Famous Criminals Throughout History

Crime is an unfortunate part of human nature. Many violations of the law are petty, and relatively few are remembered by history. On the other hand, some crimes are quite serious and result in the significant loss of money, property, or even lives. In some cases, lawbreakers achieve significant notoriety for their crimes and become historical figures. Infamous criminals range from organized crime lords to mass murderers, tax-evaders, white-collar criminals, and, in the age of cyberspace, computer hackers.

Jesse James

Born in Missouri to slave-owner parents, Jesse Woodson James was an outlaw in the Wild West who first gained fame while fighting in the Civil War for the Confederacy. During the war, he was identified, along with his brother, as having taken part in the Centralia Massacre, in which more than 20 Union soldiers were killed and dismembered. When the war ended, he was shot by Union soldiers while trying to surrender. After he recovered, Jesse James and his brother Frank started robbing local banks and committing murders, including the mayor of Richmond, Missouri, during a bank robbery in 1867. He became well-known as a criminal when he robbed a bank in Gallatin, Missouri, in December of 1869. There, he killed a cashier who he mistakenly identified as the killer of his former Confederate commander, William T. Anderson. He and his brother then formed an alliance with Cole Younger and his brothers, and they became known as the James-Younger Gang, which launched a string of stagecoach, train, and bank robberies. Eventually, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency sought to engage the gang in 1874, and the James-Younger Gang suffered casualties as a result, starting with John Younger and, in 1875, James’ half-brother Archie. The gang launched a botched raid of First National Bank in Northfield, Minnesota, in 1876, in which local citizens engaged the robbers in a fire-fight. The resulting manhunt resulted in the deaths or capture of everyone except Frank and Jesse James. While Frank James sought to retire after this, Jesse James started a new crime spree in 1879 with a new gang that quickly disintegrated due to distrust, leaving him only with Charley and Robert Ford as partners in crime. Jesse James died in 1882 when Robert Ford betrayed him and shot him in the back of the head in an attempt to cash in on the $5,000 bounty on Jesse James’ head.

Kevin David Mitnick

When it comes to cyberspace, no hacker is more infamous than Los Angeles-born Kevin Mitnick. His exploits are widely considered to be the inspiration for the movie “War Games” due to his alleged break-in into the NORAD military network in 1982. His first feat as a hacker, at the age of 15, was to create punch cards that enabled him to ride buses in Los Angeles for free. His primary tool of the trade was social engineering, or tricking people into giving him sensitive information. In 1979, he illegally acquired access to the computer network owned by Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) and stole copies of their computer software. It wasn’t until 1988 that the authorities captured and convicted him for this crime. Before his supervised release was over, he broke into computers owned by Pacific Bell and became a wanted fugitive. Mitnick proved elusive during this time, breaking into and manipulating numerous computer systems while on the run. His undoing came in 1995, when he broke into a system managed by a physicist and computer expert named Tsutomu Shimomura, who tracked him down electronically. When the law caught up with him at his apartment, they found him in possession of cloned cell phones and phone codes as well as false identity documents. Since his release in 2000, he fought for and regained his right to use computers and to hold a radio license. As of 2014, he runs a security company, Mitnick Security Consulting LLC, and provides network security services and education for government agencies and major corporations.

Charles Manson

Born in 1934 with the name Charles Milles Maddox, the man who would later be known as Charles Manson is a mass murderer currently serving a life sentence in Corcoran State Prison in California. He was known for running a commune known as the Manson Family, which was based in a desert region of California. He preached to his followers his belief in something called “Helter Skelter,” a belief that a race war was coming that would result in mass genocide. As part of his philosophy, he wrote songs, including an altered version of the Beatles song he used as the basis for his beliefs. They formed a conspiracy to start the race war by causing blacks and whites to go to war. The first act by the family was to aggravate a black drug dealer named Bernard Crowe, whom Manson shot in July of 1969 but did not kill. In the same month, Manson sent members of his family to shake down a man named Gary Hinman for his inheritance money. The mission failed and they killed Hinman, using his blood to draw a Black Panther symbol, an apparent attempt to frame the Black Panthers.

On August 9, 1969, the most infamous string of murders began when the Manson Family invaded a mansion at 10050 Cielo Drive, which was being rented by Roman Polanski and his wife, Sharon Tate. There, Manson’s followers killed Tate, who was pregnant at the time, as well as Folger coffee heiress Abigail Folger, Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski, and Steven Parent. On their way out, they left the word “Pig” on the front door using Sharon Tate’s blood. On the night of August 10, Manson led his followers into the home of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, whom they stabbed to death. Using their blood, they wrote the words “Helter Skelter,” “Death to pigs,” and “Rise” on the refrigerator door and walls. The family was eventually caught, and in the trial that began in June of 1970, follower Linda Kasabian turned witness against Manson and his followers in exchange for immunity. His followers were convicted of the murders, except for Kasabian, and Manson was convicted by the use of the “joint liability rule,” which assigns guilt for a crime to all members of a conspiracy. Manson was sentenced to death; however, the death penalty was later declared unconstitutional by the California Supreme Court, and his sentence was commuted to life in prison.

Bonnie and Clyde

Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were bank robbers who gained notoriety during the Great Depression, from 1931 to 1934. Born in Rowena, Texas, in 1910, Bonnie Parker got married in 1926 and left her husband in 1929 without getting divorced. Clyde Barrow was born in 1929 in Ellis County, Texas, and by 1929, he had amassed a string of arrests for stealing cars, breaking into safes, and robberies. When he went to prison in 1930, he was sexually assaulted by a cellmate, whom he subsequently killed. Upon leaving prison in 1932, he engaged in another long string of robberies, often using an automatic rifle as his weapon of choice. He met Bonnie Parker in 1930, before he went to prison, and they embarked on their first robbery in April of 1932, when they were captured by the law. In the same month, he was identified as the killer during a robbery in Hillsboro, Texas. In August, Clyde Barrow and his gang shot and killed a lawman and wounded a sheriff. The next year, Barrow and his gang fell into a trap set by the police for someone else, and in the firefight, he killed another deputy sheriff.

In April of 1933, law enforcement officers paid a surprise visit to Barrow’s apartment in pursuit of a suspected bootlegging operation, an incident that resulted in the deaths of two more lawmen and Bonnie and Clyde’s escape. After this, they embarked on a string of robberies and kidnappings while killing innocent people caught in their paths. They eventually stole weapons from a National Guard armory in 1933, including a Browning automatic rifle that they used to outgun Tommy Gun-wielding lawmen that year in Platte City, Missouri. Their reign of terror ended in 1934 after Clyde Barrow broke two criminals out of prison in Texas, achieving his goal of humiliating the Texas law enforcement system. This brought the wrath of the state of Texas against them, culminating in a shootout on May 23, 1934, where a posse of six lawmen outgunned and killed Bonnie and Clyde in their car. The posse that hunted them down was led by Texas Ranger Frank Hamer.

Theodore Robert Bundy

Born in 1946 as Theodore Robert Cowell, Theodore Robert “Ted” Bundy, or Ted Bundy as he came to be known, was a charismatic man who became a serial killer. In 1965, he attended the University of Washington (UW), and in 1967, he started dating a fellow student named Stephanie Brooks. In 1968, he dropped out of college, and Brooks broke up with him later in the same year. He then re-enrolled in UW and graduated with honors in 1972. In 1973, he and Brooks resumed their relationship while he entered law school, but in 1974, he dropped out of law school and broke off their relationship without much explanation. It was at this time that women in the northwestern United States started to turn up missing. According to Bundy, he kidnapped his first victim in 1969, but his first murder occurred in Seattle, Washington, in 1971. Disappearances occurred at least once a month starting in 1974, and witnesses began speaking of a man with his arm in a sling who asked women for help. Another common clue that appeared was reports of the man being seen with a Volkswagen Beetle. His victims were all young and attractive women between the ages of 15 and 25.

Ted Bundy eluded suspicion and capture because he was seen as an upstanding man and he had no criminal record. His undoing came in 1975, when a patrol car signaled him to pull over and he failed to do so. The police officer found a number of suspicious things, including a ski mask, ice pick, handcuffs, and a crowbar. He subsequently sold his VW Beetle, and law enforcement agencies seized the car to study for evidence. They found hairs belonging to several different women and arrested Bundy in October of 1975, then convicted him of assault and kidnapping in February of 1976. He subsequently made several escape attempts, some of which were successful, and murdered more women while he was on the run. In 1978, police officer David Lee caught Bundy driving a stolen car, and he resisted arrest. The struggle ended in Lee’s favor, and Bundy went back to prison to stand trial for a number of high-profile murders and assaults. He refused a plea bargain and was found guilty of murder, among other crimes, on July 24, 1979. He was then found guilty half a year later for the kidnapping and killing of Kimberly Leach, and when it was all said and done, he had received a total of three death sentences. Before his death by execution in 1989, he admitted to killing 30 women, some of whom he raped before and even after they died.

Charles Ponzi

Italian-born businessman Carlo Pietro Giovanni Guglielmo Tebaldo Ponzi was born in 1882 and immigrated into the United States in 1903. His criminal career began when he worked at a restaurant where he lost his job due to stealing. In 1907, he relocated to Canada and worked at a bank, where he became a manager. Ponzi then discovered a series of bad loans that were bringing the financial institution down. The owner fled to Mexico when the bank eventually collapsed. Rendered destitute by the affair, Ponzi visited a business and former client of his previous employer and forged a check in his name. The police caught him, and he spent the next three years in a prison in Montreal. Then, he came back to the United States in 1911 and got a job illegally moving Italian immigrants into the country, a crime that cost him two more years in prison. He got married in 1918 and tried to start an advertising business, which failed. Shortly after this, he received an International Reply Coupon (IRC) from a company based in Spain, and upon researching the nature of IRCs, the fraud conspiracy known as the Ponzi scheme was born. The scheme involved buying IRCs in Spain at a cheaper price and selling them in the U.S. at a higher price. After his initial successes, he founded the Security Exchange Company in 1919 and attracted thousands of customers, each investing an average of $300. The business, however, was not stable, and in order to cover its losses, it required a constant stream of new investments. A journalist suggested that his business was inherently unsustainable, and Ponzi sued him for $500,000 and won. A newspaper then ran a story about his business and even larger crowds appeared looking to invest in his scheme.

The beginning of the end came when a financial analyst discovered that Ponzi was not investing in his own company and that his company did not have enough IRCs in circulation to support the supposed returns that it guaranteed its customers. A series of investigative reports led to panicked divestments from his company, and in August of 1920, a newspaper article declared his company to be insolvent. Then, an audit of his company came in the same month that showed him to be millions of dollars in debt. On August 11, news got out of his prior arrests and criminal history, and the seizure of Hanover Trust, where he stored his money, left him without funds. The next day, he surrendered to authorities, and his investors lost almost all of their money. Ponzi pleaded guilty to a single count of mail fraud in federal court and was later tried in state court for other crimes, and despite an attempt to escape, he remained in prison until 1934. Ponzi was then deported back to Italy. In 1949, he died a poor man in Brazil at the age of 67.

Bernard Lawrence Madoff

Known as “Bernie,” Bernard Lawrence Madoff is a convicted Ponzi-style white-collar criminal responsible for the largest Ponzi scheme and accounting fraud operation in the history of the American financial system. Prior to his arrest, he was the chairman of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC, which he founded in 1960. He was born in 1938 to Sylvia and Ralph Madoff, who themselves had a history of financial troubles. Sylvia Madoff was forced to close her stock-brokering business by the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) due to financial irregularities. There were also tax liens that started accumulating in 1956 but that Bernie Madoff’s parents did not pay off until 1965. In 1960, Bernie Madoff founded Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities to trade penny stocks, initially using money from his own wages from previous jobs. His company’s stock-trading technology eventually helped lead to the creation of the NASDAQ exchange. Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme differed from others in that his promised returns were modest while others were outrageously large. During the alleged time of his fraud operation, he supported many charities in an apparent move to avoid the risk of massive unexpected withdrawals, or runs, on his funds. He specifically targeted Jewish investors, whom he expected to trust him because of his Jewish heritage. Depositors who tried to withdraw money received it on time, which also enhanced Madoff’s reputation. His methods of investment were kept secret from his clients.

The first run-in that Bernie Madoff had with the law was in 1992, when he faced a complaint lodged by two investors with the SEC and avoided trouble by returning money to the investors. A financial analyst named Harry Markopolos alleged in 1999 that Madoff’s business model was fraudulent, but his warnings went ignored. The company was investigated several times before 2008, but none of these investigations found anything suspicious. Finally, in 2008, during the subprime lending crisis, a run on his company’s funds occurred, driving it $7 billion into debt. In December of 2008, Bernie Madoff’s sons confronted him about some payouts he was making. When he admitted the company was a giant Ponzi scheme, his sons turned him in to the authorities. The extent of the losses inflicted by Bernie Madoff’s fraud operation was estimated to be $65 billion dollars, nearly an order of magnitude greater than any other known fraud operation in history. Madoff eventually pleaded guilty to nearly a dozen crimes in federal court and was sentenced to 150 years in prison.

Alphonse Gabriel Capone

Alphonse Gabriel Capone, also known as Al Capone, was an infamous Prohibition-era mafia boss. Born in 1899, he was the son of Italian immigrants and was one of nine children. In his youth, he joined several gangs, including the Five Points Gang. While working for Frankie Yale, he was attacked by a man for insulting his sister and received a scar on his face as a result. This earned him the nickname “Scarface.” He later moved to Chicago and became a bouncer at a brothel, where he caught syphilis from a prostitute. In the 1920s, he gained a reputation as a boxing promoter, and he also became a suspect in the murder of James Colosimo, whose organization was then taken over by Capone’s direct superior, Johnny Torrio. In 1925, Torrio was attacked for a mob boss death that occurred back in 1924, and when he retired, he named 26-year-old Capone as his successor.

Capone inherited a bootlegging and illegal brewing business that already had politicians and police under their control. It also resulted in several attempts on his life by the gang that killed his predecessor, the North Siders, which resulted in the death of Hymie Weiss, the rival gang’s leader. Eventually, in 1929, he would deal with the North Siders and their newest leader, Bugs Moran, by ordering a mass killing that came to be known as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. He eluded a summons for violating Prohibition laws by saying he was sick, and this led to his arrest by the FBI for contempt of court. He was convicted and imprisoned for carrying an illegal gun, and the next year, he was declared “Public Enemy Number One.” Eventually, Capone was tried for tax evasion and convicted in 1931 after one of his lawyers betrayed his financial information to the government. He spent eight years in prison and was paroled in 1939, his health severely diminished by syphilis and his cocaine addiction. He died of a heart attack in 1947.

John Joseph Gotti Jr.

John Gotti Jr., also known as John Gotti, was born in 1940 in the Bronx in New York City and was one of the most powerful organized crime lords in the country as head of the Gambino family. His involvement with the mafia began at the age of 12, but at the age of 14, he suffered a permanent injury to his foot while committing a theft. His involvement with the Gambino family came when he joined the Fulton-Rockaway Boys Gang. He attempted to leave the life of crime after he married Victoria DiGiorgio in 1962, working in a coat factory and driving trucks. However, he then resumed his life of crime and started hijacking trucks and stealing cigarettes for the Gambino family. For the former, he spent three years in prison, ending in 1972, after which he returned to the family and joined their illegal gambling operations as an enforcer. In 1973, Gotti was assigned to carry out a kidnapping and assassination operation on an Irish gangster named James McBratney for the killing of Emanuel Gambino. The operation went wrong, and McBratney was killed on the spot. Gotti was arrested and plea-bargained his way into a four-year prison sentence for attempted manslaughter.

When he was released in 1977, he was initiated into the family and given the rank of “capo.” He started a loan shark business and dealt drugs as well. His drug-dealing operation, however, brought him into potential conflict with Gambino family crime lord John Castellano. In 1985, Gotti resolved this by arranging Castellano’s assassination, which resulted in Gotti becoming the head of the Gambino family. The family, at the time, was thought to be the country’s richest organized crime syndicate, with $500 million in yearly profits. Because he ordered his underlings not to plea bargain or admit the existence of the Gambino family, it became difficult to convict him of anything major. Due to his acquittal on several serious charges in 1987, he became known by the media as the “Teflon Don” because he could avoid having charges stick to him. He was later acquitted in 1989 in a trial concerning an attack on John O’Connor, a labor union boss. His campaign of intimidating witnesses collapsed in 1992, when he was convicted on a large number of charges, including murder, tax evasion, bribery, racketeering, and illegal gambling. He was sentenced to life in prison, came down with throat cancer, and died in June of 2002.

Leona Helmsley

Born Leona Rosenthal in New York in 1920, Leona Helmsley was an American billionaire hotel and real estate magnate who came to be known as the “Queen of Mean.” Her claim to criminal notoriety came as a result of her conviction for tax evasion and mail fraud and the testimony of one witness who claimed that she once said, “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.” In 1968, she met Harry Helmsley, and in 1970, she went to work for him. She married him in 1972 and became known as Leona Helmsley. Her first run-in with the law was a lawsuit that tenants launched against her in 1971, which resulted in the suspension of her real estate license. During this period, she gained a reputation for insulting workers and firing them for the slightest mistakes. In 1982, when her only child died, she sued her son’s widow for money she allegedly loaned him and won. As a result of a billing dispute with contractors, the contractors informed a newspaper that Helmsley was illegally listing some home remodeling work as business expenses in a move to avoid paying taxes. This led to a number of federal indictments related to tax evasion and also other crimes as well. During the resulting trial, numerous witnesses testified to her illegal billing tactics, her views on paying taxes, and her allegedly nasty behavior toward employees. She was convicted on a multitude of charges and sentenced to 16 years of imprisonment; however, her attorneys got her sentence reduced to less than two years. After her time in prison, she made a variety of charitable donations, including millions for families of New York City firefighters after the 9/11 attacks. She died at the age of 87 from heart failure in August of 2007.

Charles Humphrey Keating Jr.

Charles Keating Jr. was one of the masterminds behind the savings and loan crisis that extended from 1986 to 1995. Born in 1923 in Cincinnati, Ohio, Keating was a champion swimmer who wore many hats during his life. He was an anti-pornography activist, real estate professional, lawyer, banker, and political lobbyist. He formed a company named the American Continental Corporation (ACC), which purchased a financial institution called Lincoln Savings and Loan in 1984 and fired and replaced the company’s management. At the time, deregulation was occurring in the financial industry, and this enabled Keating to embark on high-risk investments using the money from the bank’s deposits. This led to increased scrutiny by the Federal Home Loan Bank Board (FHLBB) in 1985, which threatened to endanger Keating’s activities with audits that might lead to the company’s seizure by the government. To avoid this, in 1987, he sought the aid of five U.S. senators who later became known as the “Keating Five”: Alan Cranston of California, Dennis DeConcini and John McCain of Arizona, John Glenn of Ohio, and Donald Riegle of Michigan. He made campaign contributions to each of these senators, and in return, they met with the FHLBB to stop any further action by the board. Meanwhile, the director of the FHLBB retired and was replaced by a more friendly director. The FHLBB ceased investigations into Lincoln Savings and Loan’s operations in 1988.

While Lincoln’s assets grew during that year, Keating began moving money from the bank to ACC in order to cover losses that ACC had suffered in the real estate market. At the same time, in accordance with Keating’s orders, bank workers tricked depositors into trading in their certificates of deposit for ACC bond certificates, while near the end of the year, Keating tried to sell the bank. The FHLBB stopped the transfers of cash from Lincoln to ACC in January of 1989, and Keating tried to use his connections with senators to help him again, but to no avail. By April, Lincoln Savings and Loan was seized by the FHLBB and ACC was insolvent, wiping out the savings of 23,000 people. Many people lost all of their life savings, and it eventually cost the government $2.3 billion. The state of California indicted Charles Keating on 42 counts, and he was convicted of 17, including fraud and racketeering, and in 1992, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was then convicted in 1993 on 73 federal charges and sentenced to another 12 years plus more than $120 million in restitution. In 1994, he and his wife were assessed another liability judgment of $4.3 billion, which was overturned in 1999. In 1996, however, a court of appeals overturned his convictions, and he got out of prison after four and a half years. He was retried, and through a plea bargain, he was sentenced only to the time he had already served. He went onto resume his life as a businessman in relative anonymity until he died in 2014 of an unknown illness.

By Ted Burgess