring some women into it, and women of colour.”
Robin had Gloria in mind. In the scam, “winners” paid Uncle Jerry for game pieces – either up front or handing over a portion of the prize.
But Colombo wanted a bigger cut. He told Gloria to pay $125,000 if she was to become a millionaire winner.
She could only raise $40,000 by remortgaging her home.
She says: “I wanted a better life and felt this was my shot at it. I put everything I worked hard for on the line because I believed it was my blessing. I met Jerry (Colombo) on the side of the road and handed him the $40,000.
“He then just turned around and said he’d be in touch, leaving me with nothing, let alone a game piece.”
But before long, Colombo upped the stakes. Gloria continues: “He then demanded half of the million-dollar prize. There was no discussion.
“Most people knew him as a jovial fun-loving guy, but he had a sinister side. I saw them both.
"Although he never directly threatened me, I knew what he was capable of and he made it crystal clear if I didn’t go through with it, I would meet the same fate.
“I genuinely had worries for my safety. It left me with sleepless nights.”
Jacobson had insisted Gloria claim her win outside of her native Florida to avoid suspicion.
She was given a fake address in South Carolina, where Colombo’s cousin lived, and claimed her prize at a McDonald’s branch in Hilton Head Island in May, 1997.
Gloria returned to Jacksonville the next day and told local reporters she found the rare Boardwalk game piece when cleaning out her car.
At the time she said: “I would never have dreamed in a million years that this could happen to me.”
Gloria later redirected her winnings – $50,000 annual instalments over 20 years – from the South Carolina address to her real home in Florida.
But she recalls: “I was forever looking over my shoulder.”
And, sure enough, the scam was to unravel for all concerned.
Colombo was killed in a car crash in 1998. Then, in 2000, the FBI received a tip that his father-in-law had been handed a $1million game piece.
Special Agent Richard Dent and rookie colleague Doug Matthews launched a fake marketing company and contacted the suspected fraudulent winners.
Matthews – said to be determined to “burn down the criminal enterprise” – posed as a McDonald’s PR man in a gold suit.
He and Dent duped winners into being filmed – and caught them lying.
It brought the scam crashing down. Jacobson faced 15 years in jail but after co-operating with prosecutors was sentenced to just 37 months.
He had $12.5million confiscated – and still pays $370 a month in compensation.
Jacobson was released in 2006 and, in poor health, lives a reclusive existence near Atlanta with his seventh wife.
At one point he anonymously sent a $1million game piece to a children’s hospital in Tennessee – possibly to ensure a lighter sentence if caught. The hospital was allowed to keep the gift.
Another 51 defendants, including Robin Colombo and Gloria, were convicted of fraud and conspiracy but none spent more than a year in jail.
Gloria was fined $300,000 and ordered to pay $50 a month to McDonald’s.
The fraud was never going to threaten the burger giant itself.
Its 14,000 branches in the US turn over £37.5billion a year and Monopoly boosted sales there by more than 30 per cent.
There are 1,300 UK branches – serving 3.5million customers every day.
Hollywood star Mark Wahlberg produced McMillions, which is running on new channel Sky Documentaries.
Mark, 48, says: “It was one of those things where it just sounds so far-fetched and unreal. It’s an amazing story.
“The cast of characters is absolutely fascinating. There’s so much humour in these episodes, but a lot of heartbreak.
“You know, innocent people or people who didn’t think they were really committing any serious crimes.”
The story has been snapped up for the big screen by actors and screenwriters Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.
And Gloria tells her version of events in a book called I Thought I Would Be Living My Best Life.
She adds: “I was so fortunate not to spend time in prison. Because I had
little money, I did not have to pay all of it back but it’s taken me 20 years to get where I am today.
“I’ve paid back all I need to and finally managed to pay off my mortgages.
“If I had one McWish though, it would be to have never got involved.”