{ The Devil Made Him Do It and Left Me There, Comfortable }
Steve May

lucky numbersLast Monday, I curled up on my couch and watched the Lottery—something I almost never do. I bought a lottery ticket only once, didn't win, decided the whole thing was pretty much a legal scam and vowed never to play again.
   But sometimes you catch it—zone out through the end of the somehow-still-hour-long KDKA Eyewitness News, the Hometown Advantage, and see the image on the screen zap back to grainy, mid-'80s quality. You hear that terrible song, that jingle sung by some Cornerstone Television female vocal group, that single bit of Pennsylvanian televisual experience that hasn't changed in the past twenty years, and youíre doomed. It simply isnít worth changing the channel. Itíll be over in a minute.
   "Draw the first digit please," the unfeeling voice says through the microphone. And the truck driver-looking Lottery Official in the golf course-green Pennsylvania Lottery blazer—perhaps one of the fourteen custom-made, $537 blazers Lottery officials purchased in 2000—presses a button, sucking up a 6.
   "Six," the unfeeling voice says, uninterested in the fact that several hundred thousand people who didnít choose a six have just kissed their hard-earned dollar goodbye. "Draw the second digit please." The man in the blazer, with a random, senior citizen "witness" not quite paying attention behind him, sucks up another 6.
   "Six," the unfeeling voice says.
   Right about then I get to thinking about how strange it would be if the next number is another six and the daily number ends up a 666, Satanís signature, the numerical manifestation of doom itself, and zone out. Is that possible? Is there a disclaimer at the bottom of each lottery ticket saying that participants can choose any number but that one? Has a 666 ever been drawn before?
   "Itís possible," my friend says at the bar that night. Weíre several drinks into the evening and thus energized and capable of turning the positively, bone-chillingly banal into exciting conversation fodder. My friendís eyes light up as if to say, "Now this is something I can sink some thought into."
   We talk about it. Neither of us has heard of anyone pulling a 666, but we conclude itís possible someone has—as possible as it is that anyoneís sucked any three digits out of the machine.
   Over our daily cafe latte the next morning, I asked my boss what he thought about the chances of someone pulling a 666.
   "Someone has," he says. "But it was a scam."
   Suddenly, I was very interested. So I started asking questions.
   "He was the former host of a local television show, Bowling for Dollars," my boss says. "How it worked was, you would spin a wheel and then bowl, and depending on what you spun and the number of pins you knocked down, youíd get a prize."
   So it didnít sound like compelling television, but as anyone who has endured an episode of On Q will tell you, very few locally produced shows are. But the point was the 666 lottery scam, I wanted to know more about that.
   "The guy was the host of the lottery," my boss says. "He injected the balls with paint and 666 came up, and he and his friends cashed out."
   It happened in Pittsburgh at local ABC affiliate, WTAE-TV, where the lottery was held at the time. The year was 1980. Nick Perry—Mr. Bowling for Dollars and a bit of a local celebrity dating all the way back to Pittsburghís first television station, WDTV (the D being for "Dupont")—was lottery host. At the time, with the steel industry in freefall, the lottery was the highest-rated program in Pittsburgh at 7:00 p.m., beating out Walter Kronkite and his CBS Evening News.
   Perryís closing, "If youíve got it, come and get it, if not, better luck tomorrow," was perhaps the most promising thing that thousands of steelworkers and their families would hear every day. They probably didnít "get it" that day: their chances were infinitesimal. But there was always tomorrow.
   Tomorrow, for Perry, came on 24 April 1980. The sad cast included Perry, Western District Lottery Official and Monessen City Councilman Edward Plevel, WTAE Art Director Joseph Bock, Stagehand Fred Luman, and Peter and Jack Maragos of Monroeville—members of the same church congregation and business partners in a vending machine company with Perry.
   The February before, according to Peter Maragosís testimony in Perry and Plevelís subsequent trial, Perry approached Maragos with an idea.
   "Pete, Iím about to tell you what I donít want you to tell no one," Perry said. "The lottery can be fixed."
   It wasnít actually that hard. There was no security. The lottery balls and machines were kept in a room locked with two keys. Perry had one and Plevel had the other. The two doubled as supervisors for the mandatory practice drawings held before each cash drawing. It was an inside job.
   Perry instructed Bock to find, presumably using his art-direction know-how, a subtle, discrete way to weigh the numbered lottery balls down. Bock came up with a system involving—what else?—a hypodermic needle and white, latex paint. With the paint injected into them, the balls were too heavy to be sucked into up by the air-powered lottery machines. Using house-address decals he scored at a stationary store, Bock put together a complete dummy set of balls, which Luman, in his lone moment of glory, switched with the real ones.
   After a few tests the group decided, fatefully, to inject all the balls except those marked "4" and "6" with the paint. On the day of the drawing, the brothers Margos and their cronies criss-crossed the state, purchasing lottery tickets in eight different combinations of 4 and 6, buying some $1,413 at one location. As if that werenít suspicious enough, the Margoses went so far as to place numerous bets on the lottery with bookies.
   At 7:00 p.m. on April 24, it was on. With oblivious senior-citizen witness Violet Lowery looking on, Plevel went to work. Slowed-down, frame-by-frame analysis of the drawing would later show that the balls injected with paint—that is, all those except the 4s and 6s—stayed flat on the bottom of the machine.
   Had the resulting combination of numbers had been less suspicious, itís possible that Perry, Plevel, and the gang would have pulled it off. They didnít really need the money. Maybe they were planning to buy matching houses in Vegas. Instead, Plevel, who must have been feeling some sort of guilt anyway, was forced to draw and announce to the entire state, in what could only have a moment of sickly terror, the Number of the Beast.
   As soon as the drawing hit the streets, there were doubters. The bookies, tipped off by the unusually high play on the number, announced they werenít paying. Triple-digit numbers are probably always heavily wagered, but the 666 payout was the largest in Pennsylvania Lottery history: $3.5 million, including some $1.8 million for tickets purchased by the ambitious Margos gang. Eventually, rumors of a fix had reached the press, and on 20 May 1981, Perry and Plevel were sent to jail on charges of criminal mischief, criminal conspiracy, theft by deception, and rigging a public contest. Around the same time, the lottery was moved to Harrisburg, where it still is.
   Of course, this all sounds like itís begging to be turned into a Hollywood film, and it was: 2000ís Lucky Numbers, the writers of which decided to pass on the morality-tale element of the story—the ruining of the lives of two mostly decent men on live, statewide television—in favor of farce. Set in Harrisburg to capitalize on Three Mile Island, the film casts John Travolta in Perryís spot, but heís reduced to caricature as Russ Richards, the sleazy TV weatherman, and the whole thing basically has nothing to do with what actually happened.
   Which all was probably something of a relief to Perry and Plevel, long out of jail and trying to live out the rest of their lives in peace, quiet, and relative anonymity, presumably as far away from the lottery as possible.

"Draw the third digit please," the unfeeling voice says to me back on the couch. I am drawn into the moment, wondering if the last digit would—could—possibly be a six. How freaky and cool would that be? My day would be rescued, in its waning hours, from the jaws of banality and I would have something to get excited about: Satan.
   The truck driver-looking guy in the expensive, golf-course green blazer reaches down and presses the button, with the senior-citizen witness not really looking on. This is high drama, the sort of television that might only be eclipsed by a good episode of 48 Hours later on.
   I close my eyes.
   "Four," the unfeeling voice says, uninterested in the fact that a celebration had just begun in a modestly furnished living room somewhere, beneath yellow lightbulbs. Having, myself, no reason to celebrate, I held my position on the couch and waited for the television to tell me more.

Much of the back story for this piece was culled from Jason Togyer's '666': Putting in the fix. Read Togyer's detailed account of Perry's lottery fix at http://mmrrc.dementia.org/mckhistperry.htm.

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