Crime

The True-Crime Stories That Made Our Jaws Drop in 2018

Fake names. Murder-for-hire. Reddit investigators. Underground lairs. Michael Jackson's alligators. And a whole lot more

In 2002, after a 65-year-old man named Joseph Newton Chandler III shot himself in the head in Ohio, authorities searched for next-of-kin to inherit his $82,000 in savings. What they found instead was startling: Chandler wasn’t who he said he was. The real Joseph Newton Chandler III died in a car accident in Sherman, Texas, on December 21, 1945. He was 8 years old.

Then there’s “Lyle Stevik,” a suicide victim with a fake name whose formerly unresolved case was one of the internet’s most beloved mysteries. Stevik checked into a motel shortly after 9/11 and hanged himself, but left cash and a tip to settle his bill. For nearly 17 years, no one knew his true identity. Then, in 2018, all that changed. Without Reddit, the case would still be cold.

Wanna hear more? Yeah, we do too. We live for this shit.

A lot of the mysteries we cover at MEL aren’t quite so grave — like why, for example, so many guys don’t wash their hands after using the office bathroom. But our team loves a juicy true-crime story, and so do our readers. Our archives are full of grisly whodunits, covering murder, arson, identity theft and mysteries no one yet has the answer to. This year we explored new scandals, revisited dusty cases and even found closure on some of our most popular pieces. These are the crimes, criminals, victims and mysteries we wrote about in 2018.

Joe Exotic: A Cautionary Tale of a Murder-for-Hire Plot Involving Tigers, Michael Jackson’s Pet Alligators, and, of Course, a Florida Man

The Crime: A bizarre, botched murder-for-hire plot to kill a rival animal-sanctuary owner.

The Perpetrator: Exotic roadside zoo owner Joe Exotic, a gay libertarian with a bleach-blond mullet who had previously bought up Michael Jackson’s pet alligators and made a bid for president in 2016.

The Mystery: As it turns out, the hitman Exotic attempted to hire was actually an undercover FBI agent. The bigger mystery is the “Florida Man” phenomenon — and why it seems like so much crazy shit happens in the Sunshine State.

Imagine a man who looks like Guy Fieri’s older brother, who quit working at the family shoe store to follow his dreams of professionally cooking meth. Now imagine that same man owns and operates a roadside zoo in Oklahoma that houses lions, tigers and alligators that once belonged to Michael Jackson. Imagine, though, that this man’s exotic animal zoo is technically licensed as a rendering facility, not as an animal care facility. Imagine the enemies and critics a man like that would have in the exotic animal community. Lastly, imagine that same man was just arrested, in a town called Gulf Breeze, after he allegedly attempted to hire an assassin to murder the CEO of an animal sanctuary called Big Cat Rescue.

One of the Internet’s Favorite Mysteries Has Been Solved

The Crime and Perpetrator: Previously reported by Kirk Pepi as “One of the Internet’s Favorite Mysteries,” the story follows “Lyle Stevik,” a twentysomething man with a fake name who died by suicide in a Washington State hotel room a few days after 9/11.

The Mystery: Who was Stevik and why did he do it? The case remained unsolved — and the man unidentified — for 17 years. However, in 2018, devoted redditors, along with modern DNA testing, helped crack the case. Still, questions remain…

“Like, why did Stevik conceal his identity?” Pepi asks. “What was he running from? Why did he think suicide was the only way to get away from it? And how did he end up in Washington and so far from home?”

He Was an Infamous College Hacker. Then a Bitcoin Millionaire. Now He’s Charged with ‘Depraved’ Murder

The Crime: The “depraved heart” murder of Askia Khafra, an ambitious 21-year-old son of immigrants who had been hired to dig a subterranean lair.

The Perpetrator: Daniel Beckwitt, a young, paranoid, reclusive millionaire who hired Khafra to dig tunnels for a secret hideout, then let him die in a fire.

The Mystery: How the heck did this happen?

Askia Khafra … was a man with a firm grasp on the American dream. In fact, his dreams were so big that Khafra eagerly made a deal to fund them by working punishing hours digging tunnels under Beckwitt’s home. The day trader promised to be an angel investor in Khafra’s startup idea if he helped construct his secret subterranean lair. But on September 10th, 2017, Khafra burned to death in Beckwitt’s DIY fallout shelter. After their months-long investigation, Maryland detectives pushed for Beckwitt not to be charged with manslaughter, but with the state’s rarely applied charge of “depraved-heart” murder.

The Man Who Woke Up as an 8-Year Old Boy

The Crime: At first, it didn’t seem like there was a crime at all. In 2002, the body of a man who had committed suicide was found in his residence. The police struggled to identify his next-of-kin. After making contact, they discovered this man wasn’t who he said he was at all. Instead, he had the identity of an 8-year-old boy who had died in a car accident in 1945.

The Mystery: The true identity of the man is still unknown — and so is the reason why he chose to live as someone else.

Chandler’s appearance didn’t provide the police with many answers, either. He had a small scar on his stomach, possibly from a hernia. He had male pattern baldness and probably wore a toupee. But he had no tattoos, birthmarks or other identifying characteristics. An officer dusted Chandler’s revolver for fingerprints, but they were smudged. “I’ve worked here for 30 years,” says Kroczak. “He’s the only person we haven’t identified.”

Eventually, the Feds, who believe Chandler was a criminal, got involved. “I always thought he was on the run,” says U.S. Marshal Peter J. Elliott, the man responsible for finding fugitives in Ohio’s northern district. “He did a good job.”

The ‘Perfect Little Soup Boy’ Was Too Perfect to Be True

The Crime: On the neighborhood app Nextdoor, a user complains of a prank too good to be true: mysterious Seamless deliveries of soup with the message “soup for my perfect little soup boy.” This user shared their story under the Crime & Safety section of the app. Ultimately, though, this was a crime against us, the gullible people of the internet — as Miles Klee found out.

The Perpetrator: Unknown.

The Clue: How could someone be receiving anonymous soup deliveries when you can’t anonymously send soup with Seamless in the first place?

The Mystery of the Most Famous Missing Person on YouTube

The Crime: In 2014, a 28-year-old German arrived at an airport in Bulgaria for a flight home. Soon after his arrival, he was seen running out of the airport — leaving his bags behind — through the parking lot, and over a barbed wire fence. He was never seen again.

The Mystery: Why this guy ran out of the airport and was never seen again. He seemed to be a regular guy, on a beach vacation with some friends. However, just a few days before his disappearance, he began acting erratic and paranoid. Was he right to be paranoid? Was someone after him?

The fight took place in a McDonald’s, after a boozy all-nighter. It was between him and a group of other German tourists. It was over football. He was a Bremen fan; they supported rival team Bayern Munich. He stood no chance. It was four against one, and his friends were back at the hotel.

“Perhaps that fight stressed him out, and it triggered something in him,” Sandra has theorized, while emphasizing that Mittank had no history of mental illness.

The medication seems blameless, too. “He didn’t take those antibiotics. He didn’t even fill out his prescription,” Kostov remembers. “So his behavior couldn’t have been a result of that. I can’t think of a single reason why he left my office in such a panic. I’m still confused.

Not to mention, Kostov wonders: “Why did he abandon all of his belongings?”

50 Years After In Cold Blood, a New Look at the Clutter Family Murders

The Crimes: The 1959 murder of the Clutter family of Holcomb, Kansas, as profiled in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

The Perpetrators: Perry Smith and Richard Hickock.

The Mystery: Documentarian Joe Berlinger explores the impact the original book has had on the people of the town and relatives of the Clutter family in his new documentary, Cold Blooded. Though there’s little doubt that the men charged with the murders committed the crime, there’s still much to say about this infamous crime. As Berlinger explains:

At that time, there had been a rash of teens killing teens. There was a story in the U.K. of two little boys killing James Bulger on the railroad tracks. It was caught on CCTV. I tried to get access and couldn’t make it. Then Sheila Nevins sent us this article about kids killing kids. We were gonna use this terrible crime to paint the portrait of youth in America  —  who seemed to be running amuck  —  and be ambiguous about it. But halfway through the filming, we realized these guys were innocent, that something was quite wrong.

This Eccentric Academic Thinks the Zodiac Killer Is a Hoax

The Crimes: The “Zodiac Killer” is associated with only five murders — not that many, in the world of serial killers. But the reason we can’t get over him is that we’ve never figured out who he is. Those creepy cryptic letters he sent to the press are pretty terrifying. But what if… a sole killer never existed in the first place?

The Mystery: A semi-retired college professor from St. Louis thinks the whole thing is fake, and he’s got some good evidence to prove it. Talking to contributing writer Bill Black, Thomas Henry Horan details all the little inconsistencies in the Zodiac Killer narrative — and why we maybe don’t even want to solve this mystery, because it would ruin the fun.

… If these were all the facts you had, you wouldn’t guess these killings were the work of a single man. None of the fingerprints found at the crime scenes matched, nor did any of the ammo. Each murder had a different M.O.: making the victims get out and then shooting them; going to the car and shooting them while they were inside; donning a bizarre outfit, talking to the victims for several minutes, tying them up and then stabbing them; shooting a cab driver from behind.

Four letters, one phone call, a note written on a car door: These are the main pieces of evidence linking these disparate crimes to a single killer.

How to Kill a Black Man Twice in America: The Botham Jean Story

The Crime: The murder of an innocent, unarmed black man named Botham Jean in his own home.

The Perpetrator: White police officer Amber Guyger.

The Mystery: Guyger claimed that through a series of mistakes, she entered Jean’s apartment thinking it was her own. Believing that Jean was an intruder in her apartment, she fatally shot him. But why would a police officer be unable to determine that she wasn’t entering her own apartment? The inconsistencies of the story have never fully been clarified, and justice for Jean has never fully been served.

[Jean’s] family had flown in from St. Lucia and New York. They arrived in Dallas just in time to see the local news assassinate Jean’s character. They got to watch as strangers speculated on what this discovery suggested about Jean. Like:

• Why did this so-called good Christian man have drugs?
• What else was he hiding?
• Could drugs be why Officer Guyger acted to protect herself?
• Was this black man just really high and acting really scary — in what she thought was her apartment?

The Definitive Tale of Redoine Faïd: The Real-Life Movie Gangster Who Just Escaped a French Prison in a Helicopter

The Crime: Three men with AK-47s hijacked a helicopter in France and busted out international jewel thief Redoine Faïd from prison. The wildest thing is, this wasn’t even the first time Faïd escaped from jail.

The Mystery: Mostly, how could someone be so successful at escaping from prison?

The masked men, each of whom was dressed in black, arrived at the prison around 11:20 a.m. local time. Two commandos leapt from the hijacked chopper, brandishing their AK-47 assault rifles. They set off smoke bombs to obscure themselves from the security cameras and used a handheld cement grinder to cut through the heavy prison doors. (The third stayed behind with the helicopter and pilot to ensure they all had a way to escape.) Once through, the two commandos headed for the visitor’s room, which is where they found the man they had come to free: criminal mastermind Redoine Faïd.

The 30-Year Search for the U.K.’s Most Famous Missing Son

The Crime: In 1989, 20-year old Charles Horvath-Allan disappeared while working and traveling across Canada.

The Mystery: There’s been so sign of him beyond his last sighting, cashing a check at a local bank. It’s suspected that he died in a fight at the campground where he was staying, his body disposed of in either a septic tank or a lake. His mother, who lived in the U.K., has since made 15 flights to Kelowna, British Columbia, where he was last seen, in hopes of finding evidence that could lead her to her son.

Volunteer divers and a submersible camera team from Vancouver were already searching the lake when Denise received a subsequent letter. It claimed, “They are searching on the wrong size of the bridge.”

The divers and submersible camera team, however, did discover a body. But it wasn’t Charles. It was that of a 64-year-old man who was estimated to have killed himself seven years earlier.

How Death Can Kill Your Property Value

The Crime: Well, murder, but the real crime here is the murder of our wallets once a measly homicide decreases our home value.

The Mystery: Staff writer Ian Lecklitner explores the financial toll deaths can take on the cost of a home once you try to sell it off. Grandpa passed peacefully in his sleep on the couch? No biggie. Homes where suicides or murders took place can be a bit harder to get rid of. But if you’re a buyer looking for a bargain, they might be your best bet.

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Follow MEL’s complete true-crime coverage here.