This year has been a circus when it comes to power and corruption — starting with Trump's impeachment and ending in Trump's futile attempt to stay in office. It's also been rife with comedy: Rudy Giuliani slowly coming unglued at the seams, the TikTok effort to "Save Barron Trump," and Twitter reaction to Trump's COVID-19 diagnosis in real-time.
If that were all 2020 had to offer, it would already be a strange year, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. We're still in the midst of a pandemic — with hundreds of thousands of Americans losing their lives, and millions more losing their livelihoods. We've been invigorated by the social justice awakening that swept the nation. We've also seen a bizarre set of criminal cases from the rich, powerful, and just plain weird. We watched Harvey Weinstein (finally) go to jail, Jeffrey Epstein's accomplice try to run from police by climbing out a window and wrapping her cell phone in tin foil, and two tiger-owning eccentrics accuse each other of foul play.
Ahead, we've mapped out the most compelling, significant, or downright bizarre crime stories of the year — the ones that prove that fact really is wilder than fiction.
In February, the world was introduced to Lori Vallow and her fifth husband, Chad Daybell, after Vallow’s two children, 17-year-old Tylee Ryan and 7-year-old J.J. Vallow, were reported missing. Soon enough, details about the case revealed a story that was both sinister and chaotic, and Vallow and Daybell fled their home in Idaho for Hawaii, where they were apprehended. “The only word coming to mind right now is ‘monster,’” J.J.’s grandmother, Kay Woodcock, said at the time.
As the months wore on and Vallow’s children still weren't found, even more troubling facts emerged. In 1998, Vallow’s 31-year-old sister died unexpectedly. In July 2019, Vallow’s brother Alex Cox, shot and killed Vallow’s fourth husband, Charles Vallow. Several months later, Cox himself died. In October 2019, just a few weeks before Vallow and Daybell were married, Daybell’s ex-wife also died. "You can look at one death as a coincidence," journalist Ashleigh Banfield said, "but these people have had a trail of deaths that seemed natural, and are now under investigation."
Keith Raniere & NXIVM
In October, Keith Raniere, leader of the sex cult NXIVM, was sentenced to 120 years in prison for racketeering, sex trafficking, sexual exploitation of a child, and human trafficking. Meanwhile, a month earlier, Seagram heiress Clare Bronfman, NXIVM's main financier, was sentenced to 81 months in prison for conspiracy.
In addition to providing a legal outcome for the case, 2020 also brought us multiple NXIVM documentaries, including HBO’s The Vow, exposing even more of the bizarre truth behind the infamous group under Raniere's leadership. Once thought of as simply a pyramid scheme, NXIVM was, upon further investigation, revealed to be a twisted and abusive cult, with leaders who did things like branding women and asking them to sleep with Raniere. At trial, Raniere was accused of keeping NXIVM members as sex slaves, restricting their eating, and preventing them from leaving.
Lori Loughlin & The College Admissions Scandal
Last fall, the scandal dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues” revealed a scam in which the rich and famous paid money to have their children’s college applications doctored to better position them for admission at the schools of their choice. The most high profile of the parents caught in the scam included actress Felicity Huffman, Full House alum Lori Loughlin, and her husband, Mossimo Giannulli.
This year brought us the circus that was Loughlin’s case. In May, after months of preparing for trial, Loughlin and Giannulli agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy charges. Later that summer, Giannulli was sentenced to five months in prison and Loughlin was sentenced to two months, which was in line with the plea deals they struck. And to close out the year, the couple’s daughter, Olivia Jade, who was at the center of the scandal, finally broke her silence on the debacle when she appeared on Jada Pinkett Smith’s Red Table Talk.
For years, it had been alleged that Ghislaine Maxwell — disgraced late financier Jeffrey Epstein's former partner — had helped him recruit young girls to traffic and sexually abuse. This summer, she finally faced consequences when she was arrested by the FBI in connection with her participation in Epstein’s operation. She was charged with “transporting a minor for the purposes of criminal sexual activity,” “conspiring to entice minors to travel to engage in illegal sex acts,” and perjury regarding statements she made in court in 2016.
But the moments leading up to Maxwell's arrest were the makings of a future Netflix series. Following Epstein’s arrest and subsequent death in 2019, Maxwell, a British socialite, spent nearly the next year in hiding until she herself was arrested. She was apprehended at her property in Bradford, New Hampshire, which she purchased last December, and apparently had tried to avoid being found by wrapping her cell phone in tin foil. She also reportedly tried to escape out a window when police showed up to her house.
Joe Exotic & Carole Baskin
The Tiger King series on Netflix took the country by storm in the beginning months of the pandemic, with people both horrified and enthralled by the story of G.W. Zoo owner Joe Exotic (neé Joe Maldonado), the merry band of weirdos who worked for him, and his obsessive rivalry with big cat rescuer Carole Baskin who may or may not have killed her long-missing husband. But Joe Exotic’s story took a turn for the not-so-harmless when the extent of his animal abuse was revealed and he ended up going to prison for a murder-for-hire plot in an attempt to have Baskin killed.
One thing 2020 did bring was the long-awaited reckoning of Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood mogul with a history of sexual assault allegations as long as a CVS receipt. In March, a New York judge sentenced Weinstein to 23 years in prison for raping Jessica Mann in 2013 and performing forcible oral sex on Miriam Haley in 2006. In April, shortly after he started serving his New York sentence, he faced a new sexual assault charge in California for an incident that occurred in 2010.
While in prison, Weinstein contracted the coronavirus — twice, apparently — and his health has reportedly taken a turn for the worse. It's the ultimate fall from grace for the man who once ran Hollywood, but 2020 spared no one.