LIST: America's most infamous vigilantes, as ‘Death Wish' turns 40

1974 movie allegedly inspired vigilantes

The idea of a person bunking the system and taking the law into his own hands has long been a staple of American cinema. Never was it so bluntly portrayed as in “Death Wish,” starring the late Charles Bronson.

Thursday marks the 40th anniversary of that infamous movie hitting theaters.

In “Death Wish,” Bronson’s character Paul Kersey becomes a one-man judge, jury and executioner after his wife and daughter are brutally attacked during a home invasion. The film’s legacy has lived on, as a Hollywood remake is currently in the works.

However, real-life vigilantes have been much less celebrated and glamorous than their movie counterparts. Here are several of those people that took the idea of neighborhood watch to a dangerous new level, including one that drew comparisons to “Death Wish”:

Bernhard Goetz (1984)

“The Subway Vigilante” drew a lot of comparisons to Bronson’s character in “Death Wish” after he shot four teenagers in 1984, when they tried to rob him. Goetz was convicted of illegal firearms possession in 1987, serving less than a year in jail. Curtis Silwa, founder of the Guardian Angels vigilante group, said, “Bernie Goetz is Charles Bronson in Death Wish … He had enough.”

The Lavender Panthers (1973)

This group of San Francisco-based vigilantes beat up a group of teenagers that were seen picking on homosexuals outside a bar in 1973. The group’s founder, a man of the cloth named Rev. Ray, said their goal was to strike fear in the hearts of “all those young punks who have been beating up my faggots.”

Robert Bell & Gary Lamar Sellers (2007)

This pair set fire to the Tennessee house of a convicted sex offender, who was home after being arrested on child pornography charges. The 2007 incident led to Bell and Sellers being arrested on charges related to arson and second-degree murder, due to the fact that the man’s wife didn’t escape the blaze.

Michael Mullen (2005)

Another vigilante that targeted sex criminals, Mullen shot and killed two convicted sex offenders inside their Washington home in 2005. According to reports, the victims let Mullen, 35, into the apartment after he said he was with the FBI, investigating vigilante threats against registered sex offenders. Mullen got 44 years in prison but committed suicide in his cell in 2007.

Jack Ruby (1963)

Arguably the most famous vigilante in American history, Dallas nightclub operator Jack Ruby murdered Lee Harvey Oswald live on national television in 1963. Two days after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Ruby shot the alleged gunman before he could be put on trial. Conspiracy theorists maintain Ruby acted to keep Oswald from testifying but some writers have dismissed that idea.

Joe Horn (2007)

While not a vigilante in the strictest sense, Horn’s case created national controversy in 2007. The 61-year-old Texan made headlines when he shot and killed two Latino men after seeing them on his front lawn, despite a 911 operator urging him not to do so. Horn’s actions tested self-defense laws and he was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing by a grand jury.

Shawna Forde (2009)

The only woman on our list, Forde was convicted in the shooting deaths of two American-born Latinos at their Arizona home in 2009. Forde and a pair of accomplices shot and killed Raul Flores and his 9-year-old daughter Brisenia. In 2011, she was convicted of aggravated assault, burglary and aggravated robbery, among other charges. CNN called Forde an “anti-illegal immigration activist.”

Follow this writer on Twitter @MrClintDavis.

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