Words by Carmen Macri
If I told you Jacksonville is home to some of the most notorious liars, would you believe me?
Everybody lies. Whether it’s a little white lie or a tale of a rogue military mission gone wrong. (We will get there soon.) The only difference between the lies we hear in our everyday lives and the lies that are so big they are turned into documentaries is these people got caught, big time. (That and some of them were stealing millions of dollars from global franchises, but that’s beside the point.) In their “honor,” I am going to walk you through some of the most iconic liars that call(ed) Jacksonville home.
Shall we start with one of the most intricate crimes ever pulled off in Jacksonville, like the $24 million scam surrounding the McDonald’s Monopoly game (and since turned into a true crime docuseries by HBO called <McMillions>)? In the early 2000s McDonald’s offered a worldwide promotion to draw customers into the restaurant with a sweepstake that mimicked the game Monopoly. If someone collected certain “tokens,” the prize was upwards of $1 million. To prevent fraud and ensure that all prizes were given away legally—and randomly, McDonald’s used a third party, Simon Worldwide Inc., to oversee the operation. And boy, was that a huge mistake.
Simon Worldwide was in charge of distributing the prize-winning tokens while Dittler Brothers Printing oversaw all production of the game boards and pieces. Turns out, a real-life Hamburglar worked in security at Dittler Brothers: Jerome P. Jacobson. An unnamed supplier <mistakenly> provided Jacobson with anti-tamper seals, which were exactly what Jacobson needed to secretly swap out the million-dollar pieces. Basically, he stole all of the high-value tokens to pass them out to friends and family who would later redeem them for big money and share the proceeds with him.
Great story, but I know what you’re thinking: How does Jacksonville fit into this? Well, several of the “winners” were from Jacksonville. So as not to arouse suspicion with so many “winners” from Jacksonville, some had to use fake addresses. When a “winner” claimed she lived in South Carolina but had a Florida ID, it caught the eye of the FBI office in Jacksonville. At the time, the Jacksonville office was one of the smallest and understaffed in the agency. For them to pull this together was incredible. The kicker? The mastermind who orchestrated the $24 million scam only served three years in federal prison.
In more recent news, infamous ex-Jacksonville Jaguars head coach (among other things) Urban Meyer hasn’t exactly played his coaching career by the book. Since the early 2000s, Meyer has been linked to some pretty shady shit over the years. More than 30 student-athletes who played for Meyer at the University of Florida were arrested under his command. He enabled the behavior of not one but two domestic abusers, and he hired a known racist. But ESPN, Ohio State and Shad Khan gave him the benefit of the doubt. That’s OK. People can change, right? Despite the public being completely against Meyer joining the team, people <can> change, right?
Shortly after being named head coach of the Jaguars in 2021, Meyers showed his true colors yet again when he cursed out kicker Josh Lambo and kicked <him> while he stretched on the sidelines. Meyer denied all allegations, but we all know how that ended … in a pricey lawsuit against Meyer for emotional distress. But alas, it doesn’t stop there! During a staff meeting, Meyer allegedly referred to himself as a “winner” and his assistant coaching staff as “losers.” After an away game against the Cincinnati Bengals, which the Jags lost, by the way, Meyer stayed in Ohio (instead of traveling back with the team) only to get caught getting down and dirty with a woman who was not his wife in a crowded Columbus bar. And once again, he hired a racist. Seriously, the list of shady shit Meyer has done goes one, believe me, so let’s get to my favorite “Urban legend.” Meyer benched Jaguars running back James Robinson for a majority of the Jags/Rams game last season following a fumble on Jacksonville’s first drive. Meyer claimed Robinson was pulled due to injury, which is interesting since Robinson didn’t even know he was injured, and asked running backs coach Bernie Parmalee to keep him out of the game. It wasn’t until quarterback Trevor Lawrence asked Meyer what the hell was going on that Robinson was allowed back on the field. What a timely healed injury, right? Mercifully, Shad Khan listened to the city of Jacksonville and fired the illusive Urban Meyer. Good riddance!
Walking on eggshells with this next one: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Fed up with the Democrats and their reluctance to clamp down on illegal immigration, DeSantis took matters into his own hands… by gathering 48 Venezuelan immigrants seeking asylum in San Antonio and shipping them off to the “Democrats’ front door” on Martha’s Vineyard. Quite the political power move if you ask me. DeSantis and his cohorts promised the immigrants a community service organization would help them with housing and job opportunities. But that was not the case. DeSantis wanted to shed light on immigration issues “the Biden administration refuses to deal with” by toying with people’s lives. The immigrants received brochures about refugee migrant benefits that promised “up to eight months of cash assistance for eligible migrants,” which, turns out, was fake. Some of the immigrants filed a lawsuit against DeSantis and other state officials for engaging in a “fraudulent and discriminatory scheme.”
My personal favorite. A faked death, rogue CIA agents, drug cartels, a fatal illness, false identities and a phony demise. This is Jose Lantiguas’ web of lies that spanned multiple years and multiple countries. It all began in 2013 when Lantigua conned Jacksonville investor Michael Wienckowski out of $500,000 for “life-saving medical treatment.” Wienckowski gave Lantigua the $500,000 even though he already had a $1.7 million loan from Wienckowski’s company that he had not yet paid off. Lantigua convinced his wife he had Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, a fatal brain disorder, and would be dead within the year. Lantigua figured his best option was to fly to South America to undergo a once-in-a-lifetime surgery that could only be done in Colombia (huh?) with the plan being to fake his death on the operating table. Well, the unnamed (and uncharged) “doctor” lost the nerve to follow through and backed out of the plan… so what does Lantigua do now? Lie some more. He informed his wife that he <had> to lie to her about the illness to save their family’s lives.
Supposedly, Lantigua was once a special operations officer in the military whose “team” took down a colossal drug cartel leader, and now he was being hunted by a rogue CIA agent seeking revenge. His wife believed every word he told her and, as a result, became his unknowing accomplice. The next step for Lantigua was finding a way to fake his death. He made his way to Venezuela to buy a death certificate and proof of cremation. Unfortunately, it was too late for Lantigua. He bit off more than he could chew in Jacksonville. Now creditors were on the hunt to get their clients’ money back. Lantigua was sitting on $11 million worth of debt when he vanished. The plan was for him and his wife to scam the banks out of life insurance, but people weren’t buying it. He played dead in Venezuela for a few months until he met up with his wife in the Bahamas and snuck back into Florida (by paying someone $5,000 to hide on their fishing boat, of course). Lantigua and his wife took off for North Carolina where he decided to “lay low” and build a new identity as Ernest Wills with a driver’s license and passport in his new name. Little did he know, the real Wills was alive and well, and unfortunately for Lantigua, a different race and 8 inches taller than him. The U.S State departments flagged the fake Ernest Wills’ passport, which was the beginning of the end for Lantigua. The movie-like web of deceit finally came to an end in 2015 when Lantigua was taken into custody outside of his North Carolina home.
Ever heard of the Ponzi scheme? Did you also know part of the Ponzi empire took place in Jacksonville? To make a long story short, a Ponzi scheme is an investment fraud that pays existing investors with new investors’ money. Charles Ponzi, the Italian businessman for whom the scam was named, sold investors a promise of increasing returns with little to no risk… Bull shit! Ponzi’s time in Jacksonville was brief, but it was iconic. In 1926, Ponzi was indicted for selling certificates of indebtedness without permission and failing to file papers properly, violations of Florida trust and security laws. Apparently, Jacksonville’s jail did not suit Ponzi, so he shaved his head, grew a mustache, faked his suicide, and skipped town in an attempt to get back home to Italy.
Now for the king company of corruption and lies … JEA. And legally, that is all I am allowed to say. (We all know what the former higher-ups did, and if you don’t, Google it!)
Watch the Behind the Cover Video here.