5 Badass Real Fugitives Who Put Action Movies to Shame
Everyone loves a good fugitive story -- it's one of the mainstays of Hollywood action movies, right up there alongside heaving bosoms and pun-based deaths. But we all know that real-life fugitives are nothing like the crazy, resourceful badasses we see on screen, right? Right. Mmmmostly. Every so often, reality produces a criminal escape so awesomely ballsy that Bill Die-Hard and Mike Expendables would break down in tears just reading about it.
The Mad Trapper of Rat River
In 1931, a mysterious man calling himself Albert Johnson built himself a cabin up in northern Canada, well inside the Arctic Circle, to better pursue his lifelong dream of dying in a cabin in the Arctic Circle. When Mounties arrived to issue a friendly warning about trapping without a license, Johnson pulled the old "If I can't see you, you can't see me" stratagem. Johnson would not reply to the Mounties' questions; he wouldn't so much as glance in their direction. When the ruse failed (as it usually does, for all but toddlers and Predators), the authorities became suspicious and returned with a warrant. Johnson opened fire through the cabin door. So what did those polite Canadian Mounties do? Probably they sent him a thank you card for the free bullets, right?
They dynamited Johnson's cabin.
Feeling a draft in there?
That's the danger of relying on stereotypes, folks: Sometimes you get your ass exploded by a man in a silly hat. Somehow, Johnson survived and fled into the wilderness, while temperatures around him plunged to -50 degrees. Despite being entirely without supplies and on foot, Johnson consistently remained ahead of his pursuers, at one point covering 85 miles in under three days. When the police closed off the only passes out of the province, Johnson climbed over a 7,000-foot mountain in a blizzard to continue his escape.
Legends told of a magical thief who would test the boundaries of Canadian decency.
He really, really did not want to apply for that trapping license.
Johnson left behind multiple false trails and habitually wore his snowshoes backward to give the impression that he was heading in the opposite direction. At one point his footprints seemed to split up. When the police disbanded to follow both sets of tracks, they eventually found themselves facing each other again -- both paths had been false. This is starting to sound less like the pursuit of a dangerous fugitive and more like Elmer Fudd tracking Bugs Bunny.
Eventually the Mounties recruited Wilfred "Wop" May, a World War I flying ace, to hunt down Johnson from the air.
The T.S. Quint of this hunt, except he isn't eaten alive. Or is he? (He's not.)
May spotted Johnson walking along a frozen river (he was using the tracks of a herd of caribou to cover his own footprints) and killed him in an ensuing shootout. Johnson was never fully identified. However, he was carrying a small fortune in cash when he died and had some extremely expensive dental work. To add that extra touch of creepy, from the start of the incident up until he died in a mound of frozen caribou crap, Johnson never spoke a word. The only sound anyone ever heard him make was laughter.
Right after he shot a policeman.
In 1940, RAF fighter pilot Basil Embry had just been promoted to a desk job at headquarters. He decided to fly one last sortie for old times' sake (because facing death for a bit of nostalgia is the very definition of the stiff-upper-lip British spirit). Ironically, or perhaps not ironically at all (it's a tricky word), Embry was promptly shot down over occupied France. He was taken prisoner by the Germans. But did he give up in defeat? No! Did he harden his heart and vow to persevere through this terrible experience! Also no!
Within moments of being captured, Embry grabbed the wheel of the car transporting him and tried to crash it. The Germans probably should've seen that as foreshadowing.
"Told you letting him ride shotgun was a mistake."
"He called it; what was I supposed to do?"
A few days later, after joining a column of prisoners marching to an internment camp, Embry slipped unnoticed into a ditch and lay motionless for several hours until he was sure the coast was clear. Not realizing that the British were already hightailing it out of Europe at Dunkirk, Embry headed south to try to rejoin the Allies. This caused a few problems. First he had to swim across the Somme, which he somehow managed without much issue. Next he was picked up by a German patrol that locked him in an abandoned farmhouse. Embry came up with a devastatingly brilliant plan for escape, decided that sounded hard, and just punched his way out instead: When a guard came to bring him water, Embry knocked him out with his bare hands, then took his rifle, which he used to club two other guards who stood between him and freedom. He then hid in a nearby pile of manure for several hours, because if there's one thing Embry does well, it's sitting immobile in an unpleasant place. If there are two things he does well, it's the immobile bit and getting captured by Germans.
Three things, if you count his Biff impression.
After performing surgery on his own leg to remove shrapnel, Embry was captured again, but this time persuaded his interrogators that he was an Irish IRA operative wanted for a bombing in London. He was released after "proving" his story with his ability to speak Gaelic (he couldn't, and was actually asking for a whiskey sour in Urdu, but friggin' nobody understands Gaelic, least of all the Germans). Embry then built a bicycle out of spare parts, cycled all the way to the South of France while avoiding detection, and smuggled himself into Spain in the trunk of a car.
The British immediately appointed Embry to a high-ranking command position, where he was presumably captured by Germans after sitting in a portable toilet for 14 hours.
Embry is the one on the right, during one of his rare moments not hiding under piles of stuff.
The Ballarat Bandit
In August of 2003, a group of thrill-seeking tourists were exploring a remote and unforgiving section of California's Death Valley ... in an air-conditioned jeep. Seriously, it is literally the hottest place on Earth. Like hell were they going outside: It's called friggin' Death Valley -- that sounds like a Zelda level. A particularly hard one! Nobody can survive out there on their own for very long. Which is why it was so odd when they spotted a mysterious figure entirely on foot, apparently with no supplies, and no vehicle in sight.
The tourists stopped to see if the stranger needed any help, but he, like Albert Johnson, completely ignored them before vanishing into the desert.
We're guessing they cut the tour short after one of them pointed out that this was the set-up to at least 200 slasher films.
A few weeks later, local cabin owners and ranchers reported a series of burglaries by a thief who never left fingerprints and always erased his tracks. In January alone, he committed over 30 robberies, leaving law enforcement baffled. The media dubbed him the Ballarat Bandit after a local ghost town, either because they assumed he was hiding out there or (more likely) because it was a slow news day in Death Valley and it sounded kinda cool.
When authorities went out in force to find the bandit, they found a series of camps and fallback positions laid out with military precision. At a hideout near an old cabin once used by the Manson Family, they found the bandit himself, who immediately took off into the desert. One particularly fit ranger gave chase -- he could, and did, sprint full-bore for over a quarter of a mile.
Unfortunately, the Ballarat Bandit sprinted at full speed for a mile and a half.
You may not be able to fight the law and WIN, but you can make it look wheezy and out-of-shape.
When the rangers set a trap to pin the bandit against a supposedly unclimbable mountain, he went straight over it -- no problem. With enough energy left over to cover 60 miles in two days in the blazing heat. Jesus, was this guy a Skyrim character, or just a Kenyan marathon runner? Who can do this kind of stuff at all, much less in the hottest place on the friggin' planet?!
Eventually, after calling in the FBI and the National Guard and having the fleet-footed (but still petty) robber declared a national threat by the Department of Homeland Security for some reason, authorities surrounded the fugitive. He took his own life. And then they discovered the identity of this supernaturally fast, nigh-unkillable criminal and undisputed master of the desert: He was a Canadian marijuana farmer.
Legends say his spirit still haunts the valley, robbing unsuspecting tourists of their Funyuns.
Pro Tip: If you meet a strange Canadian in an unforgiving wasteland who pretends like you don't exist, just leave him the hell alone. It is not going to be worth the trouble.
Jandamarra, an Aborigine in the 19th century, had himself a pretty sweet gig working as a tracker for the local police. If that doesn't sound "pretty sweet" to you, keep in mind that the only other occupations available to 19th century Aborigines were "guy who just got shot by a bunch of white people" and "guy about to be shot by a bunch of white people."
To be fair, not everything was shooting. We also had several open opportunities in the growing field of "getting raped."
By all accounts, Jandamarra was pretty good pals with his white bossman -- whitey supposedly even looked the other way when Jandamarra once refused to arrest a local tribal elder. A few years later, the elder was arrested again (he was charged with multiple counts of being an Aborigine; a classic repeat offender), and this time there was no compromise. Jandamarra was ordered to take the elder to be executed or face the full weight of the law himself. Instead, he shot his boss, escaped, and started a mini-rebellion -- rocketing him up to Australia's public enemy number one. At one point Jandamarra and his rebels were being hunted by a quarter of the entire Western Australian police force. How he thought he could escape four drunk shepherds and three (probably drunk) sheep, we'll never know.
Russ' crippling alcoholism would prevent him from ever reaching sergeant.
But escape he did.
Authorities were amazed by Jandamarra's ability to vanish into the Outback at will, and to walk barefoot over terrain that shredded their boots to pieces. Jandamarra was basically an old-timey, race-flipped Crocodile Dundee, complete with mythical powers and wacky antics.
In one famous incident, the police believed they had finally cornered Jandamarra in a series of caves. As they systematically explored the caverns and staked out the entrances, Jandamarra had actually slipped out the back and was already several miles away ... looting their police station.
He belongs to the ages, now.
He was eventually caught and killed, of course, but we'll skip that tragic ending and leave you to mentally substitute that scene in Crocodile Dundee where Mick walks over the New Yorkers' heads to get to Sue on the subway platform. Gets us right here, every time.
The Great Papago Escape
In 1944, a murder of German U-boat sailors (well, what would you call them? A flock?) tunneled out of the Papago Park prisoner-of-war camp in Arizona. Their plan wasn't exactly movie material, but it was daring enough to make even Steve McQueen crap in disbelief. The U.S. government launched the largest manhunt in Arizona history to round up the POWs, but they were fairly sure of their success from the start. The camp was located in the middle of the Arizona desert -- God's great and endless garbage can -- for a reason. With nowhere to run and only Arizona to run to even if they got away, most of the escapees either gave up or were quickly apprehended.
But after an entire month of searching, three prisoners, including one NCO named Johann Kremer, were nowhere to be found.
Artist's rendition of Japanese Internment Camp in Poston, Arizona in 1942
So did they hightail it to Mexico? Get a neck tattoo and a job at 7-Eleven to try to blend in with the rest of the Arizonans? Nope: Turns out they got away by never leaving in the first place. Kremer and his pals enacted a daring escape and immediately settled in a cave near the prison. When they needed food, Kremer would just sneak out to one of the labor details that had been sent out of the camp, wait until the guards were distracted, and then switch places with one of the prisoners. The prisoner would spend the night in the cave while Kremer would march back into the camp unnoticed by the guards, who were presumably either face-blind or just really racist against white people (we do all kind of look the same, with our hair, and teeth).
And the eerie blue hue that blankets us every waking hour.
Once back inside the camp, Kremer ate dinner with the other prisoners, loaded up on all the food he could lay hands on, and got a good night's worth of non-cave sleepin'. The next day he'd march right back out with the labor party, switch places with another prisoner, and head back to his cave with the pilfered supplies.
So to recap: Johann Kremer successfully broke out of prison ... by repeatedly breaking into prison.
Related Reading: Speaking of badass fugitives, have you heard about the naked time traveler who (sorta) terrorized Indianapolis? Or the serial killer who escaped DURING HIS TRIAL by asking to use the library? We've got plenty more daring tales of unbelievable escapes where those came from.