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A Faked Kidnapping, A Serial Killer's Lies And Other Famous Crime Hoaxes
The truth wasn't what it seemed in these criminal investigations.
When it comes to true crime, the truth is typically stranger than fiction — but sometimes, what originally seems like the truth is also a whole lot of lies. Hoaxes typically occur when a person is trying to cover up a more egregious falsehood; the hoax helps them look more like a victim instead of an aggressor, or in the case of Sherri Papini, an adulterer. (Sherri Papini's kidnapping hoax is the focus of a new special, "Sherri Papini: Lies, Lies And More Lies," airing Saturday, December 17 at 9/8c on Oxygen.)
But that’s not the only motive behind hoaxes. As these famous cases show, hoaxes can run the whole gamut. From attempts to receive more media attention to hoping to look like a scarier killer, people lie for the strangest of reasons.
Sherri Papini made national headlines in 2016 when she claimed she had been kidnapped at gunpoint by two Hispanic women while out for a jog. When she was located three weeks after vanishing, she had a chain around her waist and had wounds on her body — now known to be self-inflicted.
In April 2022, Sherri admitted that the kidnapping was a hoax. At the time of her disappearance, she was a married mother of two. She had never been kidnapped; instead she was staying with an ex the entire time she pretended to be missing. The ex apparently believed that he was rescuing Sherri from an abusive husband and sheltered her. (No domestic violence charges have ever been filed against her husband, Keith Papini.)
This year, Keith filed for divorce from Sherri, claiming he “must act decisively to protect my children from the trauma caused by their mother and bring stability and calm to their lives,” ABC affiliate KRCR reported. He filed for sole custody of the couple’s two children.
Sherri was sentenced to 18 months in prison in 2022 for mail fraud and lying to a federal officer.
Henry Lee Lucas
It was once believed that Henry Lee Lucas was America’s most prolific serial killer. He had convinced investigators that he had killed hundreds, even claiming at one point he had murdered around 600 people. But in reality, it was an elaborate hoax.
While not a killer of hundreds, Lucas was indeed a confirmed murderer. He killed his own mother in 1960, which led to a stint in a psychiatric hospital and then prison. He was released after a decade. While living as a drifter, he became friends with a known killer named Ottis Toole, as well as Toole's adolescent niece Becky Powell, according to Texas Monthly.
In 1983, Lucas became a suspect in the murders of Powell and Katherine Rich, an elderly woman that Toole and Powell lived with. But then he also began confessing to numerous other unsolved murders. The Texas Rangers even established the Henry Lee Lucas Task Force, as they cleared hundreds of cases Lucas took credit for, according to Texas Monthly.
Soon though, evidence revealed that Lucas had been lying and wasting resources. Multiple crimes had been falsely solved as a result.
This hoax had consequences that are still stretching into present time. Authorities continue to investigate and attempt to solve the cases he falsely took credit for, including as recently as 2019.
South Carolina mother Susan Smith infamously killed her two young sons, 3-year-old Michael and 14-month-old Alex, in the 1990s by buckling them into her car and then letting the vehicle roll into a lake. While she was convicted of the murders in 1995, the case attracted worldwide attention when she initially tried to blame a Black man for the tragedy, NBC News reported.
Smith had originally made tearful pleas to the non-existent man she claimed kidnapped her kids in a carjacking to return her children. Almost 10 days after the killings, she confessed to her crimes. She had murdered her children because she was dating a man who didn't want kids, according to PEOPLE. She was sentenced to life in prison for her crimes, although she will be eligible for parole in 2024.
The “Balloon Boy” Hoax
One of the more bizarre true crime hoaxes was the “balloon boy” incident. In 2009, Colorado parents Richard and Mayumi Heene claimed that their then-6-year-old son, Falcon, accidentally flew away in the sky in a homemade weather balloon, National Public Radio reported in 2020. They told the authorities that the balloon carried their son thousands of feet in an experiment gone wrong.
However, Falcon was apparently hiding in a box in the family’s attic the whole time.
The hoax led to a drain on resources in a major way. Not only did the media and the National Guard deploy helicopters, but the Denver International Airport temporarily shut down. Soon after, the couple admitted that the whole thing was a hoax.
Richard Heene pleaded guilty to a felony charge of attempting to influence a public servant while Mayumi Heene pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of false reporting to authorities, CNN reported in 2009. The motive of the hoax was to "make the Heene family more marketable for future media interests," court documents obtained by CNN alleged.
In 2020, the governor of Colorado pardoned the couple. Despite pleading guilty, the parents have maintained that they are innocent and that they made the plea to avoid harsher penalties. Mayumi was also not yet an American citizen and said she feared deportation, NPR reported.
"I'm flying high," Richard Heene told The Denver Post after the pardon was granted.