6 Crimes That Were Solved With the Help of Pizza

Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Images: istock.com/Michael Burrell (crime scene tape), istock.com/littleny (pizza)
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Images: istock.com/Michael Burrell (crime scene tape), istock.com/littleny (pizza)

Sometimes criminals are done in by greed. Sometimes it's forensic evidence. And sometimes it's a large extra cheese. These perpetrators were delivered to justice as a result of the irresistible allure of pizza.

1. The Grim Sleeper Investigation

In 2010, when Los Angeles detectives became interested in Lonnie Franklin Jr. as a possible suspect in the “Grim Sleeper” investigation—the then-unidentified Sleeper had killed at least 10 women from 1985 to 2007—they began to track Franklin’s whereabouts. The lead had come from a search of familial DNA, which identified crime scene samples as being genetically similar to that of Franklin’s son. But in order to conclusively prove Franklin was their man, they needed a sample of his DNA.

They got their DNA when Franklin stopped for a slice at a pizza place in Orange County. After the suspect ate some pizza, an undercover detective grabbed Franklin's crust, plates, and napkins to "throw away"—but they were actually collected for testing. The judge ruled the pizza-related evidence admissible; according to the Los Angeles Times, Franklin was sentenced to death in 2016.

2. The Case of the Fugitive Vegan

Restaurateur Sarma Melngailis was once the toast of New York City, hosting celebrities in her Pure Food and Wine vegan eatery. But Melngailis and her husband, Anthony Strangis, were allegedly less than responsible financially, spiraling into a wave of reckless spending that saw them take around $2 million of her investors’ money and use it for travel and casino gambling. In 2014, she purportedly took $1.6 million from her commercial account and transferred it to her personal account, crippling her employee payroll. Melngailis and Strangis spent over a year running from authorities before being cornered in a Sevierville, Tennessee hotel in May 2016. According to The Daily Beast, Strangis made the fateful mistake of ordering a Domino’s Pizza delivery and used his real name for the order—which was non-vegan and included a side of chicken wings.

Melngailis (who later denied sharing in any of the pizza order—she claimed to have eaten vegan Chipotle bowls instead) entered into a plea deal and was sentenced to four months for grand larceny, tax fraud, and a scheme to defraud. Strangis took a plea deal and spent a year behind bars. The two entered an amicable divorce in 2018.

3. A Delivery Driver Robbery

Late one Friday night in July 2016, a Papa John’s delivery driver stepped out of his car in Odenton, Maryland. At his destination, a man emerged, pointed a gun, and demanded the driver hand over both his cash and the pizza. The driver consented. When police responded to the call and arrived on the scene, they found an empty pizza box nearby. The box was sent to the forensics lab of the Anne Arundel County Police Department, where technicians retrieved evidence and examined eyewitness interviews. By the following Wednesday, police arrested Bershaun Bertram Elijah Wheeler, 19, and charged him with armed robbery, first-degree assault, second-degree assault, use of a firearm in a violent crime, and two counts of theft under $100. According to the police, while in custody, Wheeler confessed to his involvement in the robbery—and presumably to eating the pizza.

4. The Delinquent Parent On the Pizza Box

Cynthia Brown, then-head of the Butler County Child Support Enforcement Agency in Butler County, Ohio, ordered a pizza in 2006 and noticed that a few coupons were stuck to the box. That gave her an idea. If the pizzerias could attach coupons, why not photos of parents who were delinquent with their child support payments? Brown got three area pizza shops to collaborate with the agency on the campaign, with information about the 10 most wanted parents going out to thousands of customers in Butler County. It didn’t take long for Brown to catch her first financial fugitive. “We caught him within one day,” she told Reuters in 2007. “Someone saw the picture on the pizza box, called our tip line, we forwarded the information to the sheriff’s department and they picked him up.”

Solicited for comment, Karen Willis of Karen’s Pizzeria told the Associated Press that customers didn’t find anything wrong with the pizza shaming, with some remarking they’re “glad they’re not on it.” But fathers’ rights advocacy groups and attorneys criticized the practice, saying it unfairly stigmatized fathers who might not be able to afford child support payments due to economic problems. Some protestors even picketed outside Karen’s to voice their disapproval.

5. A Hedge Fund Kidnapping

In January 2003, ESL Investments president Edward Lampert spent around 30 hours being held hostage by a trio of kidnappers who attempted to wrangle a ransom out of their wealthy captive. Renaldo Rose, the mastermind of the operation, and three accomplices kept Lampert bound in a Hamden, Connecticut hotel before Lampert was able to convince them to let him go. (The multimillionaire apparently promised to give them $5 million if they released him.) In the interim, one of Rose’s underlings had taken Lampert’s credit cards and handed them out among his own circle of friends. Seemingly oblivious to the suspicious nature of using a missing man’s credit card, the friend ordered a pizza using the plastic. (Some reports attributed this gaffe to one of the kidnappers themselves.) FBI agents stormed the address soon after and eventually tracked down Rose, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison. After an early release, the Jamaican-born Rose returned to Jamaica.

6. A Franchise Scheme

The allure of corporate recognition was too much for Donatos Pizza store manager Kim Hericks to resist. According to a 2001 Associated Press report, Hericks ordered 400 pizzas through fake accounts she had set up in the names of two local hospitals and a nearby school district. Her plan was to move enough cheesy inventory to get her name mentioned in a Donatos franchisee newsletter. Hericks proceeded to damage computer and fax machine equipment in an effort to cover her tracks and was also alleged to have taken over $38,000 from the business in total.

As is often the case for purloined pizza perpetrators, she failed to consider the finer details of her caper. Not long after her scheme, the store’s owner went over to her house to help her move. There, he discovered hundreds of rotting pizzas in her garage. Hericks was indicted on charges of theft, forgery, vandalism, and passing bad checks. Ultimately, Hericks was placed in a pre-trial diversion program and the case was dismissed.

8 Surprising Facts About Eddie Murphy

David Shankbone via Flickr // CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons
David Shankbone via Flickr // CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Few entertainers have enjoyed the kind of success comedian Eddie Murphy has had. Born in Brooklyn, New York on April 3, 1961, Murphy originally found fame on Saturday Night Live, then went on to dominate the box office throughout much of the 1980s with hits like 48 Hrs., Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop I and II, The Golden Child, Eddie Murphy: Raw, and Coming to America, which went unrivaled in Hollywood. Switching from his trademark role of a streetwise, fast-talking fish out of water, Murphy moved on to a string of successful family comedies (The Nutty Professor, Doctor Dolittle) in the 1990s and beyond.

Having taken some time off following the lukewarm reception to Bruce Beresford's 2016 drama Mr. Church, in which Murphy starred, the 58-year-old is coming back into the spotlight with the Netflix biopic Dolemite Is My Name, a return to Saturday Night Live (on December 21), and a sequel to Coming to America (coming in December 2020). The actor also plans on a return to stand-up comedy after a 32-year hiatus. In the meantime, check out some lesser-known facts about Murphy’s life and career, including his plans for a cartoon series and an idea to cross paths with Crocodile Dundee.

1. Eddie Murphy wasn’t always live on Saturday Night Live.

Eddie Murphy stars in 'Dolemite Is My Name' (2019)
Eddie Murphy stars in Dolemite Is My Name (2019).
François Duhamel, Netflix

After enjoying success as a stand-up comedian, Murphy arrived on Saturday Night Live in 1980 at age 19, where he spent four seasons drawing renewed interest to the show that had once been declared “Saturday Night Dead” by critics following the departure of original cast members Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and John Belushi, and series creator Lorne Michaels. By the time Murphy was ready to depart the show in 1984 to pursue feature films—1982’s 48 Hrs. and 1983’s Trading Places had been hits—SNL's producers were so desperate to hold on to their star attraction that they offered Murphy a deal to essentially stick around for a portion of the 1983-1984 season. Murphy would appear live in studio in 10 of the 20 scheduled shows and tape 15 sketches that they could insert throughout the season.

“We basically just did a private show that was one Eddie sketch after another that we taped with a studio audience,” writer Pam Norris told Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller for their 2002 book, Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live as Told by Its Stars, Writers, and Guests. “And then those were later put into the shows.”

2. Eddie Murphy hosted Saturday Night Live while he was still a cast member.

Before departing SNL, Murphy was scoring box office hits, including his debut in 1982’s 48 Hrs. His co-star, Nick Nolte, was scheduled to host SNL on December 11 to promote that film. When Nolte fell ill the week of the show, Murphy was selected to host at the last minute—the only time a then-current cast member took over hosting duties. “This summer, Nick and I had the opportunity to work together in a motion picture called 48 Hrs.,” Murphy told the audience during his introduction. “Uh, Nick and I grew together, and Nick taught me a lot about myself, and a lot about acting, and he’s a real great guy. You know, we were sitting around in Paramount’s lot this summer, and I said, ‘Nick, why don’t you come and host Saturday Night Live?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, sure, Eddie, anything for you.’ That’s the kind of guy Nick was. When Nick got here, got off the plane, he vomited on my shirt. And we realized Nick was too sick to do the show. And that’s too bad, because Nick was gonna be in some real great stuff tonight. But I know you folks tuned in to see one of the stars of 48 Hrs. host the show, and dammit, you’re gonna see it. ‘Cause I’m gonna host the show. Live, from New York, it’s the Eddie Murphy Show!”

3. Fred Rogers liked Eddie Murphy’s impression of him.

While on Saturday Night Live, Murphy repeatedly returned to a sketch character named Mister Robinson, a less-than-wholesome version of Mister Rogers. Rather than be dismayed by the parody, Rogers was reportedly very amused by it. He once visited Murphy at Rockefeller Center where SNL was broadcast and met Murphy in his dressing room to congratulate him on the character.

4. There was almost an Eddie Murphy Saturday morning cartoon.

In 1987, at the height of Murphy’s powers in the entertainment industry, he was nearly granted one of the biggest honors of any performer: his own Saturday morning cartoon series. Murphy was reportedly in discussions with Hanna-Barbera for a series—the premise was never disclosed—that would presumably have offered a G-rated interpretation of his comic sensibilities.

The idea was not without precedent. One of Murphy’s comic inspirations, the similarly adult-oriented Richard Pryor, headlined Pryor’s Place, a children's show that ran on CBS for one season beginning in 1984. The untitled Murphy production never saw the light of day, though Murphy did eventually find his way back in the Hanna-Barbera fold. He was set to voice the title character in Hong-Kong Phooey, a live-action and computer-animated adaptation of the ‘70s cartoon featuring a martial arts-proficient dog, in 2011. That project was also shelved.

5. Eddie Murphy’s Beverly Hills Cop character almost met Crocodile Dundee.

Eddie Murphy stars in 'Beverly Hills Cop' (1984)
Eddie Murphy stars in Beverly Hills Cop (1984).
Paramount Home Entertainment

Released in 1984, Beverly Hills Cop was a gigantic hit, with its $235 million in ticket sales beating even Ghostbusters to become America's highest grossing film of the year. Murphy starred as Axel Foley, a Detroit police detective whose investigation of his friend’s murder leads him to a culture clash in Beverly Hills. The film spawned two sequels in 1987 and 1994. For the third installment, Paramount kicked around the idea of teaming Murphy’s Foley with Paul Hogan’s Crocodile Dundee character, the star of his own fish-out-of-water franchise. The idea was suggested by Brandon Tartikoff, Paramount’s then-president. Another idea would have Foley in London and working with a Scotland Yard inspector played by Sean Connery. The 1994 film ultimately featured Foley attempting to solve his boss’s murder and chasing a lead back to an amusement park in California.

6. Eddie Murphy shot a Beverly Hills Cop television pilot.

Though the Beverly Hills Cop sequels were not as well-received as the original, the role was still important to both Paramount and Murphy. In 2013, the studio launched a pilot for a television series that would see Foley become the chief of police in Detroit and spar with his cop son, Aaron Foley (Brandon T. Jackson). Murphy appeared in the pilot and was expected to recur throughout the series, but CBS failed to pick it up. Murphy is now expecting to shoot a fourth Beverly Hills Cop feature film once he finishes the Coming to America sequel.

7. Eddie Murphy has a deep vault of music he’s recorded.

Though he drew a mixed response to his musical albums in the 1980s, Murphy has never stopped recording music. Following the release of “Party All the Time,” the performer has been steadily using home recording studios to produce material. Speaking with Netflix’s Present Company podcast in 2019, Murphy said there are a lot of songs left unreleased. “I’ve never stopped doing music … I stopped putting it out, though, because the audience gets weirded out by it. And I don’t want to be that guy.”

8. Barack Obama may have gotten him back into stand-up.

Murphy is expected to return to stand-up comedy beginning in 2020, a move that may be the result of a massive $70 million Netflix deal. But according to Murphy, resuming that career might be the product of a meeting with Barack Obama. He met up with the President in 2015, when Murphy was accepting the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Obama asked when he would be doing comedy again. “When you go into the Oval Office and the President asks when you are doing stand-up, it’s time to do some jokes,” Murphy said.

10 Out-of-This-World Facts About Space Camp

U.S. Department of Education, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
U.S. Department of Education, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Each year, millions of kids fill their summer vacation days with songs, crafts, and outdoor activities at camp. Summer camps across the U.S. share many similarities, but Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama is unique. Instead of canoeing and archery, young attendees get to ride spacecraft simulators, build robots, and program computers. It’s the closest young civilians can come to working for NASA.

Space Camp welcomed its first aspiring astronauts in 1982, and since then, more than 900,000 campers have attended the program. From its famous alumni to its depiction in film, here are some more facts about Space Camp.

1. The movie SpaceCamp boosted its popularity.

SpaceCamp, the movie inspired by the real camp in Huntsville, Alabama, wasn’t a huge hit when it debuted in theaters in 1986. It grossed just $9,697,739—a little more than half its reported budget. But it didn’t fade into obscurity completely. The film saw success in the home video market and became popular enough to leave a lasting mark on pop culture. Dr. Deborah Barnhart, the real camp’s director for part of the 1980s, told AL.com that attendance doubled following the movie’s release. SpaceCamp shot many of its scenes on location at the Huntsville center. The life-sized space-shuttle flight-deck and mid-deck built for the film were donated to the camp and used as a simulator there from 1986 to 2012.

2. Space Camp was the brainchild of a missile designer.

Some people may be surprised to learn that Space Camp is located in Alabama and not Florida, home to Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center (the movie SpaceCamp is set in Florida despite being filmed in Alabama). But Huntsville, Alabama, has been a major aeronautics center since the 1950s when Wernher von Braun and his team of rocketeers moved there. The German scientist had designed ballistic missiles for the United States military after World War II, and shortly after relocating to Huntsville, he redirected his attention to space flight. He launched the U.S. Space and Rocket Center as a way to demonstrate the area’s rocket technology to tourists. Von Braun also came up with the idea for a science-focused alternative to traditional summer camps after seeing children touring the rocket center and taking notes. Space Camp opened at the center in 1982, a few years after his death.

3. Space Camp activities go beyond space.

The kids at Space Camp do more than ride giant rocket simulators. After enrolling, young campers choose a track to focus on. They can study aviation and learn air navigation and combat techniques, choose robotics and build their own robots, or stick to space-centric subjects and activities. The newest Space Camp experience, cyber camp, teaches kids programming and online security skills.

4. The Space Camp simulators don’t make campers sick.

Space Camp is home to three simulators based on real-life training rigs astronauts use to prepare for space missions. The most intense rig is the multi-axis trainer, and just watching a video of it in action may be enough to make you feel queasy. But according to the camp’s website, campers “should not become sick or dizzy on any of our simulators.” On the multi-axis trainer, this is due to the fact that the rider's stomach remains at the center of the chair throughout the simulation, even as the chair itself is spinning in all directions. Motion sickness is caused when your inner ear fluid and your eyes send your brain conflicting information. Because the rig tumbles so wildly, the rider's inner fluid never has a chance to shift and make them want to vomit.

5. Space Camp boasts some famous alumni.

Space Camp attracts bright young minds from around the world, including a few celebrities. Chelsea Clinton attended the week-long program when her father was in the White House in 1993. Amy Carter, Jimmy Carter’s daughter, and Karenna Gore, daughter of Al Gore, also enrolled in the camp. But not every famous Space Camp graduate came from the world of politics: South African actress Charlize Theron is another notable alumna.

6. Several Space Camp graduates went on to be astronauts.

Many kids who go to Space Camp dream of growing up to be astronauts, and for some of them, that dream becomes a reality. The camp’s alumni includes the “Tremendous 12”—a handful of Space Camp graduates who’ve made it to space. Most members of this elite group were trained by NASA, but a few of them went on to work for other space agencies like the ESA.

7. Most Space Campers end up in STEM professions.

Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama.
GPA Photo Archive, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Even if they don’t go on to be astronauts, most Space Camp attendees have bright futures ahead of them. According to the camp, 61 percent of graduates are studying aerospace, defense, energy, education, biotech, or technology, or they’re working in one of those fields already. Of the alumni pursuing careers in STEM, half of them said that Space Camp inspired that decision.

8. There’s a Space Camp for visually impaired kids.

The U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama hosts a second Space Camp that shares a lot in common with its original program. There are space simulators, astronaut-training missions, and even scuba diving—the main difference is that the kids there are blind or visually impaired. Space Camp for Interested Visually Impaired Students, or SCIVIS, offers children in grades 4 to 12 a crash course in various STEM subjects. They use accessible tools, like computers adapted for speech and reading materials printed in braille or large print. Activities for the week-long camp are organized by teachers familiar with the needs of visually impaired students.

9. Double Dare sent winners to Space Camp.

After conquering the obstacle course of the Nickelodeon game show Double Dare, kid contestants were sent home with various prizes. Though no doubt exciting in the 1980s and '90s, many of the prizes—which included encyclopedias, cassette recorders, and AOL subscriptions—haven’t aged well. A trip to Space Camp was one of the biggest awards players could win, and it’s one of the few that would still have value today.

10. Adults can go to Space Camp too.

If you never went to Space Camp as a kid, you haven’t missed your chance. While the regular Space Camp is only open to kids ages 9 to 18, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center also offers camp programs for older space enthusiasts. Family Space Camp is designed for groups that include at least one child and one adult, and if you don’t plan on tagging along with a kid, you can enroll in the three-day Adult Space Camp experience that’s strictly for campers 18 and older.

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