6 Times People Used Their Criminal Skills For Good

Remember when The Mob joined Uncle Sam during World War II?
6 Times People Used Their Criminal Skills For Good

This Cracked article is brought to you by the new Amazon Freevee comedy ‘Sprung,’ debuting August 19 from ‘My Name is Earl’ creator Greg Garcia.

Ethics, morality, virtue -- philosophers have puzzled over these concepts for thousands of years. Unfortunately, we're no closer to discovering the eternal truths of existence than our ancient predecessors because of the stupid truth of being human: being bad is so darn easy. Why waste time navel-gazing with a nerd like Plato when you can eat some mysterious woodland berries and throw his crap in the river when he's not looking?

Yes, we humans are always walking that invisible tightrope between great deeds and being the biggest, loudest train-wrecks in the tri-state area. Here are real people who managed to do both, but not always with the same amount of enthusiasm.

New York Car Thief Breaks Into Random Van, Foils Terrorist Plot

Who hasn't been here: you see some innocent loot trapped in an unattended automobile and, being a moral citizen, you punch the goods free so that some Jetta-owning malcontent doesn't use, what have we here, a half-eaten box of Fig Newtons full of safety glass for nefarious purposes.

Such was the selfsame scenario for one bandit on the busy streets of Brooklyn in 2008, when he came across much more than a trunk full of exactly two scratched Dave Matthews Band CDs (both Under The Table and Dreaming). Upon peering inside an Econoline van, he saw that it was chock full of homemade bombs constructed from styrofoam, grease, gasoline, and other evil garage items.

The bombs were set to be detonated from a remote key fob. This simply wouldn’t do – the car thief quickly drove the van to a secluded location near the waterfront. He then got on the horn with a cop that he had met in the course of his vehicle-burgling career, because meeting folks from all walks of life is one of the great joys of living in New York City.

Turns out, the bomb van was parked near the home of the estranged wife of a man named Yung Tang, who was already in jail in Rhode Island for getting caught with a van full of explosives near a daycare center in Connecticut. He also was suspected of playing a part in another 2002 bomb incident in New York, because this guy was apparently bullied by a bag of fertilizer as a child. As for the car thief, it's unclear what happened to him, but here's hoping he changed his ways and now lives quietly with his collection of ice scrapers and crumpled maps of New Jersey.

Danny Trejo Did Hard Time, Became A Sobriety Counselor, And Got Discovered Because Of It

Actor Danny Trejo had a particularly hardscrabble life as a youth. Before he hit his teenage years, he had already dealt drugs, tried heroin, and was kicked out of school several times, once for cutting a kid’s face open. The ensuing years would see him frequenting the prisons of California. Upon his release, Trejo found sobriety and turned that into a working position as a substance abuse recovery counselor, thus proving Machete's deadliest weapon is a positive outlook.

In 1985, Trejo was sponsoring a production assistant on the Hollywood film Runaway Train, and ended up on the set. The crew noticed him, one thing led to another, and Trejo ended up with a small part in the film. This role led to further character acting work for Trejo, usually for roles like “Inmate #1,” because you don't use Danny Trejo in movies about long division and light naps.

Danny trejo as machete

Jaguar PS/Shutterstock

There will always be acting work for a guy with scary tattoos and a mug seemingly chiseled out of wind-worn mesa.

Fast forward to the present day, and Trejo has amassed an oeuvre that includes Silencer, Final Kill, 20 Feet Below, and over half a century of sobriety. Oh, and the heroics of rescuing a special-needs child from an overturned car after an accident in Los Angeles, which we're pretty sure is just Danny Trejo doing his one-man spin on The Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Famed Gunslinger Doc Holliday Really Wanted To Be A Dentist

Outside of professional cowboy scholars, most folks know but a smidge about the Old West, and when memory tries to summon the legend of Doc Holliday, we know that he was partial to the fruits of the subalpine region:

But before gambling like a boss across Arizona and New Mexico and claiming to have taken the lives of sixteen men (until tuberculosis felled him at the age of 36), he really, really wanted to help people out with their teeth

gunslinger Doc Holliday

Via Wikimedia Commons

Like the elf in that Christmas cartoon, but with the body count of a midsize shuttle bus.

John Henry Holliday graduated from the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery at age 20 in 1872, a time when “replacing your entire mouth with wine corks” wasn't off the table. Holliday would soon return to his native Georgia to practice dentistry in Atlanta, but he took sick and began losing weight at an alarming rate. Doctors recommended a warmer, drier climate, so he started practicing in Dallas where he earned awards for his work.

Unfortunately Doc, discovered gambling and made enemies out West. He moved to Kansas in 1878, and then Las Vegas later in the year, setting up dental practices in both places. But his health was deteriorating, he was constantly at odds with the law for his shady gambling practices, and patients also weren't sold on the whole “dentist who uncontrollably coughs directly into your mouth” pitch, so Doc made the historical choice to head to Tombstone, Arizona.

Lawman Wyatt Earp had noticed that his little town had no dentists, so he reached out to Holliday in 1880. Not long after Doc landed there, the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral popped off, where he chalked up at least one kill after being deputized by the Earps to help clear the town of outlaws. Think about it: this guy was in the most famous Old West gunfight, and he was probably thinking about gingivitis the whole time.

Operation Underworld, or "The Mob Joins World World II"

In 1942, deep in World War II, America had a problem: namely, too many sabotage attempts were being made on troop transports heading out of New York City. The solution? Imprisoned mobster, Lucky Luciano, who referred the government to an associate of his, the hilariously named Joseph “Socks” Lanza. Socks met with authorities, and even though he was already afoul of the law and not being offered any kind of immunity, he agreed to give tips on any fascist goings-on that could screw up the U.S. war effort.

Joseph Socks Lanza

NYC Police

Lanza, seen here taking time out of his busy schedule of fighting Nazis to serve 7-10 for extortion.

Things started off well, with Luciano and his right-hand man Meyer Lansky joining the efforts. Luciano primed his vast network of goons in Jersey and Brooklyn to also keep eyes on the ports and report any suspicious behavior. The Mafia helped undercover feds get union cards so they could have a presence on the docks (and keep an eye on any labor with the audacity to protest the workplace conditions of a 1940s New York harbor). Luciano even provided maps and landmarks from memory to help the Allies when they recaptured Sicily from topless sledding enthusiast Benito Mussolini.

For his help, Luciano got his sentence commuted. He was sent back to his native Italy, where he lived out the rest of his days staring silently at a blighted vineyard. Just kidding! He went to Cuba, hung out with Frank Sinatra, and did way, way more crime.

Ned Flanders-esque Robber Turns Himself In After The Wrong Guy Gets Arrested

In the late ‘80s/early ’90s, a “gentleman bandit" bedeviled luxury hotels in the American South. He struck over a hundred times, robbing guests at gunpoint and tying them up before quickly heading off to his next victims. The difference with this guy, however, is that a felony from him was like getting pistol-whipped by Mr. Rogers. He would return photos he found in his victims’ wallets, alert hotel staff to untie his victims (whom he apologized to mid-heist), and even called an ambulance for a guy who had a heart attack (that he, the robber, caused).

In 1991, the police caught their suspect, or so they thought. A food broker from Texas was charged with all of the crimes – perhaps because he too was an exceedingly well-mannered fellow -- but the guilt was too much for the real perp. When the gentleman bandit finally turned himself in, the world learned … he was some guy named Lon Perry who lost his job and was having difficulty paying his mortgage? Man, there goes the “exiled Prussian nobleman” theory we lazily workshopped over the course of the last two paragraphs.

Apple's Steve Jobs and The Woz Sold People Free Long Distance Forever

Nowadays we take technology for granted. Our phones could call all the way to Neptune if anybody worthwhile was living there. But in the 1970s, phone calls were much more expensive and cumbersome. And calls that were outside of your area code? Even more so. 

Enter Apple head honchos to-be Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Jobs and Woz were budding nerds who figured out how to scheme the phone companies using a technology called a blue box. They peddled their wares to fellow college students under their “phone phreaking” names “Berkeley Blue” (Woz) and “Oaf Tobar” (Jobs, whose moniker sadly did not follow him throughout his career). For a one-time fee of $170 (give or take $1200 in 2022 money), blue box users could call most anywhere on Earth, assuming the FBI didn't eventually catch wind.

Woz liked to use his blue box for prank calls. Once, he called the Vatican pretending to be diplomat Henry Kissinger, because that’s simply freaking hilarious. But the whole enterprise is notable because it was the first time the Dueling Steves joined up. The next time would be Apple itself, which means The Jerky Boys more or less created the world we live in today.

The Woz


You just can’t not love The Woz. We’d let that guy get away with regicide.

Justin writes more here.

Top image: Paul Piryukov, Jaguar PS/Shutterstock


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