Accused swindler the 'McMystery' donor?
By Art Harris
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- For almost six years, it has been the $1 million McMystery: Who donated a McDonald's promotional game piece worth $1 million to a research hospital that tries to help dying children?
Three weeks before Christmas in 1995, a staffer at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, opened the mail and found a colorful card that said "Instant Winner."
After McDonald's verified it was indeed a bona fide $1 million game piece from its Monopoly giveaway game, the company waived contest rules that required such pieces to be claimed only by the winners, and agreed to pay St. Jude the prize money in $50,000 installments over 20 years.
It is still the largest anonymous donation in the hospital's history, and no one ever took credit for giving the donation to the facility, which was founded by late entertainer Danny Thomas.
Officials had no clues. There was no return address, just the plain white envelope with a Dallas, Texas, postmark.
Now, CNN has learned the man who sent the piece was Jerome "Uncle Jerry" Jacobson, 58, the accused mastermind behind the multi-million dollar swindle of McDonald's promotional giveaways.
Defense and prosecution sources both told CNN that Jacobson was behind the so-called McMystery. He was in Dallas on November 24, 1995, the date the envelope containing the winning card was postmarked, the sources said.
Jacobson, director of security for Simon Marketing, the company that handled McDonald's promotional giveaways, pleaded not guilty Monday in federal court in Jacksonville, Florida, after he and 20 others were indicted in what the government said was a nationwide mail fraud scheme.
He was charged with stealing more than $20 million worth of winning McDonald's game pieces and recruiting others to cash them in.
The recruits then would transfer a portion of their winnings to Jacobson, prosecutors alleged. Authorities say the games involved since the late 1980s were the popular "Monopoly" and "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" promotions.
Jacobson charged $50,000 for the $1 million game pieces, the indictment said.
Simon Marketing was not implicated in the alleged scheme. Likewise, law enforcement officials said no one at McDonald's Corp. was involved; they called the company a victim.
If convicted, sources said Jacobson might try to cite the $1 million St. Jude donation in an attempt to win a reduced prison term.
But prosecution sources told CNN that larceny, not charity, was his motive -- and that they would argue Jacobson mailed it only after he had failed to recruit a cohort to cash it in before the contest deadline expired.
Both St. Jude and McDonald's were surprised when CNN called to tell them its sources had identified Jacobson as the $1 million donor.
"We were deeply appreciative when we got this gift, and I said at the time it had to be someone wonderful with a feeling to help kids -- whoever did it, we thought had a wonderful heart," said Richard Shadyac, the head fund-raiser for St. Jude.
If McDonald's was in fact defrauded by the donor and asked for the money back, he said, "We would certainly work with them in any way we could."
Shadyac added, "But if McDonald's still wants to acknowledge it was a gift, we would be deeply grateful."
McDonald's spokesman Walt Riker told CNN the company stands by its gift and has no plans to stop the payments, even if it began with larceny.
"However it got there, we have no intention of asking for it back," he said. "It's doing a world of good at St. Jude."
Statement from McDonald's Chairman and CEO Jack M. Greenberg
August 21, 2001
FBI arrests 8 in fraud scheme targeting McDonald's game
August 22, 2001
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