Most modern societies rely on a police force to enact law and order, but sometimes people feel like the wheels of justice turn too slowly so they decide to take matters into their own hands. These people are known as vigilantes and these are some of their stories:
10. Phoenix Jones
Given how hugely popular superhero movies are in today’s society, it is hardly surprising that some people have decided to put on a mask and suit and become crime fighters. Possibly, the most famous one of all is Phoenix Jones, the now-retired alter-ego of MMA fighter Ben Fodor who used to prowl the streets of Seattle, Washington, looking for lawbreakers.
For Fodor, it all started in 2011 when he put on a ski mask to stop a public assault. From then on, the costume steadily got more and more intricate until his new persona, Phoenix Jones, had a full-on superhero outfit, although Fodor wisely substituted the traditional spandex and underwear on the outside for a bulletproof vest and stab plating. It wasn’t long until Jones had his own little Justice League, the Rain City Superhero Movement. They mostly patrolled the streets of Seattle, trying to deter crime, although Jones himself was usually more proactive in his approach to crimefighting. He was even detained by the police a few times for being a little too “enthusiastic” in his use of pepper spray on suspected criminals.
Fodor retired from the crime-fighting game a few years ago and, most recently, he was in the news for different reasons after being arrested on drug charges for allegedly selling MDMA to an undercover cop.
9. The Alaskan Avenger
Jason Vukovich did not have a pleasant childhood. Born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska, he fell victim to both physical and sexual abuse at the hands of his stepfather. As often happens in such tragic cases, he ran away from home as a teenager and wandered the country, amassing quite an extensive rap sheet of petty crimes and misdemeanors. At some point, Vukovich moved back to Alaska as an adult, but his run-ins with the law continued.
In 2016, Vukovich decided that he might as well target people like his stepfather. He got onto Alaska’s Sex Offender Registry and created a list of men who had been convicted of sex crimes against children. He had three names and paid them all a visit in late June of that year. He beat up and robbed the first two, but he seriously escalated the violence with his third victim. Vukovich felt that the man had not paid enough for his crimes, so he beat the guy into unconsciousness with a hammer, all the while proclaiming himself to be an “avenging angel” there to mete out justice.
Vukovich was arrested soon after and sentenced to 28 years in prison on various counts of assault and robbery. As is often the case with acts of vigilantism, his arrest prompted debates on whether or not there is any merit to this kind of street justice, and fans of the “Alaskan Avenger,” as he became known, still campaign on his behalf for a more lenient sentence.
8. The Bald Knobbers
During the 1880s, the Ozark region in southwest Missouri was a dangerous place to be. As a border state during the Civil War, Missouri saw a lot of bushwhacker activity that didn’t really end with the war. Famously, Jesse James and his gang used to be bushwhackers who carried on as if nothing changed and simply became outlaws, but they were far from the only ones. The people needed someone to stand up to these bushwhackers, and that led to the appearance of… the Bald Knobbers.
Ok, so they definitely take the prize for “silliest name for a vigilante group,” especially if you’re British and the word “knob” means something else entirely. But the Bald Knobbers were no joke. Founded by a man named Nat Kinney, they originally numbered only a dozen or so, but their numbers swelled to hundreds in just a few years, and were recognizable by the dark hoods with horns that they wore.
At first, the Bald Knobbers engaged in vigilantism against outlaws and criminals that prowled Missouri, but they eventually became just as bad, if not worse than the men they once hunted. As their strength grew, so did the violence, and the Bald Knobbers were believed to be responsible for a few dozen killings and hundreds of beatdowns.
It got to the point where a new vigilante group emerged, the Anti-Bald Knobbers, who responded to violence with violence. The original group slowly disintegrated towards the end of the decade, after several Bald Knobbers were sentenced to death and Nat Kinney himself was assassinated by a rival.
7. The Bamberski Case
In July 1982, André Bamberski received word that his teenage daughter, Kalinka, had died under suspicious causes, possibly at the hands of her stepfather, a doctor named Dieter Krombach. Bamberski wanted justice, but there was an added wrinkle – he lived in France, while his daughter and her would-be killer lived in Germany.
Bamberski tried to appeal to the German legal system but felt that he was stonewalled by bureaucratic red tape. Ultimately, a German higher court ruled that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that the doctor caused Kalinka’s death, whether intentional or through negligence.
Not one to give up, Bamberski spent the ’90s lobbying for Krombach to be tried in France, and, in 1995, he got his wish, as the doctor was tried in absentia and found guilty of “intentional violence that led to unintentional death.” Basically, the court agreed with Bamberski’s suspicion that Krombach accidentally killed Kalinka with anesthesia when, in fact, he wanted to knock her unconscious and rape her.
Back in Germany, the doctor lost his license after several women came forward and accused him of drugging and sexually assaulting them, but, at least, he was still out of prison. Germany had already declared that it had no intention of extraditing him to France, so Bamberski got creative. In 2009, French police from the city of Mulhouse found an old man tied up, gagged, beaten up, and left on the street. It was Krombach, who claimed that three men kidnapped him in Germany, drove him across the border, and dumped him in France.
That was, indeed, what happened. Bamberski even admitted that he hired the men and received a one-year suspended sentence. Meanwhile, Krombach was treated for his injuries and then imprisoned, thus bringing Bamberski’s 30-year quest for justice for his daughter to an end.
6. The San Francisco Vigilantes
The California Gold Rush that started in the late 1840s caused an explosion in the local population as more and more people arrived every day hoping to strike it rich. In two years, California’s population went from 15,000 to 250,000, and a large chunk of people settled in San Francisco, a city with a modest population of 1,000 that had to take in 36,000 arrivals by 1852.
With that kind of unchecked growth, crime rates were inevitably going to rise, and in the early 1850s, San Francisco was plagued by a gang of Australian immigrants known as the Sydney Ducks. Eventually, the locals said “Enough is enough” and in 1851 formed what would ultimately become the largest vigilante movement in American history – the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance.
And the committee didn’t play around. It started with the hanging of a Sydney Duck wanted for grand larceny. Soon enough, their ranks numbered in the upper hundreds and outnumbered California’s nascent police force which was simply ill-prepared to deal with vigilantism on such a large scale. After hanging another three men and running dozens of others out of town, the committee felt it got its message across and disbanded, only to reconvene in 1856 following the murder of newspaper editor James King by a corrupt political opponent named James Casey.
This time, the committee was even bigger – around 6,000 members at its height – and, once again, it did not shy away from powerful enemies. Casey wasn’t just some two-bit criminal. He was a politician appointed to an important office, with influential friends, but it made no difference. The mob abducted him and another man named Charles Cora, found them guilty in a mock trial, and hanged them both.
5. The Subway Vigilante
If you lived in New York City during the 1980s, you undoubtedly heard of and had an opinion on Bernhard Goetz, the so-called Subway Vigilante. On December 22, 1984, Goetz was riding the subway when he was approached by four young Black men who surrounded him and asked for money. Convinced that he was about to be mugged, Goetz pulled out a .38-caliber handgun and shot all four men. He fled the state but ultimately surrendered to New Hampshire police nine days later.
Three of the shooting victims received only minor injuries, but one of them, Darrell Cabey, was shot in his spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed and with brain damage. Goetz’s lawyers successfully argued self-defense and their client was only convicted of illegal gun possession and served 250 days in prison. Cabey won a civil lawsuit a decade later and was awarded $43 million, causing Goetz to declare bankruptcy soon after. Even so, Goetz managed to parlay his moment of infamy as the Subway Vigilante into minor celebrity status, culminating in a failed campaign as Mayor of New York City during the 2001 election.
4. Gary Plauché
On March 16, 1984, a man named Jeff Doucet landed at the airport in Baton Rouge in handcuffs, with a police escort. He had been flown in to stand trial for the kidnapping and sexual assault of an 11-year-old boy named Jody Plauché, but he never made it to the courtroom. In fact, he never made it out of the airport.
As a camera crew recorded his arrival, a man standing by the payphones turned around, aimed a handgun, and shot Doucet once in the head at point-blank range. He then dropped the gun and allowed himself to be taken in by the police without resisting.
The man was Gary Plauché, the boy’s father. The murder of Jeff Doucet had been broadcast live, so, unsurprisingly, the trial that followed was headline news throughout the country. Public opinion, however, was heavily in favor of the father who avenged his son, and, ultimately, so was the verdict. Plauché pled no contest to manslaughter and was given a suspended prison sentence and five years of probation.
3. The Revenge Mother
In 1980, Marianne Bachmeier from Lübeck, West Germany, experienced a parent’s greatest tragedy, the loss of a child. Her seven-year-old daughter, Anna, had been brutally murdered by her neighbor, a 35-year-old butcher named Klaus Grabowski.
In his defense, Grabowski claimed that the young girl tried to blackmail him by threatening to say he molested her if he didn’t pay up. At the same time, the butcher also blamed his state of mind on a hormonal imbalance, having undergone voluntary chemical castration in the past for previous sex crimes.
There was no way that his strategy would work, but Marianne Bachmeier decided not to take any chances. On March 6, 1981, she walked into the courtroom where her daughter’s killer was being tried armed with a .22-caliber Beretta pistol and opened fire on Grabowski. She fired eight shots and hit him six times. He died instantly and then Bachmeier calmly allowed herself to be taken into custody.
The entire country discussed the case of the “Revenge Mother,” as everyone debated whether or not her actions were justified. In 1983, Marianne Bachmeier was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to six years but served only three before being released and starting a new life.
2. The Vendetta Ride
The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral turned Wyatt Earp and his compatriots into legends of the Wild West, but there were consequences. During that shootout, they had killed three members of the group of outlaws known as the Cowboys, and they weren’t going to just let that slide. In two subsequent attacks, in December 1881 and March 1882, the Cowboys permanently maimed Virgil Earp and killed Morgan Earp. Obviously, baby brother Wyatt wasn’t going to sit idly by and let his family get slaughtered, so he gathered up a posse and went on a vendetta ride.
Make no mistake about it, Wyatt Earp might have been a deputy marshal at the time, but this was completely unsanctioned. In fact, as soon as they engaged in their first shootout in Tucson, Arizona, killing Cowboys member Frank Stillwell, arrest warrants were issued for Earp and his associates.
But the posse had no intention of stopping or surrendering, and they continued their hunt into California, killing another Cowboy named Florentino Cruz at a logger camp they found on the way.
The vendetta ride culminated on March 24, when the posse caught up with the main Cowboys group and a large-scale shootout ensued. Earp’s gang eventually retreated after finding itself outnumbered, but not before Wyatt gunned down another two Cowboys, Johnny Barnes and Curly Bill Brocius.
After that, the vendetta posse soon disbanded and each man went his separate way. Although there were a few arrests, none of them faced serious repercussions for their actions.
1. Skidmore, Missouri
It’s not every day that an entire town bands together to protect a murderous vigilante, but that is what happened in Skidmore, Missouri, in 1981.
The victim was Ken McElroy, a man most people crossed the street to avoid. Described as the “town bully,” McElroy had been accused of dozens of felonies, including burglary, assault, and statutory rape. Somehow or other, he always managed to slink away a free man, usually by harassing or threatening witnesses.
His final crime was also his most egregious. In 1980, McElroy was charged with attempted murder after shooting the 70-year-old local grocer with a shotgun. At first, the town breathed a collective sigh of relief as it looked like McElroy might finally end up behind bars, but he got convicted on the lesser charge of assault and was let out on bail while his lawyer appealed the conviction.
On July 10, 1981, McElroy and his wife headed to the D&G Tavern, his favorite watering hole, and started drinking. Around 50 locals gathered outside the bar, firmly deciding that enough was enough. Once he left the tavern, McElroy made his way through the crowd, not saying a word, and got into his truck. Once he was behind the wheel, he calmly lit a cigarette, still confident that nobody would dare act against him, but this time he was dead wrong.
Two shots rang out and Ken McElroy slumped over the steering wheel, dead. And as to the shooter, no one saw a thing.