Most people who’ve been convicted of murder usually settle into prison for the long haul. But in some cases, a killer, usually one who committed his or her crime as a youth, gets released and starts over. Here are seven famous killers who got caught, and never killed again. (So far, at least.)
The story of Leopold and Loeb is as unique today as it was in the 1920s. They were rich, brilliant, well-educated, Nietzsche-obsessed Chicagoans who were 19 and 18, respectively, when their stormy romantic relationship became consumed by their shared desire to carry out “the perfect crime.” They’d committed arson and burglaries together, but this ultimate evil deed — the kidnapping and murder of a child, with a ransom demand thrown in for good measure — would be on a much bigger scale.
After months of plotting, the duo seized their prey on May 21, 1924; it was Leopold’s own cousin, 14-year-old Bobby Franks, victimized simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The killing part was easy. The getting-away-with it proved more difficult, especially since Leopold’s very distinctive glasses fell out of his pocket when the murderers were disposing of their handiwork outside of town. The boys were soon nabbed and both confessed (though each accused the other of actually killing Franks) on May 31, 1924. A sensational trial followed, in which the pair was defended by no less than Clarence Darrow; since they’d confessed and the evidence against them was fairly staggering, the famed lawyer’s main objective was to spare them the death penalty. He succeeded, and both Leopold and Loeb got 99 years for kidnapping, and life for murder.
But it didn’t end there. Loeb died at age 30 after being shanked by a fellow inmate. Leopold served 33 years of his sentence and was paroled in 1958. Upon his release, he shunned the media that was eager to cover his story. “I don’t want any part of lecturing, television or radio, or trading on the notoriety,” he said. “All I want, if I am so lucky as to ever see freedom again, is to try to become a humble little person.”
And that’s what he did, moving to Puerto Rico, where he married and lived a quiet life until his death from natural causes in 1971. He even made a few visits back to Chicago in the intervening years, an anonymous old man who no longer resembled the arrogant teen who’d help commit one of America’s most audacious crimes.
The Leopold and Loeb case made its mark on true-crime history, but it also influenced pop culture, inspiring the play, Rope, that became the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same title. The crimes Caril Ann Fugate committed with her boyfriend, Charlie Starkweather, were similarly tailor made for cinema, spawning Badlands and Natural Born Killers, among other works. Fugate was only 14 when she went on the run with her 19-year-old paramour; when the two were captured on January 29, 1958, ten bodies lay in their wake, including her mother, stepfather, and two-year-old half-sister. (Starkweather had also previously claimed an 11th victim during a 1957 robbery).
Starkweather was executed in Fugate’s hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska in 1959. Fugate, the youngest American woman to be tried for first-degree murder, claimed on the stand that she was actually Starkweather’s hostage throughout the ordeal, not a willing accomplice. But she was still sentenced to life in prison — a sentence which ended with her parole in 1976.
Once released, the only job she could get was as a hospital custodian, which she toiled at for three decades. She didn’t even change her infamous last name until she married in 2007. In 2013, she and her husband were involved in a Michigan car accident that killed him and left her seriously injured. She’s now 72 years old. While she was recovering from the crash, her stepson gave an interview in which he observed that the guilt of her crimes still lingered, decades and decades later: “Caril in many ways is a shell of a woman. She walks a definite walk of shame.”
Here’s yet another sensational crime that was immortalized by a fictionalized narrative — in this case, Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, about the obsessive relationship between two teenagers that turns homicidal when their parents attempt to separate them. The real crime played out much like the movie; in 1954, 15-year-old Juliet Hulme and 16-year-old Pauline Parker murdered Parker’s mother by bashing her head in with a brick tucked into a stocking. But what happened after they were found guilty of murder was, if decidedly less tragic, nearly as dramatic.
As the New Zealand Herald reported in 2011:
After 5 1/2 years, in November 1959, they were released — free to start a new lives under new identities. While it is a common belief that the girls were to never communicate again as a condition of their release, this is untrue.
Juliet, who changed her name to Anne Perry, was released without condition and boarded a plane bound for Italy to be reunited with her father and stepmother and later her mother.
Pauline was released subject to initial control of where she lived and worked. She changed her name to Hilary Nathan and lived in Auckland while finishing a Bachelor of Arts degree and in 1965, when her release became unconditional, she immediately disappeared from the country.
Incredibly, both women have chosen to settle in Scotland where they lead largely reclusive lives.
The former Pauline Parker hasn’t made many waves in the years since her crime. But Anne Perry became a prominent and prolific author of detective novels. Perry’s past, and true identity, came to light when Heavenly Creatures was released, reports the Guardian:
For more than 30 years after her release, Perry lived quietly in Scotland. Then, in 1994, she got a call from her agent telling her that a film of her story was to be released and that a journalist in New Zealand had revealed her identity. “It seemed so unfair,” she says. “Everything I had worked to achieve as a decent member of society was threatened. And once again my life was being interpreted by someone else. It had happened in court when, as a minor, I wasn’t allowed to speak and I heard all these lies being told. And now there was a film, but nobody had bothered to talk to me. I knew nothing about it until the day before release. All I could think of was that my life would fall apart and that it might kill my mother.”
Nobody knew her secret (“I hope you’re sitting down, because there’s something we didn’t know about Anne,” her literary agent recalls telling a co-worker), but ultimately, the revelation didn’t harm her career. In fact, it might have helped, given the notoriety of her crime and the genre she specializes in. As the Globe and Mail notes, Perry was already on her 19th book when Heavenly Creatures was released; now, she has over 60 volumes under her belt, with over 26 million copies sold.
Believe it or not, in 1968, this angelic-looking 11-year-old strangled a four-year-old boy and a three-year-old boy “solely for the pleasure and excitement of killing.” A 13-year-old co-defendent was found not guilty, but Mary Bell was convicted and given a life sentence. Despite her age, she was described as having “a very worldly attitude,” as well as being afflicted with “a psychopathic disorder.”
Flash forward to 1980, when the 23-year-old was released (despite an escape attempt in 1977). Her re-entry into the outside world was a rocky at first, reports the Telegraph:
After being freed, she shoplifted, apparently hoping that she would be caught and sent back to the security of prison. She has told those protecting her that on her release she found that what she expected to be “a magical day” was in fact a terrifying experience, that she was only at home inside a prison and that she had “grown up in a corrupt world.”
Eventually, though, she settled into life with a new identity that has changed at least three times over the years, as a result of her past being discovered. It’s known that she had a daughter in 1984, and became a grandmother at age 51 in 2009; her court-ordered anonymity has drawn the ire of one of her victim’s mothers, who said that Bell “left me with grief for the rest of my life.”
According to the Telegraph story, which quotes from an unnamed source, Bell does feel deep remorse for her crimes:
Bell has told friends that while she has been happy at times since her release, there is always a part of her that is never content. “I am imprisoned by guilt and remorse,” she once said.
The crimes of Mary Bell got fresh ink in the British news in conjunction with stories about Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, who were just 10 years old when they killed two-year-old James Bulger in 1993. The details were gruesome: the toddler was beaten to death, and then his body was laid across railroad tracks, where it was later cut in half by a train.
For this heinous act, the boys became England’s youngest convicted murderers of the 20th century. They were sentenced to eight years and were released in 2001, despite an order that came mid-sentence to increase its length to 15 years:
In 2000 the lord chief justice, Lord Woolf, restored the original trial judge’s recommendation of eight years in recognition of the good behaviour of Thompson and Venables.
“We ought not to forget that, although they committed those very serious crimes, they were first of all human beings and secondly they were children,” he said.
“Children can do things when they are children that they would never do in their later life when they had matured and appreciated.”
Both boys received new identities upon their release, much like Mary Bell, Pauline Parker, and Juliet Hulme did. But life post-prison has not gone smoothly for Venables; hence, the reason he’s not on this list. Thompson, however, has apparently stayed out of trouble thus far, despite the fact that he was seen as the pair’s dominant personality. (Of course, he’s just in his early 30s, so time will tell if his rehabilitation was a complete success.)
And, so far, he’s managed to retain his anonymity, though not without several close calls — not surprising given the extreme media attention and general curiosity that was paid to this case. Most recently, in 2013, two men who uploaded what they claimed were contemporary photos of Bulger’s killers were very nearly sentenced to jail for “breaching the injunction, binding on the whole world, imposed before Venables and Thompson were released, which outlaws anyone making information public that reveals their appearance, location or new names.”
The only name more hated on this list than Robert Thompson is likely that of Karla Homolka. Her partner in crime, Paul Bernardo, was already a serial rapist when they met in 1987; together, they became one of Canada’s most infamous serial-killing duos. Just before Christmas in 1990, Homolka helped her then-fiance drug and rape (and videotape) her 15-year-old sister, who died that night after choking on vomit as a result of the drugs and alcohol the older pair had supplied. From the outside, it looked like a tragic accident, and the otherwise upstanding and well-liked duo were not suspected of causing the girl’s death.
They married in 1991 and soon killed at least two more teenaged girls using a similar M.O., including filming themselves torturing each victim. They were caught in 1993, and when Bernardo went on trial in 1995, Homolka testified against him; as a result of a plea bargain, she received a 12-year sentence for the reduced crime of manslaughter. She served all 12 years and was released in 2005.
The whereabouts of Homolka, who changed her name post-prison, still make headlines in Canada whenever a new nugget of information surfaces, though it appears she’s kept to the straight and narrow ever since. In 2012, an author who’d tracked her down for a book about the case discovered that Homolka had married her lawyer’s brother, given birth to three children, and was living in the Caribbean. In 2014, Homolka’s sister revealed she’d returned to Canada and was living in Quebec while testifying under oath at an unrelated (but no less sensational) murder trial.
Yet another crime that grabbed enough headlines to warrant Hollywood interest: the 1996 killing and dismembering of Angel Melendez by Michael Alig, both of whom were involved in New York City’s colorful (and highly, highly drug-fueled) club scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Alig, who was dubbed “The King of the Club Kids” as well as the “Party Monster” (ergo, the title of the film inspired by his story), pled guilty to manslaughter and was paroled last year after 17 years behind bars.
In a candid interview with Rolling Stone soon after his release, he claimed that the movie exaggerated the ferocity of the murder. (His accomplice, Robert Riggs, was paroled in 2010.) But he also didn’t sugar-coat what he’d done (“There is no justification for what we did”), and said that he only was able to truly feel remorse once he’d completely kicked heroin, which he did in prison with some difficulty.
When asked about his future plans, he had this to say:
I want to devote the rest of my life to something a lot less self-indulgent. In the beginning, with the Club Kids thing, we were presenting this notion that there was a place in the world where you would not only be accepted, but celebrated for your differences. I’m really good at spreading that message — I’ve got movie ideas, I’ve got TV ideas. I think that’s my calling in life. I’ll never be able to make up for what I’ve done, but I’ll be able to go in that direction.
He’s also on Twitter.
Top photo: Nathan Leopold’s 1924 mugshot by Topical Press Agency Hulton Archive/Getty Images. Mary Bell photo: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images. Robert Thompson’s 1993 mugshot courtesy of BWP Media via Getty Images.