Day 368: Drawing The Lucky ‘666’

originally published January 2, 2013

In 1980, Nick Perry had a decent, though rather mundane job. Every night, he’d claim his tiny little corner of local fame on WTAE-TV in Pittsburgh, announcing the nightly broadcast of winning Pennsylvania Lottery numbers. On the one hand, he was potentially creating wealthy Americans every time he stepped onto that soundstage, possibly bringing mirth and sweet relief to families around the state. On the other, he was reciting numbers into an unappreciative microphone every night, and earning a rather depressing wage.

Nick decided it was time to make a change.

He was chatting with a couple of business partners – you see, Nick also had a pinkie finger dipped into the vending business. A guy’s gotta eat, and vending machines were big business in the 70’s.

Nick and his partners, Peter Maragos and Jack Maragos (not a coincidence; they were brothers), started to devise a plan by which they could tweak the factor of lottery probability in their favor, using Nick’s evening job to their advantage. Their first step was to talk to WTAE-TV art director Joseph Bock about how to manipulate the technology.

If you’ve never seen a lotto draw on TV, the process is fairly simple. Numbered ping pong balls are dropped into a big transparent tumbler. They bounce around dramatically for a few moments, whilst thousands of viewers at home lay their hopes and dreams on the TV tray before them, hoping to be delivered from the filth of their existence by the correct balls (in this case, three of them) popping into view. A vacuum tube sucks the balls out the top of the machine one at a time, at which point most viewers furiously kick over their TV trays and thousands of dogs rejoice at the remnants of Swanson’s Hungry-Man dinners they get to lick up.

It’s all very exciting. Even as a kid with no stake in these lottery broadcasts, they were fun to watch.

Joseph Bock wanted to weigh down some of the numbers without drawing too much attention. He found that applying just the right amount of white latex paint to the ping pong balls would allow them to flutter up from the bottom of the machine, just not quite high enough to get sucked through the opening. Nick, Joseph and their partners opted to weigh down all the numbers apart from the 4’s and 6’s, leaving just eight possible combinations for victory: 444, 446, 464, 466, 644, 646, 664, and 666.

The last step was to solicit the involvement of someone on the inside, even more on the inside than Nick. That man was Edward Plevel, a lottery official.

Once Block had doctored his new set of ping pong balls, Plevel made sure to become suitably distracted and leave the lotto machine and balls unguarded. Either Nick or Joseph Bock made the switch for the April 24, 1980 drawing. It was the perfect crime.

The plan worked; the number 666 was drawn. It might have been a bad omen.

More than six million Pennsylvanians tuned in as a senior citizen volunteer pulled the winning numbers from the machine that night. It was a record payout at the time, a whopping $3.5 million. The Maragos brothers (the vending machine guys) had roamed around the state, buying up vast quantities of tickets with the eight potential winning numbers. One employee at a bar near Philadelphia remembers them walking in with a platinum blonde woman, and buying up a wack of those tickets. One of them made a phone call, holding up the receiver so that the person on the other end could hear the sound of the printing tickets. It was a display of acute cockiness, the kind that a witness would remember clearly, especially when investigators started asking questions.

The Maragos brothers had gotten greedy. They’d placed a number of bets on those eight numbers with local bookmakers, the guys who run numbers games based on lottery drawings. The brothers told their friends and family which numbers to play. When a relatively small handful of players showed up to claim about $1.8 million of the $3.5 million payout, officials started to get a little suspicious.

The Maragos brothers were not exactly a pair of criminal super-geniuses.

With nothing in the way of evidence to work with, lotto officials had to settle with being squirmily uneasy with that night’s drawing. That was until an anonymous tip came in, which directed investigators to the aforementioned bar where the Maragos brothers had made that phone call. The employee recalled the brothers right away, and related what had happened. He recalled distinctly that the phone call had been in some foreign language. It didn’t take investigators long to get the phone records for that day, and to trace the call.

They traced it right to the announcer’s booth at WTAE-TV, where Nick Perry worked. It took them even less time to learn that both Nick and the Maragos brothers were fluent in Greek. The cops brought the Maragos boys in, and plucked a confession from them.

The brothers rolled over on everyone, and offered to testify against Nick in exchange for immunity from jail time. Along with William Moran, who’d helped out by buying up a bunch of out-of-state tickets, and WTAE stagehand Fred Luman, who’d switched the original balls back after the drawing and burned the fakes, the investigation turned on Nick, Joseph Bock, and lotto official Edward Plevel.

Plevel got two years. Moran, Luman and Bock all pled guilty to lesser crimes to avoid the big stuff. Perry got slammed with criminal conspiracy, criminal mischief, theft by deception, rigging a publicly exhibited contest, perjury, and making an old person look foolish on TV. His broadcast career took an irreversible nosedive as he was sent to the Camp Hill State Penitentiary to begin serving his seven-year sentence.

Needless to say, the Pennsylvania Lottery got a whole lot more strict after this incident. WTAE lost the broadcast rights, and where once a kindly senior got to draw the magic numbers, now a lottery official did the deed. An elderly person was allowed to stand nearby and witness it, but that’s about it. The old people always end up paying the price.

As for Nick Perry, he milled about this mortal coil until April of 2003, when he passed away in Attleboro, Massachusetts. He never admitted any part in the scam.

Still, whenever a ‘666’ is drawn in the Pennsylvania Lottery (which has happened 18 times now), it’s informally known as a ‘Nick Perry’.

It’s hard to outrun one’s past.

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