6 Crimes That Were Solved With the Help of Pizza
Sometimes criminals are done in by greed. Sometimes it's forensic evidence. And sometimes it's a large extra cheese. These perpetrators were delivered to justice as a result of the irresistible allure of pizza.
1. The Grim Sleeper Investigation
In 2010, when Los Angeles detectives became interested in Lonnie Franklin Jr. as a possible suspect in the “Grim Sleeper” investigation—the then-unidentified Sleeper had killed at least 10 women from 1985 to 2007—they began to track Franklin’s whereabouts. The lead had come from a search of familial DNA, which identified crime scene samples as being genetically similar to that of Franklin’s son. But in order to conclusively prove Franklin was their man, they needed a sample of his DNA.
They got their DNA when Franklin stopped for a slice at a pizza place in Orange County. After the suspect ate some pizza, an undercover detective grabbed Franklin's crust, plates, and napkins to "throw away"—but they were actually collected for testing. The judge ruled the pizza-related evidence admissible; according to the Los Angeles Times, Franklin was sentenced to death in 2016.
2. The Case of the Fugitive Vegan
Restaurateur Sarma Melngailis was once the toast of New York City, hosting celebrities in her Pure Food and Wine vegan eatery. But Melngailis and her husband, Anthony Strangis, were allegedly less than responsible financially, spiraling into a wave of reckless spending that saw them take around $2 million of her investors’ money and use it for travel and casino gambling. In 2014, she purportedly took $1.6 million from her commercial account and transferred it to her personal account, crippling her employee payroll. Melngailis and Strangis spent over a year running from authorities before being cornered in a Sevierville, Tennessee hotel in May 2016. According to The Daily Beast, Strangis made the fateful mistake of ordering a Domino’s Pizza delivery and used his real name for the order—which was non-vegan and included a side of chicken wings.
Melngailis (who later denied sharing in any of the pizza order—she claimed to have eaten vegan Chipotle bowls instead) entered into a plea deal and was sentenced to four months for grand larceny, tax fraud, and a scheme to defraud. Strangis took a plea deal and spent a year behind bars. The two entered an amicable divorce in 2018.
3. A Delivery Driver Robbery
Late one Friday night in July 2016, a Papa John’s delivery driver stepped out of his car in Odenton, Maryland. At his destination, a man emerged, pointed a gun, and demanded the driver hand over both his cash and the pizza. The driver consented. When police responded to the call and arrived on the scene, they found an empty pizza box nearby. The box was sent to the forensics lab of the Anne Arundel County Police Department, where technicians retrieved evidence and examined eyewitness interviews. By the following Wednesday, police arrested Bershaun Bertram Elijah Wheeler, 19, and charged him with armed robbery, first-degree assault, second-degree assault, use of a firearm in a violent crime, and two counts of theft under $100. According to the police, while in custody, Wheeler confessed to his involvement in the robbery—and presumably to eating the pizza.
4. The Delinquent Parent On the Pizza Box
Cynthia Brown, then-head of the Butler County Child Support Enforcement Agency in Butler County, Ohio, ordered a pizza in 2006 and noticed that a few coupons were stuck to the box. That gave her an idea. If the pizzerias could attach coupons, why not photos of parents who were delinquent with their child support payments? Brown got three area pizza shops to collaborate with the agency on the campaign, with information about the 10 most wanted parents going out to thousands of customers in Butler County. It didn’t take long for Brown to catch her first financial fugitive. “We caught him within one day,” she told Reuters in 2007. “Someone saw the picture on the pizza box, called our tip line, we forwarded the information to the sheriff’s department and they picked him up.”
Solicited for comment, Karen Willis of Karen’s Pizzeria told the Associated Press that customers didn’t find anything wrong with the pizza shaming, with some remarking they’re “glad they’re not on it.” But fathers’ rights advocacy groups and attorneys criticized the practice, saying it unfairly stigmatized fathers who might not be able to afford child support payments due to economic problems. Some protestors even picketed outside Karen’s to voice their disapproval.
5. A Hedge Fund Kidnapping
In January 2003, ESL Investments president Edward Lampert spent around 30 hours being held hostage by a trio of kidnappers who attempted to wrangle a ransom out of their wealthy captive. Renaldo Rose, the mastermind of the operation, and three accomplices kept Lampert bound in a Hamden, Connecticut hotel before Lampert was able to convince them to let him go. (The multimillionaire apparently promised to give them $5 million if they released him.) In the interim, one of Rose’s underlings had taken Lampert’s credit cards and handed them out among his own circle of friends. Seemingly oblivious to the suspicious nature of using a missing man’s credit card, the friend ordered a pizza using the plastic. (Some reports attributed this gaffe to one of the kidnappers themselves.) FBI agents stormed the address soon after and eventually tracked down Rose, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison. After an early release, the Jamaican-born Rose returned to Jamaica.
6. A Franchise Scheme
The allure of corporate recognition was too much for Donatos Pizza store manager Kim Hericks to resist. According to a 2001 Associated Press report, Hericks ordered 400 pizzas through fake accounts she had set up in the names of two local hospitals and a nearby school district. Her plan was to move enough cheesy inventory to get her name mentioned in a Donatos franchisee newsletter. Hericks proceeded to damage computer and fax machine equipment in an effort to cover her tracks and was also alleged to have taken over $38,000 from the business in total.
As is often the case for purloined pizza perpetrators, she failed to consider the finer details of her caper. Not long after her scheme, the store’s owner went over to her house to help her move. There, he discovered hundreds of rotting pizzas in her garage. Hericks was indicted on charges of theft, forgery, vandalism, and passing bad checks. Ultimately, Hericks was placed in a pre-trial diversion program and the case was dismissed.