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St. Judes' Mystery Million Came From Embezzler

Aired September 10, 2001 - 14:31   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: In Florida today 21 people indicted with that alleged McDonald's monopoly scam. Authorities say they took millions of dollars worth of the winning game pieces.

CNN investigative reporter Art Harris tells us about what appears to be a random act of kindness by the accused ringleader.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ART HARRIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Even Ronald McDonald turned out to celebrate. For six years, it's been a million dollar mystery.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hey, help me, Fred, will ya. This is heavy.

HARRIS: A month before Christmas in 1995, a McDonald's game piece worth $1 million shows up in the mail at a hospital that tries to find cures for dying children.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're a big kid. There we go. Come on gang.

HARRIS: That's the symbolic million dollar check McDonald's gave St. Jude's Children's Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, after verifying its monopoly game ticket was a winner, donated by some anonymous Santa.

McDonald's generously waived the rules that only the winner can claim the winnings, and has been paying the usual $50,000 annual installments to run for 20 years.

(on camera): It's the largest anonymous gift in St. Jude's history. No clue who or why. It came in a plain white envelope like this. The postmark? Dallas. No return address. No one ever took credit. Everyone just thought it just came from deep pockets with a big heart.

JOHN ASHCROFT, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY GENERAL: Breaking the law is not a game.

HARRIS: Jacobson and 20 others have been accused of rigging the chains monopoly, "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire," and other promotional games. The indictment charges Jacobson and others with embezzling more than $20 million in winning game pieces in an alleged fraud that began in the late 1980s. Prosecutors say customers had little chance of winning before the FBI, with McDonald's help, shut it down.

Jacobson, arrested last month in Atlanta, worked for the company that McDonald's hired to run the chain's contests.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We want you to have the opportunity to see who Mr. Jacobson is. He's 58 years old, married and has a family. He knows the seriousness of these charges.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARRIS: Prosecution and defense sources both acknowledge Jacobson is the source of the mystery ticket. Sources close to Jacobson tell CNN he was in Dallas in November, 1995, when it was mailed. A shock to St. Jude's when it tumbled out days later. Jacobson's lawyer says he's not guilty. But if later convicted, he may try to use the St. Jude's million dollar donation to try and win a reduced prison sentence, those close to him tell CNN.

Prosecutors are likely to argue larceny, not charity, inspired Jacobson to play Santa to St. Jude's, a lark after he failed to recruit a helper to cash in the winning ticket before the contest deadline.

Art Harris, CNN, Atlanta.

HARRIS: OK. Now the end of the story. Both St. Judes and McDonald's were surprised when CNN identified this mystery Santa as the accused swindler. The only question was, would McDonald's ask for its money back? St. Jude said it would do whatever McDonald's wanted. In a statement McDonald's spokesman said the restaurant chain had no intention of asking for its money back.

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