How a small-time handicapper concocted a wild MLB game-fixing tale
This story appears in the Aug. 18, 2014, issue of Sports Illustrated. It was produced by The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit media organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area, in collaboration with SI. Subscribe to the magazine here.
In the waning days of the 2012 major league season, Niki Congero received an unusual text message. It came from a man she had never met — a sports handicapper who for a couple of weeks had been texting unsolicited betting tips to her cellphone.
“LOL,” wrote the man, who identified himself as James Hunter from VIP Sports. “I got a baseball game that will be fixed on sunday.”
Congero, a co-owner of a recording studio in Las Vegas, had celebrity connections. She was hosting an upcoming charity event at the Mirage hotel featuring reality-TV stars and figured the handicapper was offering her free tips because he had pegged her as a conduit to high-profile clients.
At first the tips were nothing special, Congero told The Center for Investigative Reporting. Then the handicapper guaranteed her a winner in the Sept. 16 game between the Pirates and the Cubs at Wrigley Field. “My best friend is pitching today for the pirates,” Hunter texted. “His name is jeff locke. he will not have a good day.” In a later text he wrote, “Tell your biggest people that pirates game today is fixed. My friend will be throwing this game.”
Pittsburgh jumped out to an early lead behind Locke, a late-season call-up. While the Bucs were ahead, Congero says, the handicapper phoned her, acknowledging that the game wasn’t going the way he had predicted. He implied that he was in touch with the lefthander even as the game was under way.
“I talked to my friend the pitcher, and he said he was going to make it right,” Congero remembers him saying.
Sure enough, in the bottom of the fifth inning, Locke fell apart. In a span of eight pitches he gave up a home run, a single, another home run and another single, shrinking the Pirates’ lead from 6-1 to 6-5. He left the game, and Pittsburgh went on to lose 13-9.
People who bet on the Cubs made money. But Congero wasn’t among them. She found the idea of a fixed baseball game deeply disturbing, and she wanted the handicapper investigated.
All over the country, people who bet on baseball in the fall of 2012 began hearing that Locke and a mysterious handicapper were fixing Pirates games. Like Congero, some complained. Those reports sent shivers through Major League Baseball, prompting a probe of unusual scope and intensity: MLB’s own investigators and organized-crime detectives from the New York City Police Department were deployed to learn the handicapper’s identity and unravel the plot.
Before it was over, their investigation would lead to a tense standoff by the side of an Arizona desert road, where more than a dozen armed officers confronted two frightened young women with a baby in an effort to track down James Hunter. The outcome would hinge on separating fact from fantasy in the interpersonal dynamics between two former youth-baseball teammates from a small New England town — one of whom grew up to become a major league pitcher, the other a sports gambler.
Tiny and scenic Conway, N.H., is 30 miles south of Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Presidential Range. It’s the birthplace of Jeff Locke, 26, a baby-faced lefthander who for the last two seasons has been a fixture in the Pirates’ rotation. In 2013 he even made the National League All-Star team.
Conway was also the boyhood home of Kris Barr. He is 27, a tall, brash man with close-cropped hair, a hint of a Southwestern drawl and a record of minor arrests for marijuana possession and fighting. On Facebook, Barr, who sometimes goes by the alias James Hunter, calls himself “the best sports handicapper on the planet.”
Barr’s family moved to Conway from Boston when he was a baby. He recalls a wonderful childhood there and has especially fond memories of Locke, the son of a onetime local prep-baseball star—and, he says, his best friend. The boys met in grade school. For a time they were inseparable, Barr recalls. “Back in the day, there would be sleepovers every weekend, and we’d always be active, running around like kids do,” he says.
As a kid Barr could throw hard, and he became a “very good player” in Babe Ruth League, recalls former coach Peter Pelletier: “He pitched and played first base or anywhere you want.” Locke was a star as well, a lefthanded slugger who could hit the ball out of the park. The boys played on opposing teams during the regular season but were teammates — and, Pelletier says, friends — on the postseason Mount Washington Valley All-Stars.
In 1998, when Barr was in sixth grade, his mother won the New Hampshire lottery’s $1,000-per-week Cash for Life prize. Winters are fierce in Conway. The family thought of moving to Phoenix but landed 90 miles north in Prescott Valley, Ariz. Barr lost touch with his New Hampshire friends, including Locke.
In the years that followed, Locke became the greatest high school pitcher anybody in Conway had seen. As a sophomore he threw two no-hitters, one a perfect game. As a junior he pitched a five-inning no-hitter in which all the outs were strikeouts. He was twice voted the best player in the state by New Hampshire’s largest newspaper. He finished high school with a record of 34–2 and an ERA of 0.49, and after graduating in 2006 he was drafted by the Braves in the second round and signed for a $650,000 bonus.
On the other side of the country, Barr had stopped playing baseball when he was 16 and had gotten into sports gambling. At first he helped his father place bets online. Then, at 17, Barr took out ads on online gaming sites and began selling tips.
Today Barr lives in Prescott Valley with his girlfriend and baby and helps run a sports memorabilia shop. But the business of betting often requires him to make the 250-mile drive to Las Vegas. He says much of his income comes from selling tips on his website, VIPSportsInvestment.com, on which he handicaps basketball, baseball and especially the NFL. The site says it is “for serious gamblers only.” Tips are delivered via text message or email. Barr says he doesn’t book bets. Clients can place them with the sports books in casinos, with illegal bookmakers or with the plethora of online betting sites run out of the Philippines or Costa Rica.
Handicappers must learn to ride an emotional roller coaster. In 2012, Barr says, he hit “22 NFL games in a row on the spread” and was flying high. But losing streaks are brutal because they cost you clients -- and because, as Barr puts it, “some people take gambling real seriously.”
“If I have a bad weekend and I lose a couple of thousand for somebody ... I’ve heard of people being shot over something like that,” he says.
To ensure that angry clients cannot find him, Barr says he doesn’t always use his true name or address. On the VIP Sports site he’s identified as James Hunter. When he filled out the paperwork to create the site, Barr gave his name as James Jones. He listed a postal address that no gambling client would associate with him — the house in New Hampshire where he lived as a 12-year-old.
Over the years Barr tracked Locke’s minor league career: three seasons in the Braves’ organization, then a 2009 trade that brought him to the Pirates’ system. By then social media had exploded. Before the 2011 season Barr messaged Locke on Facebook. No reply.
Barr’s brother Don, who also knew Locke from youth baseball, messaged the pitcher as well. At first the Facebook exchanges were friendly, but then Locke’s tone changed. “He said, ‘All you want is to be my friend because I play for the Pirates,’ ” Don Barr says. “I said, ‘No — we were childhood friends.’ He never wrote me back.”
Locke’s rude message to his brother angered Kris Barr. It bothered him too, that Locke “never wrote back to me,” he says. He took it as an obvious put-down. The more he thought about it, the more it irked him.
From then on Barr carried a grudge against his former friend. “I said, if he ever makes it to the big leagues, I’m betting against him every time.”
In September 2011, Locke was called up to the Pirates. “I was hoping he would do horrible,” Barr says, “and he did.”
After Locke was knocked around in three games, Barr decided to handicap the pitcher’s Sept. 28 start against Milwaukee. He picked the Brewers to score at least five runs, to have the lead after five innings and to win by two runs or more. Barr got everything right: Locke gave up three home runs and the Brewers won 7-3. But there was little interest in a late-season game between two also-ran clubs.
Locke spent most of the 2012 season in Triple A, but in August he got another big league shot. He pitched in two games out of the Pittsburgh bullpen, then started a Sept. 3 home game against the weak-hitting Astros. In the fifth inning, with two men on base, he hung a curveball to infielder Brett Wallace. Wallace hit it out of the park, and the Pirates lost 5-1.
Sweet! Barr thought. After that he began picking Pittsburgh to lose whenever Locke pitched. No research was involved. “He was just pitching, and I was hoping he gets rocked,” Barr says.
Remembering the lack of interest in the Pirates’ game he handicapped the previous year, Barr decided to up the ante: He advertised his picks by claiming that he and Locke were conspiring to fix the games. “I was telling everybody ... ‘I just talked to him and he’s throwing this game,’ ” Barr says.
On Sept. 9, Barr picked the Cubs to beat the Pirates. In the fourth inning Locke threw an 89-mph fastball, and Josh Vitters hit it over the leftfield fence. Two batters later Locke threw an identical pitch to Anthony Recker. He hit it out to center. The Cubs won 4-2. It was the same story in the Pirates-Cubs game on Sept. 16, the one Barr had touted to Niki Congero: Locke was shelled and Chicago won.
Before a Sept. 21 start against the Astros, Barr predicted Locke would “get hit early and often.” Locke gave up a three-run homer in the first inning and Houston won 7-1. The gambler predicted Locke would take another beating in the Pirates’ Sept. 26 game against the Mets in New York. Locke gave up nine hits in 32⁄3 innings and the Mets won 6–0. Then, for Locke’s final start of the season, Oct. 1 against Atlanta, Barr switched it up, predicting a win. “I told everybody, He’s going to pitch his heart out ’cause he wants to get his first win against the team that drafted him,” he says. Locke and the Pirates beat the Braves 2-1.
For five games in a row, and usually against the odds, Barr had accurately predicted Locke’s starts. Barr repeated his story of fixing games to many people, including, he says, “a couple of big handicappers” on the East Coast. “They pretty much laughed at me,” Barr says. But after the third loss that he correctly predicted, one of the handicappers threatened to report him to the authorities.
Barr didn’t worry about getting into trouble for claiming to have fixed games. “My brother kept telling me, ‘Don’t be saying that stuff to people,’ ” he says. “I said, ‘Nobody will take me seriously, come on.’ ”
Game-fixing was at the heart of baseball’s worst scandal, and it almost killed the sport. In 1919 eight players from the White Sox were accused of conspiring with gamblers to throw the World Series. Baseball vowed to drive gambling from the game and banned the players for life. Since then, publicized gambling scandals in baseball have been rare. The worst involved alltime hit king Pete Rose, who was banned in 1989 for betting on baseball while managing the Reds. But Rose was accused only of betting on games, not fixing them.
Perhaps there aren’t more serious attempts to fix games because it’s such a dangerous and complicated undertaking, says Fay Vincent, commissioner of baseball from 1989 to ’92. Besides, players know they face a lifetime ban if they are caught. In an era of multimillion-dollar salaries, the risk of that draconian punishment hardly seems worth the payoff from gamblers. Still, even though fixing a game is an improbable scenario, “baseball is very concerned about corruption,” Vincent says. If the sport heard allegations of game-fixing that were at all credible, it surely would react aggressively.
It didn’t seem that way to Congero, who couldn’t get anyone to listen.
She was rebuffed by a contact at the Nevada Gaming Commission, then by a friend in federal law enforcement. Finally, a friend who works in the sports book at a casino suggested contacting MLB. Congero found a number and made the call, telling her story to a baseball security official.
Three months passed. Then, in January 2013, two MLB investigators visited Congero in Las Vegas. They wanted to see the text messages from the handicapper and paid her $150 for her phone. She says she never heard from them again -- which baffled her considering the accuracy of Barr’s prediction. “The bottom line,” Congero says, “is what he said would happen, happened.”
Actually, by the time they met with Congero, baseball investigators already had fielded several reports about a gambler named Hunter who claimed to be fixing games with Jeff Locke -- and they were taking the allegations seriously. An early tip came in an anonymous letter routed to MLB’s department of investigations. The unit was set up in 2008 in response to criticism that the sport had been lax in policing steroid abuse. Under Daniel Mullin, a former deputy chief of the NYPD who headed the department from its inception until this year, the unit had become known for aggressive investigations. Last year Yankees star Alex Rodriguez complained in a lawsuit that Mullin had subjected him to “scorched earth” tactics in MLB’s probe of the player’s alleged steroid use. In May, Mullin was fired in a shake-up of the investigative unit.
The possible fixed-game case was assigned to senior investigator Rick Burnham, a former New York City police detective. He says he considered the initial tip “elaborate [and] credible.” Soon Burnham received another tip concerning Locke, from the NYPD’s organized-crime division: A source in Las Vegas had told detectives of a gambler named Gordon Hunter who was “working in cahoots with a player fixing games,” Burnham recalls.
After that, Burnham and the New York City police investigated the case together. For a time they focused on the pitcher. They reviewed hours of game video, looking for signs that Locke was deliberately giving up hits by taking velocity off his pitches or throwing them over the heart of the plate. The investigators spotted nothing conclusive, nor did they uncover any contacts between the pitcher and organized-crime figures or gamblers.
Identifying Hunter was easy: The VIP Sports Investment website and cellphone numbers led them to Kris Barr. Investigators noted that the site was registered in Locke’s New Hampshire hometown -- the first evidence that the gambler’s claim of a personal connection with the pitcher might be true. They decided to go to Arizona.
On the frosty morning of Feb. 21, 2013, Kris Barr became convinced he was being followed by “undercover” cars — late-model vehicles with heavily tinted windows, driven by men who looked like plainclothes police. Wherever he drove in Prescott Valley one of the cars would turn up in his rearview mirror. His concern deepened when he drove to work and found another car parked outside the office. Agitated, he drove away. When he got to a bowling alley on Second Street, he abruptly pulled into the lot, abandoned his car and walked home.
By the time he got there, Barr had decided the police were after him. He called the county drug task force, which he had encountered during his conviction for a misdemeanor marijuana charge three years earlier. Barr says the officer assured him that nobody was following him. When Barr persisted, the officer told him to go to the hospital and “get psychiatric help.”
By that evening Barr was frantic. He asked for help retrieving his car: While Barr waited in a borrowed car, several members of his family piled into two vehicles and drove to the bowling alley. His sister, Savannah, then got behind the wheel of Kris’s car, with his girlfriend, Kendra Hagerty, and their seven-month-old baby as passengers. Barr’s mother followed in her car. His brother Don and a 12-year-old niece trailed in his own car.
They drove a mile on a strip of two-lane asphalt through a semirural area west of town. Then, according to Barr’s family, all hell broke loose. As many as eight unmarked cars with lights flashing roared down the darkened road, forcing the convoy to pull over. Plainclothes officers jumped out.
According to Savannah Barr, an officer with a drawn gun leaned into the car and declared, “Whoever is driving this car is going to jail!” Frightened and in tears, she got out of the car.
The officer was looking for Kris Barr: Kris had been in “a hit-and-run in New Mexico,” he said, and the other driver was in critical condition. Where was Kris?
Don Barr had turned on his cellphone to record the traffic stop. He too was told to get out of his car. He says he could hear officers yelling at his sister, threatening to put her in jail and take her kids away if she didn’t disclose Kris Barr’s whereabouts. Don called out to her, saying she didn’t have to say anything. For that, he says, he was handcuffed.
“You’re causing a ruckus,” an officer says in the recording.
Don Barr asks who the officers are. “You guys are supposed to tell me why I was pulled over,” he says.
“We’re conducting an investigation,” one officer responds. “ ... And I am not giving you any information about what we’re investigating. Do I look like a traffic cop to you?
“I’m a very secretive person,” the officer continues. “When I feel like you have a need to know, I’ll tell you.”
By the Barr family’s estimates, 15 officers surrounded them that night. To this day, they have no idea who the officers were.
The investigators who worked the fixed-game case were not forthcoming. MLB punted questions to the NYPD. Det. Cheryl Crispin, a department spokeswoman, acknowledged detectives had investigated the case. But she declined to identify the Arizona agency involved in the traffic stop.
The Yavapai County sheriff, the Prescott Valley police and the U.S. Marshals Service said they weren’t involved. Finally, The Center for Investigative Reporting queried the office of Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio, a flamboyant lawman famous for publicity stunts that burnish his tough-on-crime image. Arpaio’s office is in Phoenix, a county away from the Barr family incident. But by Arizona law a sheriff can enter another agency’s jurisdiction to investigate a crime.
Spokesman Lieut. Brandon Jones confirmed that the department’s fugitive unit had made the traffic stop to assist the New York detectives. He said there was no incident report -- “no records, no nothing,” as he put it -- and said the detective in charge of the traffic stop declined to be interviewed. “MLB asked them not to talk,” Jones said.
On the side of the road that night, Savannah Barr gave in. She called her brother and pleaded with him to come talk to the officers. Kris, she said, they say you killed somebody with your car and I’m about to be put in jail for it.
Filled with dread, Kris Barr drove to the desolate stretch of road where his family had been stopped. He approached the officers and told them he didn’t know anything about an accident. The officers, Barr says, acknowledged that they had been following him all day. Now they were waiting for a special agent coming from the airport.
Half an hour later the man Barr would come to call “MLB Rick” — Burnham — arrived in an SUV with two New York City detectives. Somebody told Barr to get in the car. As soon as the door closed, the investigators asked about Jeff Locke. “I started laughing,” Barr says. “But it wasn’t anything funny for the next hour.”
We have proof you fixed baseball games, Barr remembers the investigators telling him before adding that they were going to convict him on a “ton of charges” and send him to prison for years. When Barr denied fixing games, he says Burnham “went crazy on me ... cussing at me, telling me I needed to cooperate — he called me a liar so many times in that car.” Burnham is a muscular, grim-faced man, a former U.S. Marine sergeant. His booming voice filled the SUV.
The investigators advised Barr that “the best thing for me was just to admit it,” he says. “They told me they would give me 10 minutes with Kendra and the baby to say goodbye before they took me away.” Rattled and scared, Barr tried to explain his boyhood friendship with Locke, saying the story of fixing games was just “something stupid” that had begun with a slight on Facebook. He hadn’t talked to Locke since they were kids. Burnham, Barr says, yelled, “I know you’ve talked to Jeff Locke!”
The grilling went on until the investigators seemed to run out of questions. They sent Barr home, ordering him to wait for them the next morning in the parking lot of a Family Dollar store on state Route 69. If he didn’t show up, Barr says, they made it clear they would track him down and put him in jail.
The next morning Barr met the investigators and climbed back into the SUV. This session was less intense. Barr says he was told to write a statement explaining the hoax. The investigators also wanted a list of his boyhood friends from New Hampshire and all the contacts in his cellphone. As the interview wrapped up, Barr says, the investigators made it clear they still thought he was lying. “There’s no way you predicted the outcomes of those games,” he recalls Burnham saying.
Over the next six weeks Barr received many phone calls and four visits from the investigators, usually unannounced. Burnham combed through Barr’s Twitter account and cellphones. Barr’s girlfriend, sister and brother were interviewed. Don Barr said the investigator went through his Facebook account, focusing on the messages he had sent to Locke.
Weeks passed without contact. Then, in April 2013, Burnham called Barr. To close the case, he said the gambler would have to take a lie-detector test.
By then, Barr was no longer afraid. He told Burnham to “f--- off,” he says, and hung up. Then he reconsidered and called back. He would take the polygraph exam as long as MLB agreed to pay him $10,000 if the test showed he was telling the truth. Burnham agreed to think it over, Barr says. Later “he called me back and said no, and that was it.”
In the end, both the New York City Police Department and baseball officials had examined the case from every angle. The police department concluded that no crime had been committed, spokeswoman Crispin said, and “the case was referred to MLB for their internal investigation.”
Burnham never found evidence of recent contact between the pitcher and the gambler, and nothing to suggest that anyone served as a go-between to relay inside information about Locke to Barr. Nor was there unusual betting activity, as would be expected if games were being fixed. “We went to Vegas and spoke to people out there,” Burnham says. “We had many informants who looked into it from the back end, and none of it checked out.”
He became convinced that Barr’s story of social media disrespect and revenge was true. Burnham closed the case, he says, with “no doubt in my mind.”
Jeff Locke first learned of the investigation after it was over, early in the 2013 season. Baseball investigators asked to meet with him, says Bob Lenaghan, a lawyer for the baseball players’ union. Lenaghan went along. “They told him, ‘You should know that this person out there, who you knew when you were a kid and played [youth] baseball, had made allegations against you,’ ” he says.
The investigators assured Locke that they had concluded the allegations were bogus. They told him that Barr had concocted the story out of jealousy, Lenaghan recalls, because “he always thought it should have been him -- he was a better baseball player back then and life ain’t fair.”
How did Locke react? “Put yourself in his shoes,” Lenaghan says. “It is surprising. But he first heard about it at the same time he was cleared, so I don’t think it was as much a distraction as it otherwise might have been.”
Locke declined to discuss the investigation with reporters. He is “glad that it is behind him,” his agent, Seth Levinson, wrote in an email. When approached before a recent Pirates-Giants game in San Francisco, the pitcher rebuffed questions. “I don’t know anything about it — sorry, man,” he said, and retreated to the training room.
The game-fixing probe didn’t seem to affect Locke. Signed to a $497,500 contract, he started strong in 2013. In the first half he went 8-2 with a 2.15 ERA and was named to that All-Star team. But in the second half of the season he faltered, going 2-5 with a 6.12 ERA. In August 2013, Locke was briefly sent to Triple A.
As Locke struggled, Barr couldn’t resist needling him. “On his Twitter, I wrote, ‘Have fun watching the postseason from home,’ ” Barr says. “I was just being a jerk.”
Soon after, his phone rang. It was Burnham with a clear and direct message: “Quit trying to talk to Jeff Locke.”
This story was produced by The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit media organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area, in collaboration with Sports Illustrated. Learn more about CIR at cironline.org. Contact the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org.