The most frightening crimes that happened on Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is the American holiday, dating back to 1621 and celebrated off and on for the next two centuries. That is, until Abraham Lincoln, tired of receiving letters demanding an annual national holiday from a tireless woman named Sarah Josepha Hale, finally made it official in 1863. Since then, Thanksgiving is usually depicted as a warm, happy celebration. The standard image is a smiling family gathered around a lavish meal of turkey with all the trimmings.

The dark truth of Thanksgiving is that it marks the beginning of the most dangerous time of the year. It's a fact that crime spikes during the holidays. According to Vice, robberies go up about 20% in December each year, probably because people are walking around with more cash than usual, or carting expensive purchases out in the open. But it's even darker than that because Thanksgiving has also become known for some truly terrifying crimes.

Whether it's the stress of being cooped up with your family, financial concerns, or a secret side effect of the tryptophan in turkey, Thanksgiving is when a lot of people snap and decide to commit some really spectacularly violent crimes. The most frightening crimes that happened on Thanksgiving are all linked by two things: The violence involved, and their unexpected nature. So next time you're about to sit down with your family for a holiday dinner, make sure you know where all the sharp objects are.

A deadly debt on Thanksgiving

One aspect of the holidays that might explain the spike in violent crimes is simple: A lot of people have some time off for a change. And some folks decide to use their free time to take care of some nagging chores. Like, for example, violently collecting on gambling debts. As one does.

According to Al.com, in 2013, a man named Brioni Jamaal Rutland decided that Thanksgiving was the ideal time to call on assistant high school coach Jeremy Leshun Williams and demand payment on some bets. As anyone who has ever tried to get an acquaintance to pay back a loan or debt could have predicted, Williams claimed he didn't have the money.

Rutland became angry and threatened to start cutting off Williams' fingers. This angered Williams, for some reason, and they got into an altercation. Rutland got the upper hand and choked Williams until he passed out. When Williams regained consciousness, he claimed he found Rutland busy trying to cut off his pinkie finger — with a pocket knife.

Williams was understandably upset about this and managed to take the knife away. He then stabbed Rutland more than 30 times with it. Realizing that a tiny penknife is no way to kill a man, Williams retrieved his gun from his bedroom and shot Rutland to death. He then disposed of the body by weighing it down with concrete blocks and throwing it off a railroad bridge.

A cold case and a warm Thanksgiving turkey

On Thanksgiving, 2004, a woman named Janet Yeary in Kokomo, Indiana began cooking in anticipation of a traditional family gathering at her house. Hours later, her daughter Carlie —who lived across the street — began to wonder why she hadn't heard from her.

According to CBS 4, what Carlie found was her mother's brutally murdered body. The Thanksgiving meal had already been started — the turkey was in the oven. There was no sign of forced entry. The police had received reports that a man named Danny Case had been dropped off in the neighborhood the night before, and had been going from door to door seeking a ride.

The cops pursued Case and arrested him in January 2005 at Indianapolis International Airport using an outstanding warrant. They placed him in a holding cell, but Case committed suicide before he could be formally arrested and charged with the crime. While the police believe Case is the strongest suspect in Yeary's murder, two other murders following a similar pattern were committed in the area, and a man named Nathan Dodson — who liked to go by Nat Dog — has a violent past and ominous connections to all three victims. Some wondered if the police had chased the wrong man — and the case remains unsolved to this day.

A domestic bombing on Turkey Day

Generally, people know what to expect from their Thanksgiving celebrations. Good food, a crowded house, and maybe some family drama at the dinner table. What no one expects is for a bomb to go off, but that's exactly what happened on Thanksgiving Day, 1985 in Lake Worth, Texas.

As reported by Deseret News, after eating their turkey the Blount family went out for ice cream. When they returned, they found a briefcase sitting on their front porch. Joe Blount took it inside, where it exploded. Joe, his daughter Angela Jo, and his nephew Michael Columbus were all killed in the blast. His son Robert was badly burned but survived, and his wife Susan was unharmed.

Initially, the crime was a complete mystery. The Blounts didn't seem to have enemies or to be involved in anything sketchy. After a 12-year investigation, police decided it was a mistake: A man named Michael Roy Toney was arrested for the crime. The bomb was intended for someone else involved in Toney's illegal narcotics business.

As reported by Chron.com, Toney was convicted and spent more than a decade on death row — but saw his conviction overturned in 2009. The prosecution was found to have withheld evidence that could have helped Toney's case. Toney didn't get to enjoy his freedom much: He was killed in a car accident a few weeks after getting out of prison.

An unsolved Thanksgiving murder

More than a century ago in 1919, a State Game Protector named John H. Woodruff said goodbye to his wife and walked out of his house on Thanksgiving Day to go on patrol in Schenectady County, New York. According to the Officer Down Memorial Page, he was investigating reports of someone violating the local game laws. His wife was the last person to see him alive because he never returned.

According to his official PBA memorial, his wife called authorities, and a search was mounted, but there was no sign of him, and after several weeks the search was called off. A year and a half later, in 1921, his body was discovered by a man hunting. Woodruff had been hastily buried in a shallow hole dug into a creek bed that had been covered by loose stones. His gun was missing, and his skull had been caved in by a blunt object with such force that the top portion of his head was detached, suggesting the weapon had been an ax. The coroner ruled his death a homicide.

According to the New York Conservation Officers Association, his wife told police he'd received a threatening letter earlier in 1919 but had not disclosed the specifics to her. He later burned the letter, and his Thanksgiving Day murder remains unsolved.

A terrifying family reunion over Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Day started off well for the Guy family in 2016. Joel and Lisa welcomed their four children into their home in Knoxville, Tennessee, including 28-year old Joel Michael Guy Jr., who had traveled from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. According to The Washington Post, it was a bittersweet holiday because Joel and Lisa were moving, so it would be the last Thanksgiving celebrated in the house.

The Guys had been supporting Joel Michael for years, and apparently planned to tell him they would stop sending him money once they retired. After his three sisters returned to their homes, Joel Michael murdered both his parents, stabbing them repeatedly and then dismembering them. He then attempted to dissolve their bodies with a homebrew mixture. When police were called after Lisa Guy failed to show up at her job, they found pieces of the two victims all around the house.

Joel Michael's sisters said that nothing seemed out of the ordinary during Thanksgiving dinner. Joel was later convicted of murder. According to Knox News, a detailed handwritten murder plan was found in Joel's possession, and he'd even calculated how much he would receive from his parents' life insurance policies. In a bizarre twist, he asked to represent himself in court on one particular issue — his desire to receive the death penalty.

An entire family gone on Thanksgiving

The Privacky family Thanksgiving ended in horror in 1998. Stephen Privacky, his wife Linda, their son Jedediah, his girlfriend April Boss, and Stephen's father John were all murdered sometime after noon in their Muskegon, Michigan home. All five had been shot in the head. The prime suspect was their youngest son, Seth.

According to M Live, April's parents discovered the bodies when she didn't return from the Privacky's and they went searching for her. They reported seeing someone flee the house just before they stumbled on John's body in the garage. When police arrived, a young man named Steven Wallace approached them and said that Seth had called him and confessed to the murders, then asked him to dispose of the gun, which he did. He then helped Seth clean up the scene, but fled when April's parents arrived.

Seth was quickly arrested, and after initially claiming his brother had killed the family, he confessed. His motivation was rage at being informed he would have to move out of the house now that he was 18 years old; police described his demeanor as "flat," as if no one was home. Seth Privacky was easily convicted and sentenced to life in prison, and was shot to death in an escape attempt nearly 12 years later.

A long-simmering grudge

Thanksgiving is a natural time for family drama to erupt into full-on arguments and even fights. Everyone has at least one Thanksgiving in their family history where emotions boiled over and grievances were aired. Sadly, for the Merhige family that moment turned inexplicably deadly — and really macabre.

According to CBS News, Paul Michael Merhige sat down to dinner with his family on Thanksgiving in 2009, and there were no arguments. He sang songs around the piano with his relatives and there was no obvious problem. Then he produced a handgun and proceeded to shoot and kill four of them: His 79-year old aunt, both his twin sisters (one of whom was pregnant), and his six-year-old cousin-in-law, Makayla Sitton. Several others were injured. Merhige was heard saying, "I have been waiting 20 years to do this." According to family members, Merhige was on the fringe of the family and hadn't been seen much over the years.

According to CNN, Merhige made a run for it and managed to evade capture for six weeks. He shaved his head and put fake license plates on his car, but was finally arrested and charged after being recognized from an episode of America's Most Wanted. According to the Palm Beach Post, he was sentenced to seven consecutive life sentences after a plea deal voided a trial — and the real possibility of the death penalty.

The Castle Doctrine gone wrong on Thanksgiving

On Thanksgiving Day in Little Falls, Minnesota in 2012, cousins Nicholas Brady, 17, and Haile Kifer, 18, went missing. A day later, they were found in the basement of their neighbor Byron David Smith. According to the Duluth News Tribune, Smith claimed that Brady and Kifer had broken into his home and he'd shot them in self-defense, citing the state's "castle doctrine." This law makes it clear that a homeowner can use deadly force in order to prevent a felony from occurring in their own home if they feel they have no other choice.

But as NBC News reports, it quickly became clear that Smith had methodically planned a premeditated murder. Smith had been robbed several times and suspected his neighbors of being involved, and so on Thanksgiving, he set a trap. He moved his truck to make it appear that he'd left the house, then returned and waited in the basement, comfortably ensconced in an easy chair with water and energy bars — and two guns. He also recorded audio of the killings, which was later used to convict him of murder despite his claims that he feared for his life and that castle doctrine made his actions legal.

In light of his cold-blooded actions, including taunting the teenagers as they died and shooting Kifer a second time to ensure she was dead, it only took the jury three hours to convict Smith of murder.

The unwanted holiday houseguests

Thanksgiving can lead to a lot of emotional stress, especially when relatives crash at your house when they come from far away. A crowded house leads to toes being stepped on, but usually, when things get tense over the holiday's people take a walk, grab a beer, or do something else to blow off steam. We don't retrieve one of several handguns and murder everybody. Unless you're a guy named Christopher Gattis, a youth ministry director for Grace Lutheran Church in Chester, Virginia.

According to Richmond.com, Gattis was unhappy that his stepdaughter Candice and her boyfriend Andrew were living with him and his wife Jeanett for several weeks. Gattis had demanded that they leave the house several times, and things got ugly a few days before Thanksgiving. Jeanett recorded an angry exchange between Gattis and the couple on Thanksgiving and took what she believed to be Gattis' only handgun and asked a relative to hide it.

But Gattis had more weapons. While Jeanett, Candice, and Andrew played a board game in the kitchen, Gattis retrieved a gun and shot his wife, then Candice. Andrew made a run for it, but Gattis killed him just outside the house. According to the Chesterfield Observer, Gattis told police that, "They all came after me" and "they all ganged up on me." He was convicted of murder and sentenced to a total of 58 years in prison.

Depraved indifference

In 2017, Tina Stewart accompanied her boyfriend Nicholas Holden to his father's house for Thanksgiving. Nicholas had previously been known to be physically violent. According to ABC News, he'd once posted a public apology on Facebook after head-butting Stewart in a bar.

Stewart and Holden got into a fight after drinking through the night, and at some point, the fight turned physical. According to KHQ News, Holden later told police, "We got into it last night. It was bad." When Stewart was found, she was dead and obviously the victim of a severe beating.

The story Holden told was horrifying — not just for the violence involved, but for the clear indifference he had to Stewart's well-being. He admitted to kicking and punching the victim. They calmed down and settled down to sleep. Holden admits he woke up several times to find Stewart cold and unresponsive, with blood and vomit on her face. But each time he merely rolled over and went back to sleep. It was only in the morning when he finally called 911.

After Holden agreed to a plea deal and a sentence of just 16 years in prison, Stewart's family began pushing for the passage of "Tina's Law," which would require violent abusers like Holden to publicly register with a national database.

Getting away with murder on Thanksgiving

On Thanksgiving Day in 1972, an 11-year old girl named Terri Lynn Hollis went for a bike ride near her home in Torrance, California and vanished. The next day, fishermen found her body on a cliff below the Pacific Coast Highway.

According to CNN.com, the police conducted a thorough investigation. They interviewed more than 2,000 people in connection with the case and followed up an exhaustive list of leads. None of them led anywhere, and Hollis' murder became the coldest of cold cases. In 2000, 28 years after her death, the police even submitted a DNA sample to the FBI's Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) but got no hits.

As reported by Oxygen.com, a company called Parabon NanoLabs ran Hollis' DNA through public genealogical databases in 2018 and got a hit. A man named Jake Edward Brown had DNA that matched the sample found on Hollis' body. Brown would have been 36 at the time and was convicted of two sexual assaults just a few years after Hollis' murder. But when police looked deeper, they found heartbreaking news: Brown had died in 2003. Police exhumed his body and ran a DNA test, which came back positive. The case had been solved, but Brown literally got away with a Thanksgiving murder.

A violent Thanksgiving crime spree

While many terrifying crimes committed on Thanksgiving are linked to stress, there's always room for simple insanity. Such was the case when Jason Aaron Gibson woke up on Thanksgiving in 2018 and decided this would be the day he set several records in violent, horrifying criminal activity.

According to the El Paso Times, Gibson launched his rampage by invading the home of an 86-year old man in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Armed with a gun and a taser, he beat the man severely. When the man's daughter and her friend arrived, Gibson ordered the daughter to tie up her friend, then forced her to drive him to El Paso. Amazingly, Gibson had her drop him off and then just let her drive away. She rushed home to find police already investigating the incident.

Incredibly, according to Las Cruces Sun-News, while giving her statement to the police, the daughter saw an alert about a triple shooting occurring near where she'd dropped Gibson off. Gibson had randomly invaded a second home, where he shot three people, killing two. Although Gibson has a long rap sheet of criminal activity, no specific motive was found for his sudden crime spree. Then again, he might just be a terrible person: The Miami Herald reports that in 2019 Gibson was ratted out by his fellow inmates for feeding a pet iguana to an alligator at a petting zoo run by the county sheriff.