6 People Who Turned a Life of Crime Into Legitimate Careers
For most people, a life of crime is a gamble. You'll either go on breaking the shit out of the law forever, or you'll get caught and go to jail. For some, however, there is a third option, one lined with money.
These people not only managed to have successful careers as criminals, but also turned their nefarious ways into legitimate profit after being arrested.
Danny Trejo: From Real Bad Guy to Movie Bad Guy
Danny Trejo is everyone's favorite terrifying Hispanic man.
This is not a publicity still. This is Danny going to Walgreen's.
Early on, Danny made a career out of robbing convenience stores, and eventually got addicted to drugs. The cops showed up at his house so much that his mom eventually said she stopped being surprised when they came. Then again she could have just taken one look at her son and guessed at his future.
Danny eventually earned himself 15 years in prison, including a stint in San Quentin. Determined to learn a valuable skill in jail, but presumably not one for poetry, he practiced boxing. He also embarked on a 12-step program that broke him of his addiction to drugs and alcohol.
"Glaring at addiction" was presumably the 12th step.
How Did He Turn it Around?
After his release, Trejo kept tabs on his former 12-step partners to help them stay on the straight and narrow. And, in one of those twists that makes a person believe in karma, one of those friends happened to be a production assistant for a movie called Runaway Train. Trejo was approached by a member of the movie staff and asked if he could look like a convict, which, of course, he could. In fact we're pretty sure that these days casting just asks if you can "Look like a Trejo."
While working as an extra, he was recognized by another person working on the film who was also a former San Quentin guest, and wound up getting hired to teach Eric Roberts to box for $350 a day.
"I'll give you three hundred and fifty bones to punch me in the face."
And that was that. Trejo has been in a few movies since then, and by a few we mean 124. He's usually playing the scary Mexican criminal, officially making him the greatest method actor in the history of the world.
A Getaway Car Driver Becomes Hollywood Stunt Woman
Georgia Durante was a model by age 12, and by 17 was the "Kodak Girl" with over 80,000 life sized cut outs of her in stores around the country. Nothing illegal about that.
Well, she wound up getting married to a guy named Joe Lamendola, a businessman who worked for the mob. His connections eventually landed Georgia in the driver's seat of getaway cars as a "wheel woman," where she performed ass-kicking driving stunts to evade the police and crush gender stereotypes at the same time.
As luck would have it, her husband turned out to be a tyrannical asshole, and she eventually decided to get a divorce and testify against the people from her former life, heroically sparing herself from spending a minute in jail.
How Did She Turn it Around?
Years of evading the police had taught Georgia how to drive like an action hero, so she formed Performance Two, a stunt and precision driving company and wrote a book about her life as a model and mafia wife. Her company has done stunts for over 100 movies and commercials, and she's personally doubled for both Cindy Crawford and Priscilla Presley.
In harrowing situations like this.
She also tours the country as a motivational speaker for women in abusive relationships, presumably while doing donuts in a high end sports car.
Hell, if running from the cops is such good training, you'd think you'd see a bunch of wheel men making it to NASCAR. Though now that we mention it...
A Moonshine Runner Becomes NASCAR Star
Junior Johnson grew up in North Carolina in the 1940s, and lived a life suspiciously similar to one of the Duke boys in The Dukes of Hazzard. He made a name for himself in the area as a moonshine runner, delivering home-brewed (and illegal) alcohol in a car fast enough to outrun the cops.
He is credited as never having been caught while making a delivery, probably thanks to his ability to jump rivers by ramping off bales of hay.
Oh, and he invented the "bootleg turn," which is a move that has been used in every car chase in the history of ever.
Some people voted to call it the "twirling Johnson" but were overruled.
He would also deck his car with fake police lights and a siren, which he would turn on when approaching road blocks so the police would mistake him for one of their own and let him pass. He was eventually caught working on his father's moonshine still and arrested, serving 11 months of a two-year sentence.
How Did He Turn it Around?
Well, he could drive really, really fast, and he lived in the South. So of course he became a lawyer.
No, not really. Junior became a NASCAR driver and wound up becoming one of the first real superstars of the sport. He competed in 313 races over the course of 13 years, winning 50 of them and finishing in the top 10 of the rest, presumably imagining red and blue lights chasing him the whole time.
"Wait, I don't have to have 13 cases of liquor in the back?"
Junior retired and is currently the third winning-est NASCAR there is, with 139 victories to his name. So, smuggling booze earned him less than a year in jail, a profitable career as a race-car driver, an even more profitable career as an owner and a 278-acre estate. Please note these results are not typical for most celebrity drug smugglers.
For example, Dino Bravo was shot 17 times in the back of the head
for smuggling cigarettes into Canada.
Michael Franzese: from Mobster to Motivational Speaker
Micheal Franzese was a capo for the Colombo crime family. He joined while in his teens and climbed the ranks mostly through gasoline racketeering. Franzese also was involved in other more "legitimate" ventures like film production and running a sports agency, but the gas racket was his best gig--he is said to have been the single most profitable gangster since Al Capone.
He even made it to number 18 in Fortune's "50 Most Wealthy Mob Bosses," which is number three on Cracked's list of "10 Things We Can't Believe Fortune Made a List Out Of."
Number one being "The Top 10 Crayons Vin Diesel Lost in his Bedroom."
He was arrested for his gas racket in 1986, and three years later he testified against his father, John "Sonny" Franzese, officially leaving the mafia.
How Did He Turn it Around?
Franzese did the obvious for a man in his position: He wrote an autobiography. He also was asked to speak to many Christian congregations and young athletes about the dangers of gambling, presumably sprinkling his talks with nuggets of wisdom like "you will probably lose" and "guys like me will have your kneecaps cracked with a pipe wrench."
He also became a motivational speaker and founded the Breaking Out Foundation to keep young people from screwing up their lives with gambling, and wrote a book comparing the business world to organized crime called, sigh, I'll Make You An Offer You Can't Refuse.
Fraudster Uses Fraud Experience to Fight Fraud
In 1983, at the age of 16, Barry Minkow started a carpet cleaning and restoration business called ZZZZ Best. However, he couldn't finance it properly because California law at the time forbade minors from opening checking accounts, and the only kinds of businesses that deal exclusively in cash usually involve bullets, heroin and prostitutes.
Do not try the Asian salad.
So he did the next best thing to getting a real checking account: He stole his grandma's jewelry and staged break-ins at his business to generate funds, and used check kiting to cover his credit card expenses. He also pulled tricks like borrowing letterhead from other companies to give the appearance of authenticity. In 1986, ZZZZ Best went public, and within a year its stock was worth $18 a share and Minkow had netted a cool $100 million, a mansion, a Ferrari Testarossa and balls so huge light could not escape their massive gravitational pull.
He went so far as to bribe a security guard at a recently built office complex to show a group of auditors just how incredibly great his restoration crew was, claiming that the building had been in terrible shape until it was restored by his people.
People started getting wise to the fact that the incredibly profitable insurance restoration part of Minkow's business was utter crap, and began digging around. When all was said and done, he earned himself 25 years in prison on 54 charges ranging from racketeering to money laundering and several types of fraud.
How Did He Turn it Around?
Despite getting his ass handed to him by the law, Minkow served just under seven and half of his 25 years, earned three degrees in Ministry (appropriately majoring in Apologetics), and started FDI, a company that specializes in exposing corporate fraud and claims to have "experience on both sides of the law concerning financial fraud," which feels a lot like having Jeffery Dahmer ride along with some paramedics for advice on human anatomy.
"No no, stick the IV into his eyeball. It works better that way."
Barry and FDI have tackled some big cases, preventing over $1 billion in fraud since their inception. In 2008, FDI revealed that the CFO of the company Herbalife had falsified the education portion of his resume in order to get the job. He quit the company in disgrace, leading to a sudden decline in the value of its stock. Luckily, Minkow sold his substantial share of Herbalife stock just before the fraud was uncovered.
Kevin Mitnick and the Booming Hacker Economy
He was at one time the most famous and most wanted computer criminal on planet Earth. Kevin Mitnick hacked into systems owned by Motorola, Nokia, Sun Microsystems, NEC and even the L.A. bus system (to score free rides). And that's just the stuff we know about. He's thought to have also cracked the FBI, the Pentagon, MCI, Novell, the University of Southern California, the California DMV and many more.
And presumably did a lot of rollerblading.
When you step on that many toes, you are going to eventually get caught. Mitnick was taken down in 1995 and spent the next five years in jail, with an additional provision that he not be allowed to touch any technology more advanced than a landline telephone for several years after he was released (which he successfully got overturned in court).
How Did He Turn it Around?
Just as Minkow convinced the business world that it takes a con artist to catch con artists, Mitnick has made lucrative business off the idea that it takes a hacker to stop hackers. He now runs Mitnick Security, for which Mitnick does consultations for corporate networks and goes on speaking engagements around the world.
We would like to point out that in the long run crime does not in fact pay for most people. Unfortunately, that apparently goes out the window if you're really good at hacking. Recently, a 21-year-old who created the first-ever iPhone worm was punished by getting a lucrative job writing iPhone apps. A famous Chinese hacker named Li Jun got nailed with a five-year prison sentence for creating a devastating computer worm, then got a freaking six-figure job offer while he was still in jail.
The company making the offer? Jushu Technology, one of the victims of the worm. On one hand we can see how it makes sense to get destructive hackers on your team rather than have them roaming free and planning mayhem. On the other, it doesn't seem like a good long-term strategy to send the message to millions of computer literate teenagers that they'll get rich if they'll just get lots and lots of practice hacking first.
Now check out the other side of the criminal world, in The 7 Most Retarded Criminal Excuses of All Time and The 7 Most Baffling Criminal Defenses (That Sort of Worked).
And stop by our Top Picks (Updated Today!) to see which columnist used to a petty crook (hint: It's all of them).