4 True Stories That Sound Like Supervillain Plots
The world is full of villainy. But while crime, corruption, and cruelty are commonplace, cackling Saturday morning cartoon supervillainy is far harder to find. Today we acknowledge such villainy (only acknowledge, though, because if we judge it, we're just making ourselves the next target).
The Largest Biological Attack In American History Occurred At Oregon Salad Bars
If we asked you to picture a biological weapons attack in America, you might think of the 2001 anthrax attacks, or the nefarious machinations of the Umbrella Corporation, if history isn't your strong suit. But the biggest act of bio-terror in American history occurred at a series of salad bars -- which, given how many people sneeze on them, are already a form of biological warfare.
Let's go back to 1984. Radio stations voluntarily played Huey Lewis and the News, everyone was making tedious George Orwell jokes, and the Rajneesh movement was starting to commit the kind of crimes that would later earn them that Netflix series. Founded by Indian mystic Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the Rajneeshees participated in an intensive syncretic spiritual movement that also made giant piles of money. It was like Scientology, but with boning instead of, uh, getting trapped on a cruise ship filled with measles? (Man, Scientology news isn't what it was.)
They were a complicated group, but for this story, all you need to know is that they fled growing tensions in India for Oregon, where they built a communal farming colony modestly named Rajneeshpuram. Over 7,000 people lived in what was essentially a small town, complete with restaurants and buses. But residents of the neighboring towns didn't like that they had their own militia that wandered around with submachine guns. The Rajneeshees would also move into tiny communities, overwhelm the voting rolls, and pass laws that served their own purposes. Like when they voted to rename the town of Antelope as Rajneesh.
The good people of Oregon prefer to be the only folks in the area wielding guns for their inevitable fight against the government, and so conflict ensued. And when the county denied the Rajneeshees some construction permits, the fighting got dirty. First, 2,000 homeless people were bused in to help vote Rajneeshees into key government positions, but that failed because, contrary to what Fox News might tell you, you can't simply pack a voting booth with random hobos. Naturally, the next step was terrorism.
They targeted salad bars in The Dalles, the relatively large county seat, which couldn't be overwhelmed with raw numbers like Antelope. They tainted salad dressing, salsa, water, and produce with a salmonella-contaminated slurry that sickened 751 people and hospitalized 45. The goal was to put opposing voters out of commission, but somehow the plan backfired when suspicious locals instead turned out in force against their candidates. Luckily, they weren't able to pull off their original plan of using goddamn typhoid.
When the government raided Rajneeshpuram, they discovered a chemical warfare lab, a massive wire-tapping operation, and oh yeah, a plot to assassinate the U.S. Attorney for Oregon, because what the Rajneeshees lacked in competence, they made up for in persistence. That raid mostly ended the movement, and Rajneesh himself died in 1990, although there are still some far less murderous Rajneeshees out there today running generic meditation movements. Oh, and the mastermind of these plots, Ma Anand Sheela, is now out of jail, so maybe check to see if she's visited your area lately before you order that Cobb salad.
A Couple Claimed The Adopted Daughter They Abandoned Was Actually A 22-Year-Old Psychopath
Until mid-2019, Michael and Kristine Barnett were best known as autism advocates. They had been told that their son Jake would likely be unable to speak or even tie his own shoes, but by 12, he was taking college math classes and contributing to academic journals. In the background of all the feel-good news stories that followed, you can sometimes see Jake's adopted sister. She went unmentioned in all those 2011 and 2012 profiles, but she became huge news when her parents were charged with abandoning her in a rented room in 2013. But what really separates this story from humdrum, everyday cases of sad child abuse is Kristine's insistence that they ditched her because she was actually 22 years old and pure evil.
Let's provide some desperately needed context. Natalia Grace came to America from Ukraine in 2008, and lived with several foster families before being adopted by the Barnetts. Because of incomplete records and her rare form of dwarfism, it was unclear how old she was, with one doctor's 2010 tests saying she was eight, but another doctor in 2012 estimating that she was 11. But in 2012 the Barnetts, possibly with the help of a sketchy doctor, somehow convinced a court to have Natalia's age legally changed to 22. Hey, maybe she was 10, maybe she was really 11, or maybe she could buy a case of Smirnoff coolers and hit college parties. Who could really say?
Natalia was told to tell people she "looked young" if questioned about her age, and then, a year later, she was abandoned in an apartment with some rent paid and told to fend for herself while the Barnetts moved to Canada. (Jake was studying at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo.) What followed is unclear -- there are many, many questions that won't be answered until the Barnetts' 2020 trial -- but the girl's new neighbors stepped in to help her, and no one was able to piece the whole story together until 2019.
The Barnetts have since divorced, because this isn't really the kind of act that brings a couple closer together. Michael admitted to the police that she was a minor when they abandoned her, but Kristine has stuck to her story. She claims that Natalia tried to poison her coffee, push her into an electric fence, and threatened to stab the whole family in their sleep, and that the adoption process was a "scam" that hid a diagnosis of psychopathy and sociopathy. Why Kristine is so insistent is yet another question that will need to be answered, but Natalia has her new parents and the law on her side, while Kristine has The Daily Mail and a story she apparently ripped wholesale from the 2009 film Orphan. So we think we can guess who the courts will rule in favor of.
Somali Pirates Opened Up Their Own Stock Exchange
Remember when the people of Somalia were inspired by Captain Phillips to take up piracy? They were also reeling from a brutal civil war that had thrown their country into chaos and desperation or something like that, but the point is that talk of piracy was all the rage from around 2007 to 2013. And in 2009, during the peak of their successes, the pirates set up a stock exchange in a coastal town, far beyond the influence of their struggling government.
Locals could invest in one of 72 "maritime companies" by providing money, weapons, or supplies. Then, if their chosen gang had a successful raid, a portion of the ransom would be paid back to the investor. One woman interviewed by Reuters said she invested a rocket-propelled grenade she'd received as alimony in what must have been a very intense divorce, and that she had made $75,000 in just 38 days. That's a better return than what most people see from the actual stock market, which is involved in way more crimes. Enough people were investing that the pirates had to start upping their ransoms, and we would have loved to have overheard them explain the price hike to their hostages.
The market also served as a community center. Worried mothers and wives could seek updates on men who were at sea, people could enjoy entertainment that had been banned elsewhere in the country by hardline Islamic militants, and young men could sign up to seek their fortune, because their only other job options at the time were "Fight a war that is far more dangerous than piracy" or "Slowly starve to death in the desert." The pirates would then turn around and invest some of their winnings into hospitals, schools, and other local infrastructure to keep the area stable and improve their image with locals. And honestly, exploring what was going on over at Pirate Wall Street might have made for the more interesting movie.
A Prison Baseball Team Had To Literally Play For Their Lives
The modern American legal system isn't exactly lacking in problems, but at least judges can't gamble on sporting events played by death row inmates. This was not the case in 1911, when the players of Wyoming State Penitentiary's baseball team, dubbed the All Stars, had their executions stayed ... as long as they kept winning.
You have to understand two important things about the era: Baseball was the sport in America, and executions were carried out months after sentencing. The appeals process was "Send the grieving widow a nice ham if we end up hanging the wrong guy." In this context, the formation of the team was progressive, as a new warden named Felix Alston came to town with a bunch of radical ideas like "Maybe we should rehabilitate prisoners instead of punishing them until all they know is a life of crime" -- you know, stuff modern America now dismisses as crazy. Alston emphasized education and exercise, and as a big fan of baseball, he formed a team. And the best team he could field was one that contained 11 death row inmates.
But until they were scheduled to go try out for the Angels, they entertained fans by playing against regional teams. They had to enter and exit the field in chains, which didn't happen again until John Rocker played. And, notably, they were an integrated team at a time when the major and minor leagues were segregated. And they were good. Real good. 39-6 good. That kind of winning attracted gambling, because what else was there to do in 1911 Wyoming? We're pretty sure they hadn't even invented meth yet.
An estimated $132,000 was wagered on the team (the modern equivalent of $3.5 million), and not just by deadbeat brothers-in-law who kept insisting that one big win would finally let them open a tanning salon. Local businessmen cashed in, three state politicians funded their reelection campaigns, and oh yeah, a state Supreme Court judge was making bank, and thus kept staying the players' executions.
Family members of the victims were not thrilled that their loved ones' killers were becoming better-known for their batting averages than their crimes, and they pressured the judge to stop stalling. Fans of the team responded with a petition for clemency, which would have led to some incredible Twitter arguments if this happened today. Nuances of the law aside, the judge was growing worried that his super-not-legal gambling would be exposed, so the executions were pushed to the top of the docket.
On May 24, 1912, star shortstop Joseph Seng was hanged for the murder of his boss in a workplace dispute. He stoically accepted his death, having credited Alston's prison for making him a better man inside than he had been outside, and his teammates soon followed him. Maybe history will repeat itself when MLB orders the Astros executed for cheating.
For more, check out Why Supervillains Always Keep The Good Guy Alive:
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