We live in a very dark world. From stories of murderers walking free to killers boasting about their crimes on Facebook to terrorists targeting innocent civilians, experience shows time and again that a real-life “happy ending” is more than most victims can expect. However, sometimes a flicker of humanity can be found in even the most hardened killer’s soul.
Here are 10 stories of ruthless killers or would-be killers whose humanity unexpectedly triumphed.
10The Bomber Who Surrendered
In 2002, Arin Ahmed Shaebat began her long walk toward the Rishon Lezion mall wearing a backpack full of explosives. A few hundred meters away, 16-year-old Issa Badir was hefting his own backpack toward the gaming tables. The plan was for Badir to detonate his pack, with Arin waiting until the survivors flocked for the safety of the mall before exploding her own. It was the dark days of the second Palestinian Intifada, and the two militants expected to kill more than 100 people.
Only Arin never detonated her bomb. When Badir blew up the gaming tables, killing two bystanders, the survivors escaped into the mall without ever noticing the Palestinian girl quietly removing her backpack and leaving. All told, dozens of people were spared because of Arin’s unexpected actions.
What caused her sudden change of heart? One sleeping child. As Arin stepped into the mall, she passed a mother carrying a newborn baby. Describing the moment later, she said, “I saw a baby with his mother and I thought ‘I don’t have the right from God to finish that baby’s life.’ ” Instead she left, walking back to her nearby home, where she waited until the IDF arrested her. When she was finally released from prison in 2010, she went on record saying she had no regrets about aborting the bombing.
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9The Hit Man Who Fell In Love
In 2011, Brazilian housewife Maria Nilza Simoes decided that Iranildes Aguiar Araujo was sleeping with her husband, so she hired hitman Carlos de Jesus to kill Iranildes for the princely sum of $600. So far, so grim. But then the unexpected happened: Hardened killer de Jesus took one look at Iranildes and fell madly in love.
Instead of killing her, de Jesus confessed to everything and offered to marry her. Then things got really surreal. Rather than simply flee or refuse Maria’s money, they actually got married, faked Iranildes’s death using ketchup, and pocketed de Jesus’s fee. Unfortunately, they didn’t use it to buy a lifetime’s supply of dark glasses and fake mustaches: Maria stumbled across them kissing in the street a few days later. She then went to the police, who promptly arrested all three.
8The Unknown Guards
Rudolf Brazda was born unlucky. How unlucky? In 1937, Brazda was one of the few openly gay people living in Nazi Germany. If you know anything about history, you know what’s coming next: Brazda was interned and sent to Buchenwald, a wearer of the pink triangle.
In those days, the pink triangle was no joke: Inmates designated as homosexuals were subjected to treatment that was brutal even by Nazi standards. Brazda had his face smashed to a pulp, was taken for a mock execution and selected for extermination by forced labor. By rights, that should have been the end of his story—were it not for two of his guards.
For reasons that are unknown, they took pity on this poor, abused homosexual and quietly removed him from hard labor duties. Then, when the camp was being liquidated and the inmates forced on a death march, one of them hid Brazda in the pig shed—a move that saved his life.
7The Shooters Who Stopped
Earlier this year, an unnamed 16-year-old gunman burst into his California school armed with a shotgun. After wounding one of his classmates, the would-be-killer was preparing to fire again when Ryan Heber intervened. One of the school’s most popular teachers, Heber quietly asked the shooter to stop and hand over his weapon. According to witnesses, the gunman asked Heber to leave, saying “I don’t want to shoot you.” But Heber stayed and—rather than gun down his favorite teacher—surrendered his weapon without killing anyone.
Amazing as this is, it isn’t the only time it’s happened. In 2006, a 14-year-old opened fire in a Florida school. Before anyone was killed, teacher Jencie Fagan walked up to him and gave him a hug. That was all it took: The almost-killer surrendered his weapon and a tragedy was averted. If only more of these stories ended this way.
6 The Letter That Changed A Murderer
Unlike the people in previous entries, John Paul Madrona was a killer first and repentant later. In the early 90s he was assigned with carrying out a gangland hit—only to knock on the wrong door and kill innocent Tracy Takahashi instead. And there this gloomy story would have ended, were it not for Tracy’s brother.
Before the trial, he wrote a long letter to Madrona, telling him exactly how many lives his thoughtless actions had screwed up. It ended with these words:
“You have to realize that you took from this earth someone who was loved dearly. Think about that for a long time. And turn your life around, whether you’re in jail or not. No excuses.”
Incredibly, his words touched Madrona. As the hitman later said, he would sit in his cell for hours on end, hearing them loop round and round his head—thinking about the life Tracy Takahashi could have been living. And, as the years slowly piled up, they began to change him.
He grew his hair, covered up his tattoos, and dropped out of his gang. He stopped fighting and began going to church. Slowly, the full horror of his gang life became clear to him. Fast-forward 20 years and Madrona now spends his life caring for dying prisoners. Along with easing their suffering, he works with young gang members, trying to turn them away from their violent lifestyles and toward something productive. He even eventually wrote back to Tracy’s brother, asking for his forgiveness. For Tracy, Madrona may have changed his mind too late—but thanks to his brother’s intervention, Tracy’s death was not in vain.
5 The Born-Again Hit Man
John Veasey was no ordinary criminal. A former Philadelphia hit man, he was implicated in a string of murders so brutal they terrified even seasoned Sicilian gangsters. Most notorious of these was his gunning down of mobster Mikey Ciancaglini in broad daylight, a hit that sent waves through even the tough Philadelphia underworld. Eventually, Veasey was caught and sentenced for his part in the hit—and when he eventually made it out, everyone expected him to go back to his violent old ways. Only he didn’t. Instead, Veasey found God.
Not right away, of course. As recently as 2008, he was arrested for smashing a glass through some poor guy’s face. But fast-forward to 2013, and this former mafia hit man has renounced his mobster life and spends his time volunteering to drive the church bus in a small Midwest town.
4 The Serial Killer Who Turned Himself In
By any sane measure, the story of Wayne Adam Ford is a disturbing one. An ex-Marine and trucker, Ford was responsible for the sadistic murder of four prostitutes—raping, beating, torturing, and dismembering them. By 1998, it looked like Ford was gearing up to become a prolific serial killer, potentially destroying the lives of dozens more women and their families. Then, on November 3 of that year, an odd thing happened, something so out of character for a violent, sexually sadistic killer that it almost defies logic: Ford walked into a California police station and turned himself in.
For a serial killer, this was an almost unprecedented move. Most serial killers are sociopaths, missing the part of their brain responsible for empathy. They wouldn’t be able to commit such awful crimes otherwise. But Ford not only confessed to the killings, he wept while doing so, showed remorse, and claimed he wanted nothing more than to die and no longer be a threat to other people. In other words, against all logic, this perverted killer had had a change of heart.
Now, this story needs some qualifiers: The fact he turned himself in doesn’t excuse what Ford had already done. Nor does his remorseful confession mean anything more than there was still a flickering of humanity somewhere in his soul, buried under layers of ugliness. But it does show how even the worst killers can sometimes come back from the brink, even when it seems too late.
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3 The Warlord Who Gave Up
If there’s one type of person even less likely to turn themselves in than a serial killer, it’s an African warlord. Yet earlier this year, a Congolese war criminal known simply as “The Terminator” did exactly that.
To understand just how insane this is, we need to back up a little. Bosco Ntaganda is simply one of the baddest dudes who ever lived. During a 20-year career as a rebel soldier, he oversaw a vast campaign of rape, wholesale murder, and mass killing that razed entire villages and slaughtered their inhabitants. As an additional bit of unpleasantness, Ntaganda also used drugged children as foot soldiers. And for over a decade he lived openly near the Rwanda border, flouting international arrest warrants and attempts to track him down.
Then in March, he apparently decided he’d had enough. This wanted war criminal, gangster, and untouchable mass-murderer walked into the US embassy and politely asked staff to arrest and deport him to the ICC. Why did he do it? No one is sure. All we know is that he’s currently facing trial in The Hague and justice will finally be done.
2 The Terrorist Turned Peace Worker
In 1974, Sean O’Callaghan was a junior member of the Irish Republican Army—a veteran killer, bank robber, and bomber responsible for many deaths. By all accounts, he was a rising star of the Irish terrorist group, destined for big things and carrying a reputation for brutality. And then he changed his mind.
As O’Callaghan tells it, he was in a safe house one evening when news came through that a female police officer had been killed. According to his story, the IRA commander he sat next to responded, “I hope she was pregnant, and we got two for the price of one.”
For O’Callaghan, that statement marked the beginning of the end. Although he stayed with the terror group for another five years, rising through the ranks to senior commander, the seed of doubt that callousness planted never vanished. By 1983, he’d turned informer, foiling an attack that would have seen members of the British royal family assassinated. A few years later, he stopped a mass escape from a British jail. By the time 1998 rolled round, he’d done his time for his previous life and was now working to enhance the peace process—turning his back on the carnage that had defined his youth. These days he’s a security consultant and advisor on Irish terrorism, dedicated to peaceful causes. Not bad for a guy once sentenced to over 500 years on terrorism charges.
1 The Reformed Dictator
To call Hugo Banzer a bad guy would be an understatement. As president of Bolivia in the 1970s, he ran a regime so corrupt and brutal it almost gave Pinochet a run for his money. Opposition parties were outlawed, people “disappeared,” and civilians were gunned down by his security forces. By rights, his story should have ended either in a bloody coup or a lifelong dictatorship. Only, for once, things didn’t turn out as planned.
After the era of Latin American dictatorships crumbled, Banzer underwent a surprising makeover. Instead of trying to keep his regime intact, he began to take part in the democratic process. And not in some sham Mugabe-style way, either: He set up a political party and promptly lost a string of elections with good grace and dignity. Even weirder, when he placed first in the 1985 presidential election—albeit with less than 50 percent of the vote—he actually stepped aside to allow congress to elect a compromise candidate. And Banzer stayed out in the cold until 1997, when he won the election fair and square. Back in power, he refrained from going all Pinochet again and ruled like any other democratically elected leader until his death in 2002.
Now, it may just be that Banzer was a canny enough operator to know he had to move with the times, but still: A dictator who became a champion of democracy? You almost couldn’t make it up.