The Perfect Crime May Be Possible in Yellowstone Park

IStock
IStock

If it wasn’t for the fact that he and his wife had a baby on the way, Brian Kalt may never have discovered how to commit the perfect crime.

A law professor at Michigan State University in 2004, Kalt needed to publish one article annually in order to be considered for tenure. He began researching the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution, which stipulates that jurors in federal criminal trials must live in both the federal judicial district and the state where a crime was thought to be committed. His original idea had been to examine how some states allowed for a trial in one of two neighboring counties depending on how close the criminal act was to the dividing line: It’s a small but pivotal loophole that gives some prosecutors the unusual choice of being able to pick a location more receptive to their case.

Kalt kept seeing repeated reference to the fact that district boundaries typically followed state lines, with one exception: the District of Wyoming. Time and again, the authors would indicate that it was of little significance. But Kalt was curious. What was different about Wyoming? And was it really so insignificant?

With limited time to write a paper before his baby arrived and diverted all his attention, Kalt decided to postpone his more involved initial idea and pursue the second. After more research, he discovered that Wyoming’s district geography was unique among the 50 states. As a result of some sloppy Congressional maneuvering, there exists a 50-square-mile zone in Yellowstone National Park where someone could—hypothetically—commit a crime and get away with it. Including murder.

Kalt knew what his legal theory paper was going to be about.

“I like to say that there are two kinds of people who sit around thinking about how to get away with murder,” Kalt tells mental_floss. “Psychopaths, and then neurotic people who are afraid of psychopaths.”

Kalt is in the latter category. The scenario he presented in his 2005 paper, “The Perfect Crime,” [PDF] was written as a cautionary tale, not an instructional manual. The theory goes like this: Yellowstone, a federally-supervised national park that resides mainly in Wyoming, has small patches of land bleeding into neighboring Idaho and Montana. Together, both make up roughly nine percent of the park; the Idaho portion is uninhabited land with few visitors. But because the entire park is considered to be under the jurisdiction of the District Court in the District of Wyoming, that means anyone in that area who commits a crime would be doing so both in the state of Idaho and the District of Wyoming.

This is where a federal prosecuting attorney’s head would begin to throb. The Sixth Amendment instructs that a federal jury must be assembled from both the district and state in which the crime was committed. In order for that to work for that particular area of Yellowstone, there would have to be residents—and there aren’t. You can’t form a jury from anywhere else in Idaho because they’re not in the District of Wyoming; likewise, the District of Wyoming has no Idaho residents. (The Montana portion has a few dozen, though it would still be problematic to get a full panel of 12 jurors.) And you can’t hold a trial in Wyoming because Article III of the Constitution insists that it take place in the state where the offense occurred.

No court could assemble a jury from an empty jury pool. With no jury, there’s no trial. And someone who decides to strangle someone else in what Kalt dubbed “the Zone of Death” stands a better-than-fair chance of going free as a result.

“The trial judge could probably find a way to convict the person,” Kalt speculates. “The prosecutor would look at my theory and say the purpose of the provision is to let communities govern themselves, not to follow pointless formalities and let a killer go free. But the defense could say that the constitutional text is perfectly clear as written and must be followed.

"It would get appealed up to the 10th Circuit or the Supreme Court. They might allow the prosecution to go forward, but they might agree with me that we just can’t pretend the Sixth Amendment isn’t there and that there is no excuse for Congress not to pass a simple fix.”

If the Constitution is respected, the murderer would walk.

There are qualifiers, though: if someone violated weapons laws outside the state, or was somehow proven to have premeditated a murder, they’d be on the hook in whichever district those offenses were committed. But if two hikers took a stroll and one snapped, smashing the other with a rock, it would be a geographically self-contained crime, and probably as close to a perfect murder as any psychopath could hope to achieve.

Kalt felt this made for a fine—if morbid—legal quandary, and one he could fully analyze before his wife gave birth. But he also feared that it could incite someone with malicious intent to potentially take a risk and try to commit homicide without consequences. Before publication, he attempted to get the attention of Congress and the Department of Justice to see if the loophole could be closed. He wrote to senators and congressmen—more than two dozen people in all.

He was almost totally ignored. “They didn’t even acknowledge the correspondence,” he says. But once the article came out, NPR and the National Enquirer came calling; a novelist, C.J. Box, wrote a suspense thriller, Free Fire, based on the premise. The latter caught the attention of Wyoming senator Mike Enzi, who was a fan of Box’s book series and reached out to Kalt. After some promising exchanges, nothing happened there, either.

Although Kalt understands that the government doesn't usually take action against hypothetical threats, he has no idea why there is no interest in closing this deadly loophole. The simple solution, he says, would be simply to pass a law redrawing the District of Wyoming to include just Wyoming, and the District of Idaho to include all of Idaho.

No one has taken the initiative. Many who read his theory, both legal and layperson, shrug and say a judge just wouldn’t let a killer go free.

This rationalization bugs Kalt. “That’s not a legal argument,” he says. “Tell me how the Sixth Amendment wouldn’t apply.”

Before he wrote a follow-up paper in 2007 [PDF], Kalt got wind of a case that had the potential to finally address the issue once and for all. It involved a killing in Yellowstone territory—and just as he had feared, the accused invoked Kalt’s legal argument as a defense.

In December 2005, shortly after the publication of Kalt’s first paper, a man named Michael Belderrain took aim and shot an elk while standing in the Montana section of Yellowstone (although the elk itself was just outside park boundaries). But because he fired from within the park and dragged the elk’s head through the park, the crime was deemed to have occurred in Yellowstone and Belderrain was brought up on charges in the District of Wyoming hundreds of miles away in Cheyenne.

But Belderrain and attorneys argued that it would be unconstitutional to try him in Wyoming when the crime was committed in Montana. If a judge declared he’d be tried in Wyoming anyway while referencing Kalt’s theory, it might have motivated Congress to resolve the issue.

Instead, the judge circumvented the whole matter, rejecting the “esoteric” notion put forth by Kalt and ordering Belderrain to stand trial in Wyoming without any exploration of the Park’s theoretical no man’s land of unpunishable criminal territory.

“He didn’t say what his interpretation was, or why I was wrong,” Kalt says. “And then the prosecutor conditioned Belderrain's plea deal on him not appealing this issue. They just left it wide open to try in a higher-stakes case.”

This is Kalt’s recurring fear: That even if a murder were to take place in Yellowstone that motivated Congressional action, it wouldn’t be of much use to the dead person. Nor would some of the other prospective ways a prosecutor might deal with a criminal matter in the Zone. The criminal could be charged with a misdemeanor that wouldn’t require a jury, but the sentence would be light; the victim’s family might sue in a civil case, but money is a poor substitute for a human being. Wyoming could also try and hastily assemble a jury pool by moving in residents to that unoccupied area of Yellowstone, but it would be transparent at best, and defense lawyers would have a field day with the implications of a biased panel.

That leaves Kalt’s own work as a possible smoking gun. What if someone were to kill in the Zone, use Kalt’s argument as a defense, and investigators could prove the defendant had read his theory prior to going to Yellowstone to bludgeon someone with a rock?

“They might try it,” Kalt says, “but you’d have to prove that beyond a reasonable doubt. Searching his laptop and seeing he read the article might be pretty good evidence, but they could just say they were aware of it. You can’t prove that’s why they did it. Plenty of people go to that part of the park.”

More than usual, in fact. Kalt says he’s heard there are more visitors to that area of Yellowstone since his article made the rounds. They’re curious, he hopes, and not casing. “It’s hard for me to stop worrying about the possibility,” he says. “Even if it didn’t inspire someone to commit the crime, it might help them go free.

“But I don’t think the blame lies with the person who discovered a problem, wrote something 11 years ago, and has been trying to get it fixed ever since. It would lie with a system that doesn’t take things seriously until it’s too late.”

All images courtesy of iStock.

When Pablo Picasso Was Suspected of Stealing the Mona Lisa

On August 21, 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from Paris’s Louvre Museum. It was a Monday—the museum was closed and security was minimal—and the thief had reportedly spent the weekend plotting the heist while hiding in one of the museum’s closets.

At the time, security at the Louvre was abysmal. There were less than 150 security personnel in charge of guarding 250,000 artifacts, and none of the paintings were bolted to the walls. (The Mona Lisa, for example, hung from four measly hooks.) According to Ian Shank at Artsy, “Months before the heist, one French reporter had spent the night in a Louvre sarcophagus to expose the museum’s paltry surveillance.”

After the painting's disappearance, France’s borders were effectively closed, with officials examining every vehicle crossing the country's eastern border. Media coverage of the heist spread across the globe, turning the little-known painting into a household name. The Paris-Journal offered 50,000 francs for the painting’s return. Soon, a tip from an art thief would cause police to turn their attention toward one of the country’s most promising young artists: Pablo Picasso.

Picasso, who had moved to Paris a decade earlier, lived with a gaggle of Bohemians dubbed la bande de Picasso. Among this crew was the poet and writer Guillaume Apollinaire, whose former secretary was Honore-Joseph Géry Pieret, a Belgian man of questionable morals. Shortly after the Mona Lisa was stolen, Pieret—lured by the possibility of a cash reward—stepped into the Paris-Journal's office and claimed that he had lifted art from the Louvre before and had given the works to "friends."

Pieret was telling the truth. In 1907, he had stolen at least two Iberian sculptures made in the 3rd or 4th century BCE and sold them to Picasso, who paid him 50 francs per piece. (Picasso used these artifacts to inspire his work Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. [PDF]) That wasn't all. According to Nick Mafi at The Daily Beast, Pieret also stole a similar piece from the Louvre in 1911 and placed it on Apollinaire’s mantel.

The police read about Pieret's exploits with great interest. They believed that the people who were in possession of these sculptures might also have the Mona Lisa. And they didn’t have much trouble piecing together who, exactly, the thief's friends were.

Realizing that they were in deep trouble, Picasso and Apollinaire packed the Iberian sculptures into a suitcase and ran off in the middle of the night with plans of throwing the artworks into the river Seine. But when the two artists reached the water, they could not will themselves to dump the statues. Instead, Apollinaire visited the Paris-Journal the next morning, deposited the statues, and demanded that the newspaper give him anonymity. The newspaper agreed ... until the authorities stepped in.

Within days of Apollinaire's visit to the newspaper, the police had detained him. In early September, Picasso was ordered to appear before a magistrate. When asked if he knew Apollinaire, the terrified painter lied. “I have never seen this man,” he replied.

Recalling the events, Picasso said, “I saw Guillaume’s expression changed. The blood ebbed from his face. I am still ashamed.” As the proceedings continued, Picasso wept.

Although both men were indeed in possession of stolen art, the judge determined that the situation had nothing to do with the Mona Lisa’s disappearance and decided to throw the case out. Two years later, both men would be cleared of any possible connection to the crime when police discovered the painting had been stolen by Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian artist who had been working at the Louvre.

10 Exceptionally Clever Female Con Artists

Ann O'Delia Diss Debar (a.k.a. Swami Laura Horos)
Ann O'Delia Diss Debar (a.k.a. Swami Laura Horos)
Bain News Service, Library of Congress // No known restrictions

You've heard of "con men"—short for confidence men—but what about the con women of the world? Some deceitful dames used their wits and well-laced lies to achieve great wealth, fame, and even the advantages of the aristocracy.

1. Aurora Florentina Magnusson (a.k.a. Helga de la Brache)

Back before blood tests were readily available, it was pretty easy to con your way into a wealthy family line. One Swedish orphan proved all you need is a grandiose backstory. In the mid-19th century, Aurora Florentina Magnusson declared herself Helga de la Brache, the secret daughter of King Gustav IV of Sweden and Queen Frederica of Baden.

She concocted an elaborate tale of the divorced royals reuniting in a German convent and leaving her to live with her "aunt" Princess Sophia Albertine of Sweden. Following Sophia's death—Magnusson's story goes—she was forced into an asylum, where her claims of noble parentage were sure to be ignored. After her "escape," Magnusson petitioned Sweden for a royal pension deserving of her claimed lineage. However, a trial in 1876 proved all of the above to be pure fiction. Magnusson faced fines, but no jail time. From there, she lived quietly with her female co-conspirator, Henrika Aspegren, for the rest of her days.

2. Mary Carleton (a.k.a. Princess van Wolway)

The old orphaned princess line was also employed by this 17th century Englishwoman. After two failed and simultaneous marriages, a resulting bigamy trial, and a fling with a wealthy nobleman, Mary Carleton fled England for the Netherlands. It was upon her return that she used her posh presents and romantic fantasies to remake herself as Princess van Wolway from Cologne.

With this ruse, she seduced and sometimes wed a string of men, playing each only to rob them. It's believed many of her victims were too embarrassed to reveal her deceit. But enough spurned lovers spoke up that her crimes did catch up with her, earning Carleton a death sentence by hanging at age 30.

3. Ann O'Delia Diss Debar (a.k.a. Swami Laura Horos)

Having taken on a slew of aliases in the course of her criminal career, little can be nailed down about this American con woman, including her real name. As enterprising as she was infamous, Ann O'Delia Diss Debar conned countless people through various scams that capitalized on 19th-century spiritualism. This earned her an enemy in dedicated debunker Harry Houdini, who denounced her in his book A Magician Among The Spirits, along with the whole Spiritualism movement, for “mothering this immoral woman.”

The New York Times described her as a “wonderful crook who without personal charm or attraction has set nations agog with her crimes since her girlhood.” After repeated convictions for fraud in the U.S.—and one for rape and fraud in London—Debar vanished from the spotlight and the police blotter. She was last spotted in Cincinnati in 1909.

4. Big Bertha Heyman (a.k.a. The Confidence Queen)

Cigarette card depicting notorious 19th century American criminal Bertha Heyman
Cigarette card depicting notorious 19th-century American criminal Bertha Heyman
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

After coming to America in 1878, this Prussian con artist followed in the criminal footsteps of her forger father, regularly ending up in jail. Arrest record aside, Bertha Heyman was considered one of the sharpest con artists of her day. She often played on people's hubris, greed, and ambition to her own ends, offering them the promise of wealth later in exchange for a fat load of cash now.

Even behind bars, she managed to bend people to her will. Not only did she swindle more victims while in jail, but she also convinced prison officials to allow her breaks from confinement to take carriage rides around Manhattan and visits to the theater. It's little wonder she earned the title "The Confidence Queen."

5. Barbara Erni (a.k.a. The Golden Boos)

Born to a homeless couple in 18th century Liechtenstein, Erni concocted an unusual way to make a living, and it earned her the nickname "The Golden Boos." She'd travel the countryside with a trunk she claimed was full of treasure. Wherever she'd stop, she'd ask her hosts to lock it up somewhere safe—like where they kept their valuables. The next day, both the trunk and her host's valuables would be gone.

But how did it work? Erni had a person with dwarfism as an accomplice who'd lie in wait within the trunk. Left alone, he'd emerge to rob the place before both would make their getaway. While her accomplice's fate is lost to history, Erni was eventually caught. After confessing to 17 robberies, she was beheaded in 1785. Erni has the dubious distinction of being the last person executed in Liechtenstein before its death penalty was abolished.

6. Mary Baker (a.k.a. Princess Caraboo)

An image of Princess Caraboo from "Devonshire characters and strange events" by S. Baring-Gould
An image of Princess Caraboo from Devonshire Characters and Strange Events by S. Baring-Gould (1908)
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

One of the most famous princess cons ever perpetrated was the brainchild of an English servant with a big imagination. In 1817, a striking woman in exotic garb appeared in a small English village, speaking in an indecipherable tongue. A Portuguese sailor conveniently popped up, claiming he could translate. She claimed to be Princess Caraboo of the island Javasu. Hers was a story of tragedy and danger that had her escaping pirate captors by jumping overboard and swimming through a storm to the safe shores of the English Channel.

This tall tale launched her to near-instant fame, and earned her fans in the wealthy Worrall family who feted and cared for her with lavish attention. Even when a former employer revealed Baker's true identity, the Worrall family stood by the charming impostor. They paid for her passage to Philadelphia, where her fame—despite its fraudulent claims—only grew. She later returned to her true homeland (England, not Javasu), occasionally donning her Caraboo costume for public performances.

7. Cassie Chadwick (a.k.a. The Lost Carnegie)

Born Elizabeth Bigley, this Canadian con artist took the princess routine in a distinctly American direction by claiming to be the heiress of a massively wealthy industrialist. Her cons started small in Cleveland, with Chadwick dabbling in fortune-telling and forgery. After some jail time served for the latter, the forty-something grifter began her biggest con, claiming to be the illegitimate daughter of steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie.

She said he sent her substantial payments to keep her silent, and this was enough for many to give Chadwick hefty loans. One bank lent her a quarter of a million dollars based on her claims, and later went out of business because of it. Carnegie himself attended her eventual trial, which earned Chadwick 10 years in prison. She died in jail in 1907 at the age of 50.

8. Linda Taylor (a.k.a.. The Welfare Queen)

She wasn't just a con artist, but a galvanizing element of Ronald Reagan's 1976 campaign, where the future president declared, "She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.”

Reagan's depiction of "The Welfare Queen" has since been decried as hyperbolic and worse. But Taylor did exploit the welfare system to great lengths through setting up aliases, and spinning her ill-gotten gains into jewelry, furs, and a Cadillac that she'd proudly drive to the public aid office. Taylor eventually did serve time for these offenses. She has also been accused of kidnapping and murder, although never convicted.

9. Jeanne of Valois-Saint-Rémy (a.k.a. Comtesse De La Motte)

A portrait of Jeanne de Saint-Rémy, 1786
A portrait of Jeanne de Saint-Rémy, 1786
Bibliothèque nationale de France, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A Frenchwoman of the 18th century with dubious noble ties, Valois-Saint-Rémy spawned a con so big that it's said to have helped incite the French Revolution by irreparably damaging the reputation of Queen Marie Antoinette. The Affair of The Diamond Necklace involved the conning comtesse convincing the out-of-favor Cardinal de Rohan to procure a fabulous necklace for the queen. Desperate to get in the queen's good graces once more, Cardinal de Rohan wrote the royal letters, for which Valois-Saint-Rémy forged responses. She even employed a Marie Antoinette lookalike for this scam, which ended with de Rohan handing over the hefty piece of jewelry valued at 1,600,000 livres.

When its makers demanded payment from the queen, Valois-Saint-Rémy was arrested and her deception revealed. But in the subsequent trial, the forged letters convinced many that the queen was actually carrying on an affair with the cardinal, further damaging her public persona. The necklace vanished, presumably disassembled for the sale of its many diamonds. Valois-Saint-Rémy served time, but managed to escape and fled to London. In 1789, she published her memoir, wherein she boldly blamed the late Marie Antoinette for the whole ordeal.

10. Sarah Rachel Russell (a.k.a. The Beautician From Hell)

This Victorian-era hustler exploited vanity for profit, promising clients at her upscale London salon everlasting youth courtesy of her special products, such as Rejuvenating Jordan Water, Circassian Golden Hair Wash, Magnetic Rock Dew for Removing Wrinkles, Royal Arabian Face Cream, and Honey of Mount Hymettus wash—all of which were essentially snake oil.

She also dealt in blackmail, and lured women into an Arabian bath that was rumored to have a secret spy hole where men could pay for the privilege to peep. Her trial in 1868 caused a massive stir, not just for her crimes, but also because it revealed that the women of London were paying far more (in money and attention) on make-up and beauty treatments than social mores suggested. Yet her three years in prison did little to change Russell, who, a decade after her original conviction, faced fraud charges once more. This time, the Beautician from Hell died in prison.

A version of this story first ran in 2015.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER