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One June morning in 2017, an Albanian American real-estate broker named Viktor Gjonaj parked outside a strip mall in Sterling Heights, a small suburb on the outskirts of Detroit. He hurried past a halal-meat shop, through a waft of spices from an Indian grocery store, and into the claim office of the Michigan Lottery. Gjonaj, who is 6 foot 5, loomed over the front desk in his designer Italian shoes, his dark hair slicked back and glistening in the fluorescent light, and announced that he had won the Daily 4 lottery draw. Twice a day since 1981, the Michigan Lottery has drawn four numbered Ping-Pong balls from a plastic tank and paid up to $5,000 to any player with the same four digits on their pink ticket. But Gjonaj did not have one winning ticket. He had 500.
Skeptical lottery officials ushered him into a back office and checked his tickets carefully. Each was genuine and contained the four winning numbers—7-8-0-0—drawn on June 18. The odds of winning were just one in 416—not terribly long by lottery standards—but it was extremely unusual for someone to play the same numbers 500 times in one day. There were other red flags. Most people who present themselves at lottery claim centers are ecstatic, yet this winner waited for his prizes with the impatience of someone picking up dry cleaning. It took staff six hours to cut 500 checks for $5,000 each. Then Gjonaj (his name is pronounced Joe-nye) tucked them inside the pocket of his sports jacket and roared away in his Lincoln Navigator, richer by $2.5 million.
Over the next nine months, the 40-year-old real-estate broker would return many times, exchanging thousands of winning tickets for nearly $30 million, making him one of the biggest winners in the history of the Michigan Lottery. His luck appeared to defy the laws of statistics and probability, and sent the lottery commission into a spin. Had Gjonaj found a way to rig the machines? Or had he somehow developed a system to predict the winning combinations again and again and again?
Since he was a little boy, Viktor Gjonaj had had a head for numbers. His parents emigrated to the United States from Montenegro and spoke little English, so it was 12-year-old Viktor who handled the sale of their home in Sterling Heights, an area populated by many Yugoslavians and Albanians. As a teenager, he haggled so aggressively for a used car that the owner promised him a job at his real-estate firm. The day after Gjonaj’s 18th birthday, he became a full-time agent. “Every day, fear played a role in it,” he later said on a community television chat show. But, he added, “I knew deep down inside that I was going to figure it out. And I was going to eventually be successful.”
By the time he was in his 30s, he had become one of the busiest commercial-real-estate brokers in Detroit, negotiating deals for a gigantic Walmart and several Taco Bells and Burger Kings. Gjonaj charmed clients with meals at fine restaurants and liked to recite poetry. He was also a ruthless dealmaker who began his days before 6 a.m. and was known for his catchphrase: “People lie. Numbers don’t.”
In his relentless drive to make money, Gjonaj took risks and cut corners. He liked to “flip paper”—he’d enter into a contract to buy a $1.2 million tract of land, then quickly find a buyer to assume the purchase for $1.4 million, pocketing the difference. This wasn’t illegal, but it required nerves of steel. “He just pushed edges and boundaries that he really didn’t need to,” Randy Thomas, who employed Gjonaj in the 2000s, says. “He wanted to be the man.”
At home, Gjonaj and his wife, Rose, doted on their young daughters—together they have three, and he has a fourth from a previous relationship. To blow off steam, he spent Friday nights downing vodka–Red Bulls at a restaurant named Tiramisu. He loved to play Club Keno, a $1-minimum lottery game with live drawings every few minutes. The owner let him play alone at the bar after closing time. “That’s where I fell in love with the algorithms of numbers,” he told me. Gjonaj was convinced that the draws weren’t purely random. He developed a smartphone app that he thought predicted winning numbers based on patterns in previous draws. A $52,000 win seemed to confirm his belief.
After his father died, on Father’s Day in 2015, Gjonaj’s gambling escalated. Then Tiramisu closed, and he found himself in busy restaurants screaming at bartenders to run his numbers. He decided this was not a good look for a man who was rubbing shoulders with local business leaders, so he quit playing. He later switched to the Michigan Lottery’s Daily 4, which can pay up to $5,000, and the Daily 3, paying up to $500. A Daily 4 ticket costs $1—or up to $24 for a “wheel” play, which turns any combination of the chosen four numbers into a winner (1-2-3-4, 4-3-2-1, 2-4-1-3, etc.). This improved his odds from one in 10,000 to one in 416 for a 24-way bet.
Gjonaj said he discovered “strange phenomena” in the results posted on the Michigan Lottery website. “When a certain number came out, my number would be shortly thereafter,” he said. He built charts and spreadsheets that he believed gave him an early-warning system for winning numbers. He gambled lightly on 4-7-4-2, parlaying any winnings onto 0-0-7-8, a number that his charts said often followed. Then came the shapes. Gjonaj connected the dates of lucky draws, scrawling an X on his calendar that he believed predicted when the number was due again.
Gjonaj had won only a few hundred thousand dollars, he estimates, until June 2017, when he noticed that the number 7-8-0-0 tended to appear at least once or twice a year. Believing that the number 7-8-0-0 was due, he started to buy 300 to 1,000 $12 tickets every day. His numbers didn’t come up on June 15, June 16, or June 17. But on June 18, he hit the big time, collecting his $2.5 million from the claim center.
Gjonaj bought his lottery tickets from Picolo’s Liquor & Deli, a type of alcohol and tobacco shop known in Michigan as a “party store.” The store’s owners, like all Michigan Lottery retailers, received a 6 percent cut of ticket sales and a 2 percent commission on prize money. According to an investigation by Crain’s Detroit Business, Gjonaj’s activity helped boost Daily 4 ticket sales at Picolo’s from $51,745 in 2015 to $1.3 million in 2016. By 2017, the lottery terminals at Picolo’s were running day and night, printing more than 3.92 million tickets a year, at the rate of one ticket every eight seconds.
When his spreadsheets told him that numbers 2-7-0-6 were due in November 2017, Gjonaj instructed Picolo’s to print 800 “wheeled” tickets at $24 each, spending a total of $19,200. That night the store called him to say he’d won $4 million. But Gjonaj didn’t celebrate. “Nobody in my family knew what I was doing,” he said. “You shake it off and get back to work.”
The problem was that the patterns existed entirely in Gjonaj’s head. For all his huge wins, he was also losing massive amounts of money, sinking hundreds of thousands of dollars into his theory that certain numbers repeated themselves. Mathematically speaking, that theory is bunk, Mark Glickman, a senior lecturer on statistics at Harvard University, says. “Drawings from day to day are what statisticians would describe as being ‘independent.’” The Michigan Lottery, after all, pulls numbers from a bunch of bouncing Ping-Pong balls, not electronic software that could, in theory, be governed by algorithms.
Gjonaj quickly became addicted to the high of huge wins. Whenever he seemed to be on the brink of losing everything, he’d hit a jackpot. When he was up, he was on top of the world. When he was in the hole, he was only one big win away from glory. He told himself that his losses wouldn’t matter if he made one big score. He just needed a way to keep buying as many tickets as possible.
In October 2017, Gjonaj set up a real-estate company—the Imperium Group, named after a word for “absolute power.” He decorated his office walls with photographs of Steve Jobs, Stephen Hawking, Mark Cuban, and Dr. Dre. He hired independent contractors to help market the business, including the son of the owner of Picolo’s. But while they were working, Gjonaj shut his office door and focused on playing the lottery.
His gambling was by now becoming a lot of work for one person. So he decided he needed a partner.
In December, Gjonaj attended a funeral for the mother of an old friend, Gregory Vitto. This was a tough time for Vitto, who had lost his job as a construction foreman and was struggling to pay his daughter’s college tuition. Vitto is 10 years older than Gjonaj and had known him since the 1990s, when Gjonaj loaned him a car for six months. Their friendship had faded over the years, but Vitto thought of Gjonaj as someone who was always there in his hour of need, paying him to do odd jobs, and giving him $500 in cash on his 50th birthday. “He was like a little brother to me … he was always a giving person,” Vitto told me.
Vitto, who is tall and fair and looks nothing like his Italian American parents, learned in sixth grade that he had been adopted. Later, he tried to find his biological parents, but all the documents were sealed, and anyway, after his wife left him, he was too busy raising two girls, never missing a basketball game or graduation. At times Vitto had to scrape by on government assistance. “He’s a great fighter. I mean, he went through a very difficult, traumatic situation,” Gjonaj said. “That was one of the reasons why I brought him onto the company.” In January 2018, Gjonaj surprised Vitto with an offer to join him at the Imperium Group. “He showed me the beautiful office where I’d be sitting right next to him,” Vitto recalled.
Vitto signed up for a real-estate license, despite having no experience. He and Gjonaj both took Adderall for ADHD and seemed to feed off each other’s high energy. One evening, as Vitto walked out of the office, Gjonaj told him, “Play 8-6-4-3 on the way home.”
“Oh, the lottery thing?” Vitto asked. He wasn’t a lottery player, but he bought two $1 tickets at a party store and forgot about them. He was eating dinner when his new boss called.
“How does it feel to be rich?” Gjonaj asked.
Vitto checked the winning numbers and discovered that he’d won $10,000. “That’s freaking unbelievable!” he said. When he raced back to the office, Gjonaj confessed that he had 2,000 winning tickets. He had won $10 million. Vitto told me Gjonaj gave him $100,000, and asked for his help. They sat up all night drinking Red Bulls and stapling lottery tickets to forms. Their laughter echoed around the empty office: “We’re rich!”
“We sat down and he said, ‘I want to show you what’s going on,’” Vitto recalled. Gjonaj drew out his grid and explained how he picked his numbers. Vitto knew it wasn’t possible to game the lottery like this, but he kept quiet. He was grateful for the money and a stable job. “Don’t try to wrap your head around it. He had no system,” Vitto told me.
That night, Gjonaj revealed his plan to hit more jackpots and pump the winnings into legitimate properties. He would design an enviable family home, and save a $5 million nest egg for his daughters. “He built a dream of what we were going to do with commercial real estate,” Vitto said, “and that was it; we went for it.”
Trying to game the lottery is a distinctly American pursuit, says Jon Allsop, a journalist who has reported on the international lottery industry. People in other countries don’t tend to develop elaborate schemes to beat the system. But in most U.S. states, dozens of “professional” players are buying tickets in bulk. Unlike Gjonaj, who gambled on historical patterns, most of these pros exploit actual mathematical loopholes, like purchasing tickets en masse during a “roll down,” when no one wins the jackpot and the money flows into the prize tier below, thus making buying multiple tickets a better gamble. Since 2019, a group of math-whiz Princeton University alumni has scored at least $6 million from lotteries in Indiana, Missouri, Washington State, and the District of Columbia. But they are only part-timers compared with Jerry and Marge Selbee, who were enjoying a $26 million hot streak before the Massachusetts State Lottery stopped the game and suspended the licenses of two convenience stores the Selbees were known to frequent.
The Michigan Lottery commission had a surprise for Gjonaj, too. On February 2, 2018, the lottery limited each terminal across the state to processing $5,000 worth of play per day. Other changes to lottery protocol were seemingly designed to slow him down: “The rules had changed, and they would only allow me to drop off 200 forms per office, per day,” Gjonaj recalled. “Once I hit the $10 million, I think it raised 100 red flags within the lottery.”
On February 7, Benjamin Vogel, who worked in the Michigan Lottery’s security division, emailed James Grady, a Michigan State Police detective, asking about Gjonaj. The situation quickly reached the desk of Aric Nesbitt, then the state’s lottery commissioner. Nesbitt and his people saw only that Gjonaj was raking in jackpots; it was hard to track how much money he was spending on wheeled tickets. “The guy was winning big; I had my people do an investigation,” Nesbitt later told Kirk Pinho, a reporter for Crain’s Detroit Business. “As I recall, I believe we took actions at the lottery to try to slow him down.” But those efforts failed.
On February 28, Gjonaj won approximately $9.5 million: $6 million in tickets from Picolo’s and another $3.5 million from the Van Dyke Avenue Smoker’s Express, a different party store just a few miles away. Vitto orchestrated the play, making sure that each store printed numbers at full tilt, spending $6,300 on tickets. This was a boon for Vitto, who didn’t spend his own money on tickets, but shared in the winnings. I asked him what it felt like to win three lottery jackpots in 47 days. “I’m Dorothy. It’s the fucking Wizard of Oz, bro,” he laughed. “I’m fucking Muhammad Ali. I’m a space traveler. It was crazy, dude. Crazy.”
When Gjonaj and Vitto arrived at the claim center with thousands of winning tickets, staff sent them away, demanding each claim form “in triplicate.” So the two friends packed a suite at the Detroit Marriott full of guys scribbling away around the clock. “I walked around the room and made sure everybody filled them out right. We were crying and hugging in the morning,” Vitto said. While they were distracted by paperwork, Gjonaj said, the lottery drew one of his pet numbers, 0-2-1-9, on the Daily 4 draw. He hadn’t played it, and he was devastated.
Gjonaj was still attempting to run a real-estate business. Not long after his $9.5 million win, he and Vitto filmed a commercial for the Imperium Group. For the ad, Gjonaj smashed through a wall with a sledgehammer, and posed on the roof of their office building while a video drone whizzed past. “I was still focused on building my company … all the while having this secret,” Gjonaj told me.
His parallel lives proved difficult to maintain, however, and gradually Gjonaj came to rely on Vitto more and more. Vitto was left in charge of the mundane lottery operations. He would spend six hours and up to $100,000 each day on lottery tickets, before filling out claim forms and collecting the winnings. Gjonaj never tuned in to the televised lottery draw, leaving that to his partner, too. The show had once been a camp affair, with local TV personalities wearing sequins, but now it just showed the Ping-Pong balls popping like popcorn in a tank.
One day, Gjonaj had an idea. He told me he ordered a box of hot coffee and five empty cups in a holder before visiting a lottery claim center. “I would then proceed to stuff them with, you know, $500 or $1,000,” he admitted. The staff politely declined, but he would insist: “No, no, have some coffee.” These kickbacks helped to avoid any delays or issues, he said. “One time I went to the bathroom in the lottery office and stuffed a bunch of cash under the garbage can, because I wanted to change it up a little bit.” (A spokesperson for the Michigan Lottery said they were “not aware of those claims.”)
After a big win, Gjonaj and Vitto would meet up and speed around Detroit claiming tickets, before Gjonaj had to race home for story time with his girls. Once, when Gjonaj won $2.5 million, he said, he told the owner’s son at Picolo’s to hand $10,000 in cash to a customer who had a disabled son. Gjonaj and his wife took their girls on a tour of the Kids Kicking Cancer headquarters, in Southfield, Michigan, and he was so moved by the sick children that he became a significant donor. He and his wife went to see a Jennifer Lopez show in Las Vegas, and he paid for her to meet the star. One day, Gjonaj was driving Vitto through downtown Detroit when he ordered him to take off his wristwatch. He swung into a jewelry store and bought his friend a $10,000 Rolex.
Vitto, meanwhile, was making more money than he’d ever seen. He bought a Cadillac, put a down payment on a home, started a college fund for his daughters, donated money to the church where his adoptive father was a pastor, installed windows in his girlfriend’s mom’s house, sent some money to her aunt—a nun in Honduras—and hung on to the rest. Vitto hired a young man who had just left jail to fill out claim forms, so Vitto could focus on coordinating their efforts at the party stores, and even let him move into his house.
At Gjonaj’s instruction, Vitto ran up huge tabs at the stores, which Gjonaj said he would pay back out of his winnings. Vitto recalled that he was paid a salary, plus bonuses when Gjonaj won: “$100,000 here, $50,000 there.” He whizzed between party stores in a black convertible Corvette, another new purchase.
Vitto recruited his daughter Angelina to help fill out the claim forms, too. She was 17 and a senior in high school. “I honestly found it fun because I love to repeat my handwriting,” she told me. “So I memorized [Gjonaj’s] Social Security number; I memorized his height, his eye color.” Angelina was often the first to hear when they won: “It was pretty hilarious. I would be doing homework in my room and then my dad would start screaming out in the living room. And I’d know.” She would hide the completed forms in her father’s golf cart in their garage. Gjonaj had the passcode. In the dead of night, he would sneak in, leaving $1,000 or $2,000 in cash for her. “I didn’t even see his face,” Angelina told me. Vitto added: “It was like Santa Claus.”
Unlike her father, Angelina didn’t go on wild spending sprees. Instead, she took road trips with her sister to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, driving nine hours to hunt for rare rocks. “Lake Superior is the best lake to find agates and rocks,” she told me. At Little Girls Point, Angelina sat with her haul and looked out over the water, pondering her future. Maybe she’d never need to go to college, or ever work. “I felt like the world was great,” she said. “Everything was, like, set up now.”
But because the universe is like a plastic tank full of chaotic Ping-Pong balls, Gjonaj’s winnings started to wane. “We’d hit for $500,000, we’d hit for $50,000, we’d hit for $80,000,” Vitto recalled. But the seven- and eight-figure wins eluded them, and every day Gjonaj was burning through more cash.
His last major win was a $2 million jackpot on March 17, 2018, St. Patrick’s Day.
Philip B. Stark, a professor of statistics at UC Berkeley, who agreed to analyze Gjonaj’s lottery activities, told me in an email that by purchasing so many wheeled tickets twice a day, Gjonaj increased his chances of winning his five jackpots in 273 days to just over one in 100. These odds, Stark wrote, are “not especially striking.” In other words, it wasn’t particularly surprising how frequently Gjonaj had won, given how many tickets he bought. Though he may have thought he had cracked the lottery’s “system,” Gjonaj was in reality propping up pure luck with massive expenditures on tickets. To do so, he needed a steady supply of cash—and for no one to look too closely at his dealings at Imperium, his real-estate firm.
By April, Gjonaj had started to suspect that lottery bosses were watching him. “They just paid out close to $28 million in a seven-, eight-month period. They’re pissed off,” he told me. Gjonaj was on first-name terms with staff at one of the lottery claim centers, he said. “I get the phone call from my contact at the [lottery] office, who I became friends with, who says to me, ‘Watch out, they’re out to get you, be fucking careful.’” Gjonaj and Vitto decided to jet off to Las Vegas.
In May, the two men gazed down on the fountains from a sprawling suite on the top floor of the Bellagio hotel. During the day, Gjonaj hit the gaming tables and Vitto scarfed poolside pizza while a masseuse kneaded his back. At night they hit the town, Vitto wearing a $2,000 designer jacket borrowed from his friend, with a label embroidered in gold thread: “Exclusively tailored for Viktor Gjonaj.”
Vitto may have felt like a boss, but twice a day he had to drop everything to watch the Ping-Pong balls dance on TV. “I was with my daughters in Key West, and we won,” Vitto recalled. On a trip to California, he interrupted six nights in a luxury spa hotel to arrange for associates to pick up winning tickets back in Michigan.
It was around this time that the partners grew suspicious of each other. Vitto suspected that Gjonaj was giving party-store owners kickbacks to make them more amenable to processing his tickets around the clock. When “he won $10 million, he bought the guy a condo in Birmingham and a brand-new $50,000 Escalade,” Vitto said. (Gjonaj denied buying anyone a condo.) For his part, Vitto acknowledged that some party stores did offer him a split of their commissions, but he insisted that he never took anything. “Without Vik? No way,” he said. “He would kill me, I thought.”
Vitto wouldn’t learn the truth about Gjonaj until after everything fell apart. To pay for his gambling spree, Gjonaj had lured investors into real-estate deals that were too good to be true. “Some of them were real; the majority of them weren’t,” Gjonaj admitted to me in 2021. He sold multiple investors purchasing rights to the same properties and instructed buyers to wire large sums to a fake title company under his control. Instead of buying real estate, he spent much of the money at Picolo’s. In retrospect, it should perhaps have been obvious to Vitto that the Imperium Group was a sham. But Gjonaj projected the image of the hotshot real-estate broker who could conjure millions of dollars by “flipping paper,” and Vitto bought it.
When Gjonaj won, he was emotionless at the lottery claim center because the money wasn’t his, he explained to me. He said he used his millions in prize money to pay back investors “50 percent to 200 percent returns,” to make everyone believe that the investments were profitable, and to encourage others to invest—a typical Ponzi-style scheme. “Everybody’s making money; I was a hero,” Gjonaj recalled. “Somebody sent me a million dollars without [my] even asking for it.”
Gjonaj had built, according to one civil complaint, an “elaborate network” of companies “designed for the sole purpose of defrauding investors and keeping the money hidden.” By the summer of 2018, he owed investors millions, a problem he hoped to solve by winning more jackpots, which meant buying more tickets. As his debts spiraled, he routed bank statements away from home to keep the financial carnage hidden from his wife.
Gjonaj lured a local investor named Jerome “Jerry” Masakowski into purchasing a medical plaza in nearby Eastpointe. On July 11, Gjonaj instructed Masakowski to make a payment to Richfield Funding, an LLC Gjonaj secretly controlled. Masakowski later claimed in a civil complaint that Gjonaj made excuses about why the property had not been transferred to an LLC Masakowski had created. Masakowski alleged in the suit that Gjonaj used the money to support his “gambling and believed drug habit,” and to purchase property for his family.
The same day Masakowski’s money arrived, Gjonaj bought a house on Lockwood Drive, a tree-lined street in Washington Township. He bulldozed it, and contractors broke ground soon after on a 6,418-square-foot Gothic-style mansion that would be worth $2.25 million upon completion. The plans included a bedroom with an en suite bathroom for each of his four girls, and a walking trail around the property’s 3.6 wooded acres. “It was going to be our forever home,” Gjonaj told me. For the son of an immigrant factory worker, it felt extraordinary.
Throughout 2018, according to the civil complaint, Gjonaj collected investments from Masakowski and a developer named Kris Krstovski and then doctored purchase agreements to sell the same properties to multiple unwitting victims. He also quietly borrowed $1.5 million against the medical plaza he was developing with Masakowski and two other properties without telling him. By the spring of 2018, Gjonaj’s lottery wins had dried up completely, and he was so far down that there was no coming back.
His repayments were erratic, but they came with extravagant returns. “Viktor would often give [Masakowski and Krstovski] a story about this ‘investment’ or that investment and that he needed short term financing,” the lawsuit claimed. “Sometimes Viktor would pay them back, most often however, he would allow large debts to accumulate.”
The day before Thanksgiving in 2018, Vitto arrived at the office to find Gjonaj in a black mood. His boss accused him of drinking in the morning and ordered him to leave. Hurt and confused, Vitto gathered his belongings and moved into a cramped office Gjonaj had rented for him a few miles away. He would continue to manage the lottery activities, but by banishing him from the Imperium Group office, Gjonaj had ensured that Vitto wouldn’t accidentally see his name listed as a registered agent for companies he knew nothing about.
Investors were now lending Gjonaj money on the strength of a handshake. He borrowed more; gambled more. Meanwhile, he became ever more obsessed with “the algorithm,” or “the matrix,” Vitto said. “He would spend hours, man, writing down numbers from years ago, and what correlated with what. Almost like a Stephen Hawking, or some type of cocaine-fueled fucking freak.” By early 2019, Gjonaj and Vitto would meet at 5:30 in the morning and talk numbers until 8.
Vitto told me Gjonaj started to borrow money from sketchy sources. He recalled being sent to a rendezvous in a parking lot, where Gjonaj had ordered him to pop his trunk and not to look at anybody. Vitto said a van pulled up and he heard a huge box being dropped into his car. He said he drove off as instructed, until curiosity kicked in. Half a mile away he pulled over and opened the trunk. “I go look, there’s a half a million dollars in cash,” Vitto said. “These things were wrapped in $10,000 clips … They were literally in bricks.” (Gjonaj denies that this incident occurred.)
As he descended further into debt, Gjonaj became more and more convinced that the lottery commission was conspiring to sabotage him. He swore that the state had installed new machines in his favored party stores—models that, he told me, didn’t “spit out as many tickets.” Documents obtained from the Michigan Bureau of State Lottery through a Freedom of Information Act request revealed that two new machines were indeed installed at Smoker’s Express in January 2019. Still, he wouldn’t slow down.
A few months earlier, Vitto had received an email from a genealogy company and decided to try to find his biological family. He spat into a tube and quickly discovered that he had a long-lost brother living in California—a retired LAPD detective. “I flew all my buddies first class and got suites at the Golden Nugget out in Vegas to meet my brother,” he said. When he told his brother about the lottery scheme, he realized how it sounded. Gjonaj’s gambling was now completely out of control. “By mid-April, May, June of 2019, everything was starting to get really crazy,” Gjonaj told me. “The losses were mounting.”
In May, Gjonaj attended a shopping-center conference in Las Vegas, where he ran into Krstovski, one of his lenders. Gjonaj nervously asked him not to discuss their business with another investor at the conference. According to the civil complaint, Krstovski organized a clandestine meeting with the investor, and learned that Gjonaj had sold the same properties to more than one buyer. On July 5, 2019, Krstovski confronted Gjonaj about missed repayments.
“I’m in the process of fixing my behavior,” Gjonaj wrote in a text message to Krstovski. “I beg of you to not disclose of any of this to anyone plz. My little girls need me and this was a wake up call on how much I need them. As long as I made money for everyone I didn’t think it would affect anyone. I was so damn wrong. I will have ur $ Monday/Tuesday. I just want to go back to the old Viktor. I miss him so damn much.”
Vitto did the math, and realized that Gjonaj was spending far more on tickets than he was winning in prizes. By now Gjonaj owed huge debts to the party stores. “This is crazy. Nobody spends 750 grand a week gambling. Come on, bro,” he told Gjonaj. “We’re not getting anywhere.”
“We will,” Gjonaj insisted. “One more crack.”
“He was losing his mind,” Vitto told me. He said Gjonaj talked about numbers for “20 hours a day” and obsessed over patterns in license plates and telephone numbers. “If you just add them all up together and divide by seven and then add 19 and then add your birthday and then add the day your grandfather died …” Vitto recalled, his voice trailing off.
Gjonaj was insistent: “We’re gonna crack ’em one more time.”
By the end of July 2019, work had stopped on the Lockwood mansion as contractors chased Gjonaj for nearly $200,000 in unpaid labor. Weeks earlier, Gjonaj had allegedly tricked Jerome Morgan, the owner of a Detroit-based heating company, into loaning him money to buy a strip mall. He used Imperium and two other companies as security, falsifying their financial condition, Morgan alleged in a civil lawsuit. Gjonaj could not make repayments on the $1.5 million loan, which included interest at more than $1,000 a day. As the stress took its toll, Gjonaj lost 30 pounds and was briefly hospitalized following a breakdown. After he was discharged, he met Vitto in a park.
“How the fuck am I gonna get out of this?” Gjonaj asked.
“Vik, you’ve got to pay these people,” Vitto told him, referring to the party stores. “They’re gonna take all my shit, dude.”
The meeting ended when Gjonaj said, “Don’t worry, you’ll never be a felony friend,” Vitto told me. “That’s what he said to me … meaning, you will never have to go to jail for me.” Though their trust had eroded, the old friends had shared the experience of winning—and losing—more money than most people would see in their lifetime.
“I love you, bro,” Vitto said.
“I love you, too,” Gjonaj replied.
But Gjonaj owed Picolo’s $125,000 and Smoker’s Express $50,000—and Vitto was now on the hook for those debts. “I went in my safe and I paid a couple people cash,” Vitto told me. He said he paid one store $30,000 out of his own pocket. “I got rid of my Corvette. I sold my Rolex. I sold my jet skis, everything, and I paid people back. For him,” he added.
“He stopped paying his tabs at the party stores and these people were coming after me, and he let them,” Vitto said. He claimed that Gjonaj promised he would sell a car to pay him back; he apparently never did, however, and before long, Vitto said, he was again struggling to pay his daughter’s tuition. (Gjonaj denied owing Vitto anything.)
On August 14, Gjonaj received a $2.475 million loan from an investor named Ded Dedvukaj secured by membership interests in five companies, two of which Gjonaj allegedly didn’t even have ownership in. But it wasn’t enough money to solve his problems. Four days later, Gjonaj warned Masakowski that he was running out of options. “Just met with attorney. Unless there is a miracle in the next 24-48 hours, this whole thing gonna blow up,” Gjonaj texted him. “I’m truly sorry. I know sorry doesn’t do anything but it’s all I can say at this point. Just told my kids 30 min ago. Nothing like watching your kids lose it.”
Fearing that he had put his family’s safety at risk, Gjonaj packed a duffel bag and left home. He turned himself in at the FBI field office in downtown Detroit, where he told agents his life was in danger and demanded to be arrested. Seeing no evidence, they turned him away.
According to a police report, at 6 a.m. on August 20, 2019, officers responded to a complaint of a man “possibly on some type of drugs” at the Kensington Hotel in Ann Arbor. Officers discovered Gjonaj in a third-floor corridor, wearing only boxers and mumbling in broken sentences. Inside room 384 they found lottery tickets, beer cans, wine bottles, pills, $2,000 in cash, and handwritten notes addressed to family members. Police transported Gjonaj to the University of Michigan Medical Center.
Three days later, Dedvukaj filed a lawsuit alleging that Gjonaj owed him $2.475 million. Eight other lawsuits followed, almost all from men with Albanian names, claiming tens of millions. At the end of August, the Imperium Group office shut down after workers who hadn’t been paid abandoned their positions. No one could find Viktor Gjonaj. According to Crain’s Detroit Business, a request for a temporary restraining order filed in August claimed that it was “a near certainty” he had fled the country.
But after leaving the hospital, Gjonaj told me, he spent six months hiding in plain sight (he wouldn’t say where). Carrying a gun for protection, he surreptitiously met with Steve Fishman, an attorney famous for defending high-profile criminals. Intrigued, Fishman took the case, and he sat with Gjonaj as he told his story to a federal prosecutor, Karen Reynolds, and FBI agents. On January 28, 2021, Gjonaj was charged with one count of federal wire fraud.
Gjonaj handed Fishman a spreadsheet listing people from whom he had borrowed a staggering $23 million. This was less than the $28 million he had won in lottery prizes, but Gjonaj had other lenders: In determining Gjonaj’s sentence, the government was at first hampered by an “inability to adequately identify 10 or more victims,” court documents said. Multiple sources who are familiar with the legal proceedings insinuated that these victims were involved in criminal activity themselves. Gjonaj denied this, explaining that some victims just wanted to keep their business private.
Around this time, Vitto started to sense that he was being watched. One day he was out of town when he received a panicked telephone call from Angelina, the daughter who had assisted in his operations, saying there were men at the house. “I was home alone and they would come looking for him,” she told me. “And I would call him saying that there’s people here, describe their car that they were in. I think it was a white Escalade.” They wanted to know where their money was. “I was terrified,” Vitto said. He sent his daughter to stay with his recently discovered biological brother, the former police detective, in California for three weeks.
Krstovski and Masakowski agreed to drop their case against Vitto if he testified in a civil case against Gjonaj on September 12, 2019. Vitto told me this was when he finally found out the truth about the Imperium Group—it was a complete scam, and Vitto’s name was all over it. “There was actually like 16 [properties] that were in my name,” he said. “And I owned a title company too!” Vitto claimed he couldn’t believe what he was hearing in court about Gjonaj. “He went from lying to all the investors to lying to me,” Vitto said. “And that hurt. That sucked.”
Appearing without a lawyer, Vitto explained to a stunned courtroom how he helped Gjonaj spend up to a million dollars a week on lottery tickets. “I was a pawn, bro, right from the gate; I just didn’t know it,” Vitto told me. “He did some shady shit, man. And he put me in harm’s way.” After the proceedings, Vitto said, an Albanian man in the courthouse approached him. “He said, ‘Just so you know, if we thought you had our money, we’d have your daughter.’”
Though Vitto was forced to sell his car and various toys, he emerged legally unscathed and has since started a fencing company. His elder daughter has graduated from Michigan State University, and Angelina is about to begin working toward a business degree. Despite everything, Vitto still plays the lottery; Angelina still expects to hear his excited scream. And despite everything, Vitto still thinks fondly of Gjonaj. “He’s my brother, man,” he said before asking me to pass on a message: “Tell him I love him.”
The only winners in this story are the owners of the party stores. The Matty family, who owned Picolo’s, netted $2.38 million in commissions from the sale of daily game tickets and winning tickets during Gjonaj’s reign, according to Crain’s Detroit Business. They have since sold the store and did not return interview requests.
In March 2021, Gjonaj pleaded guilty to one charge of wire fraud and agreed to make restitution to his victims in the amount of $25,299,120 and to forfeit $19,025,000. However, it will be almost impossible for his victims to collect. “Mr. Gjonaj is broke and his family is in distress because of it,” his lawyer told the court. Gjonaj was sentenced to 53 months in prison, and on November 30, he self-surrendered at FCI Morgantown, in West Virginia, a prison facility designed for nonviolent offenders and known as “Club Fed” for its relatively comfortable accommodations, including a movie theater and a bocce-ball court. In upbeat moments before his incarceration, Gjonaj referred to it during our interviews as “camp.”
But Gjonaj’s mood is not always so sunny, especially when he reflects on the happy family life he’s lost. “I’m in a very tough place,” he told me at one point. “I’ve hurt a lot of people that I love.”
“This was nothing I saw coming or saw in his nature,” Gjonaj’s wife, Rose, told the probation department. “As far as a husband and father he was absolutely amazing … I had no clue of his large winnings or gambling addiction until he confessed.” Rose is “very supportive of him,” his lawyer wrote in a sentencing memo, but she took the children to stay with family in New York. It was later revealed that Gjonaj had taken his father-in-law for $2.4 million.
A drug screen administered by the probation department indicated that Gjonaj has a “severe substance abuse disorder,” involving alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine, and the court ordered that he participate in a drug program after his release. But the Federal Bureau of Prisons offers no treatment for gambling addiction, other than pamphlets. Prisons prohibit gambling, but it is rife.
At times I recognized in Gjonaj’s account a narrative familiar to many gambling addicts: There was a conspiracy to make him lose; the lottery people switched out his lucky machines; he would have been fine if he hadn’t run out of money to bet.
I asked Gjonaj if he would ever gamble on the lottery again. He asked, “Why would you want to punch yourself twice?” But he did let slip that he’d kept his lottery charts and spreadsheets—and that he still believed his system worked. Twice a day the Michigan Lottery pulls four Ping-Pong balls from a plastic tank, and it seems likely that sooner or later the system, or the algorithm, or the matrix, will order him to play.