Celebrities who have either admitted to or have been convicted of killing someone…outside of military service or as political leaders, that is. Some have paid the price; others, not so much.
On May 4, 2001, actor Robert Blake’s wife Bonnie Lee Bakley was shot and killed while sitting in a car outside a Studio City, California restaurant. Blake claimed to be inside the restaurant at the time, retrieving a gun that he’d left at his table. Almost a year later, Blake was arrested and charged with murder, but despite the testimony of two men who claimed that he tried to recruit them to kill Bakley, Blake was found not guilty by the jury. However, when Bakley’s three children filed a civil suit against Blake in 2005, he was found liable for the wrongful death of his wife and was ordered to pay them $30 million. In April 2008, an appeals court upheld the civil case verdict but cut Blake’s penalty in half.
John Wilkes Booth
John Wilkes Booth is known today as the person who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, but before then, he was already a celebrity, nationally known as a theatrical actor. His family was already known on the theater circuit through Booth’s father Junius and older brother Edwin, the latter perhaps the foremost American Shakespearean actor of his day. John Wilkes Booth meanwhile made a name for himself with his energetic performances in roles that were lighter in tone than Edwin’s, and he came to headline plays around the country. He was so well-known and trusted that he had easy access to all parts of Ford Theater in Washington, DC, on April 14, 1865, during a performance of My American Cousin, even though he was not in the play. That evening, at around 10 PM, he slipped into Lincoln’s box and shot the President in the back of the head during the play. He fled to rural Virginia, where he was killed by federal troops 12 days later.
On August 5, 1987, actor Matthew Broderick was driving on a country road in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland with then-girlfriend (and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off co-star) Jennifer Grey when his car veered into the wrong lane, colliding with an oncoming vehicle. The two passengers of the other car — 30-year-old Anna Gallagher and her 63-year-old mother Margaret Doherty — were killed instantly. Broderick spent a month in the hospital but because of memory loss, he was unable to explain what happened. It was determined that the actor wasn’t drunk at the time of the accident, and he was charged with causing death by dangerous driving, although he was eventually convicted only of careless driving, escaping with a $175 fine. Initially upset at the ruling, the victims’ family has since come to terms with it and met with Brodderick in 2003 to gain a sense of closure.
On the morning of July 11, 1804, Aaron Burr, then the Vice President of the United States, engaged in a duel with former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton (and future $10 bill model) in rural Weehawken, New Jersey. The two politicians had a long-standing feud across party lines that came to a head when Hamilton made disparaging remarks about Burr’s qualifications for the governorship of New York, a race that Burr had just lost (having realized that he wouldn’t return for a second term as Vice President). Duels at the time were often just for show, with participants routinely “throwing away their fire” (intentionally missing), but while Hamilton threw away his fire, Burr’s shot found its mark, and Hamilton was mortally wounded. Some historians chalk the death up to miscommunication over the intentions of the duel, with Burr thinking that Hamilton had tried to hit him, while others claim that Burr fully intended on killing Hamilton all along. Because dueling was illegal, Burr was charged with murder, but those charges were later dropped. However, the duel signaled an end to his political career, ironically damaging Burr’s reputation more than anything Hamilton may have said about him.
William S. Burroughs
One of the most influential writers of the 20th century, William S. Burroughs shot and killed his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer, on September 6, 1951, in Mexico City. Initially, he claimed that the two had been playing a drunken game of William Tell, with Burroughs attempting to shoot a water glass on Vollmer’s head, but he’d missed and struck her in the head. However, after consulting with an attorney, he changed his story to state that he’d simply mishandled the gun, which accidentally discharged. He was jailed briefly and after a year of legal maneuvering — including, by many accounts, bribery from Burroughs’ brother — the writer was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to two years in jail, suspended. In total, he spent about two weeks in prison. Burroughs later stated that Vollmer’s death spurred him to become a full-time writer.
On the evening of November 6, 1963, future First Lady of the United States Laura Bush née Welch was driving with a friend on a rural highway in Midland, Texas when she ran a stop sign and broadsided another car. The driver of the other vehicle, 17-year-old Michael Dutton Douglas, a classmate and friend of Welch’s, was killed. Welch, who wasn’t reported to be drinking or speeding, wasn’t charged and received only minor injuries.
On January 12, 2002, rapper Corey “C-Murder” Miller was at the Platinum Club in Harvey, Louisiana when an altercation erupted in which 16-year-old Steve Thomas was beaten and shot to death. Miller was identified and arrested as the trigger man and was convicted in 2003 of second-degree murder. However, that verdict was overturned by the Louisiana Supreme Court in 2006, and Miller, the brother of rap mogul Percy “Master P” Miller, was re-tried in 2009 and once again found guilty of second-degree murder, earning a mandatory life sentence in jail. The reason for the attack is still a mystery to this day, although some say that Thomas embarrassed C-Murder during a rap battle that the club was hosting that evening.
Rebecca GayheartOn June 13, 2001, actress Rebecca Gayheart was driving on a Los Angeles street when shestruck and killed nine-year-old Jorge Cruz, Jr. Although Cruz wasn’t using the crosswalk, the cars in front of Gayheart had stopped to allow him to cross the street. However, the actress, not seeing the boy, veered around the cars in an effort to avoid stopping and struck Cruz in the left-turn lane. Gayheart was also talking on a cell phone at the time. She pleaded no contest to vehicular manslaughter and was sentenced to three years’ probation, a one-year suspension of her license, a $2,800 fine and 750 hours of
community service. A civil lawsuit from the Cruz family was settled out of court.
On July 11, 1936, eccentric billionaire-to-be Howard Hughes — then a successful movie producer — struck and killed a pedestrian named Gabriel Meyer at an intersection in Los Angeles. Although Hughes had been drinking earlier that evening, he wasn’t reported to be drunk at the time and claimed that the man stepped in front of his car. While a witness initially refuted that story, the witness eventually corroborated Hughes’ version of things (some claim he was bribed), and negligent homicide charges were dropped. Nevertheless, Hughes paid the Meyer family $20,000 “in this their time of need.”
On September 25, 1933, before starting a career as an Academy-Award winning film director, 27-year-old John Huston struck and killed a female pedestrian at a Los Angeles intersection. After an investigation, charges weren’t filed against Huston, who was at the time a screenwriter.
On the night of July 18, 1969, Senator Ted Kennedy left a party on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts with 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne. During the drive, Kennedy took a wrong turn down a dirt road and drove off the Dike Bridge, his car coming to rest upside-down in the water. While Kennedy swam to safety, Kopechne never emerged from the car. The senator, however, didn’t notify police, and when the body was found the next morning, he turned himself in, claiming that he’d been in shock. Kennedy later pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident, but no other charges were filed. He received a two-month suspended jail sentence, and his driver’s license was suspended for over a year. The scandal surrounding not only the accident but also the fact that the married Kennedy was alone at night with a young woman effectively ended his aspirations of running for President.
Flamboyant future boxing promoter Don King killed not one, but two men early in his life while running an illegal gambling operation in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1954, at the age of 23, he shot and killed a man named Hillary Brown, a death that was ruled justifiable because Brown was trying to rob one of King’s gambling stations. Later, in 1966, he was involved in a fight with an employee of his named Sam Garrett, whom King claimed owed him money. During the scuffle, Garrett’s head hit the pavement — although some say King repeatedly stomped him to death. He was convicted of manslaughter and spent four years in jail before being paroled in 1971, at which point he moved from gambling to boxing. King was eventually granted a full pardon by Ohio Governor James Rhodes in 1983.
Blues/folk musician and future Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter also had a fiery temper that landed him in jail for four extended stretches of his life. The longest stint stemmed from an incident in January 1918 when he killed a relative of his named Will Stafford over a woman. He received a sentence of seven to 35 years in prison and was released in 1925 — due in part to a song he wrote for Texas Governor Pat Morris Neff pleading for his release. Lead Belly would go on to national notoriety — as well as a couple more jail sentences for fighting.
On 4 January, 1970, Keith Moon, the iconic drummer for The Who, accidentally ran over his bodyguard, Neil Boland, outside a pub in Hatfield, England. Although Moon was known for his destructive behavior — in particular, blowing up hotel toilets — Boland’s death was ruled an accident that resulted while the drummer was fleeing from a group of aggressive skinheads. Moon wasn’t charged in the death.
On the evening of December 8, 1984, Mötley Crüe lead singer Vince Neil was driving in Redondo Beach, California with Nicholas Dingley (AKA Razzle), drummer for the Finnish band Hanoi Rocks, when Neil lost control of his vehicle and crashed into an oncoming car. Dingley was killed, and the two occupants of the other car suffered serious injuries. Neil had a blood-alcohol level more than twice the legal limit and was arrested for drunk driving and vehicular manslaughter. In 1986, he was sentenced to 30 days in jail, five years of probation and 200 hours of community service and was ordered to pay the victims of the crash $2.6 million. He served only 15 of the 30 days in jail.
On the night of on June 12, 1994, Nicole Brown Simpson, the ex-wife of actor and ex-football star O.J. Simpson, was stabbed to death outside her Los Angeles home, along with her friend Ronald Goldman. The former football player was arrested and following one of the most publicized trials in history, during which many of the evidence-collecting techniques of the prosecution were called into question, Simpson was found not guilty of homicide. However, in a civil trial in 1997, he was deemed to be liable for the two deaths. The Goldman family was awarded $8.5 million in compensatory damages, and each family was awarded $12.5 million in punitive damages.
On June 9, 2007, star basketball player J.R. Smith was driving through an intersection in Millstone Township, New Jersey, when his SUV collided with another vehicle, killing Smith’s passenger, Andre Bell. It was determined that Smith had run a stop sign, driving around another vehicle that was stopped in front of him at the sign. His SUV was then struck by an oncoming car that had the right of way, flipping Smith’s vehicle. Neither he nor Bell were wearing seat belts at the time of the crash. Smith had previously been cited seven times — five for speeding — and had his driver’s license suspended five times in a nine-month span between 2005 and 2006, but his driving record was “in good standing” at the time of the crash. For his role in the accident, Smith was charged with improper passing, failure to stop, speeding (67-plus miles per hour in a 35 MPH zone), reckless driving and failure to wear a seat belt, but he avoided vehicular manslaughter charges. Smith was convicted in 2009 and sentenced to 90 days in jail, but the judge suspended all but 30 days. He ended up spending 24 days in prison and was sentenced to 500 hours of community service.
Early in the morning of February 3, 2003, the body of 40-year-old actress Lana Clarkson was found dead in the Alhambra, California home of legendary music producer Phil Spector. Clarkson had been shot in the mouth at close range. She had met Spector that night while she worked at the House of Blues in Hollywood. They returned to his house and were inside for about an hour before Spector’s driver, who waited outside, heard a gunshot. The driver testified that Spector stated, “I think I just shot her.” Spector was arrested and charged with second-degree murder. The producer claimed that Clarkson shot herself while kissing the gun, but during the trial, several women came forth claiming that Spector had pulled guns on them while drunk. Although the first trial, in 2007, resulted in a hung jury, the second, in 2009, ended with a conviction. Spector received a jail sentence of 19 years to life.
Early in the morning of March 14, 2009, football player Donte Stallworth struck and killed a pedestrian — 59-year-old Mario Reyes — while driving in Miami Beach, Florida. Stallworth was drunk at the time and was charged with DUI and second-degree manslaughter, which could have carried a 15-year prison sentence. However, although he pled guilty to both charges, he received only 30 days in jail, plus two years of house arrest, eight years of probation, 1,000 hours of community service and a lifetime suspension of his Florida driver’s license. He was also suspended by the National Football League from playing for a year. His light sentence was due largely to Florida’s DUI laws, which require proof that there was some action on the drunk driver’s part (aside from merely being drunk) that caused the fatal accident. Since Reyes was not in the crosswalk when he was struck, there was reasonable doubt about Stallworth’s liability. Stallworth and the Reyes family settled on a financial agreement out of court.
Future governor of Illinois, UN Ambassador and two-time nominee for President, a 12-year-old Adlai Stevenson inadvertently shot and killed 16-year-old Ruth Merwin at his childhood home in Bloomington, Illinois on December 30, 1912. Stevenson was performing a drill technique with a .22 rifle, which he didn’t realize was loaded, when it went off, striking the girl. The gun had previously been checked to make sure it wasn’t loaded, but the ejecting mechanism had a rusty spring that prevented the bullet from being released upon examination. Charges weren’t filed.
On February 14, 2002, former professional basketball star Jayson Williams shot and killed 55-year-old Costas “Gus” Christofi, a limousine driver hired for the day, at his home in Alexandria Township, New Jersey. Williams claimed that he was showing a group of people the shotgun during a tour of his home, and when he snapped it closed, it discharged, striking Christofi. In 2004, Williams was found not guilty of aggravated manslaughter and aggravated assault, while the jury deadlocked on the charge of reckless manslaughter. He ended up being convicted of four lesser charges involved with trying to cover up the shooting. However, he currently faces the possibility of a retrial on the reckless manslaughter charge.