Beyond "The Wolf of Wall Street": People Who Profited From Crimes

In bocca al lupo

NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- Jordan Belfort was indicted in 1998 on securities fraud and money laundering charges after leading a pump-and-dump penny stock operation that bilked investors out of some $200 million. Today, Belfort is a self-styled "motivational speaker and high sales performance coach" who reportedly pocketed $940,500 for the movie rights to his memoir The Wolf of Wall Street. According to The Hollywood Reporter, he is currently shopping a reality television series that would follow his efforts "to help others who, like him, have hit rock bottom but still hold out some for redemption." It's an interesting premise, given that federal prosecutors say Belfort has so far paid only $11.6 million of the $110 million in restitution he owes to his victims — including just $368,000 over the last four years. When Belfort was given his sentence — four years in federal prison, of which he served 22 months — the judge remarked, "Mr. Belfort's going to earn a lot of money I have no doubt." That prediction proved true in spite of an American legal tradition of trying to prevent offenders from profiting off their crimes.


Son of Sam laws

The principle was first stated in Riggs v. Palmer, an 1889 New York state civil court case. Elmer Palmer had poisoned his grandfather Francis, knowing that he stood to gain the lion's share of the estate; Francis's daughters, who'd been granted smaller legacies, sued to invalidate the will, since no law existed to prevent Elmer from obtaining his inheritance. The majority ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, invoking one of the "fundamental maxims of the common law": "No one shall be permitted to profit by his own fraud, or to take advantage of his own wrong ... or to acquire property by his own crime." In the late 1970s, New York State attempted to apply this maxim to criminals who might try to profit by selling their stories to publishers. The so-called Son of Sam law was inspired by opposition to the prospect of serial killer David Berkowitz landing a lucrative book deal. Other states, and other countries, have struggled to address the question of whether it should be possible to profit from public misdeeds, as the following examples show; many, like Belfort, have gotten away with it.


Henry Hill

Crime reporter Nicholas Pileggi had a hit in 1986 with Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family, about the criminal career of New York City gangster Henry Hill. Within 19 months of publication, more than one million copies were in print. When New York State ordered Simon & Schuster to stop paying royalties to Hill, the publisher fought back on First Amendment grounds. The case reached the Supreme Court, and in 1991 the justices ruled that New York's Son of Sam law was overinclusive and hence unconstitutional, "singl[ing] out speech on a particular subject for a financial burden that it places on no other speech and no other income."


Amy Fisher

In 1992, seventeen year-old Fisher shot her lover's wife in the head and left her for dead in Massapequa Park, earning herself the moniker "Long Island Lolita" (despite the fact that Nabokov's Lolita never hurt anyone). Arrested and charged with attempted murder, Fisher turned to media producers to try to make bail. "Usually people in this situation -- the Mike Tysons, the Kennedys -- have significant financial assets of their own," her lawyer said. "Amy Fisher happens to be a high school student. Her only asset is her story." The lawyer insisted that neither he nor his client would see any profits: "There's nothing wrong with that, but I think it's kind of sleazy." After two months' imprisonment, Fisher was released on a $2 million bond, half of which was reportedly guaranteed by a television production company.


Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano

The Brooklyn mobster killed a lot of people during his rise to underboss of the Gambino crime family — 19 officially, and possibly more — but served only five years in prison for his mob antics after he cooperated with the government's prosecution of John Gotti and others. In 1995 Gravano left the Witness Protection Program, which he found stifling; two years later he published a memoir, Underboss, written with Peter Maas. New York State tried to confiscate book payments to Gravano, alleging that the authors and their publisher had "crafted an elaborate scheme" to get around the retooled Son of Sam law. Gravano reportedly received a $250,000 advance and as much as $1 million in total compensation for his story. The Crime Victims Board's effort was unsuccessful, but in 2002 Gravano, was sent back to prison for running an ecstasy ring.


Aileen Wuornos

Her status as a female serial killer made Wuornos a hot commodity when she was arrested in 1991: her lawyer is said to have charged $10,000 for interviews, though the money was disbursed among her associates since Wuornos could not profit from her crimes according to Florida's Son of Sam law. Still she sold the rights to her story to a California production company, as did three police officers and her girlfriend; Charlize Theron eventually struck gold in the role of Wuornos, winning an Academy Award for her performance in "Monster" (2003). According to author Peter Vronsky, Wuornos's "final story was that the police department allowed her to commit the series of murders so that they could enhance the value of the movie deal about her case."


Chuck Colson

Richard Nixon's lawyer was a tricky position to be in, and Colson held that unenviable job during Watergate. Indicted in 1974, he pleaded no contest to obstruction of justice and served seven months. The previous year, inspired by C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity, Colson was born again -- a conversion that many mocked as a bid for clemency -- and he launched a second career as an evangelical activist, with an emphasis on prison reform. Colson's bestselling 1976 memoir Born Again was made into a film starring Dean Jones; his books would eventually sell 5 million copies worldwide.


The Kray twins

Ronnie and Reggie Kray were a pair of exceptionally violent celebrity gangsters who ran London's East End during the 1950s and 60s, using nightclubs they owned as a front. Together they wrote an autobiography, Our Story (1988), which they followed up with books published individually. Artwork they painted in prison was sold at auction for thousands of pounds, although not for their personal gain: both brothers had already died, of natural causes.


Jean-Jacques Montfort

The man who called himself "the greatest living art forger in Europe" was locked up for four years in France after a Vlaminck copy of his was "unintentionally" auctioned for $40,000. In 1978, People magazine reported that Montfort "is now becoming the lion of Beverly Hills," where "his works fetch between $1,500 and $25,000." He reportedly sold the rights to his life story to a Hollywood producer, who planned a film called "Your Picasso is Still Wet." It was never made.


O. J. Simpson

The man once known as The Juice avoided prison in connection with the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, but a $33.5 million civil judgment against him for wrongful death and battery amounted to a life sentence of financial woe. Simpson tried to cash in on his presumptive guilt with a ludicrously hypothetical account of the killings, If I Did It, but public outrage led to the book's cancelation. In 2007 a Florida bankruptcy court gave the rights to the Goldman family, who published If I Did It with a new subtitle: Confessions of the Killer.


Paul Ferris

An underworld enforcer in Glasgow, Ferris went to prison on gunrunning charges in 1997, after having been acquitted of murder five years earlier. When he got out he published three works of nonfiction and one novel, as well as starting a security company and filming a reality television show. Ferris's success as an author led to an effort by the Scottish Minister for Justice to crack down on criminal memoirs.


Chopper Read

Perhaps Australia's strangest celebrity, Mark "Chopper" Read became famous as a hardened criminal unapologetically guilty of murder and other acts of grievous bodily harm. While in prison he published the letter collection Chopper: From the Inside, the first of many books (including one for children, Hooky the Cripple). He was played by Eric Bana in a biopic called, simply, "Chopper."


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