The Crime Book
Black and red illustration of sunglasses with zodiac symbol, associated with the Zodiac Killer

5 True Crime Stories You Won’t Believe Are Real

5 True Crime Stories You Won’t Believe Are Real

Love true crime, and think you’ve seen it all? You’re in for a sinister treat. We’ve searched through some of history’s most famous crimes and criminals to discover the most bizarre of the baddies. From plots to cons to killers, here are five true crime stories you won’t believe are real.

1. Thirsty thieving | The Russia-Estonia Vodka Pipeline

Anyone for a drink? From August to November 2004, a team of enterprising smugglers operated a remarkable 2km (1¼-mile) pipeline under the Kyrgyzstan River to transport huge quantities of vodka from Russia to the ex-Soviet country of Estonia in order to avoid paying duty.

The operation was uncovered by chance when workers digging planting holes for trees found the pipeline along the bottom of a reservoir near the border town of Narva. Officials estimated that by the time the gang of 11 Russian and Estonian smugglers were caught, they had already pumped 7,450 litres (1,638 gallons) of vodka from Russia to Estonia.

2. Tall tales | The sale of the Eiffel Tower

Now here’s a con for the ages. Based in Paris in 1925, swindler Victor Lustig read a newspaper story about how the Eiffel Tower was rusting and required repairs. It was built for the 1889 Paris Exposition and was intended to be dismantled and moved to another location in 1909.

Sensing an opportunity, Lustig sent out letters on fake government stationery to five businessmen in which he claimed to be the Deputy Director General of the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs. In the letters, he asked for a meeting at the Hotel de Crillon to discuss a business contract. Believing the opportunity to be genuine, the five men all met with a smartly dressed, courteous Lustig. He revealed that the government intended to sell the Eiffel Tower for scrap metal and would take bids for the right to demolish the monument.

Lustig had rented a limousine and invited the men for a tour of the tower. Lustig identified the most socially and financially insecure target, Andre Poisson, who desperately wanted to join the ranks of the Parisian business elite. In the end, Poisson was indeed the con’s dearest victim – he not only paid for the 7,000 tons of scrap iron but also gave the con man a bribe of $70,000. Lustig correctly predicted that Poisson would be too humiliated to report the fraud.

3. The imposter poster boy | Con man Frank Abagnale

Ever seen Catch Me If You Can? Here’s the film’s larger-than-life inspiration.

Just after learning that his parents were divorcing, 16-year-old Frank William Abagnale Jr. left home with a small bag of belongings, including a cheque book, and headed to New York’s Grand Central Station. Standing  1.8m (6 feet) tall and passing as a twenty-something, Abagnale changed one digit on his driver’s license to increase his age to 26. Frustrated with his income, he started writing cheques that bounced. Police were already searching for him as a runaway, so Abagnale fled to Miami.

Passing a hotel in the city, Abagnale noticed a flight crew and was struck by an idea: he could pose as a pilot, travel the world, and never have a problem cashing cheques. The next day, he called the Pan American World Airways office and asked for the purchasing department, claiming that the hotel he was staying at had lost his uniform. They directed him to their New York supplier, who fitted him for a new uniform.

Abagnale used adhesive stickers from a model Pan Am airplane to make a Pan Am pilot’s license, and found that he could use it to travel the world for free, courtesy of an airline policy offering free rides to each other’s pilots.

After two years as a “pilot”, Abagnale continued his con man career, living life as a sociology professor, a pediatrician, an undercover prison agent, and a legal assistant – having passed his bar exam on the the third try, despite never attending law school.

Abagnale was finally apprehended in 1969 in France and sentenced to 12 years in prison, but four years into his term he was released on the condition he work for the FBI for the remainder of his sentence.

4. The proof is in the painting | Art forger Elmyr de Hory

Elmyr de Hory’s legendary 23-year career as an art forger began one afternoon in April 1946, when a wealthy friend visited his small art studio in Paris. Among de Hory’s own Post-Impressionist paintings, she noticed an unsigned, unframed, abstract drawing of a young girl. Incorrectly identifying it as a work by Pablo Picasso, she asked if de Hory would sell it, and for $100 ($1,210 today), he agreed. At the time of the sale of this fake “Picasso,” de Hory was a 40-year-old classically trained artist who had found limited success selling nondescript paintings and portraits.

Following the unexpected sale of the bogus “Picasso” drawing, de Hory produced other “Picassos” and began to target European art galleries. He claimed to be a Hungarian aristocrat displaced in the post-war diaspora, offering what remained from his family’s art collection.

In August 1947, de Hory moved to the US and used his charm to ingratiate himself with members of the American art world. Suddenly, he had the opportunity to sell his forgeries to hundreds of galleries. He also expanded his repertoire to include “works” by Matisse, Modigliani, and Renoir.

Eventually settling down in a beautiful house in Spain after years of lucrative forgery, the quality of de Hory’s fakes began to deteriorate. Art dealers and experts became suspicious and several gallery owners who had purchased de Hory’s paintings alerted Interpol and the FBI.

De Hory is renowned as history’s greatest art forger, creating more than 1,000 works during his career. There are some art experts who believe that many of de Hory’s forgeries have not yet been discovered and still hang in galleries around the world.

5. Hidden clues and homicide | The Zodiac Killer

July 4, 1969, should have been a wonderful night for Michael Mageau. Fireworks were exploding over San Francisco Bay, and he had a date with beautiful 22-year-old Darlene Ferrin. The two were sitting in Darlene’s car at Blue Rock Springs in Vallejo, when a vehicle pulled up. The driver got out, shone a flashlight into their car, and began to fire a pistol at them. Ferrin died but Mageau survived. Soon after, a man phoned the Vallejo police department saying, “I want to report a murder. If you will go 1 mile east on Columbus Parkway, you will find kids in a brown car. They were shot with a 9-mm Luger. I also killed those kids last year. Goodbye.”

On July 31, letters and coded messages arrived at major newspapers in the area. They contained a sinister threat: if the ciphers did not appear on the newspapers’ front pages by the following afternoon, the author would go on a killing rampage. The letters claimed responsibility for Ferrin’s murder and another double homicide committed in Vallejo in December 1968.

After some hesitation, the papers printed their portions of the cipher. A second letter arrived at the Herald on August 4, in which the author referred to himself as “the Zodiac.”

By August 8, 1969, a couple living in Salinas decoded the 408 symbol cryptogram, in which the author said that he hunted people. That year, two more murders occurred, one by stabbing, in which the killer drew the Zodiac symbol on a car door, and another with a pistol, in which the killer ripped away a bloodstained section of his victim’s shirt.

Although police recovered a bloody fingerprint from the second murder, the killer remained unidentified. The killer sent a letter to the Chronicle two days later with the bloody piece of the victim's shirt. The letters continued until 1978, but the Zodiac killer was never caught.


From Jack the Ripper to Jeffrey Dahmer, The Crime Book is a complete study of international true crime history that unpacks the shocking stories through infographics and in-depth research that lays out every key fact and detail. Examine the science, psychology, and sociology of criminal behavior, and read profiles of villains, victims, and detectives.

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