In the waning days of the 2012 Major League Baseball season, Niki Congero received an unusual text message about an upcoming game. 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 had celebrity connections in Las Vegas. She was a co-owner of a recording studio and host of an upcoming charity event at the Mirage hotel featuring reality TV stars.
All that money must have been a beacon for the handicapper, Congero told The Center for Investigative Reporting. Maybe he gave her free tips because he had pegged her as a conduit to her high-profile guests and clients.
Congero is a fan of sports betting, but at first, the handicapper’s baseball tips were nothing special. Then he guaranteed her a winner in the Sept. 16 game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field.
“My best friend is pitching today for the Pirates,” Hunter texted her on game day. “His name is Jeff Locke. He will not have a good day.”
He sent betting instructions, too. And in a later text, he wrote: “Tell your biggest people that pirates game today is fixed. My friend will be throwing this game.”
Locke, a late-season call-up, started the game, and the Pirates jumped off to an early lead. While the Pirates were ahead, Congero said the handicapper phoned her, acknowledging that the game wasn’t going the way he predicted. He implied that he was in touch with Locke even as the game was underway.
“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. On eight pitches, he gave up a home run, a single, another home run and another single, blowing a five-run lead. He was taken out of the game, and the Pirates 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: It was undoubtedly a crime, she thought, and a huge betrayal of the sport and its fans besides.
She wanted the handicapper investigated.
People all over the country who bet on baseball in fall 2012 began hearing that Locke and a mysterious handicapper were fixing Pittsburgh 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 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 of 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.
‘Some people take gambling real seriously.’
Conway, New Hampshire, tiny and scenic, is 30 miles south of Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Presidential Range. It’s the birthplace of Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Jeff Locke, 26, a baby-faced left-hander who made the National League All-Star team in 2013.
Conway also was the boyhood home of a sports gambler who sometimes calls himself James Hunter. His real name is 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. On Facebook, he says he is “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, hanging out with his friends and playing baseball. He has especially fond memories of Locke, the son of a one time local prep baseball star – and, he says, his best friend.
The boys met in elementary school or perhaps through Babe Ruth League baseball. 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 said. “We were good friends, and he had a crush on my sister, and my sister liked him.”
As a kid, Barr could throw hard, and he became a successful pitcher. Locke was a youth baseball star as well, but in those days, he was known as a left-handed slugger who could hit the ball out of the park. The boys played on opposing teams during the regular season but were teammates on the postseason Mount Washington Valley All-Stars. Barr’s former coach, Peter Pelletier, recalled the two as good players and good friends.
In 1998, when Barr was in sixth grade, his mother won the New Hampshire state lottery’s $1,000-per-week “cash for life” prize. Winters are fierce in Conway. The family thought of moving to Phoenix but landed about 85 miles north in Prescott Valley, a fast-growing town of more than 20,000. Facebook didn’t exist in those days, and 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. All the outs were strikeouts. Twice, he was voted the best player in the state by New Hampshire’s largest newspaper.
In the sports pages of The Conway Daily Sun, Locke was portrayed as the All-American boy: “a thoughtful, hardworking, good and decent young man” who “sleeps, dreams, plays and lives” baseball, one columnist wrote.
He finished high school with a record of 34-2 and an ERA of 0.49.
After graduation in 2006, Locke signed with the Atlanta Braves for a $650,000 bonus. They sent him to their minor league club in Kissimmee, Florida.
On the other side of the country, Barr had stopped playing baseball when he was 16 and got 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. His handicapping career was underway.
Today, Barr lives in Prescott Valley with his girlfriend and baby and helps run a sports memorabilia shop. But the business of sports betting often requires him to make the 250-mile drive to the gambling mecca of Las Vegas. He says much of his income comes from selling betting tips on his website, VIPSportsInvestment.com, where he handicaps basketball, baseball and especially the NFL.
The site says it is “for serious gamblers only.” During the 2013 football season, bettors were offered a seven-day package of NFL game picks for $150 or an NFL Season Package for $8,000. “We triple your money or full refund,” the site claimed.
Tips are delivered via text message or email, “sometimes minutes before a game starts,” the site says. Barr says he doesn’t book bets. Clients can place bets 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.
To be a good handicapper, you have to follow sports day and night, paying close attention to injuries and roster moves and insider tips. Handicappers also must learn to ride an emotional roller coaster, because sports are prone to streaks. In 2012, Barr said 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. Added pressure comes because “some people take gambling real seriously,” especially when they lose.
“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 said.
To ensure that angry clients cannot track him down, Barr 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 Barr – 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 trade that brought him to the Pirates’ system. By then, social media had exploded, and Barr reached out to his old New Hampshire friends. Before the 2011 season, he 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 said. “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, ever,” he said. It was an obvious put-down, Barr said: “Jeff don’t want to talk to us – we’re small fish, and he’s a big fish.” The more he thought about it, the more it irked him. Why did Locke have to act that way?
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.”
‘He’s throwing the game.’
Five years after he was drafted out of high school, in September 2011, Locke was called up to the Pirates. “I was hoping he would do horrible,” Barr said, “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 beat the Pirates by two runs or more.
Barr got everything right. Locke gave up three home runs and the Brewers won 7-3. A bettor could have made money on Barr’s picks, but there was little interest in a late-season game between two also-ran clubs.
Locke didn’t make the big-league roster coming out of spring training in 2012 and spent most of the season with the Pirates’ AAA Indianapolis affiliate, eager for another chance.
“Just the 23 days in the big leagues, that has to be the standout of everything I’ve ever done,” Locke told The Indianapolis Star. In the major leagues, “every day is like Christmas,” he said.
In August, he got another chance. He was recalled to the Pirates, his first start a Sept. 3 home game against the weak-hitting Houston 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 the Pirates to lose whenever Locke pitched, even though Las Vegas oddsmakers usually favored the Pirates. No research was involved: “He was just pitching, and I was hoping he gets rocked,” Barr said.
Remembering the lack of interest in the Pirates game 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,’ ” he said.
On Sept. 9, Barr picked the Cubs to beat the Pirates. In the fourth inning, Locke threw an 89 mph fastball, and the Cubs’ Josh Vitters hit it over the left field 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 Sept. 16, the one Barr had touted to Niki Congero in Las Vegas: Locke was shelled and the Cubs won.
Before a Sept. 21 start against the Astros, Barr said he predicted Locke would “get hit early and often.” Locke gave up a three-run home run in the first inning and Houston won 7-1. “I had told people he was going to get blown up and he did,” Barr said. “It made it look like it was fixed.”
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 four innings. New York won 6-0. Then, for Locke’s final start 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 said. “It was a revenge factor.”
Locke and the Pirates beat the Braves 2-1. And with that, for five games in a row and usually against the odds, Barr had accurately predicted Locke’s games. Barr repeated his story of fixing games to many people, including, he said, “a couple of big handicappers” on the East Coast. Barr cold-called them, hoping to get his name out there.
“They pretty much laughed at me,” Barr said. But after the Pirates’ third predicted loss, he said one of the handicappers threatened to report him to the authorities.
When the baseball season ended, Barr said he forgot about Locke. He didn’t worry about getting in trouble for claiming to have fixed games, either. “My brother kept telling me, ‘Don’t be saying that stuff to people,’ ” he said. “I said, ‘Nobody will take me seriously, come on.’ ”
‘What he said would happen, happened.’
Game-fixing was at the heart of baseball’s worst scandal, and it almost killed the game: In 1919, eight players from the Chicago White Sox were accused of conspiring with gamblers to throw the World Series. Baseball vowed to drive gambling from the sport and banned the players for life.
Since then, publicized gambling scandals in baseball have been rare. The worst one involved all-time hit king Pete Rose, banned in 1989 for betting on baseball while managing the Cincinnati Reds. But Rose was accused only of betting on games, not fixing them.
In modern baseball, allegations of game-fixing just don’t come up, said Fay Vincent, commissioner of baseball from 1989 to 1992 and deputy commissioner during the Rose affair. Perhaps there aren’t more serious attempts to fix games because it’s such a dangerous and complicated undertaking, he said.
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, Vincent said.
Still, even though fixing a game is an improbable scenario, “baseball is very concerned about corruption,” he said. If the sport heard allegations of game-fixing that were at all credible, it surely would react aggressively, he said.
It didn’t seem that way to Niki Congero, who couldn’t get anyone to listen.
She was rebuffed by a contact at the Nevada Gaming Commission, she said, 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 baseball investigators visited Congero in Las Vegas. They wanted to see the text messages from the handicapper. They paid her $150 for the phone. She said she never heard from them again. That baffled Congero, especially considering the accuracy of Barr’s prediction. “The bottom line,” she said, “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 pitcher Jeff Locke – and they were taking the allegations seriously. “It looked real,” said Daniel Mullin, then head of MLB’s Department of Investigations.
An early tip came in an anonymous letter routed to the 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 Mullin, a former deputy chief of the New York Police Department, the unit had become known for aggressive investigations. Last year, New York Yankees star Alex Rodriguez complained in a lawsuit that Mullin had subjected him to “scorched earth” tactics in the probe of the player’s alleged steroid use. In May, Mullin was fired in a shake-up of the investigative unit.
Last fall, the fixed-game case was assigned to senior investigator Rick Burnham, a former New York police detective. He said he considered the initial tip “elaborate (and) credible.” Soon, Burnham received another tip concerning Locke. This one came from the New York Police Department’s organized crime division, where detectives had helped break up an international sports-betting ring based in Queens.
After that, Burnham and the police investigated the case together. For a time, they focused on the pitcher. They reviewed hours of game video, Burnham said, 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 relatively easy: The VIP Sports Investment website and cellphone numbers led them to Kris Barr.
Investigators noted with interest that the website 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 to confront Barr.
‘A hit-and-run in New Mexico’
Prescott Valley was in the midst of a 29-day cold spell, the winter’s longest. 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 – running errands, taking his girlfriend to the doctor, going to his job driving a cab – one of the cars would turn up in his rearview mirror, trailing him.
Could they be angry gamblers? “I thought I might have given the wrong people the wrong pick and they were coming after me,” he said. His concern deepened when he drove to work – tailed by one of the cars – and, upon arrival, found another 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 he was the target of police. He called the county drug task force, which he had encountered during his conviction for a misdemeanor marijuana charge three years earlier. Barr said 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 – “paranoid,” said his sister, Savannah. He asked for help retrieving his car. Members of Barr’s family piled into two vehicles and drove to the bowling alley. Savannah Barr got behind the wheel of Kris Barr’s car with his girlfriend, Kendra Hagerty, and their 7-month-old baby as passengers. Barr’s mother followed in her car. 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 little 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. By then, the temperature had dropped below freezing. Hagerty stayed inside the car with the baby, who started to wail.
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?
Meanwhile, Don Barr had turned on his cellphone to record the traffic stop. He, too, was told to get out of his car. He said 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 Barr called out to his sister, telling her she didn’t have to say anything to the police.
For that, Don Barr said 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, family members have no idea who the officers were.
The investigators who worked the fixed-game case were not forthcoming. MLB punted questions to the New York Police Department. Although a police spokeswoman acknowledged detectives had investigated the case, she declined to identify the Arizona agency involved in the traffic stop. Detectives are “leery” about disclosing information concerning their probe, said spokeswoman Detective Cheryl Crispin.
The Yavapai County sheriff, the Prescott Valley police and the U.S. Marshals Service said they weren’t involved. Finally, CIR queried the office of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a flamboyant lawman famous for hard-nosed enforcement of immigration laws and 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 Lt. 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.
Back 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.
‘10 minutes … to say goodbye’
Filled with dread, Kris Barr drove a borrowed car 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 a hit-and-run in New Mexico. They didn’t seem interested. The officers, Barr said, acknowledged that they had been following him all day. Now they were waiting for a special agent who was on his way from the airport to talk to Barr.
Half an hour later, the man Barr would come to call “MLB Rick” – Burnham – arrived in an SUV with two New York 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 said. “But it wasn’t anything funny for the next hour in the car.”
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 said 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.
“I would say, ‘I swear to God, I’m not lying to you guys,’ ” Barr said, “and he was yelling, ‘You’re lying!’ ”
The investigators advised Barr that “the best thing for me was just to admit it,” he said. “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 said, 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 said they made it clear they would track him down and put him in jail.
Barr went home and spent “the worst night of my life,” sleepless, anxious, throwing up. Over and over, his girlfriend urged him to cooperate with the investigators.
The next morning, Barr met the investigators and climbed back into the SUV. The session was less intense, he said. Barr 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.
Even as the session wrapped up, Barr said 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. One by one, Barr described what he remembered of each of the Pirates games he had touted. The investigator took notes.
Over the next six weeks, Barr said he received many phone calls and four visits from the investigator, usually unannounced. Burnham combed through Barr’s Twitter account and cellphones, reading his messages. 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 of the investigator. He told Burnham to “fuck off,” he said, and hung up. Then he reconsidered and called back. He would take the polygraph exam, he said, 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 said. Later, “he called me back and said no, and that was it.”
By then, both the New York Police Department and baseball officials had examined the case from every angle investigators could imagine. The police department concluded that no crime had been committed, spokeswoman Crispin said, and “the case was referred to MLB for their internal investigation.”
For his part, Burnham never found evidence of recent contact between the pitcher and the young gambler, he said, 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 said. “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 said, with “no doubt in my mind.”
‘Quit trying to talk to Jeff Locke.’
Jeff Locke first learned of the investigation after it was all over – early in the 2013 season. Baseball investigators asked to meet with the pitcher, said 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 said.
Quickly, the investigators assured Locke that they had concluded the allegations were bogus. They told the player that Barr had concocted the story out of jealousy, Lenaghan recalled, 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 said. “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 CIR. 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 hurt Locke’s pitching. Signed to a $497,500 contract, he started strong for the Pirates in 2013. In the first half of the season, he went 8-2 with a 2.15 ERA and was named to the National League All-Star team.
But after the All-Star break, he faltered, posting a record of 2-5 with a 6.12 ERA. In August 2013, Locke was briefly sent to the minor league club in Altoona, Pennsylvania, a shocking demotion for an All-Star.
As Locke struggled, Barr couldn’t resist needling him. “On his Twitter, I wrote, ‘Have fun watching the postseason from home,’ ” Barr said. “I was just being a jerk.”
Barr’s taunting did not go unnoticed.
Soon after, he said, his phone rang. It was Burnham with a clear and direct message: “Quit trying to talk to Jeff Locke.”
Freelance writer Brian Tuohy is the author of the 2013 book “Larceny Games: Sports Gambling, Game Fixing and the FBI.” CIR senior data reporter Agustin Armendariz contributed to this story. It was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.