How Scientists Are Using Plant-Based DNA Barcodes to Bust Counterfeiters

Lucy Quintanilla
Lucy Quintanilla

From high-end guitars to bolts that keep the wings attached to military aircraft, manufacturers are turning toward DNA to catch counterfeit products. A look inside the technology that’s sending crooks to jail in ways Sherlock Holmes only dreamed of.

 

Josh Davis dreamed of touring the United States with his rock band. He never dreamed the FBI would be in the audience.

Through the mid-2000s, the Josh Davis Band played Tucson, Arizona and Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Reno, Nevada and Little Rock, Arkansas; Dallas, Texas and Cheyenne, Wyoming; Bozeman, Montana and Tallahassee, Florida. The band earned extra cash selling guitars to pawn shops, hawking brands such as Gibson, Guild, and Martin. They sold each instrument for about $400 and used the cash to pay for gas, hotels, and food.

None of the guitars were authentic.

To fetch a high price, Davis and his bandmates bought cheap, unbranded guitars and painted fake trademarks on each instrument. (Later, they'd etch fake labels with a dremel hand tool, a CNC wood router, and a laser printer.) All they needed to close each deal was a gullible store clerk.

They found dozens. According to court documents, “Davis told [his drummer] that it was the responsibility of the pawn shops to determine if the guitar was fake or not." Over three years, the Josh Davis Band duped pawn shops across 22 states, selling 165 counterfeit guitars for more than $56,000.

The FBI noticed.

In 2014, Davis was tried in federal court in the eastern district of Pennsylvania, not far from the C.F. Martin & Co. guitar factory in the town of Nazareth. Eighty percent of the fake guitars had been falsely labeled as Martins. John M. Gallagher, an Assistant United States Attorney, argued on the company’s behalf: “[I]t was very difficult for us to quantify financially what money Martin Guitars or the other guitar companies are out because of this scam, but they certainly have damage to their reputation. And that’s not fair. I mean, it’s difficult for an American manufacturer to compete in a global economy as it is.”

Gallagher had a point. The Martin Guitar Company was already busy fighting a legal battle over counterfeit products in China. The Josh Davis Band just added insult to injury.

“As we encountered increased counterfeiting not just abroad, but in the United States, we wanted to find a solution,” says Gregory Paul, Martin’s Chief Technology Officer, in an interview. “We needed a technology that’s forensic grade, recognized in judicial systems around the world as definitive proof of authenticity.”

A solution would emerge in England at a Shell gas station.

 
 

The two bandits knew it all. They knew the Loomis van would be packed with cash. They knew the driver would park the van at Preston Old Road to refill an ATM. They knew the guards handling the money would be unarmed.

On a brisk December 2008 morning in Blackburn, England, the two men—dressed in black and their faces obscured by balaclavas—hid in waiting.

As expected, the Loomis van appeared and parked near the ATM. Two unarmed security guards—including Imran Aslam, a 32 year old who'd been working the job for just two months—stepped out. When Aslam revealed a cash box containing £20,000, the bandits pounced.

“Open the door or I’ll f***ing shoot you,” one of them demanded, gripping a Brocock revolver. He gestured to the locked door of the building that was to receive the money delivery. Aslam refused.

“There’s nothing I can do,” he said. “I can’t let you in.” Aslam gently placed the cash box on the sidewalk at the men’s feet. “That’s all I’ve got. That’s all I can give you."

A Loomis van on a street.
A Loomis van like the one that was robbed in the Blackburn heist.
Alamy

As one thief grabbed the box, the gunman pointed the handgun at Aslam and pulled the trigger three times. Two shots whizzed into the air. A third tore into Aslam’s right thigh.

With Aslam crumpled on the sidewalk, the crooks sprinted away and escaped on a hidden getaway motorcycle. Hours later, they jimmied open the cash box, snatched up the money, and lit the empty container on fire, leaving it to smolder in the woods.

It was not the first ATM attack in the area. Months earlier, 30 miles east in the village of Thornton, the same gang had snatched a loot of £50,000. Police were grasping at dead ends until a gas station attendant noticed that a customer had paid with bills covered in peculiar stains.

It was a dead giveaway. Every Loomis cash box contains a canister of explosive dye. If anybody improperly pries open the container, the dye bursts and the money gets drenched. Suspecting the money might be stolen, the station attendant notified the police. Swabs of the bills were soon mailed to a special forensic laboratory in Stony Brook, New York.

 
 

Stony Brook is a stone's throw east of the Gatsby-esque mansions of Long Island's Gold Coast. It's a college town strung with winding suburban lanes, harborside nature preserves, and a yacht club.

It’s also the heart of America’s “DNA corridor.”

Seventeen miles west sits Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where James Watson first publicly described the double helix structure of DNA. Fourteen miles east is Brookhaven National Laboratory, where scientists discovered the muon-induced neutron, Maglev technology, and point DNA mutations. Stony Brook itself is command central for a biotechnology company called Applied DNA Sciences. “This area probably has the highest density of DNA scientists in the world,” James Hayward, the company’s chairman, president, & CEO, tells Mental Floss.

Stony Brook, NY
Stony Brook, New York
John Feinberg, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Applied DNA Sciences makes, tags, and tests DNA. The company has what Hayward calls “without a doubt, one of the world’s largest capacities to manufacture DNA.” One of their products, called SigNature DNA, can be used as a “molecular barcode” that can track products and even people. It can be found in Loomis cash boxes across the United Kingdom.

In fact, the exploding dye in each Loomis box holds a unique strain of DNA created specifically for that individual container. It is invisible and impossible to scrub clean. So when forensic scientists at Applied DNA tested the suspicious bills from the English gas station, they were able to pinpoint their exact origins—the cash box stolen from Blackburn.

By New Year's Day, five conspirators, including the ATM heist's gunman, Dean Farrell, and the group's ringleader, the ironically named Colin McCash, would be arrested. (Their victim, Aslam, would live to see them in court.) Since then, the same DNA technology has been used in more than 200 similar ATM heists. All of them have led to a conviction.

It was at the time of the Blackburn bust that the Martin Guitar Company decided to sign a contract with Applied DNA Sciences. “We were aware of the work Applied DNA was doing in the UK when we began talking to them,” Gregory Paul says. “Those cases certainly underscored the value of doing it.”

Today, just like the Loomis cash boxes, more than 750,000 Martin guitars are marked with a unique invisible DNA barcode created in Stony Brook. They're all part of an expanding effort to stop what is globally a $1.7 trillion problem—counterfeiting.

 
 

Step into the Martin guitar factory in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, and you’ll see why the company goes through such lengths to protect the identity of each of its instruments. The factory floor buzzes and clangs with the sounds of woodworkers wielding chisels, lathes, sanders, and saws. Many musicians consider Martin the gold standard of acoustic guitars because of this handiwork.

The manufacturing process is involved and time-consuming. First, the wood is air dried, roasted in a kiln, and rested in a giant acclimating room for a year. (Some cuts are so rare that they must be locked in a cage.) The wood is cut with band saws and shaped by hand with bending irons. The braces inside the instrument—which prevent the guitar from collapsing on itself—are scalloped with paring knives, files, and scrapers. When workers glue the guitar, they clamp it with clothespins.

Martin clothespins
Paul Goodman, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The glossing process, which gives the instrument its sheen, is as dazzling as it is exhausting. Workers apply a stain, a vinyl seal coat, a filler coat, and a second vinyl seal coat. That’s followed by a light scuffing, three coats of lacquer, some sanding, three more coats of lacquer, more sanding, a final touch-up with a brush, a glaze of lacquer, a final sanding, a polish with a buffing robot, and then one last hand polish with a buffing bonnet made of lamb’s wool.

About 560 people work here. They take pride in their work—it can take months to manufacture a guitar. But for counterfeiters, it can take just a few hours.

Musical instruments may not be the first thing that pops to mind when people imagine counterfeiting—the word conjures grifters on Canal Street hawking fake Rolexes out of trench coats—but bootlegged musical instruments are a big problem. Martin knows this firsthand. In China, where copyright is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, a guitar-maker with no affiliation with the company once registered Martin's logo, technically earning the legal right to manufacture their own “Martin” guitars. “A Chinese national has hijacked our brand and is making, unfortunately, poorly made copies of Martin guitars with my family's name on them,” Chris Martin IV, the company’s CEO, announced.

It's not just Martin. In 2010, a raid on a Chinese factory turned up 100,000 packages of fake D’Addario guitar strings. (D’Addario estimates that nearly 70 percent of the string sets sold under its name in China are fake. In 2010, the company coughed up $750,000 to fund anti-counterfeiting activities.) Four years later, U.S. Customs and Border Protection discovered a shipment of 185 guitars coming from China that suspiciously bore “Made in USA” labels. The stash of fake Gibson, Les Paul, Paul Reed Smith, and Martin guitars could have screwed consumers out of more than $1 million.

The problem of counterfeit instruments isn't just about protecting the bank accounts of companies and their consumers. "There's an element of consumer safety, too," Gregory Paul explains. "As much as guitars get counterfeited, guitar strings are counterfeited ten times as much. And those products need to possess a certain tensile strength when tuning." A cheaply-made guitar string can be dangerous; it risks snapping and injuring the performer.

Inside the Martin Guitar Factory
Paul Goodman, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

None of this is new. The old fake label switcheroo has been the fraudster's go-to for centuries. The composer Tomaso Antonio Vitali was complaining about it back in 1685 after he bought a phony violin:

"[T]his violin bore the label of Nicolò Amati, a maker of great repute in his profession. Your petitioner has, however, discovered that the said violin was falsely labelled, he having found underneath the label one of Francesco Ruggieri, called 'Il Pero,' a maker of much less repute, whose violins at the utmost do not realize more than three pistoles. Your petitioner has consequently been deceived by the false label."

What's new is the technology available to counterfeiters today: While faking the label of an instrument has always been relatively easy, it's been historically difficult to counterfeit the tone unique to a particular brand or model. That's changing, and it has manufacturers concerned.

All it takes to make a convincing fake is fungi. In 2009, Dr. Francis Schwarze, of the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, hired a luthier to make a violin from wood infected with Physisporinus vitreus and Xylaria longipes, fungi known to uniquely degrade woody cell walls. When the fungal violin was tested against two 1711 Stradivarius violins, a jury of experts was asked to identify which was which; 63 percent believed the fungus-treated instrument had been made by Stradivarius.

A less earthy technique called torrefaction—a process that involves heating wood, cooling it, heating it again, and cooling it again—delivers similar results and is popular with mainstream musical instrument manufacturers. The cycle causes volatile oils, sugars, and resins to evacuate the wood, giving a brand-new instrument a rich tone reminiscent of a decades-old guitar.

Manufacturers such as Yamaha, Collings, Taylor, and Martin have all experimented with torrefaction. And while such technologies have improved the sound of new guitars, they've also fallen into the hands of counterfeiters—making it more difficult for unwitting consumers to pinpoint fraudulent products.

A microscopic barcode made of DNA could change that.

 
 

Think of DNA not as the building blocks of life, but as Mother Nature's attempt at writing code. Instead of using the dots and dashes of Morse code or the ones and zeroes of binary, DNA uses nucleotides: adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G), and cytosine (C).

The arrangement of those nucleotides is what differentiates your boss from a bonobo. In the 1970s, shortly after scientists learned how to synthesize arbitrary stretches of As, Ts, Cs, and Gs, experts realized that they could also encode messages with DNA in the same way that computer programmers did with ones and zeroes. (In the late 1970s, some scientists went so far to hypothesize that the DNA of viruses might contain messages from extraterrestrials; attempts to decode viral DNA found no alien fanmail.)

In 1988, Joe Davis, an artist-in-residence of sorts at MIT, became the first person to encode a message in DNA. Davis synthesized a strand of DNA—CCCCCCAACGCGCGCGCT—that, when decrypted by a computer program, visually resembled the ancient Germanic Runic figure for the female earth. The work, called Microvenus, was inserted into E. coli and reduplicated millions of times.

(We should note that this was a run-of-the-mill experiment for Davis, who is essentially a magnetic mad scientist with a penchant for performance art. He once built an aircraft powered by frog legs and concocted ways to make silkworms spin gold; a memorial he designed for the victims of Hurricane Katrina bottles up lightning and angrily redirects it back at the clouds.)

Writing about Microvenus in Arts Journal, Davis explained that, “unless it is purposefully destroyed, it could potentially survive for a period that is considerably longer than the projected lifespan of humanity itself.”

Twenty-four years later, George Church, a geneticist at Harvard University and a friend of Davis’s, converted his book Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves—about 53,426 words, 11 jpg images, and a line of JavaScript—into DNA. Like Davis, he reduplicated the DNA until he had produced 70 billion copies (making him, in a twisted way, the most published author on earth). A DNA sequencer later reassembled his book, word for word, with hardly a typo.

These biological party tricks may foreshadow the future of data storage, a world where all of our data is stored as As, Ts, Cs, and Gs. “Think of your word document stored on your laptop," explains James Hayward, Applied DNA’s president. "It’s just a lineal series of code, each bit with only two options: a zero or a one. But in DNA, each bit has four options.” Those four options mean that DNA can hold significantly larger amounts of information in a significantly smaller space. If you encoded all the information the planet produces each year into DNA, you could hold it in the palm of your hand.

In fact, Joe Davis has tinkered with that exact concept. He plans to encode all of Wikipedia into DNA, insert it into the genome of a 4000-year-old strain of apple, and plant his own Garden of Eden, growing "Trees of Knowledge" that will literally contain the world’s wisdom. (Well, Wikipedia's version of it.)

 
 

The same principles that enable Davis and Church to insert Runic art and books into DNA allow researchers at Applied DNA Sciences to create barcodes for Martin Guitar. It's a relatively simple concept: Whereas normal barcodes identify a product with a unique pattern of numbers, these barcodes use a unique sequence of nucleotides.

To do that, scientists first isolate a strand of plant DNA. They splice it, kick out any functional genetic information, shuffle the As, Cs, Ts, and Gs into a one-of-a-kind pattern, and stitch it back together. Then they make millions of copies of that strand, which are applied to the body and strings of Martin guitars.

The finished DNA barcode is genetically inert. It usually ranges from 100 to nearly 200 base pairs, long enough to create an unfathomably complicated sequence but short enough that, were it injected into a living human cell, nothing would happen: Ingesting a DNA barcode is no more dangerous than eating an Oreo. (It may even be healthier.)

"It is important to recognize that DNA is an ordinary component of food. You probably ate nearly a gram of it yesterday, which came from the DNA inside all plant and meat cells," explains MeiLin Wan, VP, Textile Sales at Applied DNA Sciences. "But because DNA is degraded down to its building blocks (A,T,C,G) before it has any chance of being taken up into the body (as ordinary nutrition) people do not become modified with plant or animal genes when we eat them … Thus, when used as a molecular bar code, DNA is as safe as food in that regard."

And while the DNA synthesized here is physically small, the sequence encoded within is substantially longer than any other barcode on the planet. “If it were a barcode, it’d be as long as your arm,” Dr. Michael Hogan, VP of Life Sciences at Applied DNA, said in a video.

And it's used for more than just musical instruments and cash boxes. These DNA barcodes are stamped onto pills, money, even vehicles. At least 10,000 high-end German cars possess a unique DNA stamp. Sweden’s largest electricity provider coats its copper supply in DNA barcodes, a move that has helped reduce theft of copper-coated wire by 85 percent. Pharmaceutical companies print DNA barcodes onto capsules and tablets to weed out dangerous fake drugs that may have slipped into the supply chain.

The Pentagon uses it too. When Vice Admiral Edward M. Straw was asked what kept him awake at night, he said nothing of IEDs or enemy combatants; he answered, “Aircraft fasteners. Nuts and bolts that hold components onto airplanes, such as wings. Wing bolts.” That's because the U.S. military’s spare parts system is rumored to contain approximately 1 million counterfeit parts—inferior nuts, bolts, and fasteners that could become a liability on the battlefield. Today, the Air Force uses DNA barcodes to ensure that junky hardware, which could wiggle or snap during flight, never sees an aircraft.

As for Martin, when I asked Gregory Paul where and how the DNA was applied onto the company's guitars, he just chuckled. "Yes. It is applied! That's all I can get into."

To see how it worked, I would have to drive to Stony Brook.

 
 

Wandering the halls of the Long Island High Technology Incubator is like peeking into the future’s window. Inside a squat set of buildings on the eastern campus of Stony Brook University, there’s a company called ImmunoMatrix, which aims to make vaccination needles obsolete; there's Vascular Simulations, which manufactures human dummies that have functioning cardiovascular systems; and there’s Applied DNA Sciences.

I wasn’t granted access to the laboratory where DNA is synthesized—the location is apparently secret, and visitors aren’t permitted because of the contamination risk—but I was permitted inside one of Applied DNA Sciences' forensic laboratories.

Only a small number of people have the clearances to enter the forensic lab here, and, of those, even fewer have access to the keys to the evidence locker. The room is locked: white walls, workstations, and a few scientists in lab coats handling equipment with names I dared not try to pronounce.

Textile Lab
The textile lab at Applied DNA Science.
Courtesy Applied DNA Science

I had imagined a room of objects waiting to be tested, guitars and airplane bolts and wads of cash. But to my surprise, all I see are small swatches of fabric. I'm told that whenever a company like Martin is testing the authenticity of a product, they simply need to swab the instrument. “There’s no way to cheat,” says Wan. “Because if there’s one molecule of our DNA, we will find it.”

Wan gets visibly excited when she talks about stopping fraud. She explains that approximately 15 percent of the goods traded around the globe are phony. Counterfeiting costs American businesses more than $200 billion a year, and the problem touches every industry. Zippo, for example, makes 12 million lighters every year, but counterfeiters match their output. Even your kitchen cabinets are unsafe: It's estimated that 50 percent of extra virgin olive oils in America are, in fact, impure. (Blame the Mafia.)

“People say this isn’t life or death, nobody is going to die from counterfeit products,” Wan says. “But this accumulated cheating casts a culture of doubt, it makes consumers and companies wonder: Am I getting ripped off? Because if you’re going to spend $500 on a Martin guitar instead of $50 on a generic instrument, then every component of that guitar should be made by Martin. Period.”

Here forensic scientists can find out who is telling the truth.

In the lab, the methods are similar to what you’d see on CSI, minus the dramatic music. Many of the scientists here previously worked in medical examiner's offices. “Everything we do is consistent with what you’d do in a human identification laboratory,” explains Dr. Ila Lansky, Director of Forensics.

To properly identify the DNA, samples from the swab in question must be multiplied, so they're ferried to an instrument called a thermal cycler. (It's basically a molecular photocopier: The DNA is heated. Then a heat-resistant enzyme called Polymerase—first discovered in the thermal springs of Yellowstone National Park—is added. When the DNA is heated once more, the Polymerase helps double the number of DNA strands.) Repeated over and over, the machine can create millions of testable samples very quickly.

The birthplace of polymerase
The birthplace of polymerase: the hot springs of Yellowstone.
Mark Ralston, AFP/Getty Images

This freshly-copied batch of DNA is placed in a refrigerator-sized machine called a 3500 Genetic Analyzer, a fluorescence-based instrument that determines the length of the DNA and the sequence of its As, Cs, Ts, and Gs. Within 20 to 120 minutes, the results appear on a computer screen in the form of a cragged graph, with wobbly peaks and valleys.

“The DNA really can’t be found unless you know what you’re looking for,” Lansky explains. “And we’re the only ones who know what to look for.”

On the day I visited, the team wasn't analyzing guitars. Instead, they were looking at cotton samples that claimed to be 100 percent pure extra-long staple, or ELS. I'm told the cotton supply chain is messy: A puffball may grow in California, be ginned in Arkansas, be woven in India, be dyed in Egypt, and then return to multiple warehouses in the United States for distribution. Each step is an opportunity for the “100 percent cotton” to become corrupted. (With sometimes horrifying results: In 2014, Italian police seized more than a million products from a company claiming to make “100 percent cashmere.” The products contained rat fur.)

Wan stands before the computer and points to the graph. To me, it’s just squiggles. She might as well have been showing me the latest stock market results. But to her eyes, it’s a damning fingerprint: She compares the contours to the peaks and valleys expected of 100 percent pure cotton. The lines don’t match.

Turns out, it's less than 80 percent ELS cotton—evidence that somebody adulterated the sample somewhere along the supply chain.

Wan smirks and says, “And that's the reason we like to say: DNA is truth."

11 Terrifying Urban Legends That Turned Out to Be True

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iStock

Urban legends—those unsubstantiated stories of terror that allow us to use our imaginations to fill in increasingly horrifying details with each retelling—have been with us forever. While the internet has made dissemination of them easier, humans have been goading one another with spooky anecdotes for centuries. Psychologists believe we respond to these tales because we have a morbid fascination with the disgusting; we also can’t help but enjoy gossip. Put those two things together and it makes for an irresistible mix.

Urban legends often come with a dose of skepticism. (No, a killer with a hook hand has never terrorized necking couples.) But sometimes, these stories turn out to be true. Have a look—preferably under the covers and with a flashlight—at these 11 terrifying tales that actually happened.

1. RATS IN THE TOILET BOWL

Two rats try to swim in a toilet bowl
iStock

You stagger into the bathroom at 3 a.m. to relieve yourself. Groggy with sleep, you lift the lid and position yourself over the toilet. You hear splashing. Turning on the light, you see a rat looking back at you from the bowl. You’re never the same again.

Urban legends about animals in sewers have been a staple of scary stories, particularly the one about baby alligators being flushed down toilets and then growing to adult size in waste channels. Most often told about New York. (Not true. While alligators and crocodiles have been found in New York, they’re generally released and found above ground, and it’s thought that New York is too cold for them to survive for very long.) But finding a rodent in your toilet, inches from very vulnerable areas of your body, is a particular kind of domestic terror—and one that happens to be possible.

Drain plumbing for toilets is typically three inches in diameter or more, plenty of space for a rat to climb up. The animals are attracted to sewage lines due to undigested food in feces and can travel through pipes before emerging through an opening and into your bathroom. And yes, rats can be somewhat testy when they complete their journey. One aquatic rodent bit the rump of a female victim in Petersburg, Virginia in 1999. In Seattle, the issue is common enough that public officials have given advice on what to do in case you encounter one (close the lid and flush).

2. THE LEGEND OF POLYBIUS

An arcade game joystick sits next to buttons
iStock

Vintage video gamers have long traded stories about a coin-operated arcade game circa early 1980s Portland that had strange effects on its players. The game, titled Polybius, was alleged to have prompted feelings of disorientation, amnesia, game addiction, and even suicide. The machine’s cabinet was said to be painted entirely black, and it was rumored that stern-looking men would sometimes visit arcades to collect information from the machine before disappearing. Was it a CIA experiment spun off from MK Ultra, the psychoactive drug study conducted on unsuspecting subjects?

While the entire story doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, individual pieces are actually based in fact. Brian Dunning, host of the Skeptoid podcast, did some investigative work and found that a 12-year-old named Brian Mauro had become sickened during a 28-hour marathon video game contest in Portland in 1981. (He apparently drank too much soda and experienced stomach discomfort.) Just a few days later, Portland-area arcades were raided by federal agents, who seized cabinets that were being used for gambling. Coupled with the existence of a real arcade game named Poly-Play, these memories seemed to amalgamate into the Polybius legend.

3. CANDYMAN

A woman takes a photo of herself in a medicine cabinet mirror
jay~dee, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Released in 1992, Candyman—based on a short story by Clive Barker—remains a potent horror tale of the revenge undertaken by a black artist (Tony Todd) murdered in the 1890s for having a relationship with a white woman. While it’s not likely you’ll be able to invoke him by saying his name several times in a mirror, the pants-soiling idea of having a killer burst through a medicine cabinet is actually based in fact.

In 1987 the Chicago Reader published a story about Ruth McCoy, a woman living in a Chicago housing project, who made a frantic call to 911 insisting she was being attacked in her apartment. Responders eventually found her dead of gunshot wounds. Investigators determined that her assailants had gained access to her unit by breaking through the connecting wall in the adjoining apartment and climbing in through her medicine cabinet. The complex was built that way intentionally, so that plumbers investigating leaks could simply remove the cabinet to check the pipes. It became a frequent mode of entry for burglars—and in McCoy’s case, her killers.

4. CROPSEY

A man casts a shadow in the woods
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For years, kids living in and around Staten Island raised goosebumps by relating the tale of “Cropsey,” a boogeyman who lived in the woods and made a nocturnal habit of disemboweling children. Parents no doubt eased their kids’ fears by telling them no such monster existed.

But he did. In 1987, Andre Rand was put on trial and convicted for a child abduction. Rand, it turned out, may have been connected to a rash of child disappearances in the 1970s. He had once worked at Willowbrook, a defunct mental institution. While he denies involvement in other cases, it’s clear Rand’s activities had a heavy influence in the word-of-mouth stories that followed.

5. THE LEAPING LAWYER

Buildings stretch into the sky
iStock

Sooner or later, Toronto residents hear the tale of a lawyer who had a peculiar fondness for running full-bore into his office windows to demonstrate how strong they were. This practice caught up with him eventually, as he crashed into a window and went sailing to his death. This hobby was actually practiced by Garry Hoy, a senior partner in an area law firm with an office on the 24th floor. On July 9, 1993, Hoy made his signature tackle against the window to impress some visiting law students. The pane finally broke and sent him plummeting to his death. In a eulogy, managing partner Peter Lauwers called Hoy “one of the best and brightest” at the firm.

6. THE BODY UNDER THE BED

A hand appears from underneath a bed
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Vacationing couples. Newlyweds. Disneyland guests. All have been the subject of an urban legend involving hotel occupants who fall blissfully to sleep, only to wake up to an awful stench coming from either under the bed or inside the mattress. Closer inspection reveals that a dead body has been stashed away. Presumably, not anyone who has died of natural causes.

This traveling tale has been confirmed multiple times over. At least a dozen newspaper stories have detailed hotel rooms that have doubled as body disposal sites. While the smell is usually apparent right away, at least one couple slept on a mattress containing a body in Atlantic City in 1999. Cases in Colorado, Florida, and Virginia have also been reported.

In 2010, guests at a Budget Lodge in Memphis were horrified to discover they had been sleeping above the body of Sony Millbrook, a missing person. Fabric softener had been stuffed in the ceiling tiles to try and mask the smell. At least three other occupants had also rented the room since Millbrook’s disappearance. A court eventually convicted Millbrook’s boyfriend, LaKeith Moody, of the crime.

7. THE MAINE HERMIT

A person's shadow is visible in a camping tent
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For decades, people who vacationed in central Maine’s North Pond area were puzzled by items that would go missing. Batteries and food from cabins, flashlights from camping tents. Rumors spread that a permanent fixture of the area would forage for sustenance and supplies.

They were right. For 27 years, Christopher Knight lived alone in the woods, keeping tabs on the hikers, canoeists, and other temporary residents of the grounds. When he was confronted by a game warden in 2013, Knight admitted he was responsible for an average of around 40 robberies a year. Despite the likely protestations of family and friends who dismissed tales of a hermit lurking somewhere in the woods, his identification proved that someone had been watching—and waiting—for nearly three decades.

8. THE FAKE COP TRICK

Lights are visible on a police car at night
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You may have had an overly concerned parent or friend warn you of people impersonating police officers, using that veneer of authority to attack victims who have let their guard down. While there aren’t many who are in full patrol uniform or traveling in marked vehicles, there have been many documented cases of assailants posing as law enforcement—at least two this past summer alone. In Bloomington, Illinois, a man used flashing lights to get a vehicle to pull over. After walking up to the vehicle, the man tried—unsuccessfully—to overpower the driver before they managed to get away. In Fayetteville, Georgia, a man donned a uniform and pulled over a teenage boy on a bike, forcing him to empty his pockets. Talking to (real) police later, the boy told them a second car had pulled up with a man matching the description of someone who had been caught impersonating an officer two weeks prior.

9. THE LEGEND OF THE BUNNY MAN

A man in a bunny mask sits at a table
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If you lived in or around Virginia in the 1970s, you were probably exposed to the story of the Bunny Man. In the tale, an escaped mental patient takes to gutting bunnies and hanging them from a bridge underpass. Later, the maniac is said to have graduated to gutting and hanging teens in a similar manner. Locals were cautioned to never be caught near the underpass, which is now known to most people as “Bunny Man Bridge,” on Halloween night.

This story likely spawned from the very real presence of a roving madman in the area. In October 1970, a couple reported seeing a man dressed in a white suit and wearing bunny ears who began yelling at them that they were on private property. To punctuate his point, he threw a hatchet at their windscreen, apparently shattering it. There was a second sighting of Bunny Man two weeks later, when a security guard spotted a hatchet-wielding man chipping away at a porch railing. Police tried, unsuccessfully, to locate the man. While he didn’t disembowel anyone, the thought of an adult wielding both a hatchet and a pair of rabbit ears somehow manages to be just as disturbing.

10. CHARLIE NO-FACE

A man walks along a road near trees
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Imagine finding yourself outside and alone in the dark on a residential street. You hear footsteps approaching. Suddenly, a man with a misshapen face appears. You run, terrified beyond words. You spread the story of the man with no face throughout Pennsylvania.

“Charlie No-Face” (also called the Green Man) was actually a man named Ray Robinson, and he was no figment of anyone’s imagination. Born in 1910, Robinson was disfigured as the result of an electrical accident at the age of 8. He touched active wires, which effectively maimed him. Knowing his appearance could be disconcerting, Robinson took to taking strolls after dark. He often walked a path along Route 351 in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. While his intentions were honorable, encountering Robinson in the dead of night inevitably led to spreading stories about a boogeyman haunting the town. Robinson died in 1985.

11. THE ALL-TOO-REAL CORPSE DECORATION

A toe tag is seen on a corpse in a morgue
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Notorious outlaw Elmer McCurdy took on a second life following his death. In 1911, the embalmed corpse of McCurdy became a grim sideshow attraction throughout Texas, with people eager to see the famed criminal on display in funeral parlors and carnivals. Though it’s hard to document all of his travels, he eventually wound up in Long Beach, California, where someone apparently mistook him for a prop. McCurdy was hung in a funhouse at the Nu-Pike Amusement Park, his humanity discovered only after a crew member on The Six Million-Dollar Man—which was filming there in 1976—tried to adjust him, dislodging his very real arm. The following year, his corpse was put to proper rest. 

20 Best Docuseries You Can Stream Right Now

Netflix
Netflix

If your main interests are true crime and cooking, you’re in the middle of a Renaissance Age. The Michelangelos of nonfiction are consistently bringing stellar storytelling to twisty tales of murder and mayhem as well as luxurious shots of food prepared by the most creative culinary minds.

But these aren’t the only genres that documentary series are tackling. There’s a host of history, arts, travel, and more at your streaming fingertips. When you want to take a break from puzzling out who’s been wrongfully imprisoned, that is.

Here are the 20 best docuseries to watch right now, so start streaming.

1. MAKING A MURDERER (2015-)

One of the major true crime phenomenons of 2015 was 10 years in the making. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos uncovered the unthinkable story of Steven Avery, a man wrongfully convicted of sexual assault who was later convicted of murdering a different woman, Teresa Halbach. Not just a magnifying glass on the justice system and a potential small town conspiracy, it’s also a display of how stories can successfully get our blood boiling. Three years after the docuseries became a surprise hit for Netflix, it's returning for a second season on October 19th.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. THE STAIRCASE (2004-2018)

In 2001, author Michael Peterson reported to police that his wife, Kathleen, had died after falling down a set of stairs, but police didn’t buy the story and charged him with her murder. Before the current true crime boom, before Serial and all the rest, there was The StaircaseJean-Xavier de Lestrade’s Peabody Award-winning docuseries following Peterson’s winding court case. The mystery at the heart of the trial and the unparalleled access Lestrade had to Peterson’s defense make this a must-see. And Netflix's recent addition of new episodes earlier this year led to a resurgence in interest in this mind-boggling case (with armchair detectives even positing that an owl was the real killer).

Where to watch it: Netflix

3. FLINT TOWN (2018)

If your heart is broken by what’s going on in Flint, Michigan, be prepared to have that pain magnified and complicated. The filmmakers behind this provocative series were embedded with police in Flint to offer us a glimpse at the area’s local struggles and national attention from November 2015 through early 2017.

Where to watch it: Netflix

4. THE JINX (2015)

After the massive success of Serial in 2014, a one-two punch of true crime docuseries landed the following year. The first was the immensely captivating study of power, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, which chronicled the bizarre, tangled web of the real estate mogul who was suspected of several murders. The show, which could be measured in jaw-drops per hour, both registered real life and uniquely affected it.

Where to watch it: HBO

5. WILD WILD COUNTRY (2018)

What happens when an Indian guru with thousands of American followers sets up shop near a small town in Oregon with the intent to create a commune? Incredibly sourced, this documentary touches on every major civic issue—from religious liberty to voting rights. When you choose a side, be prepared to switch. Multiple times.

Where to watch it: Netflix

6. WORMWOOD (2017)

Documentary titan Errol Morris turns his keen eye to a CIA project that’s as famous as it is unknown—MKUltra. A Cold War-era mind control experiment. LSD and hypnosis. The mysterious death of a scientist. His son’s 60-year search for answers. Morris brings his incisive eye to the hunt.

Where to watch it: Netflix

7. FIVE CAME BACK (2017)

Based on Mark Harris’s superlative book, this historical doc features filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro discussing the WWII-era work of predecessors John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens. Also narrated by Meryl Streep, it looks at how the war shaped the directors and how they shaped the war. As a bonus, Netflix has the war-time documentaries featured in the film available to stream.

Where to watch it: Netflix

8. THE STORY OF FILM: AN ODYSSEY (2011)

If you can’t afford film school, and your local college won’t let you audit any more courses, Mark Cousins’s 915-minute history is the next best thing. Unrivaled in its scope, watching it is like having a charming encyclopedia discuss its favorite movies. Yes, at 15-episodes it’s sprawling, so, yes, you should watch it all in one go. Carve out a weekend and be ready to take notes on all the movies you'll want to watch afterward.

Where to watch it: Sundance Now

9. UGLY DELICIOUS (2018)

David Chang, the host of the first season of The Mind of a Chef, has returned with a cultural mash-up disguised as a foodie show. What does it mean for pizza to be “authentic”? What do Korea and the American South have in common? With his casual charm in tow, Chang and a variety of special guests explore people through the food we love to eat as an artifact that brings us all together.

Where to watch it: Netflix

10. EVIL GENIUS (2018)

At approximately 2:20 p.m. on August 28, 2003, Brian Wells—a pizza deliveryman—walked into a PNC Bank in Erie, Pennsylvania and handed a note to a teller demanding $250,000 in cash. Wells had a bomb, which was strapped to his body via a metal neck collar, and a loaded shotgun that was fashioned to look like a walking cane. Approximately 12 minutes later, Wells strolled out of the bank with $8702 in cash, then made his way to the McDonald’s next door, where he retrieved a detailed note that told him where to go and what to do next. Within 15 minutes, Wells would be arrested. At 3:18 p.m.—less than an hour after he first entered the bank—the bomb locked around Wells’s neck would detonate, as police watched (and waited for the bomb squad), killing the 46-year-old in broad daylight. The bizarre incident was just the beginning of Evil Genius, which documents the peculiar case that would eventually entangle a range of unusual suspects, including Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, and has had armchair detectives—and the FBI—questioning whether Wells was in on the bank robbery, or a genuine victim, for more than a decade.

Where to watch it: Netflix

11. MAKERS: WOMEN WHO MAKE AMERICA (2013)

Narrated by Meryl Streep, this three-part series covers a half-century of American experience from the earliest days of second-wave feminism through Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination in the 1990s. Ellen DeGeneres, Condoleezza Rice, Sally Ride, Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, and more are featured, and the series got six more episodes in a second season.

Where to watch it: Makers.com

12. PLANET EARTH II (2016)

The sequel to the 2006 original is a real stunner. Narrated (naturally) by Sir David Attenborough, featuring music from Hans Zimmer, and boasting gorgeous photography of our immeasurably fascinating planet, this follow-up takes us through different terrains to see the life contained within. There are snow leopards in the mountains, a swimming sloth in the islands, and even langurs in our own urban jungle. Open your eyes wide to learn a lot or put it on in the background to zen out.

Where to watch it: Netflix

13. THE NATIONAL PARKS: AMERICA’S BEST IDEA (2009)

The cheapest way to visit Yosemite, Yellowstone, Muir Woods, and more. This Emmy-winning, six-part series is both a travelogue and a history lesson in conservation that takes up the argument of why these beautiful places should be preserved: to quote President Roosevelt, “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Where to watch it: Amazon

14. CONFLICT (2015)

Experience the too-often-untold stories of conflict zones through the lenses of world class photographers like Nicole Tung, Donna Ferraro, and João Silva. This heart-testing, bias-obliterating series is unique in its views into dark places and eye toward hope.

Where to watch it: Netflix

15. LAST CHANCE U (2016)

Far more than a sports documentary, the story of the players at East Mississippi Community College will have you rooting for personal victories as much as the points on the scoreboard. Many of the outstanding players on the squad lost spots at Division I schools because of disciplinary infractions or failing academics, so they’re seeking redemption in a program that wants them to return to the big-name schools. There are two full seasons to binge and a third on the way.

Where to watch it: Netflix

16. VICE (2013)

Currently in its sixth season, the series is known for asking tough questions that need immediate answers and giving viewers a street-level view of everything from killing cancer to juvenile justice reform. Its confrontational style of gonzo provocation won’t be everyone’s cup of spiked tea, but it’s filling an important gap that used to be filled by major network investigative journalists. When they let their subjects—from child soldiers suffering PTSD after fighting for ISIS to coal miners in Appalachia—tell their stories, nonfiction magic happens.

Where to watch it: HBO

17. CHEF’S TABLE (2015)

From David Gelb, the documentarian behind Jiro Dreams of Sushi, this doc series is a backstage pass to the kitchens of the world’s most elite chefs. The teams at Osteria Francescana, Blue Hill, Alinea, Pujol, and more open their doors to share their process, culinary creativity, and, of course, dozens of delicious courses. No shame in licking your screen.

Where to watch it: Netflix

18. NOBU’S JAPAN (2014)

For those looking to learn more about culture while chowing down, world-renowned chef Nobu Matsuhisa guides guest chefs to different regions of Japan to ingest the sights, sounds, and spirits of the area before crafting a dish inspired by the journey. History is the main course, with a healthy dash of culinary invention that honors tradition.

Where to watch it: Sundance Now

19. THE SYSTEM (2014)

Should a jury decide if a child is sentenced to life in jail without parole? How can you go to jail for 20 years for shooting your gun inside your own home to deter thieves? These are just two of the questions examined by this knockout series about the conflicts, outdated methods, and biases lurking in America’s criminal justice system. Insightful and infuriating, it makes a strong companion to Ava DuVernay’s 13th.

Where to watch it: Al Jazeera and Sundance Now

20. BOBBY KENNEDY FOR PRESIDENT (2018)

This four-part series utilizes a wealth of footage, including unseen personal videos, to share the tragic story of Robert F. Kennedy’s run for president in the context of an era riven by racial strife. Watching this socio-political memorial told by many who were there (including Marian Wright and Congressman John Lewis), it will be impossible not to draw connections to the current day and wonder: What if?

Where to watch it: Netflix

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