A lot of supposedly "realistic" crime fiction can be a little dull. Oh, the Point Pleasant Strangler has struck again? Call us when he puts on a costume and starts fighting Mothman on horseback. But that's honestly a shame, because the real world just keeps throwing up the most insane crimes this side of a Jack Kirby fever dream.
True connoisseurs know that the best-tasting wine is Uncle Fyodor's Grape-Infused Bulgarian-Style Ethanol Water, sold for 75 cents a can at whichever of your local convenience stores gets robbed most often. But the most expensive and therefore truly best wine comes from France, and particularly from Burgundy's famed Romanee-Conti vineyard. The average wine lover would gnaw through his own arm just to get a sip of Romanee-Conti, which retails at roughly the price of a second-hand car per bottle. But in January 2010, the vineyard received a mysterious map that threw the whole future of wine snobbery into doubt.
The insanely detailed chart showed the individual location of every single vine on the Romanee-Conti estate. Even the owners didn't have such a detailed guide, which must have taken months of careful study to prepare. The map marked two specific vines out of 20,000 as poisoned. An inspection revealed that somebody had drilled a tiny hole into the base of each vine, then used a syringe to inject a powerful weedkiller. The barren winter vines looked no different, but come spring the rising sap would carry the poison throughout the vine, killing it before it could bear grapes.
A note attached to the map warned that a "team of six" had spent a year drilling hidden poison holes in other vines scattered at random throughout the estate. The location of the vines and the name of the poison would be revealed in exchange for a ransom payment of one million euros, allowing the damaged vines to be treated or removed before spring. Another famous vineyard soon received a similar demand. Had an elite team of grape assassins really been creeping through the vines for months, injecting poison and drawing up their charts, in order to essentially kidnap the world's finest wine?
Actually, it was basically just one guy: a career criminal called Jacques Soltys, who had secretly been living in a hidden shack in the surrounding woods like a moleman, sneaking out at night to poison a couple of vines. But the police were initially baffled. So how did they catch this Carmen Sandiego--style master criminal? Very easily, because he showed up in person to collect the reward payment from a local graveyard. Seriously, after months of planning a brilliant heist of future-booze, it apparently never crossed his mind that the cops would be hiding nearby, waiting to see who picked up the cash. France's finest wine-makers celebrated in style, then probably went right back to dumping grapes, Fanta, and rubbing alcohol in a blender and auctioning it for ten grand a bottle.
Gerard Lheritier was one of the most famous antique dealers in France, itself a famously antique country. The elderly Lheritier specialized in historical manuscripts and letters through his company Aristophil, which owned letters by everyone from Isaac Newton to Fidel Castro. It also dabbled in more unusual pieces, like a musical score written by Al Capone himself (we're guessing it was heavy on the percussion). It all sounds very wholesome, except that it was all one of the biggest Ponzi schemes in the history of France.
There's no guide for how much old letters are worth, so Lheritier would simply buy a letter for a few thousand, claim it was worth millions, and then offer the public a chance to invest. He was assisted by some very helpful appraisers, who were happy to say some scribblings by a Titanic survivor were worth a million euros -- in exchange for a huge "appraisal fee." In reality, you couldn't have tricked Nicholas Cage into paying a million euros for that even if there was a map to George Washington's treasure on the back of it. But the literature-loving people of France were driven mad by the chance to own part of a Voltaire manuscript and poured over a billion dollars into Aristophil. Still, Ponzi schemes all collapse eventually, and by 2012 Lheritier's scam was falling apart, with investors demanding their "profits".
Then he won the lottery.
Seriously, Lheritier won $215 million in the EuroMillions jackpot. Entirely legitimately! They checked! It should have been the greatest moment of his life, except that, in a Twilight Zone--level twist, he had already stolen way more than $215 million and was in danger of heading to jail for the rest of his life before he could enjoy the win. This left Lheritier with no option but to pour his lottery winnings into his own Ponzi scheme in a desperate attempt to keep all the plates spinning. He ended up investing (and losing) over $40 million before the cops arrested him, following an attempt to scam Harvey Weinstein into paying $32 million for some Einstein letters. His indictment is ongoing, but he'll likely lose his remaining assets in lawsuits/restitution (over $150 million has already been seized). In other words, Gerard Lheritier was by far the biggest sucker in the scam that he started.
Probably the worst thing to see when you open up your blinds in the morning is dozens of FBI agents hunting you down for radiation and toothpaste crimes. But that's exactly what residents in one unobtrusive Long Island neighborhood were treated to in 1996, when the FBI swooped on the home of retired court bailiff John Ford, confiscating stolen radium hidden in lead containers in the back of a truck. The raid was ordered after Ford was recorded by an undercover informant plotting to poison various obscure local politicians with the radioactive substance. What could be behind such a fiendish scheme? Aliens, obviously.
Ford turned out to be the head of the Long Island UFO Network (LIUFON), which believed that aliens were regular visitors to Earth. For some reason, those aliens often chose to visit Long Island, which must have been something of a letdown after Atlantis and Ancient Egypt. But the great Long Island UFO Infestation went unnoticed, because the aliens' shady activities kept being covered up by a variety of corrupt local officials.
To expose this sinister conspiracy, Ford and another member of LIUFON launched their assassination plot, even though it's unclear that the death of Suffolk County legislator Fred Towle would have brought the Men In Black to their knees. Ford hoped to place the radium inside the air conditioning vents of politician's cars, which would disperse radioactive particles over time. Ford also discussed plans to break into houses and hide radium inside toothpaste tubes, or sprinkle it inside sugar bowls. There was also some talk of mixing it up with chopped garlic and serving it as part of a delicious Italian meal, which they hoped would leave the target "glowing in 24 hours." That one was probably a joke, but this whole thing sounds like a joke until there's suddenly a truckful of radium.
There was also a rare non-radioactive plan, like when Ford claimed to have hidden outside the house of Suffolk County Republican Committee chairman John Powell with a rifle, only to give up after Powell failed to return home that day. That lack of patience didn't bode well, considering that, while radium can be deadly, it would literally have been decades before people started dying of apparently natural cancer. Dude might have died before his victims did.
The Lipinski Stradivarius is a priceless violin crafted by the master himself for the composer Giuseppe Tartini. A short time later, Tartini had a dream in which he sold his soul to the devil. According to Tartini, he handed the devil the Strad and asked him to play, listening in awe to the results. Upon awakening, he raced to write down the beautiful music, but found he could only remember bits and pieces. These became Tartini's famous Devil's Trill sonata, but the composer felt it was merely a shadow of the devil's true music -- just a tribute, if you will. Tartini swore to smash his violin and give up music altogether in return for just one more listen to the true music, but the devil left him frustrated and the Lipinski was spared.
Several hundred years later, the violin was in the hands of Milwaukee symphony orchestra violinist Frank Almond, who was leaving a concert on a snowy night when a shadowy figure approached. The mysterious person suddenly attacked Almond, tasing him to the ground, before escaping with the violin. The theft caused a sensation, with a huge police response and talk of Asian crime syndicates, especially after they discovered the thief had carefully discarded the violin case, which had a hidden GPS tracker. Surely they were dealing with a professional thief.
But then the identifying tags shot by the taser led the cops to its owner, a local barber and tupperware salesman named Universal Knowledge Allah. Now tupperware sales can be cutthroat, but very few sales parties spiral into an acrobatic robbery of the Louvre, so this was a surprising development. Fortunately, the guy was willing to share a little of his universal knowledge, explaining that he had purchased the taser for a friend, a small-time weed dealer named Salah Salahadyn. When the baffled cops found Salahadyn, he declared "I figured you guys would be coming...because of my reputation as a high-end art thief."
It turned out that Salahadyn had spent years bragging that he was an expert art thief, despite making $400 a month as a caretaker and selling weed on the side. But simply dressing like he was in Ocean's 11 failed to gain Salahadyn the respect he wanted, so he decided he would just have to actually steal something. He soon became deeply obsessed with the Lipinski strad, stalking it to concerts and filling scrapbooks with cuttings. After he finally snatched it, he had nobody to sell it to, so he just hid it in an attic wrapped in a t-shirt. He eventually led the cops to it in exchange for a reduced sentence. And hey, at least actually did get a reputation as a high-end thief. Not a very competent or successful thief, but you can't have everything.
In 1907, Charles Godard was a convicted con man scraping a living performing "Wall of Death'' motorcycle stunts in a circus. Then the wind blew a scrap of newspaper into his face announcing the Great Peking to Paris Race, an epic car race across some of the harshest terrain in the world. Godard became determined to win the grand prize (a magnum of champagne), but he had no money and no car. Meanwhile, the hot favorite was Prince Scipione Borghese, a gun-wielding millionaire playboy celebrity who was understandably beloved by the crowds. Godard had just one choice: he would have to scam his way across Eurasia.
He managed to bluff his way into a meeting with the Spyker car company, where he claimed to be an experienced driver (in reality he had never driven a car). The Spyker brass were so impressed they loaned him a car (he immediately sold all the spare parts to buy a ticket to China) and the head of the company even lent him the entrance fee, which he promised to repay before the race (lol, no). So Godard arrived in China with no money, no spare parts, and a couple hasty driving lessons. He quickly conned the Dutch embassy out of 5,000 francs, which bought him enough supplies for like a fifth of the journey.
Fortunately, Godard turned out to be insanely resourceful. At one point, his car ran out of fuel in the middle of the desert and Godard, on foot, managed to locate a tribe of heavily armed nomads and scammed them into buying him more fuel. He patched holes in his fuel line with bacon and basically stole supplies all the way across Siberia. Meanwhile, Prince Borghese was rapidly emerging as the Snidely Whiplash of the story, The teams had all made a pact to stick together through the harshest stretch of the Gobi desert, but Borghese simply zoomed ahead in his powerful car at the first sign of trouble, leaving the other teams stranded.
Godard, in contrast, quickly emerged as a nice guy, despite all his con artistry. When another team had engine trouble, Godard stuck around and carried their supplies. When his car broke down in Russia, he put it on a train, leaving competitors outraged that he intended to cheat. In fact, he simply took it to a mechanic in the next city, then put it right back on the train and returned to the exact spot where he broke down. In Siberia, he literally saved a baby from a runaway carriage.
Godard ended up setting records for endurance driving in a desperate attempt to catch up with the Prince. Finally, after braving incredible hardships and almost dying of exhaustion, Godard arrived in France second behind Borghese--and was immediately arrested for fraud. He was dragged from the car by gendarmes, screaming instructions to a friend to finish the race on his behalf.
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