A San Antonio Air Force Reserve major who reported his wife missing in March has been arrested and charged with murder, authorities said.
Andre McDonald, 40, was charged with first-degree murder Sunday in the death of his wife, 29-year-old Andreen McDonald, on March 1. After three months of countless countywide searches, authorities found the businesswomans body on a ranch east of Joint Base San Antonio-Camp Bullis.
McDonald is being held at Bexar County Jail on a $2 million bond, police confirmed to The Daily Beast.
Any ounce of understanding that we had for Andy is gone, her cousin, Cheryl Spencer, told KSAT during a Sunday vigil. You do not have the right to do this to any human being. Andreen was far from perfect. She had her flaws, but you do not have the right to do this to anybodys child.
While many details of the March murder remain unknown, authorities believe the couples 7-year-old daughter, who is autistic and nonverbal, may have seen the crime and subsequent cleanup.
At this point, I dont know how much the little girl knows, Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar said during a press conference Saturday. Im still of the belief that the little girl witnessed at least some things with the death of her mom.
Authorities say Andreen McDonald, the owner of Starlight Homes Assisted Living, was last seen with her daughter around 6:20 p.m. on February 28. According to an arrest warrant obtained by The Daily Beast, phone records indicate both McDonald and his wife were home the entire evening.
The next day, deputies went to the couples home to conduct a welfare check after the 29-year-olds mother and several friends said they had not heard from her since the previous evening.
According to the arrest warrant, two of Andreen McDonalds friends told authorities that before her disappearance she had said that if she ever went missing or was found dead, Andre had killed her.
A Bexar County Sheriff spokesperson confirmed officers had been called to their home numerous times for domestic disturbances. According to public records, McDonald filed for divorce in February 2017 but later dismissed the petition.
In their backyard, deputies noticed a burn pile, where it appeared something had recently been burned. All of Andreen McDonalds personal belongings were still in the house and her car was parked in the driveway.
When McDonald arrived home, he told deputies his wife was being treated at a local hospital. Police quickly suspected he was lying.
He claimed he did not know where Andreen McDonald was, the warrant states, but revealed he had an argument with his wife the night before and asked for an attorney.
Authorities also found blood and hair on the bathrooms light switch, floor, and door handlethough initial DNA tests could not determine if the samples belonged to Andreen McDonald.
Andre McDonald was first charged on March 3 with tampering with evidence after investigators discovered that he had purchased cans of gasoline, heavy duty trash bags, work gloves, a portable burn barrel, a shovel, and an ax around the time he reported his wife missing.
The Air Force officer then tried to destroy the receipt and throw them away in the kitchen trash can, authorities allege.
He went to great lengths to destroy that receipt. We were able to recover it but thats what led to the tampering with evidence charge, Salazar said. So, I think a lot of his behavior up to this point, along with some of the evidence that I wont go too much into detail on, are what led to this charge.
According to the arrest warrant, McDonald had cuts and injuries on his hands when he was arrested and gave conflicting accounts about how the wounds occurred.
Inside another trash can, the warrant states, investigators found a blood-stained hammer and a mans sweater and jeans, which had the couples blood on it.
The daughter, who has not been publicly named, suggested to one family friend that her mother had been burned, according to court documents, and made comments about Andre hurting Mommy.
In one attempt to explain what she saw, the daughter took a doll, put it in a circle over rocks, and covered it with sticks before asking for the fire.
Since his initial arrest, McDonald has not once asked about the ongoing search for his wife and has never tried to assist in the investigation, the warrant said.
On July 11, a friend of the ranchs owner discovered Andreen McDonalds body while removing two cow skulls on the 50-acre property. According to the warrant, when authorities arrived they noticed the human remains appeared to have been covered with wood and bones from a nearby deceased cow and set on fire. Melted plastic or synthetic material was also found among the remains.
The Medical Examiners Office confirmed the remains belonged to Andreen McDonald on Friday night using her dental records. The next day, McDonald was arrested at home and appeared quiet and fully cooperative, Salazar said on Saturday.
I actually enjoyed him being arrested, Andreen McDonald's cousin Cheryl Spencer said. That was nice. I like that little public shaming.
A Bexar County Sheriff spokesperson declined to provide a motive on Monday, but added that there is substantial evidence to prove McDonald killed his wife and disposed of her body.
The next step is to prepare this case to go to trial with the DAs office, the spokesperson said. Our department is dedicated to getting justice for Andreen and her family.
McDonalds attorney, John Convery, declined The Daily Beasts request for comment. Andreen McDonalds immediate family did not respond to multiple attempts for comment.
A North Carolina man accused in the fatal shooting of three Muslim college students pleaded guilty on Wednesday, four years after the he turned himself into police.
Craig Stephen Hicks, 50, pleaded guilty in Durham Superior Court to three counts of first-degree murder for the Feb. 2015 shooting, just two months after the District Attorneys office dropped their intention to seek the death penalty.
Prosecutors alleged Hicks fatally shot his downstairs neighbors23-year old Deah Barakat; his 21-year-old wife, Yusor Abu-Salha; and her 19-year-old sister, Razan Abu-Salhain Chapel Hill near the University of North Carolina campus, after allegedly getting into an argument over parking spaces.
I've wanted to plead guilty since day one, Hicks said to Durham Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson when asked to enter his plea.
On Feb. 10, 2015, authorities alleged, Hicks, a former car-parts salesman, burst into the Barakats Chapel Hill condo and shot the 23-year-old several times as he stood in his doorway. His wife and her sister were shot execution-style in the head inside the condo, the medical examiners office determined. Authorities said a 911 called described hearing over eight shots and screaming during the mid-afternoon encounter. When officers entered the apartment around 5:15 p.m., Barakat was found lying in the front doorway, while the sisters were found in the kitchen. All three were pronounced dead at the scene.
Our investigators are exploring what could have motivated Mr. Hicks to commit such a senseless and tragic act, Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue said at the time. We understand the concerns about the possibility that this was hate-motivated and we will exhaust every lead to determine if that is the case.
Chapel Hill police said the deadly attack was provoked over a competition for parking spaces at Finley Forest Condominiums, a housing complex for many UNC graduate students. Namee Barakat, the 23-year-olds father, maintains the shootings were a hate crime, prompting a federal investigation currently underway.
This is more than just about parking, Barakat said at the time. Three people get shot in the head. The death penalty would not be enough. The 23-year-olds mother, however, argued against the death penalty at the UNC vigil the day after the shooting, where a few thousand people reportedly attended. He died of hate crime and his legacy is never hate, Laya Barakat said. You don't respond back by hating the other. You respond back by love. By peace, by mercy. Thats Deahs way.
Hours after the shooting, Hicks turned himself into police and was arrested. On Feb. 16, he was indicted by a Durham County grand jury on three counts of first-degree murder and one count of discharging a firearm into an occupied dwelling.
Ive semi-threatened them, Hicks admitted to police at the time, according to footage placed in court Wednesday. I just pulled my gun out and started shooting them. I walked over and shot her and the other one. Then I walked to my car and left."
Mohammad Abu-Salha, the two womens father, testified at a congressional hearing on hate crimes in April, alleging the murder was racially fueled after Hicks, self-described as a devout atheist, had publically expressed hateful comments about Abu-Salhas daughters wearing head scarves in observance of their faith.
Three beautiful young Americans were brutally murdered, and there is no question in our minds that this tragedy was born of bigotry and hate, Abu-Salha said before the U.S. House Judiciary COmmittee. This has happened on too many occasions. Families like mineregular Americans living regular livesare left without hope that justice will truly be served.
At the time of the shooting, Hick was studying to become a paralegal at Durham Technical Community College after his second divorce while Barakat was a second-year student in the UNC School of Dentistry. His wife of two months had plans to begin UNC dental school at UNC in the fall, her family said, and her sister was a sophomore at N.C. State University.
A chambermaid cleaning rooms on the second floor of a Bavarian bed & breakfast in the southern German city of Passau found three dead people impaled on long arrows in one of the rooms.
When she first peeked into the room on Saturday morning, she didnt realize a figure on the bed was human, according to Merkur news website.
Somebody put a doll on the bed, the cleaner said to a colleague who was down the hall, Merkur reported. The two cleaners then pushed the door open to find a man, 54, and two women, aged 30 and 33, with arrows stuck through their mid-sections. On the floor were two crossbows, presumably used in the killings.
The guesthouse describes itself on its website as a nature getaway. Here you can relax, relax and find your inner peace again, the hosts promise.
The three mystery visitors were from Rhineland-Palatinate, according to local press reports. The 33-year-old, who booked the triple room with a double and single bed online for three days for $95 a night, was from Lower Saxony, some 300 miles away, local media said. Residents in the 33-year-olds home town said she kept to herself and rarely left her house. It is unclear if the other two people were a couple.
The three arrived around 10 p.m. in a white pickup truck late Friday in a driving rainstorm, the hotel manager on duty Sunday night, who did not want to give his name, told The Daily Beast.
When they arrived, the hotel manager said, they asked for food, but the kitchen was already closed so they took packaged salty snacks, several bottles of Coca Cola and water to their room. He said they were hungry, so they booked breakfast for the next day, but did not show up in the morning.
It was a strange group, one of the hotel guests told Merkur news. The man, who had a long white beard that extended down to his mid-chest, wore a formal suit. The women were both dressed completely in black. They said good evening and just wanted to get to their room quickly,the guest said.
None of the guests reported hearing any strange noises overnight, according to the local press, though a violent storm and the raging river next to the guesthouse may have muffled any noise.
Currently, there are no indications that anyone else participated in the deaths, according to police spokesman Stefan Gaisbauer at a press conference Sunday afternoon.
It was not immediately known how the trio knew each other, but it was reported by the German press that they were not assumed to be in the same immediate family based on their identification, which they left at the front desk when they checked in.
Autopsies have been ordered to determine the time and cause of death. The guesthouse reopened for business on Saturday night but the room in which the deceased were found was sealed until further notice.
On August 3, 2001, a McDonalds film crew arrived in the bustling beach town of Westerly, Rhode Island. They carried their cameras and a giant cashiers check to a row of townhouses, and knocked on the door of Michael Hoover. The 56-year-old bachelor had called a McDonalds hotline to say hed won their Monopoly competition. Since 1987, McDonalds customers had feverishly collected Monopoly game pieces attached to drink cups, french fry packets and advertising inserts in magazines. By completing groups of properties like Baltic and Mediterranean Avenues, players won cash or a Sega Game Gear, while Instant Win game pieces scored a free Filet-O-Fish or a Jamaican vacation. But Hoover, a casino pit boss who had recently filed for bankruptcy, claimed hed won the grand prize$1 million dollars.
Like winning the Powerball, the odds of Hoovers win were 1 in 250 million. There were two ways to win the Monopoly grand prize: find the Instant Win game piece like Hoover, or match Park Place with the elusive Boardwalk to choose between a heavily-taxed lump sum or $50,000 checks every year for 20 years. Just like the Monopoly board game, which was invented as a warning about the destructive nature of greed, players traded game pieces to win, or outbid each other on eBay. Armed robbers even held up restaurants demanding Monopoly tickets. Dont go to jail! Go to McDonalds and play Monopoly for real! cried Rich Uncle Pennybags, the games mustachioed mascot, on TV commercials that sent customers flocking to buy more food. Monopoly quickly became the companys most lucrative marketing device since the Happy Meal.
Inside Hoovers home, Amy Murray, a loyal McDonalds spokesperson, encouraged him to tell the camera about the luckiest moment of his life. Nervously clutching his massive check, Hoover said hed fallen asleep on the beach. When he bent over to wash off the sand, his People magazine fell into the sea. He bought another copy from a grocery store, he said, and inside was an advertising insert with the Instant Win game piece. The camera crew listened patiently to his rambling story, silently recognizing the inconsequential details found in stories told by liars. They suspected that Hoover was not a lucky winner, but part of a major criminal conspiracy to defraud the fast food chain of millions of dollars. The two men behind the camera were not from McDonalds. They were undercover agents from the FBI.
This was a McSting.
At the FBIs Jacksonville Field Office in Florida, Special Agent Richard Dent added the Hoover videotape to his growing pile of evidence. Sandy-haired and highly-organized, Dent was a 13-year veteran of the Bureau, who spent his days investigating public corruption and bank fraud. But in the last 12 months his desk had filled with fast food paraphernalia. Leaflets for Pick Your Prize Monopoly and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? described McDonalds games played in 14 countries. He read small print that revealed how the odds were stacked against the customer: McDonalds makes one piece from each set of properties extremely rare, so while thousands have three of the four railroads, the odds of pulling the Short Line Railroadand winning a PT Cruiserwere 1 in 150 million.
Dents investigation had started in 2000, when a mysterious informant called the FBI and claimed that McDonalds games had been rigged by an insider known as Uncle Jerry. The person revealed that winners paid Uncle Jerry for stolen game pieces in various ways. The $1 million winners, for example, passed the first $50,000 installment to Uncle Jerry in cash. Sometimes Uncle Jerry would demand cash up front, requiring winners to mortgage their homes to come up with the money. According to the informant, members of one close-knit family in Jacksonville had claimed three $1 million dollar prizes and a Dodge Viper.
When Dent alerted the McDonalds headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois, executives were deeply concerned. The companys top lawyers pledged to help the FBI, and faxed Dent a list of past winners. They explained that their game pieces were produced by a Los Angeles company, Simon Marketing, and printed by Dittler Brothers in Oakwood, Georgia, a firm trusted with printing U.S. mail stamps and lotto scratch-offs. The person in charge of the game pieces was Simons director of security, Jerry Jacobson.
Dent thought he had found his man. But after installing a wiretap on Jacobsons phone, he realized that his tip had led to a super-sized conspiracy. Jacobson was the head of a sprawling network of mobsters, psychics, strip club owners, convicts, drug traffickers, and even a family of Mormons, who had falsely claimed more than $24 million in cash and prizes. But who among them had betrayed Jacobson, and why? Dent knew agents had to move carefully. If they apprehended a winner too soon, he or she might alert other members of the conspiracy who would destroy evidence, or flee. With the scheme still in full-swing, the FBI needed to team up with McDonalds to catch Uncle Jerry and his crew red-handed.
JEROME PAUL JACOBSON always dreamed of becoming a police officer. He was born in 1943, in Youngstown, Ohio, and moved to Miami, Florida, as a teenager. Chronic allergies and a series of unlucky injuries always seemed to ruin his ambitions, like when he applied for the Marines, but was discharged from basic training with high arches. In 1976 he was sworn in to Floridas Hollywood Police Department, but just a year later he injured his wrist in an altercation. During a prolonged medical leave, in 1980, Jacobson collapsed with a severe paralysis in his arms, legs, eyes and respiratory system. Doctors diagnosed a rare neurological disorder, and Jacobsons police officer wife, Marsha, took a leave of absence to care for him. I became his private nurse, I bathed him massaged his muscles, fed him, she recalled. With Jacobson unfit to return to work, the city terminated him. By 1981 the couple had moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where Jacobson recovered enough to work as a mechanic, building alternators for cars he couldnt afford.
Luckily, Marsha was offered a job as a security auditor for the accounting firm Arthur Young, and was assigned to one of their clients, Dittler Brothers. In 1981, she recommended her husband for a job there too, but the couple constantly argued at work, and by 1983 they had divorced. Finding his feet in private security, Jacobson started to climb the ranks until he oversaw all production for Dittlers client, Simon Marketing, and their $500 million McDonalds account.
When Jacobson marched through the printing works, with his slicked-back hair and a little paunch that overhung his belt, he looked every part the ex-cop. He was quick with a joke, but commanded respect for his hard work and obsession with loss-prevention. He inspected workers shoes to check they werent stealing McDonalds game pieces, one colleague told me, while a truck driver who transported game pieces recalled: I couldnt even go to the bathroom without someone going with me. Impressed by Jacobsons attentioned to detail and police credentials, in 1988 Simon Marketing poached him.
It was my responsibility to keep the integrity of the game and get those winners to the public, Jacobson would later tell investigators.
Before each bi-annual game, Jacobson arrived at the drab Dittler Brothers office at 5 a.m to observe their Omega III supercomputer making the McDonalds prize draw. He watched the printing presses that roared for 24 hours a day for three months, using 100 railroad cars of paper to print half a billion game pieces. Laid end-to-end, the paper tickets would stretch from New York to Sydneynearly two tickets for every American. Jacobson observed technicians applying the INSTANT WINNER! stamp to blank game pieces, and pioneered random watermarks that deterred counterfeiters. He locked the winning pieces in a vault behind coded keypads and dual-entry combination locks. It was Jacobson who personally scissored out the high-value game pieces and slipped them into envelopes, before sealing each corner with a tamper-proof metallic sticker. In a secret vest, of his invention, Jacobson transported the winning pieces to McDonalds packaging factories across the country.
Everything he did was overseen by an independent auditor. On flights she sat in coach, while Jacobson flew first class, where he tried to impress other passengers by flashing his old police badge. On one flight, Jacobson and another security manager sent an air steward back to show the accountant the empty liquor bottles theyd guzzled. When they arrived at the factory, Jacobson would summon a forklift of french fry containers, hide the winning game piece, and send it into the wild. Then he liked to hit a Ruths Chris steakhouse and order everythingmore than he could eat, and charge it to his expense account.
The 1980s was Americas decade of greed, and it was Jacobsons job to create instant millionaires. Playing God was intoxicating, as was holding a strangers fate in the palm of his hands. Female employees among the 30 staff he controlled complained that he criticized how they dressed, and he often wrote up workers for mistakes. Jacobsons $70,000 salary was six times his police officers pay, and he was obsessed with achieving the gold medallion airline status, sometimes flying to factories via several cities to accrue airline points, to the irritation of those who had to shadow him.
Jacobson was also deep into his own get-rich-quick scheme. He boasted to colleagues that he was waiting to collect his riches from a mysterious investment. All he needed was to find 10 more people to sign up and invest. A psychic had told him to invest money and he would be richly rewarded, one former colleague told me. But they believed hed invested in a Ponzi scheme. One colleague told me Jacobson swore by the advice of a local fortune teller, and often excused himself from work, saying: I think she needs to tell me something.
This was the man entrusted with creating a theft-proof system for one of Americas largest corporations. It was a thrill to protect the Monopoly promotion, and only a natural part of his job to consider the systems fallibilities. But soon the temptation to steal had become irresistible.
One day in 1989, at a family gathering in Miami, Jacobson slipped his step-brother, Marvin Braun, a game piece worth $25,000. I dont know if I just wanted to show him I could do something, or bragging, Jacobson later admitted, but he just needed to see if I could do it. When his local butcher in Atlanta heard that Jacobson was in charge of the McDonalds Monopoly prizes, he said hed like to win a prize. Jacobson boasted that he could make it happen, but it would look too suspicious because they were friends and neighbors. The butcher offered to find a distant friend to claim a $10,000 prize, and gave Jacobson $2,000 for the stolen ticket. It was easy money.
McDonalds was already overwhelmed with employee theft. In Sheboygan, Wisconsin, a 17-year-old restaurant employee was arrested for stealing 3,000 Monopoly game pieces. In response, McDonalds started handing out game pieces from a secure roll at the counter. As a result, Jacobson was removed from the seeding process for several years. But in 1995, as McDonalds ramped up the scale of the promotion, game pieces were blown onto soft drink cups and hash brown wrappers. That year, Ronald McDonald and Monopolys Rich Uncle Pennybags rang the opening bell on Wall Street, and Jacobson found himself back in charge of distributing the game pieces.
During that 1995 prize draw, something happened that would change the game. According to Jacobson, when the computerized prize draw selected a factory location in Canada, Simon Marketing executives re-ran the program until it chose an area in the USA. Jacobson claimed he was ordered to ensure that no high-level prizes ever reached the Great White North. I knew what we were doing in Canada was wrong, Jacobson recalled. Sooner or later somebody was going to be asking questions about why there were no winners in Canada. Believing the game was rigged, he decided to cash in too.
Not long afterward, Jacobson opened a package sent to him by mistake from a supplier in Hong Kong. Inside he found a set of the anti-tamper seals for the game piece envelopesthe only thing he needed to steal game pieces en route to the factory. I would go into the mens room of the airport, he later admitted, the only place the female auditor couldnt follow him. I would go into a stall. I would take the seal off. Then hed pour the winning game pieces into his hand, replace them with commons, and re-seal the envelope. First, he stole a $1 million Instant Win game piece and locked it in a safety deposit box. Then he stole documents that he claimed proved the Canada conspiracy. I thought I would need that to protect myself, Jacobson recalled. If his employer ever fired him, he had a get out of jail free card. But when he stole another $1 million game piece, Jacobson did something awesome.
On November 12, 1995, a donations clerk at the St. Jude Childrens Research Hospital in Tennessee ripped open the mornings mail, and discovered a brightly colored card. At first, Tammie Murphy assumed it was junk mail, until she noticed the tiny Monopoly game piece inside. McDonalds officials descended on the hospital and examined the game piece under a jewelers eyepiece. Ronald McDonald himself attended a press conference, where the hospital was announced the $1 million winner. Despite an investigation, the New York Times could not uncover the identity of the generous donor.
Back in Atlanta, Jacobsons butcher was ready for another win. This time, he proposed that hed travel with his sister to Maryland where she would find the lucky game piece on a box of fries. Jacobson gave the butcher a stolen game piece worth $200,000 in exchange for $45,000 of the winnings. I figured I could trust him because he paid me the first time, Jacobson recalled. But the butcher double-crossed him in Maryland and claimed the prize himself. All Jacobson got was $4,000, and a big surprise. One evening, Jacobson was watching television when he saw a commercial for the McDonalds Monopoly game. To his complete disbelief he watched his butcher celebrating his big win. He reached for the phone.
You live here, Jacobson protested. You know me.
LOTTERIES AND SWEEPSTAKES have been mired in corruption since biblical times, when lots were drawn to read the will of God. But it was the Medieval Italians who first used prize drawings as a sales promotion. In 1522, a Venetian man was condemned to death after tampering with the prize draw for 1,500 golden ducats, a parcel of silk and a live wild cat. Allegations of fraud and abuse shuttered an English lottery in 1621, which funded Americas earliest colonies. In the New World, centuries of sweepstake chicanery followed, until 1890 when lotteries were banned in every state except Delaware and Louisiana. This ushered in an era of promotional contests in which marketers could avoid prosecution by making no purchase necessary. Today, you can enter a McDonalds contest without buying a burgerjust write in for a free ticket and take your chances.
It was by chance that Jacobson met the man who would industrialize his Monopoly scam. Jacobson was sitting in Atlantas airport one day in 1995, when a giant gentleman folded himself into the next seat. Gennaro Colombo, 32, looked like Al Capone, and when Jacobson enquired where he was headed, Colombo unzipped a bulging purse full of $100 bills, and said: Atlantic City. Colombo said he was born in Sicily and raised in Brooklyn, New York, before moving to South Carolina, where he operated adult nightclubs, underground casinos and a sports betting ring. He claimed he was a member of New Yorks infamous Colombo crime family.
When Jacobson revealed that he worked in promotional gaming, Colombo was intrigued. He enjoyed finding new ways to cheat a system. When Charleston County, Georgia passed new laws restricting where strip clubs could be operated, Colombo opened a house of worship named The Church of Fuzzy Bunnies. I want them to read the Bible for two hours every night, and then well drink and let the girls dance, said Colombo, who claimed that God came to him in a dream with the idea. By November of 1995, Jacobson had slipped Colombo a game piece for a brand new Dodge Viper. The Italian, who was obsessed with The Godfather and had ambitions of becoming an actor, agreed to wave a giant car key in a McDonalds commercial. Instead of the sports car he took the money, his wife, Robin Colombo, told me. He was a big guy. A Viper? No.
With a mop of black curly hair and a contagious laugh, Robin, 34, had become engaged to Colombo after a two-week romance. She was thrilled with the trappings of a Mafia wife: bodyguards, chauffeurs, two rottweilers and a last name that commanded fear and respect. By now, Colombo was traveling with friends from Atlanta to Boston, where theyd win $1 million prizes, thanks to stolen tickets from Jacobson. Soon Colombo introduced Robin to Jacobson, calling him Uncle Jerry, and in 1996, her father, William Fisher, received a stolen $1 million winning ticket. Fisher traveled from his home in Jacksonville, Florida to Litchfield, New Hampshire, to claim his prize, before Robins brother-in-law in Virginia became a millionaire too. Every winner sent a kickback in cash via the Colombos to Jacobson.
In 1997, Robin introduced Colombo to her friend Gloria Brown, 37, at an Applebees in Jacksonville. He asked… how much money I could come up with…in order to be eligible, Brown recalled. A few weeks later, on the side of the I-95 freeway, Brown handed Colombo $40,000 in cash. He showed her a tiny bottle containing the $1 million game piece, dwarfed by his giant hand. Ill let you know the rest later, he mumbled.
Brown traveled to South Carolina to find her prize, because too many recent winners now lived in Jacksonville. It was so secretive, she recalled. Colombo and a cousin drove Brown to a McDonalds and parked a safe distance away. They coached Brown what to tell McDonalds staff, but doubts suddenly consumed her. I had to just tell, you know, outright lies, she realized. She thought about running. Do I lose it all or do I keep going? But she did the deed, and afterwards found the two Italians sweating. They were a little nervous because it took so long, Brown recalled. They helped her fill out the prize form, writing her name along with the cousins South Carolina address. To make it appear like she lived with the cousin, Brown recorded the message on his answering machine, and later told reporters a long-winded story about finding the winning ticket while cleaning out her car.
Robin told me that Uncle Jerrys money soon funded certain Colombo-run businesses, including a private members club in Hilton Head. She thought he was sophisticated and liked the way he dressed. In return, Jacobson sent other opportunities to the Colombos, Robin told me. Late one night, she was stoned and rifling through the kitchen for a snack, when she found in their freezer a mysterious plastic bag. Inside was a single gray-colored M&M candy, which was part of a promotional contest, she said. In 1997, the Mars candy company launched a competition to find an imposter M&M, along with a game piece that made the winner an instant millionaire. (Mars did not respond to enquiries, but records show that Cyrk, a company that produced promotional materials for Mars, merged with Simon Marketing in 1997.) Colombo suddenly appeared behind her, grabbed the bag and yelled:
Do not eat this!
Meanwhile, Jacobson was now living with a huge secrethe had not even told his new wife, Linda, what he was doing. By now he had given his step-brother, Marvin Braun, three more game pieces including one for $1 million. Braun, who owned a chain of maternity clothing stores, claimed he didnt need the money. I dropped tickets into Salvation Army tins, he told me, Jerry would give me a million dollar ticket… I would give it away Ive flushed million dollar tickets down toilets. By 1998, Jacobsons nephew, Mark Schwartz, had taken a $200,000 game piece after a meeting in Miami. I told him what I wanted and the rest was his, Jacobson recalled. I wanted $45,000. At Schwartzs wedding that year, Jacobson was discussing the Monopoly game when a distant cousin fell into the conversation and also agreed to win a prize. Uncle Jerrys family tree was sprouting money.
By the end of 1998, Jacobson had become Rich Uncle Pennybags, and America was his game board. He tooled around the United States stealing almost all the big-ticket game pieces, acquiring new properties on a whim, and collecting kickbacks from other players. Now he was hanging out with powerful Italians, he dressed in sharp suits and sometimes used the name Geraldo Constantino. He and his wife moved into a fine, red-brick home in Lawrenceville, Georgia, where he tended to its perfect lawn. He purchased a plot of land on Lake Hartwell, a recreation lake on the Georgia border, and paid for expensive cruises, and joined a classic car club. There, he sold one member four game pieces and used the $65,000 to buy a handsome Oldsmobile. Bill LaFoy, who lived opposite Jacobson, lost count of the new cars appearing on the driveway: I used to kid him about where the winning tickets were, he said.
After three years married to Colombo, Robin had tired of life as a mobsters wife. Since the birth of their son, Frankie, her husband seemed to spend all his time at his gentlemans clubs and casinos. Meanwhile, Robin felt that the Colombos had cut her off from her friends. They were the type of people who dont like outsiders, she said. Lonely and bored, she began confiding in Jacobson during late night phone calls. One night she told him that Colombo was sleeping with her personal trainer. I was upset about my husband, she said, and he goes, Well, you could marry me.
No, I cant. Im married, she said quickly. I love my husband.
Robin tried to make her marriage to Colombo work. He had done some things in Charleston that I freaked out about, she said, I told him I needed to get out of South Carolina. On May 7, 1998, they drove to the Georgia state line to look for land on which to build their dream home. Colombos pager had been bleeping all morning, but he ignored it. Robin was behind the wheel of their Ford Explorer as they approached the entrance to the expressway. At the on-ramp, a tractor trailer blocked Robins view. When she swung onto the freeway, a speeding F-150 truck smashed into them, dragging their car 250 feet and into a concrete wall. Colombo crawled from the wreckage, but emergency crews had to use the Jaws of Life to cut Robin and her son free.
The policeman told me he thought I was gonna be the one to die because I was the one covered in blood, Robin told me. But at the hospital, Colombos blood pressure dropped so low they wrapped his body in refrigerated blankets. My mother-in-law ran over to me and told me she knew this was going to happen, Robin recalled. She had a vision in a dream the night before. Thats why she was trying to page him all day. At his bedside, Robin shook Colombos giant arm, and begged him to wake up. He was my soulmate, Robin said. But two weeks later the doctors turned off his life support.
The secret of Jacobsons success was that he recruited his co-conspirators at random, and soon he was looking for a replacement for Colombo. Jacobson was in London with his step-brother Marvin and their wives, waiting to board a Royal Caribbean Cruise ship, when he met Don Hart and his wife. The six of us were talking, and we found out that Mr. Hart and his wife were from the Atlanta area, Jacobson recalled. And they wound up changing tables to eat with us on the cruise. Hart had sold his trucking company for a small fortune, and still had a network of contacts all over the United States. When Jacobson revealed his scam, Hart, an honest businessman, found it too good to be true. But he agreed to try it, to see if it worked, recalled Jacobson. In 1998, one of Harts accomplices redeemed a $200,000 game piece. After that Mr. Hart told me he didnt want to be involved in handling any game piece tickets or handling any money, Jacobson said. Instead, he introduced Jacobson to two friends who could find the needy and the greedy.
The first was Richard Couturier, who owned a chain of fried chicken joints. He was fooled into believing he was helping McDonalds find real winners, because most people threw away their game pieces. Mr. Jacobson said every time they ran the game and had winners, the sales were up 38 percent, Couturier said. He mostly recruited random people he met at parties. At Mardi Gras in 1999, Couturier was riding on a float through the streets of New Orleans, tossing beads into the crowd, when he shouted to another reveler: Would you be interested in being a McDonalds winner! Jacobson gave Couturier around ten winning pieces, including several for sports cars and two $1 million prizes. If I bought a piece of property, I would borrow from my home equity and then Mr. Couturier would write a check to my home equity loan, Jacobson explained.
Then, at a dinner party in Atlanta, Hart introduced Jacobson to Andrew Glomb, a gregarious gambler who lived in a luxury Spanish-style home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Glomb spent his days partying, or walking his dog through the lime trees that bordered his property, where neighbors all knew of his checkered past. In 1983, Glomb had been convicted of shipping pure cocaine on a Pan American flight from Miami to Dallas. Hed jumped bond and escaped to Europe for 16 months, before completing his 12-year sentence. Glomb mostly gave his winning tickets to old pals from his drug trafficking days. It was just the excitement, to have the power, he told me. Because I like you, I can make you a millionaire. But Glombs winners introduced less salubrious characters to the scheme. In 1999, a million-dollar winner was a man who had pleaded guilty to distributing 400 pounds of cocaine in Pittsburgh, while running a numbers racket from an Italian restaurant.
Glomb said his winners were all destitute: They were on their ass…they had nothing. I mean, if you could imagine flying across country, giving somebody a million dollars, and I had to pick up the dinner check. One day, Glomb arrived in Pennsylvania to visit his family, where his cousin picked him up at the airport. The cousin said: I got to stop at McDonalds because my kids wanna play this Monopoly game.
Glomb smiled, and said: You know, dont waste your time.
Across America, McDonalds customers were becoming frustrated by the Monopoly game. Are McDonalds employees keeping game cards to themselves? asked a concerned citizen in a letter to the Atlanta Constitution. Were talking money here, said another player in North Miami, who paid for a classified advert for the game pieces he couldnt find. Instead of sticking those game pieces to customers soft drink cups and french fry packets, Jacobson sent them all to Andrew Glomb, including eight $1 million winners. He told me, Dont talk about this, dont talk about that, Glomb recalled. Paranoid Jacobson now had dozens of prize winners out there, appearing in TV commercials, and arguing with their spouses about the loot. His black hair had turned gray, and he was bothering his psychics about his future. One received a $50,000 game piece in exchange for chiropractic services and fortune telling (he did both, Jacobson said.) But the psychic didnt see how Jacobsons fate had already been sealed.
Ever since her husband died, Robin Colombo felt uneasy around her in-laws. The Colombos investigated the car crash, she said, suspecting that she might have killed her husband. My mother-in-law, Ma, she told me, Do you think if we didnt know it was an accident youd be sitting here today? At her husbands funeral, Robin said her father-in-law promised to keep the New York side of the family at bay. In my mind I was thinking, Papa, Im really not worried about them, Im worried about you sniping me down, because I was the driver. (Speaking in a thick Sicilian accent, Colombos mother denied the family were in the Mafia but confirmed they are related to the late Joseph Colombo, former boss of the Colombo crime family.)
Robin had tried to keep up the good life but had turned to forgery, insurance and credit card fraud. During one of her brief spells in prison, Robin felt the Colombos were brainwashing her own son, and said she didnt want Frankie to grow up in the mob. She tried to cut herself off from the the family, which she said infuriated them. Frankie [was] their first grandson, and, you know how Sicilians are, she said. Robin believes it was the Colombos who told the FBI that her father, William Fisher, her cousin, and best friend Gloria Brown had all illegally won McDonalds prizes. They wanted her in jail, she said, to avenge the death of their son.
That was their retaliation, she added.
The tip to the FBI came in March of 2000. Special Agent Dent called Amy Murray, the McDonalds spokesperson, to say he believed that William Fisher, the $1 million winner of the 1996 Deluxe Monopoly Game, was a fraud. Murray was a quick-thinking Midwesterner who had risen through the ranks at McDonalds, and was often the public face of the company during any drama. She was the McQueen of McDonalds, said Joe Maggard, a disgraced Ronald McDonald actor who was convicted of making harassing phone calls while posing as the clown.
Murray telephoned Fisher at his home in Jacksonville. [Fisher] told Ms. Murray that he won the prize in Litchfield, New Hampshire, where he was living for a year, Dent wrote in an affidavit. However, property and electricity records showed that Fisher had lived in Jacksonville all along. I believe [Fisher] provided false and misleading information to Amy Murray, wrote Dent. When he asked about Gloria Brown, Murray revealed that she, like Fisher, had re-routed her annual $50,000 checks to Jacksonville.
Dent opened an official investigation, naming it Operation Final Answer, after the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? McDonalds game. The operation would involve 25 agents across the country, who tracked 20,000 phone numbers, and recorded 235 cassette tapes of telephone calls. You work from the outside in, explained John Hanson, a former FBI Special Agent who specializes in complex fraud schemes. But you really want the people who devised the idea. Hanson said the FBI would have investigated the McDonalds scam just like any boiler room stock fraud or pyramid scheme: by gathering evidence without anyone finding out. Jacobson made this hard by recruiting co-conspirators in person, in remote locations.
On April 29, 2000, Jacobson was driving through the South Carolina countryside, with the peaks of the Appalachians in his windshield. In the passenger seat was his friend Dwight Baker, a real estate developer who had sold Jacobson his lakeside plot. Baker was a well-respected member of the local Mormon church, and a devoted father-of-five who lived in a split-level house next to hayfields and farmland. He was a charismatic man with big dreams, whod tried to build a championship golf course and a five-star resort, but couldnt attract enough investors. The two men were equally ambitious, and they each had a wife named Linda.
That spring, Baker was recovering from a terrible accident. The brakes had failed on his tractor and after rolling helplessly backwards down a hill, Baker had damaged his spinal column in a crash. On hearing of Bakers misfortune, Jacobson arrived and offered to get him out of the house. Baker feared he would never walk again, but Jacobson was insistent. He helped his friend into the car, and they drove up into the mountains.
When Baker first found out that Jacobson controlled the McDonalds Monopoly promotion, he had mixed feelings. Well, in 1985 we lost our home, he explained. Our family had five children, and…for the last several years wed been, as a family, chasing these game pieces to… have a little hope of winning one of them. Bakers companies owed nearly $30,000 in back taxes, and county tax officials had started to sell parcels of his land at auction.
Let me give you hypothetical, Jacobson said suddenly. If I were able get a game piece, do you know someone who you trust that would cash it?
Are you serious about this? asked Baker.
He said hed need to think about it. But Baker soon realized a windfall would ease his financial woes. Soon, Jacobson handed him a $1 million game piece. Whoever redeemed it, he instructed, would have to say they pulled it from a hash brown bag. This time, Jacobson wanted $100,000, the biggest kickback hed ever demanded. He was a friend, Jacobson recalled. I thought I could trust him.
George, youre not going to believe this, whispered Baker, leaning over a Waffle House table in Seneca, South Carolina. But I was at breakfast with a friend of mine and he pulled off this winning game piece. George Chandler, 30, was the owner of a successful plastic injection company, and Bakers foster child. Chandler was a teenager when Baker took him in. One day he showed up on our doorstep with tears in his eyes, Baker recalled. His momma had just thrown his clothes out in the middle of the yard because he helped his sister go to Georgia get married.
Baker showed Chandler the winning game piece in a tiny Ziplock bag, and offered to sell it to him for $100,000. Baker explained that the winner was going through a divorce and didnt want to split his McDonalds winnings with his wife. (Or that was his story.) Chandler could only come up with $50,000, but on June 6, 2000, Baker helped him fill out the McDonalds claim form. They photocopied the game piece and mailed it off to the redemption center. Baker warned him four times not to participate in any promotions, but on June 26, his telephone rang.
You need to be up here at South Union McDonalds at eleven 0clock, Chandler said casually. McDonalds was presenting him with a giant check, he said. Baker was incensed. Theres more to this than you know, he hissed. But it was too late. When Baker arrived at the McDonalds restaurant, two TV news crews were filming Ronald McDonald showering Chandler with confetti. That footage found its way to the FBI field office in Jacksonville.
In March of 2001, the McDonalds promotion started again, with a Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? promotional game. Thats where the real greed on my part came, Baker admitted. He asked Jacobson if hed accept a plot of land in Edgewater Hills for a couple of game pieces. Baker gave a $1 million winner to a friend, Ronnie Hughey, and a $500,000 winner to his wifes sister, Brenda Phenis. He gave them strict instructions on how to set up fake lives in other states, claim their prizes, and keep their mouths shut.
On April 27, 2001, Dent received a call from McDonalds, informing him that a Mr. Ronald E. Hughey, a lifelong resident of Germantown, Tennessee, had claimed the $1 million prize. When Amy Murray called Hugheys phone, she asked him to appear in a TV commercial, but Hughey said hed prefer to remain anonymous, because he was suffering from depression. Technical agents soon discovered that Hugheys Tennessee telephone number was just a call forwarding device. He actually lived in Anderson, South Carolina, just miles from the home of George Chandler, the latest winner.
To conceal his sister-in-laws South Carolina address, Baker took Brenda Phenis on a road trip to North Carolina, he recalled. She had located an apartment, had rented it, obtained a phone, a mailing address, bank account, and I think a North Carolina drivers license. On May 16, 2001, Baker stood over Phenis shoulder as she dialed the McDonalds hotline and claimed the $500,000 winning ticket. Phenis had agreed to pay the taxes, give Baker $90,000 and Jacobson $70,000, and keep $90,000 for herself. She had made commitments to other people that she was going to buy them a car, build a house, and she overcommitted, recalled Baker. Phenis also told her son about the scheme, and his wife, and her other sister.
On May 30, 2001, McDonalds notified Dent of Phenis $500,000 win. He checked the credit bureaus and quickly discovered that she too lived in South Carolina, in a town called Westminster. Dent found a map of the state, and pinned the addresses of Hughey, Chandler, and Phenis. He had uncovered a 25-mile golden triangle of suspicious McDonalds winners, and at its center was the lakefront home of Jacobson.
Dent requested that McDonalds delay sending checks to Hughey and Phenis while he applied for wiretaps. This intentional delay…proved very fruitful, he recalled, because three weeks later everyone was panicking. On recorded calls, Jacobson told Baker that Phenis needed to insist on something in writing from McDonalds so Baker could make a legal issue about the delay. Id say do we need an attorney or do I need to call the home office Jacobson suggested, or do I need to call Burger King?
Thats right, agreed Baker. But deep down, he had a gut feeling that theyd been caught. I felt the eyes, he told me.
Phenis, too, was feeling the pressure. She confessed to her pastor and stopped answering Bakers calls. He feared she was going to keep the entire check for herself. Dent listened to Bakers tense phone calls with his wife. Baker said that if Jacobson knew that Brenda had gone rogue, hed report the ticket stolen and say he was threatened to hand over the game pieces. Baker decided that Phenis should give him the money, otherwise hed have to raise his hand himself, and have the U.S. Marshals arrest her. I want it all, Baker told his wife. No if, ands, or buts about it. He raced to Phenis fake apartment where the check was due to arrive. When he opened the door he found the light on and the air conditioner humming, but no one was in. On the floor he found a tear-off strip from a FedEx envelope.
Baker called his wife, and gasped: Brendas running with the money.
Time was now ticking for Dent and the FBI. On July 11, they would launch their second and last promotional game of 2001. Knowing that the game was compromised, Golden Arches executives considered canceling the whole thing. But Dent insisted he needed one more game to gather enough evidence. Jack Greenberg, the McDonalds CEO, had a big decision to make. To run the game knowing it was corrupt could invite lawsuits and damage McDonalds reputation. His company had endured a rough year, with a scare over mad cow disease diminishing European sales, and the brands domestic business was in a funk. I had to do what was right, Greenberg later told the Chicago Tribune. If youre sitting in my chair, I think youd do the same thing.
Backed by a massive promotional campaign, in July McDonalds launched the Pick Your Prize Monopoly game. Restaurants nationwide were decorated with Monopoly rooftop banners and drive-thru decals. Diners couldnt escape Rich Uncle Pennybags, who peered out from tray liners and even garbage cans, urging them to play. McDonalds distributed 57 million paper game boards in Time, People and Sports Illustrated, while radio commercials whipped up interest in the two $1 million prizes, payable in cash, gold, or diamonds.
But the two winning game pieces were already in the hands of Jerry Jacobson.
He gave one to his trusted recruiter, Glomb, putting the former drug trafficker on the FBIs radar for the first time, and the other to Baker.
I got to have some kind of deposit, Jacobson told Baker, in a phone call recorded by the FBI.
My words not good enough, huh? said Baker.
Your word is good, Jacobson said. Are you willing to back it up, though?
Yeah, I'll back it up.
Baker had other problems. His sister-in-law Phenis had flown to California to receive her $500,000 prize directly from Simon Marketing. Baker and his wife had spent days staking out the Indianapolis International Airport, watching every incoming flight for her return. On July 20, when Phenis finally strolled into arrivals, the Bakers accosted her and found she had $20,ooo in cash and a cashiers check for $480,000. Their tense confrontation was filmed by an undercover team of local FBI agents.
Driving to a quiet corner of Corbin, Kentucky, Baker handed Jacobson a McDonalds paper bag containing $70,000 in cash, as payment for the next winning ticket. Baker planned to pass the ticket to his last winner, Ronnie Hughey, who had recruited his man in Texas to win. Listening in to their call, Dent ran his finger down a list of numbers recently dialed by Hughey. The only Texas number belonged to Hugheys brother-in-law, a construction manager in Granbury named John Davis.
On Sunday, July 22, at 10 a.m., two FBI surveillance teams tailed Baker and Jacobson to a secluded area in a South Carolina town, ironically named Fair Play. But the dense, woodland area prevented them from witnessing the transfer. Agents then followed Baker to Hugheys home in Anderson, where they believed he passed him the $1 million winning game piece. Eight days later, Dent received a call from Amy Murray. Someone had claimed the $1 million, she said. Dent interrupted her. He asked if the winners name was John Davis.
Yes, she said.
From Granbury, Texas?
By giving the go-ahead to run the game, McDonalds CEO Jack Greenberg had allowed the feds to discover Glomb and his network of million-dollar winners. I would do it again, Greenberg said. What we found out allowed the FBI to complete its investigation. Knowing that juries are convinced by splashy stings, the FBI asked McDonalds to help them trap the suspects. Together with Amy Murray, they cooked up a plan to invite every corrupt winner to Las Vegas for a winner reunion, where the FBI would bust them all at once. But they decided against the idea. It was just as effective to shoot fake McDonalds commercials, trapping Glombs final winner, Michael Hoover, at his home in Rhode Island.
Nineteen days later, on August 22, 2001, the FBI fanned out and made eight arrests, including Dwight and Linda Baker, John Davis, Andrew Glomb, Michael Hoover, Ronald Hughey, and Brenda Phenis. In a pre-dawn raid, FBI agents surrounded Jacobsons red-brick home, crept up the garden path and knocked on his door. A shocked Jacobson was taken away in handcuffs and charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud, his bond set a staggering $1 million. Staff at Simon Marketing were left in disbelief. How could the man who searched their shoes be guilty of theft?
The arrests created a media sensation, and Attorney General John Ashcroft told the press: Those involved in this type of corruption will find out that breaking the law is no game. Americans were shocked that McDonalds customers had been duped for so long. Jeffrey Harris, a former Deputy Attorney General, complained to CNN: People that were buying the hamburgers, all they were getting at this point was cholesterol. Meanwhile, Jacobson became the butt of the medias jokes: Are you worried the police are going to take him down the station and give him a grilling? one newscaster asked. Im sorry, I couldnt resist.
During his six-hour interrogation, agent Dent presented Jacobson with their evidence. For over 12 years, Jacobsons scheme had existed only in his mind. Now his crooked plan was a chart on FBI stationery. But Jacobson still thought he had his ace in the hole. In the weeks that followed, he provided the FBI with documents he claimed proved that Simon Marketing rigged McDonalds contests to bilk Canadian customers. A source close to Jacobson told CNN that he also hoped to use his St. Judes million dollar donation to try and score a reduced prison sentence. But investigators believed he mailed the game piece to the hospital as a lark, after failing to recruit a winner in time for the contest deadline. (Jacobson declined to be interviewed for this article. Most of his story comes from court documents.)
With each of Jacobsons nine charges carrying a five year penalty, investigators warned him hed be 104 on his release date. I wouldnt be getting out, he told them, because he had multiple sclerosis. In exchange for a signed confession and his testimony in court, Jacobson pleaded guilty to three counts for a total of 15 years. The government also took everything he owned. Back in Lawrenceville, his neighbors watched as agents drove away in his brand new Honda S2000 sports car, and other vehicles including a luxury Acura, a minivan, and an 86 Chevy El Camino.
McDonalds CEO Jack Greenberg told the country in a television address that the company had immediately terminated its relationship with Simon Marketing. In Los Angeles, staff silently packed up their desks as the company dissolved. McDonalds is committed to giving our customers a chance to win every dollar that has been stolen by this criminal ring. Greenberg said later, in a somber television commercial in which McDonalds unveiled a special $10 million instant giveaway, and asked for a second chance. To ensure winners were truly chosen at random, there were no game pieces or prize boards. Instead, a prize patrol tapped random customers on the shoulder. McDonalds, who declined to comment for this article, also quietly honored the $1 million prize sent to the hospital, which was spent on treatment for kids battling cancer and other terminal diseases.
The colorful court case, held in Jacksonville, Florida, started September 10, 2001, the day before terrorists crashed planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. The stunned news media quickly forgot about the McDonalds trial, which explains why so few Americans remember the scandal, or how it ended. During the trial, jurors watched defendants celebrating in McDonalds commercials, including the fake one filmed by the FBI. Glomb recalled that the victim of the McSting, Michael Hoover, told him that he thought Amy Murray kind of liked me, before learning she was part of an FBI operation.
More than 50 defendants were convicted of mail fraud and conspiracy. Jacobsons super-recruiters, Schwartz, Hart, Couturier, and Glomb were sentenced to a year and one day in prison, and handed huge fines. Baker recalled that one of the FBIs top agents, known as the human lie-detector, interrogated him, and added that if the FBI had focused on surveilling terrorists not McDonalds winners, 9/11 might never have happened. Baker, who was excommunicated from the Mormon church, his wife Linda, her sister Brenda Phenis, and the dozens of other winners received only probation and are still paying back their prize money at $50 a month. Four winners, including Bakers foster son, Chandler, had their convictions overturned by an appeals court, who agreed they were duped by recruiters.
Richard Couturier, who was sleeping in his car at the time of the trail, told the court that a man he believed was in the Mafia warned him not to mention Don Harts name to investigators. He said he feared getting whacked. Then, just before the judge announced her sentence, Robin Colombo caught a glimpse of her lawyers paperwork, and saw she was going back to prison. She screamed and made a desperate dash for the exit, and reached an outer corridor before marshals overpowered her. She was sentenced to 18 months. Behind bars, she discovered the Bible and wrote her life story, From a Mafia Widow to Child of God. She was later reunited with her son, Frankie, who did not join the mob.
Jacobson took the stand dressed in a blue golf shirt, looking tired and gray. One attorney described him as a gigantic master criminal, before he admitted to stealing up to 60 game pieces over a dozen years, totaling over $24 million in prizes. All I can tell you is I made the biggest mistake of my life, he said quietly, before agreeing to pay $12.5 million in restitution. The judge sent him to jail for 37 months. He did not pass go. But before leaving the court he shook hands with the man who brought him to justice. Perhaps Jacobson saw in Richard Dent the man he could have been, a steely-minded detective. Dent, who declined to be interviewed for this article because he does not speak to the media, quietly returned to his work on white collar crime, and is now retired.
McDonalds sued Simon Marketing, who counter-sued. A group of Burger King restaurants tried to get a class act lawsuit together, so did a group of unhappy McDonalds customers in Canada. The Monopoly game had demonstrated the evils of chasing riches at the expense of others, but the saga also proved that strange things happen when people conspire to cheat fate. Gennaro Colombo won a car using a stolen prize ticket and died in a car wreck. And when lady luck regained control of the McDonalds competitions, she handed winning tickets to a man wearing a full Pizza Hut uniform; a Taco Bell owner; and a former homeless man who was later charged with beating up his fiancea PR nightmare.
An audit of newspaper archives from Jacobsons reign turned up some other, interesting wins. In 1986 a cop in Florida struggling with unpaid bills told reporters how he found a winning McDonalds game piece in his squad car. A year later, a family living just 43 miles from Jacobsons home won $250,000. Then theres the imposter M&M candy, like the one in Robin Colombos freezer. In 1997, a newspaper reported that a college student in Florida won the $1 million prize, somehow finding the gray-colored M&M before Mars even announced the contest. The boys father, a Baptist, said that if his son had spent his money on a lottery ticket, he would have been sinning. The Lord doesnt approve of gambling, he said. But a candy contest is something different. The winner and his family did not answer enquiries sent to their home in the Carolinas, not far from the golden triangle of Jacobsons phony winners.
Not long ago, I spoke to Glomb, one of Jacobsons super recruiters. He was philosophical about his conviction. Im not one of those people who are mad at [the FBI], he said. It was a game, and I lost. Glomb says he still speaks with Jacobson, who is 76 and in poor health, but living a quiet life in Georgia. I hate to say it but Id probably do it again for the same reason, Glomb said, rakishly. Every time I talk to Jacobson, I always tease him, I say, You got any tickets?Read More
As true-crime obsessives already know, last Friday Netflix dropped The Staircase, a docu-series chronicling the 2001 death of Kathleen Peterson and the subsequent murder trial of her husband, Michael. While the project followed a long and circuitous route to the streaming giant—it originally premiered in the US on the Sundance Channel in 2005, then received a two-hour follow-up in 2013, all before Netflix packaged it together and added some new footage—it immediately became a word-of-mouth sensation.
If you’ve binge-watched all 628 minutes, you might be tempted to think that the big question is: Did Michael Peterson kill his wife, or did Kathleen Peterson fall down the stairs? But whenever there's fervent interest in a murder case, there are often alternative theories—and one very popular hypothesis that you didn’t see in Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s series posits that there was a third party involved in Kathleen’s death: an owl.
Preposterous? It depends on who you ask.
The Raptor Motion
"The first time I heard about the Owl Theory I said to myself, 'That's totally stupid!'" says de Lestrade, who has spent the past 16 years following Michael Peterson’s life both in and outside of prison. "But later, Larry Pollard explained to me in a very effective way what he thought could have happened.”
"Larry," also known as T. Lawrence Pollard, is a lawyer and former Peterson neighbor, and the primary architect of the Owl Theory. In 2009, Pollard filed a motion requesting that Peterson’s conviction be set aside and all charges dismissed or that he be granted a new trial based on the discovery of "new and compelling evidence" that the real culprit in Mrs. Peterson's death was a raptor, or bird of prey. Included in his 40-point motion, Pollard stated:
- The "Owl Theory" was advanced to the Defendant’s lawyers and the Prosecution at the conclusion of the trial, namely, that Mrs. Peterson may have been the victim of an attack by a wild bird outside her house, an attack which caused puncture wounds to her elbows, injuries on her face and around her eyes, and lacerations to her scalp. The theory was dismissed at the time on the basis that owls do not attack human beings and that the theory lacked credibility.
Among the physical evidence Pollard believed backed his claim was "the presence of blood droplets on the brick walkway and the slate landing outside the home" as well as "the existence of feathers attached to Mrs. Peterson's hair and found by the medical examiner clutched in her left hand with fresh blood."
In a Netflix bonus feature (see below), Peterson’s attorney David Rudolf makes clear that he believed there was enough evidence to warrant further investigation into whether an owl could’ve done it. "The only real difference, if you will, between our theory at trial and the Owl Theory is the initial infliction of the wounds," he says.
Testing the Theory
According to Rudolf, the first time he was presented with the theory "was a day or two before the closing, [so] I couldn’t do anything with it." Had the case been retried, Rudolf says he absolutely would have delved further into its plausibility.
"I consulted with Dr. Carla Dove, the chief ornithologist from the Smithsonian Institution in DC, who agreed to do DNA testing on the feathers," Rudolf says. Larry Pollard also consulted others, including a neurosurgeon, a professor of veterinary medicine, and Kate P. Davis, executive director of Raptors of the Rockies. ("All three agreed that the wounds on Kathleen’s scalp were consistent with an owl attack," Rudolf says. All three also provided Pollard with affidavits.)
In Davis' mind, there’s no question that a raptor was involved. Within just a few minutes of getting a call from Sophie Brunet, editor of The Staircase—who became romantically involved with Peterson during the course of production—Davis conducted a simple experiment. She grabbed a metal salad bowl from her kitchen, covered it with and eighth of an inch of clay, went out to where her own barred owl, Graham, lived, then “picked her up over my head and dropped her on that salad bowl.” She took pictures of the resulting talon marks and sent them to Sophie, who confirmed that they matched Kathleen’s injuries.
When Davis, who has had plenty of personal experience with talon marks on her own body, saw the photos of Kathleen’s injuries, she agreed that they were a match. "I bet my bottom dollar that Kathleen, after the partying and all that, went outside to move some Christmas decorations, the owl hit her in the back of the head, she pulled it off with her hands—[which is how she] got the feathers and poke holes in the side of her face—and dropped it, and that’s why there’s blood outside,” Davis says.
But Davis also maintains that the owl wasn't the direct cause of death. "She was compromised to begin with, she’s walking up these steep stairs, she’s feeling woozy," she says of Kathleen Peterson. "She fell in the staircase twice."
Yet Daniel George, a now-retired crime scene technician with the Durham City Police Department who was the first technician on the scene in 2001, doesn’t believe that there was any fall at all—partly because of where the blood was and where the body was. "There was nothing up on the steps themselves," says George, who recently recounted the experience for An American Murder Mystery: The Staircase, Investigation Discovery's own special on the Peterson trial. "There’s 19 steps, but no blood any further than five feet up the steps."
"The amount of blood is really troubling, yes, but how do you explain the type of cuts and lacerations she [had]?" asks de Lestrade. "I don’t know what happened the night Kathleen Peterson died, but I have hard time believing that’s a murder. It is very difficult to explain Kathleen Peterson's injuries if it is a murder. That's why, today, I believe the Owl Theory may be the best theory to explain what happened to Kathleen."
Not So Fast
Though owls have been known to swoop and injure people (earlier this year, there were at least three incidents in Atlanta), hearing of the Peterson case was the first time the idea of a "killer" owl occurred to ornithologist Dove. "It’s not something I would even think about," she says. "But then somebody showed me a video of an owl attacking this big man. I have no idea one way or the other. I’m not saying I’ve ever heard of it happening—I certainly haven’t. I don’t really know."
Though Dove consulted with both Peterson’s legal team and the filmmakers of The Staircase, she never had a chance to examine the actual evidence in the case—only photos. And that's not enough. "When we do the identification work, we do it from fragments of feathers," Dove says. "We need the fluffy, downy part, which is the fuzzy part at the base."
The pictures she saw of the feather samples, though, were inconclusive, and couldn't even point her to a particular taxonomic order of birds, let alone a narrower group or family. "We offered to go down there and go through the evidence to see if we could find more feather fragments," she says, "but it never materialized."
As for whether there could have been an owl present, George admits that while investigating the staircase itself, they did find “one item in particular that was maybe a sixteenth of an inch long—it was a curved shape and it looked almost like a mini-talon. We didn’t know what it was."
Yet the item, which was shipped off to the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) to be tested, didn't have any blood on it. "It could have been a piece of a fingernail, it could have been a dog’s toenail, it could have been anything," George says. "It could have been a piece of wood that was on the steps."
While many owl theorists have pointed to the fact that the injuries to Kathleen’s head were deep but did not leave her with any deeper skull or brain damage—which would be expected with the blunt force trauma Michael was accused of inflicting on his wife—George says they were still "down to the skull … it certainly didn’t look like anything an owl could have done. It almost looked like it was cut. But the medical examiner determined that those lacerations were caused by a brutal beating of blunt force trauma to the skull."
Still, Dove and her team saw enough reasonable evidence in the photo to agree to examine the evidence more thoroughly. "We’re professionals and we’ll examine anything that’s reasonable," she says. (Except maybe the time they received a request to examine some angel feathers; "that was a little bit far-fetched for me," she admits.)
In early March 2017—less than a week after Michael Peterson entered an Alford plea to involuntary manslaughter—North Carolina’s WRAL.com reported that Rudolf had filed a motion to obtain the feather fragments from evidence so that they could be sent on to Dove for further testing. But the money dried up. "Once the case was concluded," he says, "there was no funding to test the feathers."
Given all the uncertainty, the biggest question surrounding The Staircase might actually be: In more than 10 hours, why did the series not mention such an insane-sounding, but still plausible, theory? De Lestrade’s answer is simple: "I decided to keep it out of the film because it was never presented in court. I wanted to stick to Michael Peterson's judicial journey. I just wanted to present how the legal system will treat the case.”
Could there be another feather left in his documentary cap? Hoo knows.
More Great WIRED Stories
- PHOTO ESSAY: Spot the hidden images in these psychedelic landscapes
- These physicists watched a clock tick for 14 years straight
- Apple's plans to bring artificial intelligence to your phone
- It's time to get excited about the future of PCs. (Yes, PCs.)
- 4Chan is turning 15—and remains the internet's teenager
- Looking for more? Sign up for our daily newsletter and never miss our latest and greatest stories
When the DNA results came back, even Lukis Anderson thought he might have committed the murder.
"I drink a lot," he remembers telling public defender Kelley Kulick as they sat in a plain interview room at the Santa Clara County, California, jail. Sometimes he blacked out, so it was possible he did something he didn't remember. "Maybe I did do it."
Kulick shushed him. If she was going to keep her new client off death row, he couldn't go around saying things like that. But she agreed. It looked bad.
Before he was charged with murder, Anderson was a 26-year-old homeless alcoholic with a long rap sheet who spent his days hustling for change in downtown San Jose. The murder victim, Raveesh Kumra, was a 66-year-old investor who lived in Monte Sereno, a Silicon Valley enclave 10 miles and many socioeconomic rungs away.
Around midnight on November 29, 2012, a group of men had broken into Kumra's 7,000-square-foot mansion. They found him watching CNN in the living room, tied him, blindfolded him, and gagged him with mustache-print duct tape. They found his companion, Harinder, asleep in an upstairs bedroom, hit her on the mouth, and tied her up next to Raveesh. Then they plundered the house for cash and jewelry.
After the men left, Harinder, still blindfolded, felt her way to a kitchen phone and called 911. Police arrived, then an ambulance. One of the paramedics declared Raveesh dead. The coroner would later conclude that he had been suffocated by the mustache tape.
Three and a half weeks later, the police arrested Anderson. His DNA had been found on Raveesh's fingernails. They believed the men struggled as Anderson tied up his victim. They charged him with murder. Kulick was appointed to his case.
As they looked at the DNA results, Anderson tried to make sense of a crime he had no memory of committing.
"Nah, nah, nah. I don't do things like that," he recalls telling her. "But maybe I did."
"Lukis, shut up," Kulick says she told him. "Let's just hit the pause button till we work through the evidence to really see what happened."
What happened, although months would pass before anyone figured it out, was that Lukis Anderson's DNA had found its way onto the fingernails of a dead man he had never even met.
Back in the 1980s, when DNA forensic analysis was still in its infancy, crime labs needed a speck of bodily fluid—usually blood, semen, or spit—to generate a genetic profile.
That changed in 1997, when Australian forensic scientist Roland van Oorschot stunned the criminal justice world with a nine-paragraph paper titled "DNA Fingerprints from Fingerprints." It revealed that DNA could be detected not just from bodily fluids but from traces left by a touch. Investigators across the globe began scouring crime scenes for anything—a doorknob, a countertop, a knife handle—that a perpetrator may have tainted with incriminating "touch" DNA.
But van Oorschot's paper also contained a vital observation: Some people's DNA appeared on things that they had never touched.
In the years since, van Oorschot's lab has been one of the few to investigate this phenomenon, dubbed "secondary transfer." What they have learned is that, once it's out in the world, DNA doesn't always stay put.
In one of his lab's experiments, for instance, volunteers sat at a table and shared a jug of juice. After 20 minutes of chatting and sipping, swabs were deployed on their hands, the chairs, the table, the jug, and the juice glasses, then tested for genetic material. Although the volunteers never touched each other, 50 percent wound up with another's DNA on their hand. A third of the glasses bore the DNA of volunteers who did not touch or drink from them.
Then there was the foreign DNA—profiles that didn't match any of the juice drinkers. It turned up on about half of the chairs and glasses, and all over the participants' hands and the table. The only explanation: The participants unwittingly brought with them alien genes, perhaps from the lover they kissed that morning, the stranger with whom they had shared a bus grip, or the barista who handed them an afternoon latte.
In a sense, this isn't surprising: We leave a trail of ourselves everywhere we go. An average person may shed upward of 50 million skin cells a day. Attorney Erin Murphy, author of Inside the Cell, a book about forensic DNA, has calculated that in two minutes the average person sheds enough skin cells to cover a football field. We also spew saliva, which is packed with DNA. If we stand still and talk for 30 seconds, our DNA may be found more than a yard away. With a forceful sneeze, it might land on a nearby wall.
To find out the prevalence of DNA in the world, a group of Dutch researchers tested 105 public items—escalator rails, public toilet door handles, shopping basket handles, coins. Ninety-one percent bore human DNA, sometimes from half a dozen people. Even items intimate to us—the armpits of our shirts, say—can bear other people's DNA, they found.
The itinerant nature of DNA has serious implications for forensic investigations. After all, if traces of our DNA can make their way to a crime scene we never visited, aren't we all possible suspects?
Forensic DNA has other flaws: Complex mixtures of many DNA profiles can be wrongly interpreted, certainty statistics are often wildly miscalculated, and DNA analysis robots have sometimes been stretched past the limits of their sensitivity.
But as advances in technology are solving some of these problems, they have actually made the problem of DNA transfer worse. Each new generation of forensic tools is more sensitive; labs today can identify people with DNA from just a handful of cells. A handful of cells can easily migrate.
A survey of the published science, interviews with leading scientists, and a review of thousands of pages of court and police documents associated with the Kumra case has elucidated how secondary DNA transfer can undermine the credibility of the criminal justice system's most-trusted tool. And yet, very few crime labs worldwide regularly and robustly study secondary DNA transfer.
This is partly because most forensic scientists believe DNA to be the least of their field's problems. They're not wrong: DNA is the most accurate forensic science we have. It has exonerated scores of people convicted based on more flawed disciplines like hair or bite-mark analysis. And there have been few publicized cases of DNA mistakenly implicating someone in a crime.
But, like most human enterprises, DNA analysis is not perfect. And without study, the scope and impact of that imperfection is difficult to assess, says Peter Gill, a British forensic researcher. He has little doubt that his field, so often credited with solving crimes, is also responsible for wrongful convictions.
"The problem is we're not looking for these things," Gill says. "For every miscarriage of justice that is detected, there must be a dozen that are never discovered."
The phone rang five times.
"Are you awake?" the dispatcher asked.
"Yeah," lied Corporal Erin Lunsford.
"Are you back on full duty or you still light duty?" she asked, according to a tape of the call.
Lunsford had been off crutches for two weeks already, but it was 2:15 am and pouring rain. Probably some downed tree needed to be policed. "Light duty," Lunsford said.
"Oh," she said. "Never mind."
"Why, what are you calling about?" he asked.
"We had a home invasion that turned into a 187," she said. Cop slang for murder.
"Shit, seriously?" Lunsford said, waking up.
Lunsford had served all 15 of his professional years as a police officer at the Los Gatos–Monte Sereno Police Department, a 38-officer agency that policed two drowsy towns. He rose through the ranks and was working a stint in the department's detective bureau. He had mostly been investigating property crimes. Los Gatos, a wealthy bedroom community of Silicon Valley, averaged a homicide once every three or four years. Monte Sereno, a bedroom community of the bedroom community, hadn't had a homicide in roughly 20.
Lunsford got dressed. He drove through the November torrent. He spotted cop cars clustered around a brick and iron gate. An ambulance flashed quietly in the driveway. Beyond it, the lit Kumra mansion.
Lunsford's boss told him to take the lead on the investigation. The on-scene supervisor walked him through the house. Dressers emptied, files dumped. A cellphone in a toilet, pissed on. A refrigerator beeping every 10 seconds, announcing its doors were ajar. Raveesh’s body, heavyset and disheveled, on the floor near the kitchen. His eyes still blindfolded.
An investigator from the county coroner's office arrived and moved Kumra's body into a van. Lunsford followed her to the morgue for the autopsy. A doctor undressed the victim and scraped and cut his fingernails for evidence.
Lunsford recognized Raveesh, a wealthy businessman who had once owned a share of a local concert venue. Lunsford had come to the Kumra mansion a couple times on "family calls" that never amounted to anything: "Just people arguing," he recalled. He had also run into him at Goguen's Last Call, a dive frequented by Raveesh as a regular and Lunsford as a cop responding to calls. Raveesh was an affable extrovert, always buying rounds; the unofficial mayor of that part of town, Lunsford called him.
In the coming days, as Lunsford interviewed people who knew the Kumras, he was told that Raveesh also had relationships with sex workers. Raveesh and Harinder had divorced around 2010 after more than 30 years of marriage, but still lived together.
While Lunsford attended the autopsy, a team of gloved investigators combed the mansion. They tucked paper evidence into manila envelopes; bulkier items into brown paper bags. They amassed more than 100.
Teams specializing in crime scene investigations were first assembled over a century ago, after the French scientist Edmond Locard devised the principle that birthed the field of forensics: A perpetrator will bring something to a crime scene and leave with something from it. Van Oorschot's touch DNA discovery had unveiled the most literal expression imaginable of Locard's principle.
Like those early teams, the investigators in the Kumra mansion were looking for fingerprints, footprints, and hair. But unlike their predecessors, they devoted considerable time to thinking through everything the perpetrators may have touched.
Some perpetrators are giving thought to this as well. A 2013 Canadian study of 350 sexual homicides found that about a third of perpetrators appeared to have taken care not to leave DNA, killing their victims in tidier ways than beating or strangling, which are likely to leave behind genetic clues, for instance. And it worked: In those "forensically aware" cases, police solved the case 50 percent of the time, compared to 83 percent of their sloppier counterparts.
The men who killed Kumra seemed somewhat forensically aware, albeit clumsily. They had worn latex gloves through their rampage; a pile of them were left in the kitchen sink, wet and soapy, as though someone had tried to wash off the DNA.
In the weeks after the murder, Tahnee Nelson Mehmet, a criminalist at the county crime lab, ran dozens of tests on the evidence collected from the Kumra mansion. Most only revealed DNA profiles consistent with Raveesh or Harinder.
But in her first few batches of evidence, Mehmet hit forensic pay dirt: a handful of unknown profiles—including on the washed gloves. She ran them through the state database of people arrested for or convicted of felonies and got three hits, all from the Bay Area: 22-year-old DeAngelo Austin on the duct tape; 21-year-old Javier Garcia on the gloves; and, on the fingernail clippings, 26-year-old Lukis Anderson.
Within weeks of the DNA hits, Lunsford had plenty of evidence implicating Austin and Garcia: Both were from Oakland, but a warrant for their cellphone records showed they'd pinged towers near Monte Sereno the night of the homicide. Police records showed that Austin belonged to a gang linked to a series of home burglaries. And most damning of all, Austin's older sister, a 32-year-old sex worker named Katrina Fritz, had been involved with Raveesh for 12 years. Police had even found her phone backed up on Raveesh's computer. Eventually she would admit that she had given her brother a map of the house.
Connecting Anderson to the crime proved trickier. There were no phone records showing he had traveled to Monte Sereno that night. He wasn't associated with a gang. But one thing on his rap sheet drew Lunsford's attention: A felony residential burglary.
Eventually Lunsford found a link. A year earlier, Anderson had been locked up in the same jail as a friend of Austin's named Shawn Hampton. Hampton wore an ankle monitor as a condition of his parole. It showed that two days before the crime he had driven to San Jose. He made a couple of stops downtown, right near Anderson's territory.
It started to crystallize for Lunsford: When Austin was planning the break-in, he wanted a local guy experienced in burglary. So Hampton hooked him up with his jail buddy Anderson.
Anderson had recently landed back in jail after violating his probation on the burglary charge. Lunsford and his boss, Sergeant Mike D'Antonio, visited him there. They taped the interview.
"Does this guy look familiar to you? What about this lady?" Lunsford said, laying out pictures of the victims on the interview room table.
"I don't know, man," Anderson said.
Lunsford pulled out a picture of Anderson's mother.
"All right, what about this lady here? You don't know who she is?" Lunsford said.
Anderson met Lunsford's sarcasm with silence.
Lunsford set down a letter from the state of California showing the database match between Anderson's DNA and the profile found on the victim's fingernails.
"This starting to ring some bells?" Lunsford said.
"My guess is you didn't think anybody was gonna be home," D'Antonio said. "My guess is it went way farther than you ever thought it would go."
"I don't know what you're talking about, sir," Anderson said.
"You do," Lunsford said. "You won't look at their pictures. The only picture you looked at good was your mom."
Finally, D'Antonio took a compromising tone.
"Lukis, Lukis, Lukis," he said. "I don't have a crystal ball to know what the truth is. Only you do. And in all the years I've been doing this I've never seen a DNA hit being wrong."
Anderson had been in jail on the murder charge for over a month when a defense investigator dropped a stack of records on Kulick's desk. Look at them, the investigator said. Now.
They were Anderson's medical records. Because his murder charge could carry the death penalty, Kulick had the investigator pull everything pertinent to Anderson's medical history, including his mental health, in case they had to ask for leniency during sentencing.
She suspected Anderson could be a good candidate for such leniency. He spent much of his childhood homeless. In early adulthood, he was diagnosed with a mental health disorder and diabetes. And he had developed a mighty alcohol addiction. One day, while drunk, he stepped off a curb and into the path of a moving truck. He survived, but his memory was never quite right again. He lost track of days, sometimes several in a row.
That's not to say his life was bleak. He made friends easily. He had a coy sense of humor and dimples that shone like headlights. His buddies, many on the streets themselves, looked after him, as did some downtown shopkeepers. Kulick and her investigator had spoken to several of them. They shook their heads. Anderson might be a drunk, they said, but he wasn't a killer.
His rap sheet seemed to agree. It was filled with petty crimes: drunk in public, riding a bike under the influence, probation violations. The one serious conviction—the residential burglary that had caught Lunsford's attention—seemed more benign upon careful reading. According to the police report, Anderson had drunkenly broken the front window of a home and tried to crawl through. The horrified resident had pushed him back out with blankets. Police found him a few minutes later standing on the sidewalk, dazed and bleeding. Though nothing had been stolen, he had been charged with a felony and pleaded no contest. His DNA was added to the state criminal database.
The medical records showed that Anderson was also a regular in county hospitals. Most recently, he had arrived in an ambulance to Valley Medical Center, where he was declared inebriated nearly to the point of unconsciousness. Blood alcohol tests indicated he had consumed the equivalent of 21 beers. He spent the night detoxing. The next morning he was discharged, somewhat more sober.
The date on that record was November 29. If the record was right, Anderson had been in the hospital precisely as Raveesh Kumra was suffocating on duct tape miles away.
Kulick remembers turning to the investigator, who was staring back at her. She was used to alibis being partial and difficult to prove. This one was signed by hospital staff. More than anything, she felt terrified. "To know that you have a factually innocent client sitting in jail facing the death penalty is really scary," she said later. "You don't want to screw up."
She knew Lunsford and the prosecutors would try to find holes: Perhaps the date on the record was wrong, or someone had stolen his ID, or there was more than one Lukis Anderson.
So she and the investigator systematically retraced his day. Anderson had only patchy recollections of the night in question. But they found a record that a 7-Eleven clerk called authorities at 7:54 pm complaining that Anderson was panhandling. He moved on before the police arrived.
His meanderings took him four blocks east, to S&S Market. The clerk there told Kulick that Anderson sat down in front of the store at about 8:15 pm, already drunk, and got drunker. A couple of hours later, he wandered into the store and collapsed in an aisle. The clerk called the authorities.
The police arrived first, followed by a truck from the San Jose Fire Department. A paramedic with the fire department told Kulick he had picked up Anderson drunk so often that he knew his birth date by heart. Two other paramedics arrived with an ambulance. They wrestled Anderson onto a stretcher and took him to the hospital. According to his medical records, he was admitted at 10:45 pm. The doctor who treated him said Anderson remained in bed through the night.
Harinder Kumra had said the men who killed Raveesh rampaged through her house sometime between 11:30 pm and 1:30 am.
Kulick called the district attorney's office. She wanted to meet with them and Lunsford.
In 2008, German detectives were on the trail of the "Phantom of Heilbronn." A serial killer and thief, the Phantom murdered immigrants and a cop, robbed a gemstone trader, and munched on a cookie while burglarizing a caravan. Police mobilized across borders, offered a large reward, and racked up more than 16,000 hours on the hunt. But they struggled to discern a pattern to the crimes, other than the DNA profile the Phantom left at 40 crime scenes in Germany, France, and Austria.
At long last, they found the Phantom: An elderly Polish worker in a factory that produced the swabs police used to collect DNA. She had somehow contaminated the swabs as she worked. Crime scene investigators had, in turn, contaminated dozens of crime scenes with her DNA.
Contamination, the unintentional introduction of DNA into evidence by the very people investigating the crime, is the best understood form of transfer. And after Lunsford heard Kulick's presentation—then retraced Anderson's day himself, concluded he had jailed an innocent man, and felt sick to his stomach for a while—he counted contamination among his leading theories.
As the Phantom of Heilbronn case demonstrated, contamination can happen long before evidence arrives in a lab. A 2016 study by Gill, the British forensic researcher, found DNA on three-quarters of crime scene tools he tested, including cameras, measuring tapes, and gloves. Those items can pick up DNA at one scene and move it to the next.
Once it arrives in the lab, the risk continues: One set of researchers found stray DNA in even the cleanest parts of their lab. Worried that the very case files they worked on could be a source of contamination, they tested 20. Seventy-five percent held the DNA of people who hadn't handled the file.
In Santa Clara County, the district attorney's office reviewed the Kumra case and found no obvious evidence of errors or improper use of tools in the crime lab. They checked if Anderson's DNA had shown up in any other cases the lab had recently handled, and inadvertently wandered into the Kumra case. It had not.
So they began investigating a second theory: That Raveesh and Anderson somehow met in the hours or days before the homicide, at which point Anderson's DNA became caught under Raveesh's fingernails.
"We are convinced that at some point—we just don't know when in the 24 hours, 48 hours, or 72 hours beforehand—that their paths crossed," deputy district attorney Kevin Smith told a San Francisco Chronicle reporter.
There now exists a small pile of studies exploring how DNA moves: If a man shakes someone's hand and then uses the restroom, could their DNA wind up on his penis? (Yes.) If someone drags another person by the ankles, how often does their profile clearly show up? (40 percent of the time.) And, of utmost relevance to Lukis Anderson, how many of us walk around with traces of other people's DNA on our fingernails? (1 in 5.)
Whether someone's DNA moves from one place to another—and then is found there—depends on a handful of factors: quantity (two transferred cells are less likely to be detected than 2,000), vigor of contact (a limp handshake relays less DNA than a bone-crushing one), the nature of the surfaces involved (a tabletop's chemical content affects how much DNA it picks up), and elapsed time (we're more likely carrying DNA of someone we just hugged than someone we hugged hours ago, since foreign DNA tends to rub off over time).
Then there's a person's shedding status: "Good" shedders lavish their DNA on their environment; "poor" shedders move through the world virtually undetectable, genetically speaking. In general, flaky, sweaty, or diseased skin is thought to shed more DNA than healthy, arid skin. Nail chewers, nose pickers, and habitual face touchers spread their DNA around, as do hands that haven't seen a bar of soap lately—discarded DNA can accumulate over time, and soap helps wash it away.
And some people simply seem to be naturally superior shedders. Mariya Goray, a forensic science researcher in van Oorschot's lab who coauthored the juice study with him, has found one of her colleagues to be an outrageously prodigious shedder. "He's amazing," she said, her voice tinged with admiration. "Maybe I'll do a study on him. And the study will just be called, 'James.'"
She hopes to develop a test to determine a person's shedder status, which could be deployed to assess a suspect's claims that their DNA arrived somewhere innocently.
Such a test could have been useful in the case of David Butler, an English cabdriver. In 2011, DNA found on the fingernails of a woman who had been murdered six years earlier was run through a database and matched Butler's. He swore he'd never met the woman. His defense attorney noted that he had a skin condition so severe that fellow cabbies had dubbed him "Flaky." Perhaps he had given a ride to the actual murderer that day, who inadvertently picked up Butler's DNA in the cab and later deposited it on the victim, they theorized.
Investigators didn't buy the explanation, but jurors did. Butler was acquitted after eight months in jail. Upon release, he excoriated police for their blind faith in the evidence.
"DNA has become the magic bullet for the police," Butler told the BBC. "They thought it was my DNA, ergo it must be me."
Traditional police work would have never steered police to Anderson. But the DNA hit led them to seek other evidence confirming his guilt. "It wasn't malicious. It was confirmation bias," Kulick says. "They got the DNA, and then they made up a story to fit it."
Had the case gone to trial, jurors may well have done the same. A 2008 series of studies by researchers at the University of Nevada, Yale, and Claremont McKenna College found that jurors rated DNA evidence as 95 percent accurate and 94 percent persuasive of a suspect's guilt.
Eleven leading DNA transfer scientists contacted for this story were in consensus that the criminal justice system must be willing to question DNA evidence. They were also in agreement about whose job it should be to navigate those queries: forensic scientists.
As it stands, forensic scientists generally stick to the question of source (whose DNA is this?) and leave activity (how did it get here?) for judges and juries to wrestle with. But the researchers contend that forensic scientists are best armed with the information necessary to answer that question.
Consider a case in which a man is accused of sexually assaulting his stepdaughter. He looks mighty guilty when his DNA and a fragment of sperm is found on her underwear. But jurors might give the defense more credence if a forensic scientist familiarized them with a 2016 Canadian study showing that fathers' DNA is frequently found on their daughters' clean underwear; occasionally, a fragment of sperm is there too. It migrates there in the wash.
This shift—from reporting on who to reporting on how—has been encouraged by the European Network of Forensic Science Institutes. But the shift has been slow on that continent and virtually nonexistent in the United States, where defense attorneys have argued that forensic scientists—in many communities employed by the prosecutor's office or police department—should be careful to stick to the facts rather than make conjectures.
"The problem is that when forensic scientists get involved in those determinations, they're wrought with confirmation bias," says Jennifer Friedman, a Los Angeles County public defender.
Meanwhile, forensic scientists in the US have resisted the shift, arguing they lack the data to confidently testify about how DNA moves.
Van Oorschot and Gill concede this point. Only a handful of labs in Europe and Australia regularly research transfer. The forensic scientists interviewed for this story say they are not aware of any lab or university in the US that routinely does so.
Funding gets some of the blame: The Australian labs and some European labs get government dollars to study DNA transfer. But British forensic researcher and professor Georgina Meakin of University College London says she must find alternative ways to pay for her own transfer research; the Centre for Forensic Sciences, where Meakin works, has launched a crowdfunding page for a new lab to study trace evidence transfer. In the US, all the grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the National Institute of Justice for forensics research put together likely sum just $13.5 million a year, according to a 2016 report on forensic science by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST); of that, very little has been spent looking into DNA transfer.
"The folks with the greatest interest in making sure forensic science isn't misused are defendants," says Eric Lander, principal leader of the Human Genome Project, who cochaired PCAST under President Obama. "Defendants don't have an awful lot of power."
In 2009, after issuing a report harshly criticizing the paucity of science behind most forensics, the National Academy of Sciences urged Congress to create a new, independent federal agency to oversee the field. There was little political appetite to do that. Instead, in 2013, Obama created a 40-member National Commission on Forensic Science, filled it with people who saw forensics from radically different perspectives—prosecutors, defense attorneys, academics, lab analysts, and scientists—and made a rule that all actions must be approved by a supermajority. Naturally, the commission got off to a slow start. But ultimately it produced more than 40 recommendations and opinions. These lacked the teeth of a regulatory ruling, but the Justice Department was obligated to respond to them.
At the beginning, most of the commission's efforts were focused on improving other disciplines, "because DNA testing as a whole is so much better than much forensic science that we had focused a lot of our attention elsewhere," says US district judge Jed Rakoff, a member of the commission.
According to Rakoff and other members interviewed, the commission was just digging into issues touching on DNA transfer when attorney general Jeff Sessions took office last year. In April 2017, his department announced it would not renew the commission's charter. It never met again.
Then, in August, President Trump signed the Rapid DNA Act of 2017, allowing law enforcement to use new technology that produces DNA results in just 90 minutes. The bill had bipartisan support and received little press. But privacy advocates worry it may usher in an era of widespread "stop and spit" policing, in which law enforcement asks anyone they stop for a DNA sample. This is already occurring in towns in Florida, Connecticut, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, according to reporting by ProPublica. If law enforcement deems there is probable cause, they can compel someone to provide DNA; otherwise, it is voluntary.
If stop-and-spit becomes more widely used and police databases swell, it could have a disproportionate impact on African Americans and Latinos, who are more often searched, ticketed, and arrested by police. In most states, a felony arrest is enough to add someone in perpetuity to the state database. Just this month, the California Supreme Court declined to overturn a provision requiring all people arrested or charged for a felony to give up their DNA; in Oklahoma, the DNA of any undocumented immigrant arrested on suspicion of any crime is added to a database. Those whose DNA appears in a database face a greater risk of being implicated in a crime they didn't commit.
It was Lunsford who figured it out in the end.
He was reading through Anderson's medical records and paused on the names of the ambulance paramedics who picked up Anderson from his repose on the sidewalk outside S&S Market. He had seen them before.
He pulled up the Kumra case files. Sure enough, there were the names again: Three hours after picking up Anderson, the two paramedics had responded to the Kumra mansion, where they checked Raveesh's vitals.
The prosecutors, defense attorney, and police agree that somehow, the paramedics must have moved Anderson's DNA from San Jose to Monte Sereno. Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen has postulated that a pulse oximeter slipped over both patients' fingers may have been the culprit; Kulick thinks it could have been their uniforms or another piece of equipment. It may never be known for sure.
A spokesman for Rural/Metro Corporation, where the paramedics worked, told San Francisco TV station KPIX5 that the company had high sanitation standards, requiring paramedics to change gloves and sanitize the vehicles.
Deputy District Attorney Smith framed the incident as a freak accident. "It's a small world," he told a San Francisco Chronicle reporter.
The trial against the other men implicated in the case moved forward. Austin's older sister, Fritz, testified in trials against him and Garcia. She also testified against a third man, Marcellous Drummer, whose DNA had been found on evidence from the Kumra crime scene months after the initial hits.
During the trials, Harinder Kumra told jurors she was still haunted by the image of the man who split her lip open. "Every day I see that face. Every night when I sleep, when there's a noise, I think it's him," she said. She has sold the mansion. Members of the Kumra family declined to comment for this story.
The DNA in the case did not go uncontested. Garcia's attorney argued that, like Anderson's, Garcia's DNA had arrived at the scene inadvertently. According to the attorney, Austin had come by the trap house where Garcia hung out to pick up Garcia's cousin; the cousin was in on the crime and had borrowed a box of gloves that Garcia frequently used, which is why Garcia's DNA was found on the gloves at the crime scene; the reason Garcia's cellphone pinged towers near Monte Sereno was because his cousin had borrowed it that night. However, the cousin died within weeks of the crime, and therefore wasn't questioned or investigated.
Jurors were not persuaded and convicted Garcia, along with Drummer and Austin, of murder, robbery of an inhabited place, and false imprisonment.
"I get it," says Garcia's attorney Christopher Givens. "People hear DNA and say, oh, sure you loaned your phone to someone."
A jury could have had the same reaction to Anderson, had his alibi not been discovered, Givens says. "The sad thing is, I wouldn't be surprised if he actually pleaded to something. They probably would have offered him a deal, and he would have been scared enough to take it."
Garcia received a sentence of 37 years to life; Drummer and Austin's sentences were enhanced for gang affiliation to life without parole. Garcia and Austin have appeals pending. Fritz received a reduced sentence for her testimony. In 2017 she was released from jail after spending four years in custody.
Lunsford received accolades for his detective work in the Kumra case and has since been promoted to sergeant; his boss, D'Antonio, is now a captain. But Lunsford says his perspective on DNA has forever changed. "We shook hands, and I transferred on you, you transferred on me. It happens. It's just biological," he says.
Based on interviews with prosecutors, defense lawyers and DNA experts, Anderson's case is the clearest known case of DNA transference implicating an innocent man. It's impossible to say how often this kind of thing happens, but law enforcement officials argue that it is well outside the norm. "There is no piece of evidence or science which is absolutely perfect, but DNA is the closest we have," says District Attorney Rosen. "Mr. Anderson was a very unusual situation. We haven't come across it again."
Van Oorschot, the forensic science researcher whose 1997 paper revolutionized the field, cautions against disbelieving too much in the power of touch DNA to solve crimes. "I think it's made a huge impact in a positive way," he says. "But no one should ever rely solely on DNA evidence to judge what's going on."
Anderson's case has altered the criminal justice system in a small but important way, says Kulick.
"As defense attorneys, we used to get laughed out of the courtroom if in closing arguments we argued transfer," she says. "That was hocus-pocus. That was made up fiction. But Lukis showed us that it's real."
The cost of that demonstration was almost half a year of Anderson's life.
Being accused of murder was "gut-wrenching," he says. It pains him that he questioned his own innocence, even though, he says, "deep down I knew I didn't do it."
After he was released, Anderson returned to the streets. As is typical in cases where people are wrongly implicated in a crime, he received no compensation for his time in jail. He has continued to struggle with alcohol but has stayed out of major legal trouble since. He's applying for Social Security, which could help him finally secure housing.
Anderson feels certain he's not the only innocent person to be locked up because of transfer. He considers himself blessed by God to be free. And he has advice about DNA evidence: "There's more that's gotta be looked at than just the DNA," he says. "You've got to dig deeper a little more. Re-analyze. Do everything all over again … before you say 'this is what it is.' Because it may not necessarily be so."
Warning: This story includes graphic content.
The accusations were eventually addressed by a student court at George Washington University and have been buzzed about in Hollywood and stand-up circles for years.
He just tried a lot of things without asking me, and at no point asked me if I was all right, the woman told The Daily Beast. He choke[d] me, and I kept staring at his face hoping he would see that I was afraid and [that he] would stop I couldnt say anything.
Millers alleged victim, who asked to remain anonymous, said she is coming forward now in part because of the societal awakening to issues of sexual assault and harassment that has come in the aftermath of misconduct allegations that have rocked the entertainment industry. The Daily Beast is withholding her identity because of her fears of retribution. But for the purposes of this piece, we will call her Sarah.
Miller has told friends over the years that he was wrongfully accused. And in a statement to The Daily Beast, Miller and his wife, Kate, denied any wrongdoing. Instead, they cast themselves as the victims.
Sarah began again to circulate rumors online once [my and Kates] relationship became public. Sadly she is now using the current climate to bandwagon and launch these false accusations again, the Millers wrote. It is unfortunate that she is choosing this route as it undermines the important movement to make women feel safe coming forward about legitimate claims against real known predators.
But its not just Sarah who has come forward. The Daily Beast has corroborated details of her storywhich includes two separate incidentswith five GW contemporaries and spoke to numerous associates of both her and Miller.
Two of the GW contemporaries say they were in the off-campus house where the incidents allegedly occurred. The contemporaries later testified in student court about hearing the sound of violent thuds or seeing bruises on Sarah.
Three other contemporaries said they comforted and counseled Sarah in the aftermath of the incidents. Matt Lord was one of them. An ex-boyfriend of Sarahs, he told The Daily Beast that he continues to believe her story more than a decade after the fact.
I attended George Washington University for undergraduate studies from 2000 until December 2003… I had a romantic relationship with [this] woman, who spoke with me about T.J. Miller sexually assaulting her, Lord, who currently works as an attorney in Montague, Massachusetts, wrote in a statement to The Daily Beast. At the time I believed the statements she made regarding the assault by Mr. Miller, and I continue to believe the statements she made are true. She was engaged in student conduct proceedings regarding the sexual assault, and I remember the emotional toll that the assault and the subsequent conduct hearings placed on her.
In the years since, Miller has attempted to address the lingering allegations by occasionally making light of them. Hes privately joked about committing violence against a woman in his past, according to three sources in the comedy world. Perhaps that is why some female performers and comedy professionals tell The Daily Beast that they have declined to work with Miller, citing a perceived history of abusive behavior.
The incidents took place at GW where Miller was a student and Sarah was taking classes but not matriculating. They fell in with the same GW comedy troupe, receSs, during which time they struck up a relationship. I felt relatively safe with T.J. at the time, Sarah explained.
But months into their relationship, which started in the fall of 2001, Sarah said the first troubling encounter took place. She recalled having a lot to drink and admitted that there are parts of [the incident] I dont remember. She stressed that it is important to me to cop to that [and] Im not interested in forcing a pretend memory on anyone 15 years later, I remain terrified of accusing someone of something they didnt do, but I have a visual and physical memory of that.
However, Sarah said she has a distinct memory that as they were fooling around at her place, Miller began shaking me violently and punched her in the mouth during sex.
Sarah said that she woke up the following morning with a fractured tooth and a bloodied lip. When she asked Miller about it that morning, he claimed, according to Sarah, that she had simply fallen down drunkenly the past evening.
She was unsettled by the incident, but said that she did not know many people in D.C. and continued to see Miller. She had lost her virginity to him and, at least for a brief window, he was someone she trusted.
I couldnt bring myself [at the time] to believe this had happened, Sarah said. It was me not wanting it to be true.
A few days after the first incident, Sarah got word that she would no longer be participating in receSs. She was upset and disappointed and said that she called Miller to confide in him. She had not fully processed the first encounter, she said, and Miller was still someone she believed she could turn to in a time of stress and vulnerability.
They soon met at a college party, and left in a cab to head back to the apartment she had been renting with her roommates. When they arrived back at her home, they began to engage in consensual sexbut then Miller became violent again, Sarah said. She emphasized that she had not had more than two drinks that evening, and that her memory of the following five-hour ordeal was and is crystal-clear.
We started to fool around, and very early in that, he put his hands around my throat and closed them, and I couldnt breathe, she recalled. I was genuinely terrified and completely surprised. I understand now that this is for some people a kink, and I continue to believe it is [something] that should be entered into by consenting parties. But, as someone who had only begun having sexual encounters, like, about three months earlier, I had no awareness this was a kink, and I had certainly not entered into any agreement that I would be choked.
I was fully paralyzed, Sarah continued.
Sarah claimed that she was choking audiblyto the point that her roommates could hear what was happening and rushed over to knock on her bedroom door. Sarah said she then got up and walked to her door in a robe, and one of her roommates asked if everything was OK.
I dont know, she responded, before shutting the door, Ill talk to you in the morning.
He pulled me back to bed and more things happened, Sarah said. He anally penetrated me without my consent, which I actually believe at that point I cried out, like, No, and he didnt continue to do thatbut he also had a [beer] bottle with him the entire time. He used the bottle at one point to penetrate me without my consent.
During the incident, Sarah said she froze. She says she wasnt prepared for what had happened and that she didnt want to believe it was happening.
Miller finally left her apartment around 5 a.m. The next morning, Sarah said she confided in her roommates about what had happened. One of those housemates, who is currently a Maryland resident and stay-at-home mom who asked not to be named in this story, confirmed as much to The Daily Beast.
I knew T.J. was in her bedroom and I was in my bedroom, which was a wall away, the source said. My [other] roommate was in my bedroom with me and we heard a loud smacking noise, and we were concerned The very next day when we talked to [Sarah] she was very upset, and had said he had hit her in a very violent way.
Katie Duffy, a former GW student and another of Sarahs ex-housemates, said she had not realized that the T.J. from that night was the famed actor and comedian until informed by The Daily Beast. (She conceded she had to Google him.) But she recalled the incident much as Sarah had described it.
One night, she had [Miller] back, and late at night [a housemate and I] heard quite a lot of fighting [sounds] and banging, and loud, violent sounds [in the room next to us], Duffy said. So we knocked on the door of our housemate [Sarah], and asked if she was OK. She did indicate she was OK. Whatever response she gave, we felt we didnt have to intervene further, at least at the time Looking back, I wish we had done more to intervene, but we didnt know what was going on This is a girl I didnt know very well, but it didnt mean I didnt have the power to go into that room, and remove her from that situation, and protect her. We did what we thought was the right thing at the time. It wasnt enough.
The next morning, Duffy recalled, Sarah came down to the small kitchen where other housemates were having coffee and breakfast. Her physical appearance raised alarm.
She looked like she had been through a rough nightI recall seeing bruises [on Sarah], Duffy said. One roommate asked if she wanted to go to the police. Others offered to take her to the hospital, given how she looked.
Sarah ultimately declined. Duffy moved out shortly thereafter, and said she hasnt spoken to Sarah since, simply because we didnt know each other well.
In the days and weeks that directly followed the alleged sexual assaults, Sarahs friendship with Miller disintegrated completely. She said they met once more, days after that second night, to talk about what had happened; T.J. said it was a trust thing and that he thought I was into it, Sarah recalled.
As they drifted apart, she asked mutual friends of Millers about the incident. According to Sarah and those close to her, the responses were fairly uniform, to the effect of, Yeah, thats just T.J. The only other time she would see him over the next year was at a female comedy group show that she attended. T.J. showed up to heckle, and I remember being so angry, she said, and had to leave.
It would be almost a yearfollowing much deliberations, counsel, and support from friendsbefore Sarah went to GWs campus police to tell them what had happened. By then, Miller was in his last year at the university.
I was not ready to process what was happening [the prior year], and I have spent a lot of time in my life apologizing for not having shouted no, and for not having told my roommates to get him out of here, Sarah said, explaining why she didnt go to campus police a year earlier. I was not ready to reconcile the events taking place with the person I had known. It was so disorienting and so physically traumatic.
Like other female college students in similar circumstances, Sarah did not want to take the case to the cops since nearly a year had passed, and there was no remaining physical evidence. Instead, her allegations were handled by the student court at the university.
At this point, Sarah asked her housematethe current Maryland mom who heard the loud smacking noiseif she would testify in the student court process, and she agreed.
I testified in student court about the noise I had heard and how upset she was after the incident, Sarahs former housemate recalled to The Daily Beast. T.J. was there with a lawyer during the student court proceeding.
That housemate subsequently asked Duffy if shed testified. I was happy to, Duffy said, recalling that she did not see Sarah at the student court during her testimony, but said that Miller, his father, and his attorney were there.
I was asked why I hadnt done anything [more] if I was so worried and I said, well, the noises were loud enough that it did prompt us to ask what was wrong, so we did do something, Duffy said. I felt very uncomfortable, the way they were challenging me on it.
Sarah said that the student court grilled her about all my habits, including what she had to drink, and how much, on both nights. She was asked if she had ever heard of erotic asphyxiation, and was asked if they had ever discussed the sexual practice, which she had not.
After a trial period that lasted a couple of weeks, Sarah said that the university told her that the issue had been resolved.
A GW spokesperson would only tell The Daily Beast that because of federal privacy law, we are not able to provide information about current or former students education records, in response to inquiries regarding a campus PD report or the student court proceedings. The federal law GW is referencing is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
GW did confirm, however, that Miller graduated in 2003, but did not comment on whether he graduated early due to any unique circumstance. Other knowledgeable sources told The Daily Beast that Miller was expelled after he graduatedan outcome that appeared to be an attempt by the university to satisfy both parties.
Sarah said she had lost acquaintances over her allegations, several of whom were her former comedy-troupe cohorts, most of whom ended up supporting Miller.
Four of these friends spoke to The Daily Beast, though none agreed to do so on the record. Each of these friends was in the college comedy troupe or matriculating at GW at the time. And all of them presented the same general portrait of Miller as a gregarious and generous person who couldnt have done this, as several said.
Ive known T.J. since college, always known him to be a very caring person, and respectful, particularly toward women, one friend said. And he loves his wife very, very much.
Another source, who testified in student court (via phone, post-graduation) on Millers behalf, said it was unimaginable that T.J. could do anything like that.
I have never heard of another woman [who dated him in college] make any kind of allegation or insinuation that he was anything but a good guy, the friend continued. Another friend insisted that Miller was the type of person if you took him to a strip club, he would want to talk to the strippers, not hit on them.
No one has accused Miller of hitting on strippers.
A source also produced a set of email exchanges between Miller and someone who dated Sarah later in life. The emails, one of which was presented without the conversation that preceded it, didnt directly address the incident itself but instead showed both parties trying to come to a more amicable understanding. Sarah told The Daily Beast that she was simply under some social pressure to be cool about this at the time, and didn't necessarily see myself as having any other option to resolution.
One of Millers friends said he believed [Sarah] knew she was making this up to intentionally and maliciously fabricate a sexual-assault allegation. This friend could not offer any evidence to support such a claim, nor could another person, who wasnt a friend of Millers but shared a similar view and testified on his behalf.
Kate and T.J. Miller made similar accusations in a statement provided weeks after first learning that The Daily Beast was reporting on these incidents.
We met this woman over a decade ago while studying together in college, she attempted to break us up back then by plotting for over a year before making contradictory claims and accusations, the Millers wrote.
She was asked to leave our university comedy group because of worrisome and disturbing behavior, which angered her immensely, she then became fixated on our relationship, and began telling people around campus Im going to destroy them and Im going to ruin him, the statement continued.
When asked about these claims, Sarahs responded, Of course not.
He was a friend to me before [the incidents], and he had been there for me before that, she said. I didnt want him in jail. I didnt hate him. He was someone I cared about I dont want to mess up his life. But he behaved in a way towards me that I have to live with [and] I dont think its appropriate that I carry this by myself.
If Sarah was eager to settle scores with Miller, she certainly didnt show it. When The Daily Beast first started looking into this story, those close to her said for months that she had expressed no desire to come forward and was actively avoiding media inquiries. Only weeks after the advent of the #MeToo movement did that seem to change.
Miller soon left his alma mater and became a star in stand-up comedy. He then began appearing in major Hollywood productions, and landed a starring role on the critically lauded HBO show Silicon Valley. But despite the lack of public accusations since his time at George Washington, whispers about what happened in his college years followed him.
Four female comedians and bookers who spoke to The Daily Beast said that they had heard of the alleged sexual misconduct at GW. Some of these comics had heard about the accusations from Sarah directly, and have since warned women in stand-up comedy about Miller.
But some know about the sexual-assault allegations because Miller talked about them himself when confiding in friends and associates.
Four sources in the L.A. and Chicago comedy scenesincluding JC Coccoli, a Los Angeles-based producer who briefly dated Miller in 2009said they each first heard of the allegations because Miller had told them about them or referenced them in private conversation, or at small gatherings before or after shows. Miller did so in the context of vehemently denying rumors circulating in various comedy communities. Other times, he would crack jokes about punching a woman he knew in college, two other comics independently told The Daily Beast.
Maura Brown, a comedy festival organizer and publicist who used to work in L.A. and has since uprooted to Portland, Oregon, said she has also heard about the Miller allegation for years.
Very commonly, women have warned each other [in entertainment] about him and about what happened in college, Brown told The Daily Beast.
Brown noted that starting in 2013, when she first heard about the allegations, she never wanted to work with him [ever], and never wanted to work on the same projects as him, and that this convinced me to not try to book him or promote him in any way.
Still, Miller, whose star is increasingly rising in Hollywood these days, continues to have friends in high places in the entertainment world.
Miller is set to appear in several major film projects, including an upcoming movie co-starring Kristen Stewart and another starring Ryan Reynolds. This year, HBO aired his stand-up special, and Comedy Central started airing The Gorburger Show, what Miller has previously told The Daily Beast is his passion project about a murderous alien talk-show host.
Sarah, his alleged victim, no longer lives in L.A., where she resettled not long after auditing at GW. She says she had a wonderful experience doing improv and comedy in the local comedy scene, and tried to put what happened with Miller behind her.
I had to see him at my improv school [in L.A.], which I, shortly after, stopped going to, and see him at stand-up shows, and I stopped doing stand-up [eventually in L.A.], Sarah said. It doesnt help that when I was living in L.A. I had to keep seeing his name on billboards, and on bus stops, and it just didnt stop.
She added, It is unfathomable to me that he doesnt understand that he actually put me through something I have to live with, that I never wouldve chosen, that completely, completely set the tone for my sexual adult life, that I actively had to spend years and years un-programming.Read More
Stealing a million dollars worth of any food seems like a difficult task in itself.
Yet somehow, an employee by the name of Gilberto Escamilla, who works for the Cameron County Juvenile Justice Department in Texas, was alleged to have stolen $1.2 million of fajitas over a nine year period, as reported by the Brownsville Herald.
“If it wasn’t so serious, you’d think it was a Saturday Night Live skit. But this is the real thing,” District Attorney Luis V. Saenz told the newspaper.
The alleged plot was only uncovered when Escamilla took a day off for a doctor’s appointment on Aug. 7. Someone didn’t hit pause on their operation, because a Labatt Food Service truck turned up to the department’s kitchen. The driver informed another employee of an 800 pound delivery of fajitas.
When the driver was told the kitchen didn’t serve fajitas, he replied that he had been delivering them for the last nine years. Oops.
“When Mr. Escamilla reports to work the next day, he is confronted with the discussion and he admits he had been stealing fajitas for nine years,” Saenz said.
Escamilla was (obviously) quickly fired, and his house was searched by investigators where they found his fridge filled with fajitas. It turns out he would deliver them to waiting customers on the day he would receive them.
Following the investigation, Escamilla was arrested last Tuesday on a first-degree theft felony.
The fajita felony has prompted a review of department policy, but still leaves us wondering who’d eat that much Mexican food.Read More