We as a people love nothing more than a nice, sensational crime story, even if it turns out to be a complete fabrication. A particularly juicy tale of illegal activity will be trending on Twitter before anyone remembers what the words "fact" and "check" mean when paired together.
It's a shame, too, because sometimes these terrifying crimes turn out to be complete fabrications. And that's when things get really weird ...
For years, Chris Cotter had an on-off relationship with Ashia Hansen, triple jumper extraordinaire and a clear gold medal favorite at the 2000 Summer Olympics.
A few months before the Olympics, the two had practically broken up, but still decided to have dinner at Hansen's place. She was shocked when Cotter showed up at her doorstep bleeding and barely conscious, with a deep cut on his forehead and three stab wounds on his back. He had been attacked by a group of knife-wielding racists, who showed him in no uncertain terms what they thought of his interracial relationship with Hansen. Soon afterward, Hansen (and a number of other black athletes, and a Member of Parliament) started getting threatening letters, allegedly from the same racist hate group that attacked Cotter.
United Kingdom Athletics
"It's time for the Aryan Brotherhood to take triple jump BACK!"
The situation sucked exactly as much ass as you'd imagine being stalked by a bunch of murderous racists would, but at least the attack helped rekindle Hansen's relationship with Cotter. Surely they would conquer this obstacle together and live happily ever after.
Well, that was Cotter's idea, anyway ... right up until the police turned up and arrested his ass.
The Real Story:
Cotter had staged the entire thing to win Hansen back. Yes, knives in the back and everything. We'd like to think he did the whole thing for love, but since he was also heavily in debt at the time, we're guessing a potential gold medalist girlfriend (and the chance to sell their sensational story to the media) probably seemed like a nice little bonus.
"And once I fake my death in a plane crash, she'll definitely agree to marry me."
Here's how it went down: Helped by two accomplices, Cotter first inflicted the injuries on himself -- a project he took so seriously that he wound up losing well over two pints of blood. While he was in the hospital, his buddies mailed the racist letters to Hansen and the others in an attempt to give more credibility to Cotter's white supremacist story. However, the goons' Nazi letter writing skills proved inadequate and, after finding various inconsistencies in Cotter's story, the police eventually arrested the whole trio.
Even if it had worked, Cotter's little stab (sorry) at sociopathy ignored the fact that real people have feelings. Hansen was thoroughly devastated by the whole ordeal, and her performance suffered accordingly: She wound up finishing 11th at the Olympics, at least partly because of the ball of extreme stress her life had suddenly become.
Edward Mpagi had been living a perfectly normal, non-murderous life in Uganda when he and his cousin were suddenly arrested in 1981. They were charged with the robbery and murder of Mpagi's neighbor, George Wandyaka, and sentenced to death. For Mpagi, this was a particularly crappy scenario for several reasons. In Uganda, condemned prisoners aren't given any notice about the time of their execution. They just have to sit there and wait for the call. For years. The generally accepted term for this is "total bullshit."
Inmates never know if they can risk getting invested in serial dramas.
But that wasn't the thing that pissed Mpagi off. What really got under his skin was that he thought he'd seen George Wandyaka standing in the courtroom during his trial.
The Real Story:
No, the supposedly murdered man wasn't haunting Mpagi to avenge his death. George Wandyaka was in fact perfectly alive and didn't give a damn who knew it.
Mpagi couldn't mention this during the trial. Wandyaka wasn't on the witness list.
Over the next few years, there would be numerous sightings of the "dead" man throughout Uganda. Evidence started piling up, Mpagi's case was reopened, and by 1989, investigators confirmed that Wandyaka was totally alive. Still, authorities were reluctant to admit their colossal fuckup: Despite overwhelming evidence of Wandyaka's continuing corporeal existence, Mpagi was not released from death row for another 11 goddamned years. When a presidential pardon finally set him free, he had been locked up for two full decades and lost his cousin -- who, of course, was also innocent -- to malaria.
The whole fake murder thing had been an elaborate scheme by Wandyaka's parents, who held a massive grudge against Mpagi's parents. For some reason, they decided that the best way to get revenge was to fake their own son's death and frame Mpagi and his cousin for the crime. They bribed a pathologist to give a false statement of Wandyaka's postmortem. This was all it took to get Mpagi and his cousin convicted.
In Swahili, "habeas corpus" translates to "no need to find the body."
Today, Mpagi spends most of his time as a hardcore activist against the death penalty, traveling the world and soiling his opponents' pants with his patented 20-years-on-the-row glare. As for Wandyaka, he died in 2002, presumably for real this time. As far as we know, his family didn't frame anyone.
The year was 1908. Reverend James Smith was the veteran preacher at a church in Virginia when a younger priest called Ernest Lyons was brought in to help him. Smith immediately became suspicious that Lyons was going to replace him, and the two men grew a hearty dislike for one another. One day, witnesses even overheard a heated argument where Lyons threatened to kill Smith.
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A demon had evidently possessed Smith, and witnesses decided to let Lyons handle it.
After this, Smith mysteriously disappeared, and then an unidentified, badly decomposed body was found in a river near the church, killed by a blow to the head. Since the corpse's clothes resembled Smith's attire, it was pretty clear he was the victim. Lyons was promptly arrested and sentenced to 18 years in prison for second-degree murder.
Shortly after his conviction, Lyons revealed that there was more to the case than a simple rage-murder: He not only confessed to the crime, but named three other people as his accomplices, insinuating that Smith was murdered as part of a larger church conspiracy.
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Ah, so Smith had found out the truth about the church. Of course he had to die.
The Real Story:
Reverend Smith was alive and well all along, hanging out in North Carolina with the church funds he had stolen. Yeah -- remember that argument where Lyons threatened Smith's life? That fight was about many things, including the fate of $45 of the congregation's money. After Lyons left, Smith decided to steal the money (a king's ransom of $1,153, adjusted for inflation) and run, accidentally faking his death in the process when, by pure coincidence, a completely random body floated ashore and was mistaken for his corpse.
Smith's absence was a complete mystery to Lyons, especially as murder accusations suddenly started flying his way. That whole thing about a church conspiracy stemmed from this bewilderment: The three people Lyons specifically named as a part of his conspiracy clique had coincidentally just testified against him in court. They were arrested just because he said they were guilty and released the second it became apparent that Lyons was lying his ass off and basically just framing people out of bitterness. See, that's what most movies get wrong -- the fact that you're wrongfully convicted doesn't automatically mean you're not a total dick.
They still haven't identified the body. Whatever. It's Virginia.
Speaking of total dicks, James Smith always knew that an innocent man was serving time in prison for his "murder." He had read the papers and knew Lyons was charged with the crime, but never bothered to do anything because he was worried about the consequences of revealing that he was alive. Smith would probably have let Lyons rot in jail for the entirety of his sentence if a circuit court clerk had not discovered he was still very much around. Three years after Lyons' conviction, the man he had supposedly murdered finally returned to Virginia to prove that he was not dead and the body in the river (which was never identified) belonged to someone else. Reverend Lyons was immediately pardoned and released from prison, presumably after agreeing to give Smith a 30-minute head start.