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TV Shows That Sent People To Jail

The following article includes discussions of sexual assault, abuse, and other violent and disturbing crimes.

The crime genre has captivated television audiences for almost as long as TV sets have been around, or at the very least since the days of "Perry Mason" and "The Edge of Night." Perhaps from the comfort of our own couches, we feel uniquely safe in witnessing the sort of danger that could plausibly exist around the next corner. And as time dulled the steel of fictional crime and punishment, TV took a cue from the often-chilling nightly news and began delivering these stories of real danger, albeit in addicting dramatic fashion.

One TV experience alone, however, is often so disquieting it surpasses anything the genre (true or otherwise) has to offer — the realization that the very episode of television you're watching led to the discovery of an unthinkable real-life crime. While shows like "To Catch a Predator" purport to do this regularly, there are even rarer cases when unsuspecting productions — from reality dating shows to network comedies — somehow wind-up helping to send someone as dangerous as a serial killer to prison. It took a bit of detective work on our part, but we managed to uncover the most shocking episodes of TV that landed the stars or subjects in jail.

The Dating Game (1978)

In 1978, while searching for attractive and charismatic men to participate in the long-running reality dating competition series "The Dating Game," television producers working for ABC found 35-year-old Rodney Alcala, an unassuming Texas transplant. Today, one might consider that hiring anyone for such an intimate television appearance without running a background check first would be a significant risk at least to the studio — not to mention the safety of everyone involved with the making of the show.

And yet, when Alcala showed up for his episode of "The Dating Game," he played the role of desirable bachelor so well that he was chosen by the sole female contestant out of three men to be her "date." Behind the scenes, however, Alcala was described by a fellow bachelor as "creepy," "obnoxious," and wanting to be intimidating (per CNN). This is perhaps why a date between Alcala and the contestant never materialized — a moment of rejection that criminal profiler Pat Brown believes could have driven him to kill. Again, that is.

Had producers run a background check on Alcala, they would've found his name attached to some of the most heinous crimes a person can commit, including statutory rape and the murders of two women. Alcala was so infamous that he even had a brief stint on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list before he was cast in "The Dating Game." He murdered at least three more people after his episode aired and was ultimately arrested in July 1979. He died in 2021, having spent the remainder of his life on and off death row. A film based on the "Dating Game" episode, titled "Woman of the Hour" and directed by and starring Anna Kendrick, is coming to Netflix in 2024.

Survivor: Borneo (Episode 13)

It's August 23, 2000. On a small Malaysian island, Californian whitewater rafting guide Kelly Wiglesworth and Richard Hatch — a small business owner from Rhode Island — are just seven votes away not just from changing one of their own lives, but finishing the first season of a new kind of game show that would change the reality competition genre for good. After much anticipation, host Jeff Probst pulls out a tie-breaking vote — revealing Hatch as first-ever winner of "Survivor."

Topping the weekly network primetime Top 20, Hatch's moment of victory was witnessed by nearly 52 million people — including some folks from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. The $1 million cash prize was undoubtedly exciting for Hatch — so exciting that he failed to pay taxes on it. He agreed to plead guilty to two counts of tax evasion in 2005, per CBS News, and was convicted in 2006, after which he served 51 months in prison.

However, according to recent reports via Bloomberg Tax, Hatch allegedly has yet to resolve his now-$3.3 million tax bill. Representing himself in a lawsuit levied by the federal government for the unpaid taxes, he claims that his portrayal on "Survivor" as "an often-naked, unapologetically-gay atheist" has led to continued bias against him in this case. In June 2024, he filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

Curb Your Enthusiasm (Season 4, Episode 6)

Rather than sending its subject to jail, one episode of Larry David's HBO comedy "Curb Your Entusiasm" actually saved someone accused of murder. For the Season 4 episode "The Car Pool Lane," in which Larry's character surreptitiously invites a sex worker to a Brooklyn Dodgers game in order to use the titular lane of traffic, the production chose to film sequences within the baseball stadium during a real game. In attendance that day was Juan Catalan, who was soon after arrested for allegedly murdering 16-year-old Martha Puebla in what appeared to be a gang-related execution.

Despite police being confident that Catalan was the killer, he protested his innocence and was ignored by authorities when he couldn't produce solid proof of his alibi — that he had been attending a Dodgers game with his 6-year-old daughter when the murder took place. Miraculously, however, he remembered that "Curb" actor Bob Einstein had been sitting near him that day, which eventually led his lawyer to contact HBO and discover that the network had Catalan's alibi on tape. Catalan was almost immediately acquitted, ultimately preventing the real perpetrators from escaping justice.

Blind Date (2004)

In September 2003, a 35-year-old woman was kidnapped and sexually assaulted by a strange man after he cornered her outside of a bar in her hometown of Ventura, California. She was waiting for a cab, and the man pressured her to allow him to give her a ride home. Though the woman acted incredibly quickly by dialing 9-1-1 in the midst of the assault to give law enforcement her location, police failed to apprehend her attacker for over a year — and perhaps they never would, had she not tuned into a certain reality dating show one night.

Almost three decades after serial killer Rodney Alcala appeared on "The Dating Game," the Universal Worldwide Television series "Blind Date" cast one Ulrick Kevin White — a private security contractor — for a 2004 episode. And though one might hope that background checks had become common procedure for shows that would place strangers in romantic contact with one another, a spokesperson for the series declined to comment on how or if "Blind Date" screened potential contestants. What we do know is that White already had a record prior to being cast, having been arrested for allegedly breaking into another woman's home in 2003.

Upon seeing White while watching the show, the Ventura woman videotaped the episode and handed it over to authorities, and White was later arrested. He was ultimately convicted of rape and false imprisonment, and a judge awarded the victim $20 million in damages for emotional distress.

Deadliest Catch (Season 5, Episodes 3-15)

For the death-defying captains of Discovery's "Deadliest Catch," the off-season has never been much of a vacation. For other characters on the show, however, the downtime can give them space to relax, reconnect with family, or, in at least one case, lead a double life as a bank robber.

Between the years of 2007 and 2009, Joshua Tel Warner — with the help of an accomplice, Garrett Wade Rice — successfully held up three Oregon banks, evading capture and making out with thousands of dollars from each robbery (apologies for those picturing some sort of "Grand Theft Auto"-style multimillion-dollar heist). Police apparently made little or no headway in apprehending or even identifying the culprits for some time, and Warner and Rice might have quietly enjoyed their modest ill-gotten fortune so long as they didn't draw too much attention to themselves — like, for example, by joining the cast of one of the most popular TV shows in America.

But that's exactly what Warner did in 2010, when he joined the "Deadliest Catch" crew for a spate of episodes in the show's fifth season. "I don't think it was a particularly brilliant move on his part," Deputy District Attorney Chris Parosa told The Oregonian after Warner's TV appearances helped law enforcement to identify him as one of the perpetrators of the robberies. At the age of 23, he was sentenced to nine and a half years in prison.

Local news station WGXA (June 30, 2011)

On June 29, 2011, 27-year-old Macon, Georgia, native Lauren Giddings was reported missing by concerned friends and family. Having just graduated from Mercer University School of Law, Giddings was assumed to be devoting her time to studying for her upcoming bar exam — but that didn't explain why she suddenly stopped responding to texts or returning phone calls. Their worst fears were realized when her remains were discovered in a dumpster the following day.

Investigator Scott Chapman said in the years following the chilling case that it presented some unique challenges, as there were no apparent witnesses to the murder that could point them toward a suspect. Fortunately, it didn't take long for a suspect to instead unwittingly point toward himself.

On June 30, local Fox and ABC news affiliate WGXA filmed an interview with Giddings' neighbor and former classmate Stephen McDaniel. At first, McDaniel seems calm but dutifully concerned, admitting his confusion due to Giddings' lack of enemies and the fact that her apartment showed no signs of forced entry. His tone shifts, however, when the interviewer interrupts his theorizing about her whereabouts to unknowingly reveal to him that her body had been found. The word "body" quite literally staggers McDaniel, causing him to awkwardly walk away and sit down. After this damning TV appearance, it didn't take long for investigators to hone in on McDaniel. In 2014, he confessed to entering her home with a master key and killing her.

Dr. Phil (Season 11, Episode 52)

Phil McGraw (the former doctor somewhat erroneously known as "Dr. Phil") is a controversial figure to say the least. To his critics, he seems to make his living by putting vulnerable people in front of a camera and pushing them past their mental and emotional limits for content-rich public outbursts, all while waving away any criticism by claiming to offer a service to his on-air "patients." It's a pattern many have recognized as cruelly exploitative, exemplified in his treatment of "The Shining" actor Shelley Duvall's life story in 2016.

However, there is one rare story of McGraw's "Jerry Springer" approach to mental health exploration leading to real-world justice. In 2012, 25-year-old Timothy Dean Cruz appeared on an episode of "Dr. Phil" — which bore the groan-worthy and tone-deaf title "Broken Bones, Broken Hearts and Broken Engagements?" — alongside his girlfriend and victim Brittany Roberts. The episode features a candid discussion of Cruz's abusive treatment of Roberts, during which he admits to choking, punching, and kicking her. In May the following year, Roberts brought the episode to authorities in Edmond, Oklahoma, who then helped her organize a recorded phone call with Cruz wherein he confirmed that everything he said on the show was the truth. Cruz was arrested and charged with domestic abuse, per The Oklahoman.

The Jinx (Season 1, Episode 6)

As it immediately cemented its status as one of the best true crime documentaries ever released, you're likely already aware of the infamous ending to HBO's "The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst," in which the titular disgraced real estate magnate retreats to a restroom and, on a hot mic, seemingly admits to what were then two of the most disturbing unsolved crimes of the 20th century. But if you've never watched the series yourself, you probably don't know that it actually wasn't Durst's baffling "confession" that mattered most in the series' Season 1 finale. Instead, it was the interview that took place just before.

Over the course of their investigative documentary, director Andrew Jarecki and his crew discovered a note handwritten by Durst himself. The note contained nearly identical text to a separate note police believed to have been written by the person who murdered Susan Berman, Durst's longtime friend and confidant. When confronted for the first time with the two notes side by side, Durst found them to be so similar that not even he could tell which was written by him and which was assumed to have been written by the murderer. Ahead of the season finale, Jarecki gave the footage and evidence they collected to police. Durst was arrested and later ultimately convicted of Berman's murder in 2021. Just months into his life-sentence, Durst died of cardiac arrest.

The Vanilla Ice Project (2015)

For film fans, musician and actor Robert Van Winkle (aka Vanilla Ice) is reviled for making some of the worst cameos in movie history in films like Adam Sandler's "That's My Boy" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Secret of the Ooze." But for one Floridian homeowner, he was known as the burglar responsible for allegedly stealing $6,000 worth of property, all while shooting his own reality show next door.

During production of the home improvement series "The Vanilla Ice Project" for the DIY Network, Van Winkle reportedly told crew members working on a renovation project for one house to go to an adjacent property and transport several items back to his own home in Lake Worth, Florida (per ABC News). This included various pieces of furniture, multiple bicycles, and a pool heater — all of which Van Winkle said he considered to be "trash" up for the taking. He also claimed that he already had intentions to purchase the property on which he found and retrieved these items, seemingly implying that this gave him some sort of right to take them regardless (there was no official record of or contract outlining an agreement for Van Winkle to buy the house). Van Winkle was arrested and jailed, eventually accepting a plea deal in the case.

Happy League (2016)

Stop us if you've heard this one before. In 2003, a man by the name Wu Gang stabbed and murdered a man outside of a restaurant in the Jilin province in northeastern China. Despite the brazen violence of this crime, police were unable to identify or apprehend Wu for over 13 years — at which point, he made the questionable yet apparently common choice to appear on a reality dating series.

In 2016, Wu was cast as one of seven bachelors on the Chinese blind-dating show "Happy League." Though you've likely never seen it, it doesn't appear to be very different from similar American programs like, say, "Blind Date" or "The Dating Game." Adopting the persona of "Liu Hao" — a 39-year-old eccentric music teacher with a serenade and dance routine in his back pocket at all times — Wu performed well on "Happy League" and was ultimately selected as that night's winner. Following his episode's airing, an anonymous tipster contacted Jilin authorities and told them Liu Hao appeared to be Wu Gang in disguise.

After a monthlong investigation into Liu-slash-Wu, Jilin police arrested him for the murder. Though a background check in this case may not have been as effective — save perhaps for revealing that Liu Hao was a false identity — it's probably best not to date random people you meet through reality TV.

Cold Justice (Season 5, Episode 19)

In February 2016, shortly after Valentine's Day, former Florida Gators team captain Earl "Tony" Joiner called the police, telling them that he had just found his 26-year-old girlfriend Heyzel Obando dead in their Fort Myers, Florida, apartment. At the time, police were suspicious of Joiner (who, coincidentally, had previously been teammates with infamous NFL star and convicted murderer Aaron Hernandez).

According to reports compiled by People, authorities found his initial 911 call to be bizarrely apologetic and received unsettlingly accusatory statements from Joiner and Obando's young children during interviews. Despite this, Joiner was not charged until 2019 — the same year the "Oxygen" true crime series "Cold Justice" began investigating the murder. According to detectives, the series' involvement gave them time they otherwise wouldn't have had to work a cold case, during which they made breakthroughs which ultimately led to Joiner's arrest and conviction.

Unsolved Mysteries (Season 16, Episode 9)

Sadly, not even the best episodes of "Unsolved Mysteries" lead directly to justice — but there are rare cases when renewed attention creates an opportunity to right past wrongs. Such as it was with the case of Kayla Unbehaun, a girl who was kidnapped by her own mother, Heather, in 2017, when she was just 9 years old. Ryan Iserka, Unbehaun's father, was later granted full custody of Kayla after a judge found Heather to be an unsuitable custodial guardian.

A store employee in Asheville, North Carolina, was able to identify Kayla in 2023 thanks to an episode of "Unsolved Mysteries" they watched on Netflix. The images of Kayla and Heather Unbehaun were included at the end of Season 16, Episode 9, titled "Abducted by a Parent," including a speculative aged-up picture of Kayla as she might look now. The store employee notified a coworker, who contacted authorities. Heather turned herself in shortly afterward. As seedy as some true crime shows might be — especially on Netflix — the case of Kayla Unbehaun goes to show that getting victims' stories out is crucial to helping solve crimes and bring justice.

If you or anyone you know needs help with mental health, or may be the victim of abuse or sexual assault, contact the relevant resources below:

Please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).