They were everywhere, 11 cops in full body armor, tearing apart his modest three-bedroom condo. And all John Bovery could do was watch.
They knocked down a closet shelf. They ripped down a wall inside the laundry room. They even used a box cutter to shred a bedroom pillow. Finally, when the search didn't produce the evidence they expected, one of them demanded answers.
"Where is the cash?" he asked Bovery, who said he was handcuffed and seated in a recliner in his living room. "Where are the betting slips?"
Bovery tried, once again, to explain. He was not a bookmaker. He was not hiding anything. He was a football pool operator who was so open about his business, and so convinced he was doing it legally, that he listed his home address in Parlin on the pool's website.
But this wasn't any ordinary office pool. This one, he told investigators and NJ Advance Media, was worth $837,000 in 2009. This one had 8,000 entries from around the globe -- men and women sending in $100 for a chance to win that huge pot. The players included prominent sports broadcasters, New Jersey state troopers, dozens of lawyers and -- according to Bovery -- the agents for Tiger Woods and other PGA Tour golfers.
It had grown from a few dozen Wall Street buddies in 1990 to a potential life-changer for whomever could string together a season's worth of NFL winners. But on that September day in 2010, as the cops from the Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office carted box after box from his condo, it was the pool operator's life that was forever altered.
It was Bovery, a now 58-year-old Middlesex County school teacher and SAT tutor with two adult daughters, who found himself embroiled in a nasty legal battle that somehow, even four and a half years later, has no end in sight. He wants his money back. He wants his life back.
He wants to know, in a country where gambling on fantasy football leagues and office pools is accepted as part of our culture, why he was hit with felony charges and jail time. He wants to know, in a state where lawmakers are waging a court battle to legalize sports betting, what he did that was so wrong.
EVERYBODY IN THE POOL
Chances are, if you work in the typical American office, you'll have an opportunity to become one of the estimated 40 million people who will enter an NCAA Tournament office pool this month. And if you do, chances are you're breaking the law.
"It seems so bizarre that you putting $5 into an office pool matters at all, but you could do some time for that," said Jeffrey Standen, the dean of the Chase College of Law at Northern Kentucky University and a sports betting expert.
He laughs because, of course, you won't do time. No one knows how much is gambled illegally in the United States each year -- estimates range from $80 billion to $380 billion, with $9 billion on NCAA Tournament pools alone -- and most of that, obviously, flies under the radar of law enforcement.
That included John Bovery for most of his 20 years running various pools. Bovery is a Jersey City native with a round face and a deep voice, someone who is never afraid to voice his opinion around town. He also loves sports ... and loves them a little bit more when he has something on the line.
He was working as a currency broker for a Wall Street firm in 1990, and says his organizational skills made him a natural to run a fantasy football and baseball pool each year. That's when a co-worker told him about a different kind of game. It was called a "survivor pool," and the premise was simple. Each participant picks an NFL team, without the Vegas point spread, to win its game that week. If that team loses, the player is out. If that team wins, he or she advances to the next week.
Here is the twist, and it's a significant one: The players can't use the same team twice. So experienced participants know they not only have to pick the winners, they have to save some of the better teams for later in the season when stakes are highest.
Bovery figured he'd give it a shot. He says he had 57 players at $50 apiece in his first season, with two winners splitting $2,850. The pot more than tripled the next season when a few other Wall Street firms heard about it.
Sitting in a Woodbridge sports bar last month, I asked him when his pool spread outside of his office building.
"When did it get out of the building?" he asked. "When did it get out of the country is probably a more appropriate question."
John BoveryWhen officers from the Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office raided his three-bedroom condo, John Bovery said they tore down the wall in a supply closet. (John Munson | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com)
It had 362 players in 1992, cracked 1,000 four years later, then topped 2,000 six years after that. The pool had become a second full-time job, with hundreds of envelopes and checks spread across the beige carpet in his condo.
The picks came over the phone or via fax in the early days, and he recruited his young daughters to "cut along the dotted line for daddy" to help separate them. Even then, even as it kept growing and growing, this was no sophisticated operation. Bovery tracked it all on a computer set up on an old microwave table in his bedroom.
The entry fee increased from $50 to $75 to $100. The pot grew to $347,000 by 2004, with so many entries that Bovery needed to use double picks late in the season -- meaning pool players would need to pick two winning NFL teams in a week -- to whittle down the number of winners.
Sometimes a handful of survivors would agree to split the pot late in the season. But, given the high stakes, it wasn't always that easy.
"I made a mistake with that one year," Bovery said. "It evolved to the point that I needed to use email because there were too many people and I didn't know all of them. Email was new. I didn't realize (that) when you send an email to five people, they can track down who each other is based on the work address. Right?
"Well, when the pool was about $200,000 with four guys left, and one guy said no to the deal. And I had it opened up where everybody was seeing each other's name. Well, another guy got pissed and showed up and beat the (heck) out of him right in his office. Swear to God. You can't make this up."
It grew so large that, eventually, an agent at the sports marketing firm IMG found out about it. Soon, Bovary said, he was on the phone with Mark Steinberg, the longtime agent for Tiger Woods, who had taken three entries under the account name "TIGERMARK" -- leading him to suspect that the golfer was involved in making the picks. Steinberg said in an email it was "absolutely false" that Woods played in the pool but did not answer a question as to whether he participated.
The big names never won the big prize. That almost always went to a "regular guy," like the gas station attendant in Illinois with the $18,000-a-year income who won $35,000.
Bovery eventually started using an outside company called "officefootballpool.com" to track the picks, because it had become impossible for one man. In its final full year, there were 8,377 entries, he said, with one financial planner from Philadelphia walking away with $520,000 after a deal with three other players was struck.
As for the man running the pool? He didn't exactly walk away empty handed, either. "It didn't start as a way for me to make money," Bovery said. "That animal evolved on its own."
HOW THE FEDS FOUND OUT
The statute that prohibits gambling in New Jersey, 2C:37-2(a), is vague -- perhaps purposely so -- and outdated. There is no reference to fantasy games or office pools, even though billions of dollars are wagered in them every year.
A person is guilty of promoting gambling, according to the law, when he or she "(a)ccepts or receives money or other property, pursuant to an agreement or understanding with any person whereby he participates or will participate in the proceeds of gambling activity."
Bovery insists he never took traditional bets. He never took the "vig," or vigorish, which is the small fee that bookies take on losing bets to minimize their risk. He said he has never even required an entry fee for his pools (although prosecutors debate what constitutes a fee).
You want to enforce the letter of the law? Fine. But I'm the only pool manager you'll able to find in the state?"
John BoveryJohn Bovery, a Parlin, N.J., resident, started a survivor football pool with 57 friends from his Wall Street firm that grew into an $800,000 pot for the winner in its final season.(Andrew Mills | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com)
He made what he considers a suggestion on his website jrwinkle.com: That winners, if they were satisfied with the experience of playing in the pool, give him a "gift" amounting to 10 percent of the amount they collected. Some winners, Bovery said, refused to give anything, and others gave less than Bovery's suggestion. Most agreed to make some sort of donation. In its final year, he tweaked that request to ask that all players make a 10 percent gift of the entry fee.
His pools -- he also ran smaller versions for golf, college basketball and others -- became more than a second income in its final years. It was a six-figure job that allowed him to leave his Wall Street job and become a math teacher in Sayreville and South Amboy.
"What did it help me a little bit with? I told my (two) daughters all along that, 'Mom and Dad have money saved so you can go to any college in the country,'" Bovery said. "I didn't turn my Hyundais and Hondas into Cadillacs. I didn't turn my $79,000 condo into a house in Colts Neck."
It was a knock on that condo door, in May 2010, that changed everything. Bovery was surprised to find two investigators from Monmouth County standing in the doorway, asking questions about a name Bovery knew, but a man he said he had never met. He didn't know it at the time, but they were investigating an organized crime case involving Joseph LaScala, who was described in wire taps as "the godfather of New Jersey."
The man had won Bovery's pool, and so Bovery had sent him a series of checks totaling about $90,000. The investigators were skeptical.
"You sent checks to a guy you never met?" they asked.
"Yeah, it happens every year," he replied.
And so Bovery laid it all out. The pools. The website. The checks. The questions became less about the man the prosecutors were investigating and more about him. How many people are in this pool? How much money?
Bovery met with them again, and on the way out of the office, he said he asked if he was doing anything wrong. "Because if I am," he said, "I'll change or just stop entirely." They said nothing, so Bovery went back to running his other pools.
Then, one morning four months later, his wife, Mary, was getting gas when a black SUV pulled up in front of her and three Monmouth County investigators stepped out, holding their badges in front of her car window. "You need to go home or we're going to knock your front door down," she said they told her.
She called the main office of South Amboy High, where her husband was teaching, and delivered a message in a panicked voice.
It was Sept. 9, 2010, and the date is significant. The prosecutors had four months to confront Bovery, or arrest him, or tell him to cease and desist, from the moment they knocked on his door and started asking questions.
But here they were, descending upon him, he said, "like I was Al Capone" hours before the first game of the NFL season. Here they were, seizing his three accounts at Amboy Bank, only after his deposits from pool participants drove the balance to more than $846,000. Of that money, Bovery said, $722,000 belonged to pool players -- some entrants still hadn't paid -- and $124,000 was his life's savings.
"They targeted John because of the money that was involved, and instead of telling him to stop, they shut him down the Thursday that the season started," said Ralph Ferrara, his civil attorney. "And then they said it was 'coincidental.'"
Ferrara is a former participant in the pool. He took the case pro bono not only because he likes Bovery, but because he believes the Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office can't prove that Bovery broke any laws, and because he believes the players who sent their $100 certainly did not. Bovery was charged with promoting gambling in the third degree and financial facilitation of criminal activity -- or money laundering -- in the first degree.
"You think you're going to get 12 people to say this man should go to jail?" Ferrara said. "You're an average person. You've heard this man's story and you're going to vote to convict him?"
Daniel Wallach, a Florida-based sports and gaming attorney, isn't sure. He believes Bovery was potentially breaking as many as three federal laws operating the pools, but added, "His pool falls into the large gray area -- not quite legal but not explicitly illegal."
GACOP 2 YASUKAWA YASUKAWAChristopher J. Gramiccioni, the acting prosecutor in Monmouth County, refused to comment on the Bovery case because, a spokesman said, it's still ongoing. NJ Advance Media file photo
Christopher Gramiccioni, the acting prosecutor for Monmouth County, and Chris Matthews, the lead prosecutor in the case, refused to comment because the case is ongoing. "It's just our practice not to try these cases in the press," spokesman Charles Webster said.
So they refused answer a litany of questions about their decisions and behavior in prosecuting this case, such as:
If this is an important crime why haven't they busted another pool operator since? How exactly did Bovery launder money when he has a record of every penny and it was kept in a single bank? And why didn't investigators tell Bovery that he was breaking the law when he -- foolishly, it turns out -- met with them and explained how he operated?
The answer to the last one is easy: They wanted the money, and they waited until the accounts were nice and fat before their devious cash grab.
And those last three words are not mine. They belong to Monmouth County civil judge Paul Escandon, from a June 2014 ruling on a separate civil case Bovery filed, challenging the seizure of the money. Escandon granted the prosecutors a summary judgment that canceled a trial, but made it abundantly clear he was not fond of the prosecutor's actions.
"Troubling as the reality often is, the judiciary is not always tasked with adjudicating a palatable and fair outcome," Escandon writes in his opinion, stating that, while he finds what Bovery did to be illegal, he pointed to the thousands of other sports pools in the country and added, "This court would be remiss to ignore the web of contradictions, hypocrisy and opportunism this seizure presents."
That civil case is still awaiting an appeal. A criminal trial date is set for June after nearly five years filled with delays that Ferrara considers stall tactics, and even then, the trial is unlikely to start until the fall. Bovery's lawyers plan to present a potential witness list that includes all of the nearly 4,000 pool participants, leading to another logistical nightmare: Would it be even possible to find 12 jurors who don't know any of the players?
Bovery, meanwhile, has watched as New Jersey aggressively pursues legalized sports betting as a way to inject money into Atlantic City's casinos and the state's racetracks.
Some of the most influential lawmakers in the state, with the full backing of Gov. Christie, are fighting the four major professional sports leagues and the NCAA in court for the right to have Las Vegas-style betting ... and, all the while, one county is fighting one New Jersey resident for essentially doing the same thing.
And be clear on that: It is one New Jersey resident.
"I'm a rules guy," Bovery said. "You want to enforce the letter of the law? Fine. But I'm the only pool manager you'll able to find in the state? The first one you ever found? And four and a half years later you couldn't find anybody else? Did you even bother to call the company I used that runs 20,000 pools to see if there are any others in New Jersey?
"Why am I the only one?"
HIS LIFE WILL NEVER BE THE SAME
Bovery wishes he could reset the calendar to Sept. 9, 2010, but he knows that's impossible. He said he has gained 30 pounds from the stress of the case and has trouble sleeping. He spent 25 days in jail in the winter of 2011 after he was indicted, and was so severely depressed, he said he asked other prisoners for ways to end his life.
Use the sheets from your bed to make a noose, they told him. Steal a bottle of the chemicals when they make us scrub the floor.
Mary Bovery would have to leave her teaching job early on Wednesdays to see him at the jail, and what she saw frightened her. "It's not easy to see somebody you've loved for 30 years in an orange jumpsuit, broken," she said. "He was not in a very good state of mind."
Things didn't improve much once he was released on bail. It's not only that he can't teach any more because of the pending felony conviction, he can't even get a job at one of the big golf stores on Route 1 near his house. He tutors, and Mary is working two jobs, but they have to borrow money from friends just to pay his expenses. He figures they are more than $150,000 in debt.
John BoveryAn estimated 40 million people will participate in NCAA Tournament pools this month. John Bovery wants to know: What did he do that was so wrong? (Andrew Mills | NJ Advance Media for
Jim Brown has watched the suffering up close. He is the principal at Sayreville High, a man who trusted Bovery enough to let him plan the school's senior trips to Florida, saving the district what he called "an enormous amount of money." The prosecutors audited those trips, Brown said, and found only one irregularity: Bovery had refused to accept the money for his own flight.
"John wouldn't accept that because he played a round of golf while he was there," Brown said. But even if he had, the principal knows that it would have been properly noted because of his incredible attention to detail. "He has every penny he's spent listed from Communion on out."
Brown believes the case has only dragged out this long because of all that money, and he's not alone. Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union), who is leading the state's attempts to bring legalized sports betting to its casinos and horseracing tracks, sees it as a case of overzealous prosecution.
"This is no different than the hundreds of thousands of pools that go on all over the country," Lesniak said. "The only difference is the size of it."
Lesniak calls March 17 "D-Day" in New Jersey's court battle, because that's when oral arguments will take place in the U.S. Third District Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. A decision is expected later this spring.
Not that the court's decision, or the recent support that the commissioners of two professional sports leagues have shown for legalized gambling, will help Bovery. Neither will the general acceptance of March Madness pools this time of year, or the fact companies that run fantasy sports games aggressively advertise on sports radio.
Bovery has written Gov. Christie, asking for help. His letter went unanswered. He just finally wants his day in court now, a chance for a jury to hear his story. "Give me 12 people here!" he said, gesturing with his hand around the sports bar.
On the TV behind him, college basketball highlights are playing in an endless loop. Bovery is asked if, after all that's happened to him in his legal ordeal, he'd still enter an NCAA Tournament pool this month. He laughed.
"Of course," he said. "It's just a TV screen with colors on it if I don't have $25 riding on it."