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The local TV star who rigged the lottery

Oct 18, 2019, 12:12 pm

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Shortly after 7pm on April 24th, 1980, millions of Pennsylvanians watched intently as a third and final ping-pong ball shot up the tube of a machine on live television.

"And there you have it," exclaimed the station's beloved announcer, Nick Perry. "Today's Pennsylvania lottery daily number: 6-6-6!" 

As the cheesy music faded and the lights dimmed, Perry implored lucky ticket holders at home to claim their prizes: "If you've got it, come and get it!"

What the public didn't know was that Perry — along with a rag-tag group made up of co-workers, church friends, and a state lottery official — had fixed the entire thing in his favor. Through an elaborate ruse involving syringes and latex paint, he'd just netted himself and his associates $1.2m ($3.7m today) in winning tickets.

Soon, one of the largest scandals in state lottery history would come crashing down.

The legend of Papa Nick

In the late 1970s, Nick Perry (real name, Nicholas Katsafanas) was Pittsburgh royalty.

A radio and TV veteran of 30 years, Perry was affable, charming, and debonair — tall and tan, with whisked white hair and an ever-present ivory smile.

As an announcer and host for WTAE Channel 4 — Pittsburgh's leading TV station, and one of the largest local networks in the country — his shows (Polka Party, Championship BowlingBowling for Dollars) attracted legions of adoring fans who called him "Papa Nick."

A Navy vet and church choir leader, he held the public's unwavering trust. "He was always surrounded by people who loved him," a former co-worker later said.

When Pennsylvania launched its daily lottery, in 1977, WTAE won the rights to broadcast the drawings state-wide every night.

And the station could think of no better man to entrust as the drawing's announcer than Pittsburgh's golden boy, Nick Perry.

The Daily Number

Dubbed the Daily Number, the draw quickly became the most popular lottery game in the state — and one of the 5 largest in America. Its proceeds, which soared to hundreds of millions of dollars, were the chief revenue source for funding senior citizen programs.

The lottery itself was simple.

An entrant would buy a ticket staking anywhere from $0.50 to $5 on a 3-digit number between 000 and 999, in a specific order.

Every night at 6:59pm, a lottery official would wheel out 3 air-powered machines, each filled with a set of ping-pong balls numbered 0 to 9. On live television, a senior citizen (selected at random from a local elderly home) would remove the cap from the top of each machine, propelling a random numbered ball up a clear plastic chute.

The resulting 3-digit combination was the daily winner. Lucky entrants would receive $500 for every $1 wagered. (In those days, bets were pretty humble; most payouts were in the thousands, not millions, of dollars.)

Like most lotteries at the time, the Daily Number followed a tight security protocol.

When not in use, the lottery machines and balls were locked in a WTAE storage room that required 2 keys to open; one was held by the TV station, the other by the state's lottery bureau. The balls were routinely examined by an independent laboratory, and were only permitted to have a 1.75 milligram variation in mass — about half the weight of an ant.

As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette once wrote, Pennsylvania lottery's reputation "rivaled that of ancient Rome's Vestal Virgins." The state prided itself on the squeaky clean reputation of its daily drawing, and that of Perry, the man at its helm.

But unbeknownst to them, Perry was scrutinizing flaws in the system — and looking for an opportunity to exploit it.

The scheme

In February of 1980, Perry sparked a friendship with Edward Plevel, a 52-year-old state lottery security officer who was entrusted with guarding the machines and balls.

Once a mutual trust was established, Perry carefully broached the possibility of a fixed lottery: In theory, he told Plevel, if he had access to the storage room, he could weigh down all the balls except a few numbers, dramatically reduce the possible winning combinations, hedge heavy bets on those numbers, and walk away with millions.

Plevel was intrigued, and agreed to give Perry the access he needed. Soon after, Perry began to put his plan into action.

The first step was to find someone he trusted who could create replica sets of the lottery balls. For this, he turned to WTAE's ex-art director and resident lettering expert, Joseph Bock.

"What would you say if I told you you could make $100k?" Perry allegedly asked Bock at the station one day, according to a later account in the Post-Gazette.

Bock scoffed. "Who do I have to kill?"

Perry gave Bock 12 syringes and a weighing scale and instructed him to buy 30 ping-pong balls from a sporting goods store identical to those used in the machines.

Following Perry's instructions, Bock painstakingly replicated each ball by hand — 3 sets, numbered 0 through 9. Then, he set out to find a subtle way to weigh down the balls that weren't a 4 or a 6.

After experimenting with various substances including talcum powder and water, he settled on a tiny amount of white latex paint — just enough to prevent them from rising up to the top of the machines and getting sucked up into the chutes.

In an untampered lottery, the odds of any 3-digit number were 1 in 1k. If Perry's plan worked, only the unweighted 4s and 6s would rise to the top, limiting the winning number to 8 possible combinations: 444, 446, 464, 466, 644, 646, 664, and 666.

Everything was in place. Now, all Perry needed to do was place his bets.

Perry couldn't buy lottery tickets himself — it was too suspicious. So, he met with two childhood friends, Peter and Jack Maragos, at a pew in St. Nicholas Orthodox Church.

Part-owners of a small cigarette vending machine business, the Maragos brothers were intrigued by the thrill of a big payout. They agreed to buy the tickets, and soon roped a third brother, James, and his wife, Jean, into the scheme.

The family unit delegated the stores where they'd purchase tickets, and assembled $20k in cash. Then, they waited for Perry's command.

The big day

On the morning of April 24, 1980, the Maragos brothers rocketed around Philadelphia in an old white Cadillac.

Targeting small mom-and-pop outlets — places with names like Al and Virginia's Variety Store, Herman's Cigar Store, Squirrel Hill Newsstand, and Dew Drop Inn —  they placed thousands of $1 bets on the 8 possible combinations of 4 and 6.

Meanwhile, Perry finalized his preparations at the studio.

Typically, the senior citizen selected to help with the lottery would run through a practice drawing at 6:30pm, 29 minutes prior to airing. That day, Violet Lowrey, the chosen octogenarian, was carted into a green room upon arrival and remained there until 6:55.

During this time, Bock handed off the weighted balls to another employee in on the fix, stagehand Fred Luman, who furtively swapped them into the machines as Plevel looked the other way.

Once the job was done, Luman rolled the machines out onto the studio floor, gave a nod to Perry, and disappeared into the shadows of the corridor.

At 6:59, the broadcast went live.

To millions of viewers across Pennsylvania, nothing appeared out of the ordinary. Perry was introduced with his usual sign-on — "The man with all the dollars! The kingpin himself!" — and Plevel escorted Lowrey to the machines.

Lowrey removed the cap and the first ball shot up the chute: a 6. Then came ball #2: "Another 6!" exclaimed Perry. Seconds later, the third ball landed. The winning number — 6-6-6 — danced across the screen.

A half-hour later, Bock was back at home, lighting fire to a paint can filled with the 30 weighted ping-pong balls.

A gangster gives a tip

It seemed that Perry and his cronies had pulled off the perfect crime.

The Maragos had selected 6-6-6 on roughly 2.4k of their 14k $1 tickets. With a $500 to $1 payout, the crew was looking at a payout of $1.2m ($3.9m in 2019 dollars) — an unheard-of amount for a state lottery at the time. Over the next few days, the brothers cashed in a few hundred tickets and delivered Perry $35k in cash — once at a cemetery, a second time behind a shopping center.

Unbeknownst to them, there were rumblings on the street that the game had been fixed.

As it turned out, the Maragos brothers had also placed bets with underground bookies, who had noticed the unusually high number of hedges on combinations containing the numbers 4 and 6. They refused to pay out winnings on 6-6-6, and alerted their boss, Tony Grosso.

A convicted numbers boss, Grosso had been running his own $30m-a-year illegal daily lottery on the streets of Pittsburgh for 40 years — and he was happy to tip-off local reporter, Sandy Starobin, of a potential fix in the state lottery, which he considered the competition.

In May 1980, an investigation was opened by Pennsylvania governor, Richard Thornburgh.

Though lottery officials (including Plevel) pooh-poohed the idea of an inside job, investigators received a tip from the owner of the Dew Drop Inn: Weeks earlier, two men in a white Cadillac had bought hundreds of lottery tickets — all combinations of 4 and 6 — and placed a call to a mystery man.

The paper trail and phone records led them to the door of Peter and Jack Maragos, who promptly agreed to testify for the state in exchange for dropped charges. Bock and Luman followed and gave the state two names: Perry and Plevel.

On May 11, 1981, reporters (including Perry's colleagues at WTAE) gathered at the county courthouse in Harrisburg for a criminal trial against the two men.

Over a week, 25 witnesses — including co-conspirators, shop owners, and angry senior citizens — took the stand. After 6.5 hours of deliberation, a jury of 12 found Perry and Plevel guilty of criminal conspiracy, criminal mischief, theft by deception, and "rigging a publicly exhibited contest."

Neither man showed emotion as the sentences were read: 3 to 7 years for Perry; 2 to 7 years for Plevel.

As the tanned TV star was led from the courtroom in shackles, his fans grappled with the news. "[It's like] Joan of Arc being burned at the stake," one fan wrote in a Post-Gazette op-ed. "I can't see why a 63-year-old man who has a good living and is established in the community would do something like this."

The bowling goods salesman

In the aftermath, WTAE lost the rights to air the daily lottery to a rival station, costing it millions of dollars in lost ad revenue. Eventually, authorities would recover most of the money and uncashed lottery tickets.

Bock, Luman, and the Maragos brothers faded from the public eye after 1981 and settled into quiet, less eventful lives. After serving 18 months, Perry and Plevel were released to a halfway house.

Post-prison, Perry found work at Wissman Bowling Supplies, a bowling outfitter that had provided equipment to his hit show, Bowling for Dollars. In 1988, he made a short-lived return to TV to host a new bowling show, but he never reclaimed his former glory.

When Perry passed away in 2003, at age 86, he was remembered with a two-page spread in the Post-Gazette. He maintained his innocence to the grave.

"Why would I get involved with something like this? For what reason?" he said in a final interview. "I was making good money. They were the best years of my life, actually. I had too many good things going for me."

The Daily Number game, since renamed the "Pick 3," now features a security process involving 24-hour video surveillance, RFID-chip-equipped balls, independent auditors, and no less than 6 drawing officials. It brought in $269 million in revenue for the state of Pennsylvania in 2018.

Since April 24, 1980, 6-6-6 has been the winning number on 24 occasions — all supposedly scandal-free.

And Pennsylvania lottery officials have since adopted an unofficial slogan: "Be perfect."

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The Hustle

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28 comments. Last comment 12 months ago by KY Floyd.
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United States
Member #35334
March 16, 2006
172 Posts
Offline

The steel mills were closing and ordinary folks even tried being a bookie to make ends meet. I remember this event very well. I was way too young to play. My friend's dad caught up a couple mortgage payments on the day 666 came up. He served a little time for it too and ultimately lost the house.  Pittsburgh, population almost 1 million, is a shadow of its former self.  But they are building a new steel mill today.  Hmmm

    dpoly1's avatar - driver
    PA
    United States
    Member #66139
    October 16, 2008
    1991 Posts
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    I remember that Nick Perry was a big local celebrity in those days.

    It was kind of a shock when that happened.

    Pittsburgh has gone steadily downhill since the steel mills closed. 

    dpoly1 - Playing the lottery to save the jobs of those that build, transport, sell & maintain luxury items! -

     

    Eschew Poverty ........... Vote Conservative!

      music*'s avatar - DiscoBallGlowing
      USN United States Navy
      Fresno, California
      United States
      Member #157851
      August 2, 2014
      3959 Posts
      Offline

      I saw a photo online of the three numbered 6 balls floating above all the others. I think that the FBI got involved in this case. 

      Jester

       "We are all in this together!" 

        TheMeatman2005's avatar - lightening
        Brooklyn, NY
        United States
        Member #169719
        October 29, 2015
        1494 Posts
        Offline

        There was a movie, called "Lucky Numbers" released in 1994.

        John Travolta and Lisa Kudrow make a "high-energy comedy team" in this side-splittingly funny comedy inspired by a real-life scam to win the Pennsylvania lottery. Travolta "is truly irresistible" as Russ Richards, a weatherman in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Russ is a local celebrity, but when an unusually mild winter causes his snowmobile dealership to take a plunge, Russ needs a get-rich scheme - and fast. With his greedy girlfriend (Lisa Kudrow) - the TV's station's lotto-ball girl - and a criminally minded buddy (Tim Roth), Russ hatches a plan to fix the lottery. Russ's numbers come up right, but then everything goes completely wrong, throwing Russ and his co-conspirators into comic chaos. Directed by Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail) and co-starring Ed O'Neill, Michael Rapaport and Bill Pullman, Lucky Numbers is a comedy jackpot for film fans.

        The Meatman 🥩🍗🍔🍖🍤🌭

        “The quickest way to double your money is to fold it in half and put it in your back pocket.” Will Rogers

        Winning happens in a flash, Like A Bolt Of Lightning!  Patriot


          United States
          Member #59352
          March 13, 2008
          5626 Posts
          Offline

          Law enforcement was tipped off by a crook, priceless.  Making thousands of bets using a two number

          pool,stupidity gone wild.  Winning set 666, we all know who's behind that, they all got what they deserved.

          RL

          ....

            Avatar
            michigan
            United States
            Member #176936
            September 2, 2016
            838 Posts
            Offline

            I like how they mentioned how many times 666 has shown since in the Pennsylvania lottery, and then ends with supposedly scandal free! Exactly,  because I know Michigan lottery is rigged!!

              grwurston's avatar - Lottery-012.jpg
              Win Today.
              bel air maryland
              United States
              Member #90247
              April 24, 2010
              9563 Posts
              Online

              The Daily Number game, since renamed the "Pick 3," now features a security process involving 24-hour video surveillance, RFID-chip-equipped balls, independent auditors, and no less than 6 drawing officials. It brought in $269 million in revenue for the state of Pennsylvania in 2018.

              Pretty tight security they have now, as do all other states to prevent tampering from ever happening again. 

              So with all this security, why do they need to do pretests?

              This is what the Maryland Lottery goes through for every drawing.

              https://youtu.be/nKrjGK5-W9k Notice all the people in the studio watching the drawings.

              And then this happened.

              https://www.lotterypost.com/thread/321742

              "You can observe a lot just by watching." Yogi Berra, Hall of Fame baseball player.

              The numbers will tell you what numbers to play. Pay attention to the numbers.

                grwurston's avatar - Lottery-012.jpg
                Win Today.
                bel air maryland
                United States
                Member #90247
                April 24, 2010
                9563 Posts
                Online

                Here is what the Pennsylvania Lottery does now before the drawings.

                https://youtu.be/2U0tkR-fg28

                "You can observe a lot just by watching." Yogi Berra, Hall of Fame baseball player.

                The numbers will tell you what numbers to play. Pay attention to the numbers.

                  smooth11484's avatar - Lottery-053.jpg
                  ohio
                  United States
                  Member #125194
                  March 26, 2012
                  2024 Posts
                  Offline

                  Its still rigged.

                   

                  Thats why lottery post is still up and running.

                  .

                    Avatar
                    Chasing $ Millions.
                    White Shores- California
                    United States
                    Member #136473
                    December 12, 2012
                    6337 Posts
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                    Tall, tan & a ever press ivory smile.” Sounds like my Mother’s favorite actor - George Hamilton. He was hilarious in a movie she still treasures “ Love at first bite.” This Nick fella is quite something else. Putting his scheme together in a church. Wouldn’t it have been something if a booming voice shouted out “ This is God, what is it now?”

                    This story made my weekend- Thanks guys.

                     * Voice of Reason *   

                     

                    People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it- George Bernard Shaw.

                      Avatar
                      Simpsonville
                      United States
                      Member #163184
                      January 22, 2015
                      2286 Posts
                      Offline

                      Crime doesn't pay.    Loose lips sink ships.   That was one of the best stories IMHO on LP since the Tipton articles.   Folks thinking their stuff doesn't stink and get away with these crimes.

                        TheMeatman2005's avatar - lightening
                        Brooklyn, NY
                        United States
                        Member #169719
                        October 29, 2015
                        1494 Posts
                        Offline

                        Here is what the Pennsylvania Lottery does now before the drawings.

                        https://youtu.be/2U0tkR-fg28

                        I watched the videos (both MD and PA Lotteries) and noticed that they touch the balls with their bare skin.

                        No gloves are used.

                        Doesn't this allow for skin oil to be transferred to the balls and cause them to weigh differently from each other ball?

                        The Meatman 🥩🍗🍔🍖🍤🌭

                        “The quickest way to double your money is to fold it in half and put it in your back pocket.” Will Rogers

                        Winning happens in a flash, Like A Bolt Of Lightning!  Patriot

                          Avatar
                          Kentucky
                          United States
                          Member #32651
                          February 14, 2006
                          8998 Posts
                          Offline

                          Its still rigged.

                           

                          Thats why lottery post is still up and running.

                          You must have missed the part in the story saying Perry rigged the drawing so he and his buddies could get a huge payday. Have any evidence that every once in a while your state lottery allows someone to rig a drawing for personal gain?

                          "Thats why lottery post is still up and running."

                          Agree with stupid because I like your conspiracy theory that Nick rigged the drawing so Lottery Post would be created 20 years later and his story was the only reason it's still running almost 40 years after.  LOL

                            grwurston's avatar - Lottery-012.jpg
                            Win Today.
                            bel air maryland
                            United States
                            Member #90247
                            April 24, 2010
                            9563 Posts
                            Online

                            I watched the videos (both MD and PA Lotteries) and noticed that they touch the balls with their bare skin.

                            No gloves are used.

                            Doesn't this allow for skin oil to be transferred to the balls and cause them to weigh differently from each other ball?

                            Yes, I believe it could. 

                            "You can observe a lot just by watching." Yogi Berra, Hall of Fame baseball player.

                            The numbers will tell you what numbers to play. Pay attention to the numbers.