It is no secret that television is a powerful medium. It has the ability to influence us, from our political ideas to the way we dress and how we live our lives. In some cases, it is not just used as a source of entertainment. Whether intentionally or accidentally, television has helped to catch out a number of bad people living in our societies, from petty thieves to serial killers. Following on from our first list, Top 10 Criminal Cases Solved by TV Appearances, here are 10 more criminals who have, in one way or another, come to their downfall due to a TV appearance.
10Benefit Cheat Caught after Appearing on MasterChef
Luciana Byrne, a 39-year-old mother of three, hoped for her 15 minutes of fame after taking part in the UK television cookery show MasterChef in 2009. She appeared attractive, talented, and intelligent, ticking all the right boxes for “celebrity cook” potential. Unfortunately for her, this title would later be the subject of wordplay by Havering Council leader Michael White, who instead called her a “celebrity crook” who had “cheated taxpayers.”
The allegations had come to light after a member of the council’s investigations unit recognized her on the show and found some inconsistencies between the details of her life that she shared with other contestants and the details she had been providing on her benefits claims. To the government, she was a single mother struggling to stay afloat financially after her marriage had broken down. To the contestants on the show, she was happily married, with her husband still living with her at home. This was a cause for concern because Byrne had received over £26,000 ($ 34,000) in benefits as a single mother living separately from her ex-partner. So, on a hunch, the investigator contacted the production company behind the BBC program, and they confirmed that she had told them that she was married and that Mr. Byrne had even counter signed the forms, with his address and home phone number listed as the same Mrs. Byrnes.
Luciana Byrne was later forced to admit that she had lied about splitting from her husband, whom she married in 1999. She was given an 11-month suspended prison sentence with 150 hours of unpaid community service.
On October 15, 2009, the entire world sat gripped to their seats as they watched one of the most bizarre live news broadcasts in modern history unfold. CNN afternoon anchor Kyra Phillips had gotten news of a breaking story in the United States that was as unbelievable as it was alarming; a six-year-old boy, Falcon Heene, was soaring through the sky up to 7,000 feet in a giant balloon shaped like a flying saucer. The saucer was apparently an early prototype for an alternative form of travel, and Falcon’s parents, Richard and Mayumi Heene, claimed that they had accidentally let the balloon float away into the atmosphere after Mayumi had failed to attach a tether to the ground. Soon after noticing that Falcon had gone missing, his brother claimed that he had seen him climbing into the basket of the balloon shortly before it took off.
What followed was a world wide media frenzy, with CNN stating that they would follow the story until Falcon was found safe. The emergency services made haste, chasing the balloon until it eventually descended into some fields near Keenesburg, 12 miles (19 km) northeast of Denver International Airport. However, when the police reached the balloon, Falcon was not found inside it. A number of questions were raised, including whether the boy could have fallen out, but as he was later found in the garage of the family home in Fort Collins, Colorado, many began to suspect that it had all been one giant hoax. If so, then the incident would be treated as a criminal investigation and charges could be put against the Heenes. Of course, a hoax is exactly what it had been, perpetrated by the boy’s fame-hungry parents, who had already tried their hand at a number of reality TV shows.
This was all accidentally confirmed by Falcon during an interview on Larry King Live. While being questioned on the reasons that the family had claimed he was hiding in the garage, Falcon looked up to his father and responded, saying: “You guys said that we did this for the show.”
According to a supporting affidavit that law enforcement submitted with their application for a search warrant, Mayumi later admitted that she had known all along that Falcon was hiding in the residence, and on December 23, 2009, a judge sentenced Richard Heene to 90 days in jail and 100 hours of community service. He was also ordered to write a letter of apology to the emergency services that searched for his son. Mayumi was sentenced to 20 days in jail, to be served through a jail-supervised community service for two days a week. The judge allowed the couple to serve their sentences one after the other to make sure that their children were under proper care.
8Man Admits to Arson Live on TV
It was standard procedure when local TV news crew WJLA-TV were the first at the scene of a house blaze in Rockville, Maryland, in 2014. The fire had ripped through the home so fiercely that it caused an estimated $ 400,000 worth of damage and rendered the property a “loss.”
Police and fire services cordoned off the area while residents flocked to the streets in horror, hoping that none of the six people who lived in the house had been inside. Luckily they weren’t, and besides the enormous amount of damage to the building, nobody was hurt.
At such an early stage in the investigation, it was not clear at that moment whether the fire had been an accident or a deliberate act of arson. That was until a man, who identified himself only as Carlos, approached the local news team who were reporting on the aftermath of the blaze. He claimed to have started the fire before going on to casually answer a number of questions from the reporter. He then described how and why he did it, stating that he “poured gasoline on the floor, set it on fire, went to grab a drink and then came back.” His reasoning for doing so was to draw attention to the “deplorable” living conditions inside the home, about which he had tried to go through legal channels but had no luck.
He then went on, with camera in tow, to confess to two baffled police officers at the scene of his crime. He was arrested and taken away in a police car. Apparently, he was later less talkative and asked for an attorney.
A neighbor, who had witnessed the fire, said that police regularly visited the house, going on to say, “I’m just thinking about all the firefighters whose lives were put in jeopardy because of this. There’s no excuse for it. None at all.”
7Police Officer Reviewing CCTV Recognizes Suspect from a TV Documentary
In 2014, ITV1 aired a two-part television series titled The Briefs which gave an insight into the world of criminal lawyers and their clients in Manchester, UK.
Making an appearance on the show was Alex Templar, a small time petty criminal whose solicitor was one of the program’s subjects. In the same week that The Briefs aired, a police officer was reviewing the CCTV from the scene of a theft, where an iPhone and an iPad had been taken from an office building just yards from Crown Prosecution Service’s Manchester headquarters.
The officer managed to catch a glimpse of the thief and noticed a striking resemblance to Templar, who he had seen on the show, and promptly called him in for questioning. Soon enough, Templar admitted to entering the building and walking backwards into a lift to avoid cameras. The court later heard that he then “made his way to the offices of a car rental firm and helped himself to the valuables,” and when he was arrested, clothing that he was wearing in the damning CCTV footage was found in his home.
Templar also claimed that, despite a long list of previous convictions for similar crimes, police were targeting him because of his appearance on the show.
Sentencing Judge Robert Atherton said: “This is one of the worst records for dishonesty in relation to burglaries of non-dwellings I have seen,” before serving Templar with an 18-month prison sentence.
6Katie Nichols Confesses to Stabbing Live on TV
Another criminal to confess to her crime to an unsuspecting news team was Katie Nichols of Knoxville, Tennessee.
Local news WVLT were first at the scene covering the near fatal stabbing of a 68-year-old woman in Knoxville. The suspect was nowhere to be found, but a neighbor of the woman had some shocking claims. She said that without a doubt the elderly woman’s daughter, Katie Nichols, was the attacker and went on to add that she had hopes Katie would return to the scene of the crime so that police could arrest her. To the news crew’s surprise, just minutes later the unstable Nichols did return.
Stunningly, she approached the camera crew and without hesitation admitted to committing the brutal attack. She did not take complete responsibility for it though; instead, she claimed that her mother was the ring leader of a satanic cult who had been casting spells on her for up to four days and was trying to kill her daughter. According to the delusional Nichols, the victim was the antichrist and had “symbolic representations” of her and her daughter’s deaths, along with “every nuclear explosion that was supposed to happen.”
During the interview, Nichols even invited the news crew into the apartment to see some of her injured mother’s satanic paraphernalia, but they promptly declined. She was arrested shortly after the confession and expressed regret that she had not managed to kill her mother, who was taken into intensive care.
Despite her horrific wounds, her mother, Laurie, was later able to give an account of the incident, and Nichols was charged with attempted first-degree murder and kidnapping.
5Juan Catalan Free from Jail after Curb Your Enthusiasm
Breaking the theme of people who have been caught or exposed due to a TV appearance is Juan Catalan, who actually managed to escape a potential death sentence in the United States by appearing in the background of an episode of HBO comedy series Curb Your Enthusiasm.
On May 12, 2003, a 16-year-old girl named Martha Puebla was tragically shot and killed outside of her Fernando Valley home. The murder was apparently committed as retribution for her testimony in a murder case which involved Catalan’s brother. However, Catalan himself later pointed out that Puebla had in fact testified against his brother’s co-defendant and that the prosecutors were the ones trying to make that connection with him.
A month after witnesses were questioned by the police, 24-year-old Catalan was arrested and charged with one count of murder with special circumstances of murdering a witness and lying in wait.
Catalan protested his innocence, claiming he was at Dodger Stadium the night of Puebla’s murder and had ticket stubs to prove it. He also begged for a lie detector test, but his requests fell on death ears, being denied three times.
However, within the first couple of months of his sentence, a life changing recollection would steer his fate toward a much more hopeful outcome. He remembered that a HBO film crew were shooting near him for their hit TV series Curb Your Enthusiasm. Whereas previous attempts at finding a recognizable image of Catalan from the stadium’s CCTV had failed, this could provide a clear enough shot to prove his innocence once and for all and gain back the wrongly accused man’s freedom. After sitting in with Larry David himself to review the footage, Catalan’s lawyer spotted his client in some outtake footage, clearly sitting with his daughter eating a hotdog.
The time coded shots were enough to finally prove Catalan’s alibi, and in January of 2004, a judge released him citing insufficient evidence to try him. Catalan later received $ 320,000 in the settlement of a lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles and its police force. Catalan is now apparently a devoted fan of Curb Your Enthusiasm and has since been able to move on with his life, working as a machinist for his family’s business.
4Ray Gosling Claims to Have Killed Lover on His Own Documentary
During the sixties and seventies, Ray Gosling was one of the most recognizable faces in programming in the UK. Throughout his career, Gosling wrote and presented more than a hundred television documentaries, as well as several hundred radio documentaries. Unfortunately, like so many others throughout television’s existence, Gosling began to find it hard to remain in the spotlight.
In February 2010, however, Ray Gosling once again returned to the headlines. While filming for the BBC East Midlands documentary, Inside Out, he claimed to have a very dark secret; that he had committed the mercy killing of his lover Bryn Allsop who had been dying of AIDS. Apparently, while he visited Allsop in hospital back in the 90s, Gosling asked the doctor for a moment alone. The doctor obliged, and Gosling saw this as an opportunity to keep his promise to Allsop on a pact that they had made previously in the circumstances that either of them were to contract what was at the time, an incurable and deadly disease.
Gosling was arrested on suspicion of murder on February 17, 2010, after he claimed to have smothered Allsop with a pillow. However, to the public’s surprise, he was released without being charged. Police could not find any evidence to back up Gosling’s claims, and during a fourth interview, he admitted that he was not present, or even in the country, at the time of Allsop’s death.
Allsop’s brother also claimed that the circumstances of his brother’s death did not match with those presented by Gosling. In fact, it was widely known that he had actually died from pancreatic cancer. Gosling, then 71, was eventually arrested again and charged with wasting police time. He was given a 90-day prison sentence. While everybody else generally accepted that Gosling had lied about the circumstances of Allsop’s death, Gosling would spend the rest of his career, and indeed life, claiming that at least some of his story was true—never seeming to be able to decide on what exactly that part that was.
3Gunman Confesses on Live TV before Hijacking the News Van
As we have seen, there have been various occasions where criminals have confessed to a news crew reporting on their crimes. Seldom though, could that crew expect what happened to cameraman Peter Steer after being flagged down by a bearded, bare foot man as he was on his way to report on a shooting in Queensland, Australia.
The series of remarkable events, which were all caught on camera by Steer himself, began with the leather-clad suspect weeping and confessing to shooting a woman nearby. He stated that he was giving himself up “to God” and allowed Steer to contact the police and turn him in. The man waited with Steer for nearly half an hour despite the cameraman telling police, “It is extremely important, I have the man you’re looking for.”
Eventually, the suspect became agitated and appeared to have a change of heart. He jumped into the news van with his gun pointed at Steer and drove away. Unbeknownst to the suspect, a dashboard camera in the vehicle was on and recorded him speeding toward a gas station and crashing into a propane tank, causing a dangerous leak. A witness later stated that the man had noticed the leak and began running around asking people for a lighter. Luckily, police were able to arrest him before he caused any further damage. He was later charged with attempted murder, armed robbery, dangerous operation of a motor vehicle, unlawful possession of a weapon, and unlawful damage.
Although little details have emerged publicly about the suspect himself, the whole scenario can be viewed online thanks to the brave journalism by Peter Steer.
2Swedish Sisters Suffer Rare Case of Shared Psychosis during a BBC Film for Motorway Cops
It was an otherwise ordinary day in May 2008 for a film crew who were shadowing police expecting to see routine calls on the M6 motorway in London. However, what they would witness throughout that day was a bizarre series of events that started with a double attempted suicide and ended with a murder.
It had been described by those who knew them as seemingly “out of the blue.” Two Swedish sisters, Ursula and Sabina Eriksson, snapped and turned to chaos. They had attempted to commit suicide on the motorway but when police arrived they were both unharmed. All caught on camera for a reality show titled Motorway Cops, the police attempted to question the twins when, suddenly, Ursula dashed into oncoming traffic and was struck by a speeding car. Seconds later, Sabina follows her sister into the road and is also hit by a vehicle. Unbelievably, she is able to get up once again, fight off police, rush to the center median, and dare drivers to hit her again.
Police, who described the girls as having “superhuman strength,” were eventually able to restrain them and take them to a hospital for physical and psychiatric evaluation. Though they were later detained, the most horrific of the events was still to come. Soon after being processed and released, Sabina met a man and followed him into his home before, without any apparent motivation, stabbing him to death. Police also state that when they found Sabina at the scene of the crime, she was self-harming with a hammer.
Experts suggest that the twins suffered from a rare case of “shared psychosis.” Sabina was eventually sentenced to five years in prison and was released in 2011. The footage shot by the film crew throughout that day helped police to understand what had happened, and the judges in how to sentence Sabina.
Ursula apparently returned to the US where she had lived previous to the bizarre events and is a member of the Sacred Heart Church. Sabina is back in mainland Europe, currently living in Norway.
1Robert Durst’s Bathroom Confession
In 2010, Andrew Jarecki directed the feature film All Good Things, starring Ryan Gosling and Kristen Dunst, which details the true story of real estate heir and accused murderer Robert Durst. After seeing the film, the real-life Durst had been so impressed with it that he called Jarecki and offered to be interviewed, having previously remained uncooperative with journalists or other media projects.
This phone call was the catalyst that would lead to the groundbreaking 2015 HBO documentary series The Jinx, for which Jarecki ultimately sat with Durst for over 20-hours of interview time.
Durst had been a suspect in the murders of his first wife Kathleen Durst in 1982, his friend Susan Berman in 2000, and neighbor Morris Black in 2001 but was never charged. That was, until the day after the final episode of The Jinx aired.
In the breathtaking finale of the six-part documentary series, Jarecki presents Durst with a telling piece of evidence that would incriminate him without a doubt. But despite a clear sense of panic and uncertainty in his body language, it seemed that a confession from Durst was far from going to happen. So, the pair shake hands and Durst is thanked for his time before heading to the toilet. Little did he know, the microphone was still attached to his collar and recorded what finally led to his downfall; a confession.
“What the hell did I do?” he whispered to himself. “Killed them of course.” For two minutes straight, the world listened as Durst unknowingly confessed to all of the killings. The police finally had that one piece of evidence they needed desperately, and they wasted no time in arresting him on March 14, 2015.
Durst claimed that he was high on meth during the interviews and thus he was not sound of mind. Despite his confession, Durst has not yet been charged with the murders but has received an 85-month prison sentence for a federal gun charge. Whether or not he will ever be charged for all three murders is unclear, but never before has the impressive research by a group of filmmakers been so meticulous that it has been able to do what even the police themselves could not.
R S Boyd is a freelance writer.