The comedian who lied about escaping the 9/11 attacks

When asked, comedian Steve Rannazzisi would explain in elaborate detail how he escaped his office from the 54th floor of the South Tower of NY’s World Trade Center after the first plane struck the North Tower on September 11, 2001.

“I was there, and then the first tower got hit and we were like jostled all over the place,” he told an interviewer in 2009.

Rannazzisi allegedly fled to the street just minutes before another plane slammed into his building. He decided that very day that life was too precious to waste opportunities. So, he abandoned his New York desk job at Merrill Lynch to pursue a career as an entertainer in Los Angeles.

Or so he said.

In September 2015, after being confronted by The New York Times with evidence that undermined his account, Rannazzisi was forced to acknowledge that his 9/11 story was a work of fiction. He had been working in Midtown that day, but not for Merrill Lynch, which has no record of his employment and had no offices in either tower.

Rannazzisi came clean five days after the 14th anniversary of the attacks that killed 2,753 people when the two 110-story buildings collapsed. “I was not in the World Trade Center that day,” the 37-year-old said in a statement. “I don’t know why I said this. This was inexcusable. I am truly, truly sorry.”

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The news anchor who claimed to be shot down during the Iraq War

Reporter Brian Williams returned to television after a serving a six-month suspension for lying. He began his new life as a cable news anchor on September 22, 2015.

An internal investigation by NBC allegedly uncovered 11 instances where Williams was accused of embellishing facts about his role in world events. He claimed to be shot down while riding in a military helicopter during the Iraq war. During an appearance on The Daily Show, he also boasted to have looked into the eyes of mounted Egyptian soldiers in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and had seen the armed men beat protesters.

When asked why he lied, Williams said, “It came from a bad place. It came from a sloppy choice of words.  It got mixed up; it got turned around in my mind.” He added, “What has happened in the past has been identified and torn apart by me and has been fixed, has been dealt with.”

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The man who lied about “the Holocaust’s greatest love story”

Herman Rosenblat’s story of meeting his wife Roma seemed tailor-made for movies and memoirs. But the love story born in Hitler’s Europe at a German labor camp was just too good to be true.

Rosenblat was an 11-year-old Polish Jew interned by the Nazis in a sub-camp of Buchenwald. He claimed he was sustained by an anonymous young girl who came each day to throw him apples over the camp’s fence.

In 1945, Rosenblat and his three elder brothers were liberated by Allied troops from the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where they had been transferred shortly before the armistice. Twelve years later, he was living in New York when a friend set him up on a blind date. In an incredible twist of fate, Rosenblat alleged the curly-haired woman with green eyes who was his date for the evening turned out to be his childhood savior—the girl who had thrown him apples all those years before. He proposed on the spot, against the twinkling lights of Coney Island.

The story inspired a children’s book, two appearances on Oprah, a movie deal, a memoir, and countless interviews.

Some historians believed him, but a few raised red flags. The timeline didn’t work, and the fence was too high, not to mention standing anywhere near it would have been punishable by death.

In 2008, under immense pressure, Rosenblat admitted his version of history was indeed fiction. Berkley Books immediately canceled Rosenblat’s memoir Angel at the Fence. His movie deal was also scrapped.

Rosenblat did survive a concentration camp, he did meet his wife on a blind date and his 50-plus-year marriage to her was indeed real. He remained unrepentant about the rest and said he made it up to bring people happiness and hope.

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The head of the survivors’ network who lied about escaping the Twin Towers during 9/11

Tania Head’s account of her escape from the World Trade Center made her one of only 19 survivors who had been at or above the point of impact when the planes hit.

Her story deeply moved visitors at Ground Zero, where she led tours for people including former Mayors Michael R. Bloomberg, Rudolph W. Giuliani, and former Governor George E. Pataki.

According to Head, she was working at Merrill Lynch (sound familiar?) in the South Tower of the World Trade Center when tragedy struck. She was badly burned but made it out of the building alive. Her fiancé, Dave, who was in the North Tower, did not.

Head’s backstory and account of that day were especially horrific, but her bright personality and positive outlook was inspiring to others, including her fellow survivors and the media. However, no part of her story, it turns out, has ever been verified and at the time of tragedy, Head was in her native country of Spain.

In September 2007, The New York Times broke the story on Head while doing a 9/11 anniversary piece. She claimed to have an undergrad degree from Harvard and a graduate business degree from Stanford, but those institutions had no record of her. The family and friends of the man to whom she claimed to be engaged said they have never heard of her either. While he did die in the North Tower, it soon became clear that Head had not known him at all.

Head backed out of three scheduled interviews, and later refused to speak to reporters. By the week of September 27, 2007, the World Trade Center Survivors’ Network voted to remove her as president and as a director of the group.

Head was rumored to have left New York immediately after the story broke. In July 2012, she was fired from her job at Inter Partner Assistance, an insurance company in Barcelona, once her employers found out about her ruse. Her whereabouts is currently unknown.

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The flight attendant who lied about finding a bomb on board a plane

Justin Cox-Sever, a SkyWest flight attendant, is facing federal charges after allegedly inventing a story about a suspicious package onboard a flight.

According to an FBI affidavit, Cox-Sever, 21, admitted that he stuffed a bag with towels, hid it in the back of the plane and later told the flight crew it was “making beeping noises.” The plane then made an emergency landing at Dickinson Theodore Roosevelt Regional Airport in Dickinson, North Dakota. The entire facility was evacuated, and air traffic to and from the airport was halted. Cox-Sever later admitted to investigating agents that he was the one who both planted and reported the bag, knowing full well that there was nothing dangerous inside.

This is not Cox-Sever’s first in-flight fabrication. In July 2015, he reported seeing a bomb threat written on the lavatory wall of an American Airlines flight from Charlottesville, Virginia to Chicago. He originally told the FBI that he had been “extorted by a friend to ‘bring down a plane’ or his family would be harmed,” but later recanted that story as well, admitting to agents that he had willingly written the message in the plane’s bathroom.

Cox-Sever has been charged with interfering with the operation of an aircraft and communicating false information. He currently awaits trial.

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The writer whose harrowing memoir was found to be a work of fiction

In 2006, writer James Frey was exposed by The Smoking Gun as having made up much of A Million Little Pieces, his so-called memoir about addiction and crime. Oprah Winfrey made that book number one on the best-seller list when she included it in her book club.

After the story had broken, an angry Oprah rebuked Frey on her show for lying about his past and portraying the book as a truthful account of his life. She lead him to admit that in addition to exaggerating the amount of time he had spent in jail, he had lied about how his girlfriend had died; about the details of a foray outside a rehabilitation center; and about his claim that he had received a root canal without anesthesia because the center prohibited the use of Novocaine.

In 2011, Oprah had Frey on her show again and apologized to the author. She said her ambush of him was more about her bruised ego and feeling personally betrayed. Frey has since recovered from the controversy to write several more adult best sellers. He has also started his own production company.

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The teen who claimed she was abducted and repeatedly raped by six men

Tawana Brawley was only 15 when she claimed she was the victim of rape.

The decade-long saga began on Nov. 28, 1987, when Brawley was found in a trash bag, with racial epithets scrawled on her body in feces. She told police she had been abducted by two white men who dragged her into the woods where four other white men were waiting, one of which had blond hair, a holster, and a badge.

By mere coincidence, Fishkill Police Officer Harry Crist Jr. was found dead in his apartment three days after the Brawley “attack” and was subsequently named as a suspect. Dutchess County prosecutor Steven Pagones defended his dead friend Crist and offered an alibi for the man—Crist had been Christmas-shopping with him on one of the days in question. On the three other days of the “kidnapping,” he was on patrol, working at his other job at IBM, and installing insulation in an attic. Brawley’s handlers then claimed—without proof—that Pagones was part of the white mob that kidnaped and raped her 33 times.

Celebrities lined up to support Tawana, but a grand jury reached a different verdict. The jurors, who heard from 180 witnesses over seven months, concluded that the entire story was a hoax. They determined Brawley had run away from home and made everything up, most likely to avoid punishment from her stepfather, Ralph King, who had spent seven years in prison in the 1970s for killing his first wife.

Crist’s death was unrelated—he killed himself over a failed romance.

For Pagones, however, the damage was done. His marriage unraveled, and he ended up leaving his job. He continued to proclaim his innocence, making it his life’s mission to bring Brawley and her advisers to justice—and compel them to tell the truth. Brawley was ordered to fork over $190,000 to Pagones at 9% annual interest. She now owes a total of about $400,000—a sum she could be paying for the rest of her life.

Pagones said he’d forgive the debt if Brawley finally admits the truth.

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The ’70s superstar whose boyfriend faked his own death

After mysteriously disappearing from a fishing trip off the coast of California in 2005, Olivia Newton-John’s missing boyfriend, Patrick McDermott, was presumed dead. However, many skeptics believed the tragic tale didn’t add up.

Turns out they were right.

After years of searching for the missing man, a group of private investigators hired by Dateline NBC were finally able to locate the Korean-American lighting technician alive, well and living in Mexico.

McDermott was tracked down after investigators had noticed a collection of centralized IP addresses were logged onto the site that followed his presumed whereabouts. The addresses led the investigators to the Mexican-Pacific coast near Puerta Vallarta, where McDermott had been living under his birth name.

During his nine-year relationship with the Newton-John, he filed for bankruptcy. When the couple split, he mysteriously vanished after allegedly falling overboard from a chartered fishing boat. Though the Coast Guard initially believed he had drowned, others felt he staged his death to cash in on a $100,000 life insurance policy for his son.

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8 People Who Lied About Tragic Events

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