Throughout history, people have been fascinated by the Robin Hood-type character that robs the rich and gives to the poor. An outlaw helping ordinary people by doing things an average man only dreams of and sacrificing themself for a greater purpose is the stuff of legends.
While this type of hero is usually a fictional creation, there have been some people who have stuck their noses up at authority and have achieved the status of hero in the process. Whether it be robbery, rebellion, or simply eluding the law, these criminals have won the hearts of the people.
We’ve compiled a list of the ten most compelling people that have been heralded as heroes despite being best known for committing crimes.
10 D.B. Cooper
In 1971, a man calling himself Dan Cooper hijacked an airplane with what he claimed was a homemade bomb. He was not a terrorist; he was a thief. Cooper may have been the most interesting thief of all time. He demanded $200,000 and four parachutes. When the plane landed in Seattle, his demands were met. After letting the passengers deboard, he demanded the crew fly him to Mexico City at a low altitude. However, while passing over the Lewis River in Oregon, Cooper jumped out of the plane with his parachute and a briefcase full of money. He was never seen again.
In 1980, some of the money was found about 40 miles (64 kilometers) downriver from the site of his estimated landing point. The story of D.B. Cooper has grown into legend. Many speculate that he was killed for the remaining money, but some believe Cooper made it to a tropical island somewhere and is still sipping margaritas on the beach to this day.
9 Attila Ambrus
In 1988, a young man named Attila Ambrus illegally crossed the Romanian border into Hungary by riding under a freight train. Ambrus was wanted by Romanian authorities for committing a string of petty crimes that began when he was just a boy. Once in Hungary, Ambrus applied for political asylum and citizenship. He began to make a living for himself in Hungary through a variety of jobs, working as everything from a gravedigger to a professional hockey player.
Between 1993 and 1999, Ambrus committed 29 robberies of banks, post offices, and travel agencies. The Hungarian population cheered his actions and dubbed him the “Hungarian Robin Hood” despite not reallocating his stolen fortune to the homeless. He had a certain charm that earned him another title, “The Gentleman Bandit,” as he never killed anyone and was always very polite to the tellers and postal workers. He was arrested in 1999 but escaped shortly after that. Eventually, he was recaptured and is still serving time in the Satoraljaujhely maximum security prison.
8 Ralph “Bucky” Phillips
On September 7, 2006, Bucky became one of the very few people ever to be placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list and the U.S. Marshal Service’s Top 15 list at the same time. He was caught the next day. Phillips had a history of committing petty crimes. While held in the Eerie County jail for a parole violation in April of 2006, Phillips escaped custody. He eluded the authorities from April 6 to September 8. During the months-long manhunt, Phillips achieved folk hero status. Local businesses began selling t-shirts with “Bucky” slogans like “Where’s Bucky?” and “Run Bucky, Run!” and a local restaurant boasted a “Bucky Burger” served in a to-go box for “on the run” customers.
With his obvious local connections, it is assumed that he was given shelter by friends and family in the area. During the summer of 2006, at the height of the search for Phillips, he shot three police officers during two separate incidents. One of the officers died. On November 29, 2006, Ralph “Bucky” Phillips pleaded “guilty as hell” to multiple charges, including aggravated murder. He is currently serving consecutive life sentences in Upstate Correctional Facility in Malone, NY.
7 John Dillinger
John Dillinger was considered a modern-day Robin Hood in the 1930s. While John engaged in criminal activity throughout his childhood and early adult life, he didn’t rob his first bank until he was thirty. During the Depression, honest work didn’t pay an honest wage, and the Dillinger Gang had better ideas for making a living. Life during the Depression was hard, and Dillinger turned to robbing banks. He was caught after a heist in 1933. He made a daring escape and was subsequently destined for hero status.
The Dillinger gang did give away some of their ill-gotten cash to the public, not much, but a little bit went a long way during the Depression. And that’s all that was needed to keep witnesses from talking to the police. John’s status as Public Enemy #1 turned the gang into a legend. The D.O.I (Department of Investigation, later the FBI) started running newsreels about the Dillinger gang at movie theaters. To their dismay, the public cheered at the sight of the bank robbers and booed at the D.O.I’s special agents.
Just over a year after his first big bank heist, John Dillinger was shot and killed by the D.O.I. in front of the Biograph Theater in Chicago. His death at the hands of an unfeeling government agency gained sympathy from the public. He is considered by many to be a man who stuck his nose up at authority and got away with it for a time.
6 Gregorio Cortez
Born on June 22, 1875, in Tamaulipas, Mexico, Cortez became a folk hero to the border communities along the Rio Grande. Cortez was involved in an altercation in June of 1901, which resulted in the death of Sheriff W.T. Morris. Following the incident, Cortez went on the run and led authorities on the most extensive manhunt in U.S. history… up to that point. He was captured in late June and was accused of murdering two sheriffs. He was convicted of multiple crimes, including the horse theft that precipitated the incident with Morris.
The people on the Rio Grand border turned him into a legend, revered for his ability to evade the law and his passionate words in court. His legend was popularized by the song “Corrido de Gregorio Cortez” and the film The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez starring Edward James Olmos. Gregorio was given a 50-year sentence for horse theft. However, he was pardoned by Texas governor Oscar Colquitt in 1913. On February 28, 1916, however, Cortez died of unknown causes. Still, to this day, his cause of death is a debated topic. Gregorio is remembered as a simple man trying to make a living who rebelled against the persecution and oppression of both the American and Mexican governments and got away with it.
5 Billy Miner
Born Ezra Allen Miner sometime in 1847 in Kentucky, this bandit earned himself the nickname “The Gentleman Robber” for his unusual politeness while robbing stagecoaches. It is said that he was the originator of the phrase “hands up!” However, he was caught and jailed on multiple occasions. In 1881, he was sentenced to 25 years in a California state prison; he served 21 and was released in 1902. Miner then began robbing trains as stagecoaches were now all but extinct.
The legend of Billy Miner reports him commanding his men never to kill anyone during a robbery, even if they had to defend themselves. It is even said that at one point, he used his ill-gotten gains to pay off a widow’s mortgage and then stole the money back from the cold, unfeeling bank. He spent eighteen months under the assumed name George Edwards in the Canadian city of Kamloops. He was popular with the town folk and was never suspected of being a criminal. However, authorities never gave up the search for Miner. He was eventually captured and sentenced to life in the British Colombia Penitentiary. He escaped multiple times but was always recaptured, and shortly after his last escape and recapture, he died in that prison in 1913.
4 Frank Abagnale
As the inspiration for the film Catch Me if You Can, Abagnale was a world-famous con man by the age of twenty-one. He started using fraudulent checks at sixteen years old, and by the time he was 21, he had written over $2 million worth. He was caught in 1971. He served just two of his twelve-year sentence and was released early in exchange for helping the FBI catch other con men. However, he continued as a con artist and posed as an airline pilot while running scams on the side for money.
He stole, lied, and cheated almost as easily as most people breathe. It was in his nature to do so, but the authorities were on to him, and he was getting caught more often than not. Finally, Abagnale decided to turn over a new leaf and worked with the FBI for more than 30 years as one of the world’s foremost experts on document fraud, check swindling, forgery, and embezzlement. Today he owns and operates a fraud consulting company that has served more than 14,000 banks and companies. He has achieved the status of a hero among countless Americans.
3 Georgia Durante
Georgia Durante has lived one of the most interesting lives in modern American history. A model at the age of 12, she was a “Kodak Girl” by the age of 17. By the age of twenty, she had experienced and endured more than most people ever will. She had survived rape, involvement in a mob war, and an abusive marriage. Her second marriage landed her as a getaway driver for the mob. After the birth of her daughter, she fled from New York to Los Angeles, where she became one of the most successful commercial stunt drivers in the country.
Since then, she has created her own stunt company, which has worked on over 100 movies. She has written an autobiography, The Company She Keeps, and she gives speeches around the country on her experience with domestic violence. Durante is considered a hero to many women that have gained strength from their shared experiences of abuse.
2 Kweisi Mfume
Kweisi Mfume has served as president and CEO of the NAACP, a member of the Baltimore City Council, and currently as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. While Mfume was never a career criminal like the rest of the members of our prestigious list, he did have some run-ins with the law in his formative years. It is speculated that Mfume became involved with Baltimore-based gangs after the death of his mother.
In 1996 he published an autobiography entitled No Free Ride. In it, he confesses that he had been “locked up” on multiple occasions for suspicion of theft. Today, Kweisi Mfume is a hero to many young underprivileged children in Baltimore.
1 Junior Johnson
Born in 1931, Robert Glen Johnson Jr. was the son of a bootlegger and grew up in the family business. Johnson, a legend in the NASCAR community, served as a direct link between the sport’s origins and the modern-day phenomena of stock-car racing. Johnson spent nearly a third of his life behind bars due to his criminal activities. While serving time in 1986, he was pardoned by President Reagan.
Johnson was an innovator in the car, however, and devised a successful method of “drafting” that helped him win the Daytona 500 in 1960. In 1966, he retired from driving with 50 Grand National wins, making him the winningest driver to never win a championship. Outside of NASCAR, Johnson was best known as the subject of Tom Wolfe’s landmark 1965 essay “The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!” Johnson died in 2019 at the age of 88; he is considered a hero by thousands of NASCAR fans.