Contrary to the old adage, crime really does pay - at least for a while. Here are the stories of 6 rich criminals who, while didn't know how to live good, they did know how to live very well.
1. John Palmer (ca. 1947 - )
British bad boy John Palmer suckered over 16,000 people in a phony time-share scheme. Currently ranked Great Britain's wealthiest criminal, having amassed ill-gotten wealth of over £300 million, the notorious Mr. Palmer owns a fleet of cars and several houses all over England, including a huge estate at Landsdown in Bath. He even has a cool nickname: Goldfinger. Which doesn't mean he has a golden rep.
Palmer defended himself in the fraud trial, lost, got eight years in the clink, and has so far been slapped with fines of £5 million. But this wasn't his first criminal activity. In 1983 he took part in the U.K.'s greatest-ever robbery, in which he and a partner stole £26 million in gold bullion from a cargo storage company at Heathrow Airport. He smelted the gold himself and was arrested when police found two gold bars, still warm, under his sofa. (Photo: BBC)
2. Pablo Escobar (1949 - 1993)
Picture every stereotypical South American drug dealer you've ever seen in a movie. They're all based in part on Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria, head of the Colombian Medellin cartel.
Escobar ran his empire from a lavish pad complete with Arabian horses, a miniature bullfighting ring, a private landing strip, a Huey 50 helicopter, and a private army of bodyguards. Clearly money wasn't an object for the man. After all, he could afford to pay local authorities $250,000 each to turn a blind eye. Plus, he used his money to build schools and hospitals, and was even elected to the Colombian senate.
But eventually the pressure from authorities, including the American DEA, got to be too much and he turned himself in. Of course, incarceration didn't stop him from living the lush life. Escobar used some of his loot to convert his prison into a personal fortress, even remodeling all the bathrooms and strengthening the walls.
Once he left, he was a fugitive again, but he wasn't hard to track down. An obsessive misophobe, Escobar left a conspicuous trail of dilapidated hideouts with shiny, expensive new bathrooms. In the end, the cocaine kingpin was killed when the secret police tracked his cell phone to an apartment, stormed the building, and shot him. Many, many times.
3. Mother Mandelbaum (1818 - 1894)
One of New York City's earliest criminal godfathers was actually a godmother. Fredericka "Mother" Mandelbaum, or "Marm" to her friends, was the top "fence" (buyer and seller of stolen goods) in post-Civil War New York. From 1862 to 1882, she's estimated to have processed almost $10 million in stolen stuff.
In fact, Mandelbaum made enough money to purchase a three-story building at 79 Clinton Street. Running her business out of a bogus haberdashery on the bottom floor, and living with her family in opulence and comfort on the top two floors, "Mother" often threw lavish dinners and dances for the criminal elite, which included corrupt cops and paid-off politicos. Ma Mandelbaum could afford to eat well, too, and allegedly tipped the scales at over 250 pounds.
But like any good criminal, she gave back. Well, kind of. Mandelbaum ran a school on Grand Street where orphans and waifs learned to be professional pickpockets and sneak thieves. She was finally arrested in 1884, but fled to Canada with over a million dollars in cash before the trial. She remained there in comfort and safety until her death in 1894.
4. L. Dennis Kozlowski (1946 - )
OK, so he's not a criminal in the classic "bang bang, shoot 'em up" kind of way. But this scumbag still has it coming. The former CEO of Tyco International, along with CFO Mark Swarz, allegedly embezzled an estimated $600 million from his company, its employees , and its stockholders.
He borrowed $19 million, interest free, to buy a house, a debt that the company then forgave as a "special bonus." He got an $18 million apartment in Manhattan and charged the company $11 million more for artwork and furnishings, including a $6,000 shower curtain and $2,200 garbage can. He even threw his wife a little 40th birthday soiree on the island of Sardinia that cost the company over two million clams. Special musical guest: Jimmy Buffett.
And while a mistrial was initially declared in April of 2004, the best lawyers couldn't keep Kozlowski and his cohorts from changing residences from their very big house to the Big House.
5. Leona Helmsley (1920 - 2007)
The famous New York real estate mogul and class-A witch lived the American Dream. Well, except for the whole prison thing.
Leona was a divorced sewing factory worker with mouths to feed before she met and married real estate tycoon Harry Helmsley (the fact that he was already married mattered little).
In 1980, Harry named Leona president of his opulent Helmsley Palace Hotel, which she ruled like a despot. Her tendency to explode at employees for the smallest infraction (like a crooked lampshade) earned her the title "Queen of Mean." The tyranny didn't exactly last.
In 1988, Leona and Harry were indicted for a smorgasbord of crimes, including tax fraud, mail fraud, and extortion. And after numerous appeals, Leona served 18 months in prison and was forced to pay the government $7 million in back taxes. A healthy dose of irony for the woman who once said, "Only the little people pay taxes."
Of course, that doesn't mean things turned out that badly for poor Leona. Said to be worth over 2.2 billion bucks, the dreaded Ms. H. still owns the lease to the Empire State Building and lives in luxury with her aptly named dog, Trouble.
[Ed. note: Leona Helmsley died in 2007, two years after this article was first published]
6. Al CApone (1899 - 1947)
He killed people. He bought cops by the precinctful. He bootlegged liquor. He ran Chicago like his own personal kingdom. He was damn good at what he did, and he did it with style.
Al Capone (aka Scarface) maintained a swank Chicago headquarters in the form of a luxurious five-room suite at the chic Metropole Hotel (rate: $1,500 a day). And when those Chicago winters proved a little too chilly for him, he bought a 14-room Spanish-style estate in Palm Island, Florida, which he spent millions turning into a well-decorated fortress.
Capone's total wealth has been estimated at over $100 million (not a penny of which was kept in his vaults, as Geraldo Rivera learned on live TV). Not bad for a guy whose business card said he was a used furniture dealer. Of course, he didn't pay taxes on any of it, which is what eventually sent him up the river.