For 40 long years, a small problem amused a small town in Alberta, Canada. A long-lost safe simply refused to budge open, no matter how many people took a try at it.
For years, numerous locksmiths gave the safe their best efforts, but no one seemed to be able to open it. So the safe was placed in a museum, awaiting that one lucky person who held power to open that uncrackable safe.
One day, Stephen Mills took his young kids and wife to the Vermillion Heritage Museum. The 36-year-old was probably expecting to have a nice but uneventful day with his family. “When we go camping every summer,” he told reporters.
“we’ve come to learn that every small town, no matter where you go, has something to offer.” It was this nice outlook on life that led Stephen to do something that was 40 years in the making.
See, the workers at the Vermillion Heritage Museum like to present their visitors with a challenge. “Why not try your hand at figuring out the code to this uncrackable safe?” they would ask everyone who came through their doors.
“Maybe today will be our lucky day!” Well, Stephen and his family were no different than other visitors, so of course, they were asked these same questions.
That day, tour guide Tom Kibblewhite led the Mills family through the museum. At the end of the tour, he explained the long-running story of what they called “the iron safe.”
Stephen’s ears immediately perked up. A safe that nobody could open? And nobody knew what was inside? This kind of challenge was right up Stephen’s alley. The 36-year-old had a feeling that he could open it.
The family’s tour guide went on to explain that prior to the safe’s residence at Vermillion Heritage Museum, it sat at the Brunswick Hotel.
After tracing back the safe’s history, the museum staff believed that it was purchased way back in 1907, just shortly after the hotel officially opened. Since the safe’s arrival to the museum in the ‘90s, it had never been opened.
Unfortunately, the combination lock had been long forgotten. The museum even tried seeking help from the safe’s manufacturer, but they were no help.
After years of trying to pry open the safe to no avail, it became part of the museum’s tour and eventually puzzled the entire town. What was inside this safe? And why couldn’t it be opened? The entire town accepted the fact that it would never be opened.
With men, women, children, locksmiths, and even the manufacturer unable to open the safe, who else was there to turn to?
But there had to be someone out that was capable of revealing what was hidden inside. Luckily for everyone, Stephen Mills was just the hero that the town of Vermillion needed. Their King Arthur clad in a plaid button-up t-shirt and jeans.
“I was like, I gotta get down and try this for a laugh,” Stephen told the Washington Post in 2019. “I was doing it as a joke for the kids, trying to be like in the movies more or less.”
So Stephen got down on the floor like thousands before him and began fiddling with the lock. Museum employees watched in amusement as yet another person tried their hand at opening the uncrackable safe.
However, the staff underestimated Stephen’s ability. He was unlike the people who came before him. As a welder and machinist by trade, Stephen noticed that the lock’s dial ran from 0 to 60.
He tried to think about the code logically. No one expected much as Stephen spun the lock through the simple combination: 20-40-60. What happened next came to complete and utter shock.
After the final number, the lock clicked, and with a cloud of dust, the door swung open. Excitement swept through the museum. Someone actually guessed the combination to the safe!
The “iron safe” was finally open! Did Stephen Mills ever think that he was going to be the safe-opening prodigy before this day? No, he did not. But we’ll get to that later. Now there’s a treasure to behold!
Over the course of four decades, the residents of this small town in Alberta amused themselves by guessing what was inside the uncrackable safe.
Some said it contained piles of gold, while others said rubies and emeralds were locked in the safe. But they were all wrong. Behind that iron door and hidden under a thin layer of dust were relics of the ‘70s.
To some people, yellow pads of paper and a crumpled waitress’ notepad with a scribbled order for a mushroom burger might not have been the most valuable of treasures.
But for the people of Vermillion who knew about this safe, these relics were part of one hilarious story. “They have no value really, but they are of great interest to us,” Kibblewhite told the BBC.
“It gives us a little bit of idea of what the places were like in 1977, ’78,” the museum worker continued. So maybe it wasn’t a real treasure inside the safe, but these papers’ sentimental value was priceless.
As for Stephen, he was surprised by his feat. Stephen says that the 20-40-60 combination came to him out of thin air. Can you imagine?
Stephen left the museum riding high after his victory. “Right away, I stood up, and I was like, ‘I’m buying a lottery ticket tonight.’” While some people may not agree with the idea of a lucky streak, others have proved that it holds some weight.
Especially according to Jeffrey Rosenthal. An expert on chance, from the University of Toronto. According to Jeffrey, the chances of Stephen correctly guessing the correct combination was pretty slim.
In fact, Stephen had a 1 in 216,000 chance of correctly guessing the safe’s combination. Some skeptics out there might say, “what about the 3-digit leeway that exists on many combination lock safes?” Well, don’t worry.
Jeffrey accounted for that too. Even with a 3-digit leeway, Stephen had a 1 in 8,000 chance of guessing the correct combination. That’s still pretty slim. So what was Stephen’s secret? Luck, fate, a bit of genius?
Well, the way we see it, it was probably a combination of all three. While Stephen never got the chance to meet Jerry Selbee, they’d most likely have lots to talk about.
Both men had an eye for patterns. In Jerry’s case, however, his love for patterns made him rich. Very, very rich. But was the money worth it? Especially seeing how close he was to getting arrested on multiple occasions.
Jerry dabbled in different fields over the course of his life. He was a computer operator and worked as a chemist for sewage treatment.
He also had a career in pharmaceutical sales and was employed by Kellogg’s as a materials analyst and cereal packaging designer. Talk about a wide range of talents! But for Jerry, all of these jobs had one thing in common.
No matter where he worked, Jerry used his love for numbers to solve any problem that came his way, even if these problems didn’t exactly pertain to his work.
Like that one time when he started studying the code stamped on a cereal box from Kellogg’s competition, General Mills. You see, each cereal box has a special code stamped on its back, and Jerry knew that the code contains important information.
The codes have special meanings about when and where that specific box was produced, but they were written in a way to throw off nose competition. So Jerry decided to take it upon himself and crack the code.
His goal was to crack General Mills’ code. So he did what anyone faced with this challenge would do and picked up several boxes of Kellogg’s and General Mills’ cereals and go to work.
The number genius tested each bag of cereal to compare their moisture levels. He then came up with some ratios that helped him find the location, date, shift, and time of production for each box of cereal.
According to Jerry, the entire process was pretty easy. Surprisingly enough, Jerry’s boss didn’t have much of a reaction to his discovery. Jerry didn’t care. The thrill of cracking a code was enough to satisfy him.
No matter where Jerry turned, he found numbers, patterns, and puzzles to be solved. So Jerry took it upon himself to crack them all.
He even pulled his family into his endless madness of solving puzzles and understanding their meaning. The Selbee’s family home always seemed to be buzzing with Jerry’s latest project. But lucky for him, Jerry wasn’t the only Selbee to enjoy cracking puzzles.
His wife, Marge, and the couple’s six kids often dipped their toes into Jerry’s work. “He gets interested in string theory and black holes, and all of a sudden, you’re surrounded by all these Stephen Hawking books,”
their eldest child, Doug, told reporters. After earning several degrees in business and mathematics, examining fossils, and studying mushrooms, Jerry moved onto his next adventure: opening up a convenience store.
While this may seem like a random venture for a mathematical wizard, Jerry had done his homework. Jerry went through the demographics, finances, and traffic patterns of similar convenience stores throughout the state of Michigan.
After weeks of searching, Jerry settled on the perfect location: the quiet town of Evart. Jerry and Marge opened the doors to the Corner Store in 1984, and that’s where our story begins.
It came as a surprise to no one that Marge and Jerry’s store was a great success. As the only shop for miles, they became the only shop with cigarettes, beer, and lottery tickets.
Jerry’s shop may have been booming, but this didn’t stop him from looking for ways to make more money. When he noticed his workers shuffling into the shop for the graveyard shift, he came up with a genius idea.
As part of his nightly ritual, Jerry turned the temperature of the beverage cooler way down. By morning, all of the beer bottles in the fridge were covered in a nice icy frost.
Jerry knew that once his employees finished their dreaded night shift, these icy beers would be irresistible. And that’s exactly what happened, and his profits began increasing little by little.
Fine-tuning the Corner Store became a never-ending project for Jerry. He turned not only turned massive profits, but he began undercutting big tobacco companies.
The store owner began reselling cigarette cartons to other convenience stores for a lower price and eventually became the sole cigarette supplier in the area. But Jerry’s efforts didn’t stop at undercutting major tobacco companies. He had something else up his sleeves.
Making the Corner Store the only lottery ticket provider in Evert, Michigan, was hands down the savviest decision of them all. Jerry and Marge’s store was constantly filled with people coming in to spend their paychecks.
Jerry advertised his store in newspaper ads, and people flocked to his store. Since he took a six percent commission on every individual ticket sale and not mention two percent of any winnings that were cashed in, he was swimming in profits.
After owning the store for 15 years, Jerry decided it was time to retire. So in 2000, he and Marge sold the Corner Store. However, relaxing on some tropical island in the Pacific wasn’t what the Selbees had in mind.
Instead, Marge and Jerry opted for a quiet life in Evart. However, Jerry’s analytical mind wasn’t ready for retirement. He continued to look for puzzles wherever he went.
Jerry’s mind worked on statistics and mathematics. He never bought lottery tickets because luck couldn’t be accounted for with math. Or could it?
Regardless, spending money on a whim was not his style. That is until one day, while he was walking around his old store, he saw an advertisement for a new lottery game. That’s when the wheels in his head began to turn.
For one dollar, you could play WINFall, a lottery game where you pick six numbers, 1-49. If you correctly guessed all six numbers, you would win millions of dollars. The best part about the game was that the winnings weren’t all or nothing.
This meant that even if just a few of your selected numbers were correct, you could score a little bit of cash. However, this isn’t what sparked Jerry’s interest.
What appealed most to Jerry was what is called a roll down. This meant that if no one correctly guessed the six digits, the jackpot remained unclaimed.
If they continuously happened and the prize exceeded five million dollars, that money then trickled down and split between the lower tier winners. The roll downs happened every six weeks or so, and they definitely weren’t kept secret.
The Michigan lottery made sure that word got out about the roll downs in hopes of luring in gamblers—and it worked. To make the game more appealing, the odds of winning were printed directly on the advertisement.
The odds of a three-number win (and a $5 prize) were 1 in 54, and the odds of a four-number win (and a $100 prize) were 1 in 1500. Jerry’s mind was swirling. He couldn’t believe that this was an actual lottery game.
These odds, combined with the roll down aspect of the lottery game, meant that the players had the chance of making a lot of money. “I just multiplied it out, and then I said, ‘Hell, you got a positive return here,’”
Jerry later explained to reporters. Jerry came up with a game plan, and eager to test it out, he finally decided to gamble. At first, he hid his new experiment from his wife. He didn’t know how she would take it.
Marge was a woman who didn’t believe in games of chance and much preferred to earn money with hard work. So when the next run down came, Jerry got into his car and drove to a convenience store 47 miles outside of his town.
He knew that if one of his neighbors saw him buying a lottery ticket, they would tell Marge. He couldn’t afford the risk. Not yet. He needed to make sure his hunch was right.
According to Jerry, the trick to the payout was to spend enough money to buy as many tickets as possible. So Jerry spent $2,200 on his first round of WINFall tickets. When the winning numbers were announced, Jerry was slightly disappointed.
With his three and four sequence winnings, he earned $2,150. It wasn’t a profit, but it did prove his theory. Jerry just needed to buy more tickets.
By the time the next roll-down came, Jerry was prepared. He drove back to the same convenience store and bought $3,400 worth of WINFall tickets. This time it worked.
Jerry won $6,300. The next roll-down, Jerry won $8,000, and the one after that earned him $15,700. Jerry then decided to let his wife know about his method of beating the lottery system.
When Jerry told Marge about what he had been up to the past few months, she was thrilled. This wasn’t chance, but a calculated plan based on statistics. The Selbees teamed up and bought tickets at every convenience store in their area.
As their thousands of tickets began to pile up, Marge and Jerry set up shop in their living room, separating winning tickets from losing ones and placing them into separate piles.
Soon, Jerry and Marge shared the glitch in the lottery system with their children, who were now adults. Within a few months, every single Selbee saw huge payoffs. However, Jerry was the kind of person who tended to go overboard with his projects.
So he decided to turn his efforts into a legitimate corporation—GS Investment Strategies LLC. Each share cost $500, and the business’s only goal was to continuously play WINFall.
By 2005, Jerry’s company had participated in 12 roll downs and were raking in the money by the thousands. He decided to buy a new truck, while Marge decided to place her earnings in her savings account.
But then, one day, everything came to a screeching halt. Without warning, the Michigan lottery shut down WINFall. While the news said it was due to dwindling ticket sales, Jerry didn’t buy it.
While Jerry was disappointed in losing his new stream of income, he was more disappointed that his passion project had come to an end. “You gotta realize, I was 68 years old,” he later told reporters.
“So it just — it gave me a sense of purpose.” But hope for the lottery game wasn’t lost just yet. One of GS Investment Strategies shareholders heard that WINFall was back, but this time, in Massachusetts.
However, there were some minor changes to the game. Besides changing the name to Cash WinFall, a ticket cost $2 instead of $1, and the numbers were from 1-46. The roll down was also lowered.
Instead of starting at $5 million, it began at $2 million. Jerry ran the numbers, and it seemed to still be profitable. However, there were other logistical problems added to his list of problems.
For starters, all of the ticket sales had to be done in person. This made it a bit hard, especially because Jerry and Marge lived 700 miles away from Massachusetts. But while the 12-hour trek would have been out of the question for most people, it did not deter Jerry.
But there were other hurdles. The local convenience stores allowed the Selbees to take over the lottery printing machines for hours on end. Would the ones in Massachusetts be as accommodating?
Luckily, the owner of Billy’s Beverages, Paul Mardas, of Sunderland not only granted Jerry and Marge permission, but he became a shareholder.
So the Selbees loaded into Jerry’s new truck and drove all the way to Massachusetts to keep winning big. The couple had to be careful to keep track of all of their tickets, including their losing ones, just in case the IRS demanded to see a paper trail.
By 2009 the Selbees were hitting it big. They made nine or so trips to Massachusetts a year, playing a little over $600,000 each time. Jerry and Marge’s savings had amassed to $5 million after taxes!
However, no matter how much money was in the bank, they continued to live a simple, frugal life. But like all good things, the Selbee’s lottery winning streak eventually came to an end.
Andrea Estes, a reporter for the Boston Globe, received a tip about several betting groups that were outsmarting Cash WinFall. Apparently, the Selbees weren’t the only ones who made money on the faulty lottery system.
Another group made up of MIT students made $3.5 million. But after the Boston Globe published Andrea’s story, the state treasurer launched an investigation into the betting groups, and Cash WinFall met its demise.
Luckily, Jerry and Marge passed the state’s investigation seamlessly. They followed the rules, kept their receipts, and never tried to force a roll down. By the time Cash Windfall ended, GS Investment Strategies had made $27 million over the course of nine years.
Marge and Jerry once again retired. Even though Jerry was 79 years old by the time he retired for the second time, he still had his eyes open for his next code, puzzle, or game waiting to be cracked.