From 'Breaking Bad' to worse: When TV shows inspire wicked crimes

Image: Jesse on "Breaking Bad"
Jesse Pinkman says, "Don't try this at home, yo."Today

Get the latest from TODAY

Sign up for our newsletter
By Ree Hines and Anna Chan

If there's one thing AMC's "Breaking Bad" has shown, it's that anyone can break bad. 

Take the premise of the drama: Mild-mannered chemistry teacher Walter White turns to cooking meth with former student Jesse Pinkman to provide for his family after a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer, but he eventually morphs into an antihero drunk with power and money.

Sounds like it could happen, right? That's because it has (though perhaps not to the same extent). Last fall, Texas chemistry teacher William Duncan was charged with cooking meth and selling it at the middle school he taught at, though police don't believe he sold to students. 

Then Boston state representative and middle-school tutor Stephen W. Doran was busted in May after police found 480 grams of meth in his car, and another 38 grams at his home, along with a lot of cash and drug paraphernalia. And like Walt, Doran has children and was being treated for Stage III cancer. "The cancer is so serious that his brother just recently died from the same cancer," his attorney said in court.

In July of 2010, Kansas City, Mo., police chief Darryl Forte wrote in his official blog that law enforcement in his city were seeing a new shade of meth — blue meth to be specific. Sound familiar? That's because "Breaking Bad" introduced Walt's 99.1 percent pure crystal meth, Blue Sky, in 2008. "Our Drug Enforcement Unit has several theories about why some meth manufacturers are making it blue," Forte wrote. "(One) hypothesis is that the manufacturers are simply copying the TV show on AMC called 'Breaking Bad.'"

The show — which kicks off the first of its final eight episodes on Sunday — seems to have also inspired some truly dark copycats. In June, Washington police arrested 27-year-old Jason Hart after they found a woman's body soaking in a tub of acid at his home. It's much like how Walt has disposed of numerous bodies on "Breaking Bad." "That was his favorite series. That's what he told me," Hart's roommate Dean Settle told KREM 2 News. "I think he used it as instructions to go do what he was doing to dispose the body."

In the end, it may not matter whether the show inspired someone to take a wrong turn. It may just be pre-destined.

But "Breaking Bad" is far from the only television series to inspire big breaks from good behavior. In fact, just last year, another AMC hit was credited with sparking a criminal mind.

In December, "Walking Dead" enthusiast Jared Gurman was so certain that a zombie apocalypse, like the one seen on the show, was possible — nay, probable, what with secret military whatzits and all — that he became enraged when his girlfriend balked at the idea of animated corpses roaming the land. He was so angry that when his gal pal tried to calm him down (after daring to declare her reality-based zombie stance), he made like leading man Rick Grimes, aimed a loaded rifle and shot her. She survived what he later referred to as an accident (and even later admitted was not).

Of course, it's not just dramas that serve to rile up certain super fans. Even reality competitions are able to motivate some folks to make a lawless move.

That was the case for Karen Elaine Harrelson and Gregory Stambaugh, a middle-age couple from Pennsylvania who were once united in their love of "American Idol." But as it turned out, they weren't so united when it came down to who should win last season. While there's no word on who was Team Candice and who was Team Kree in the fight that ensued, it wasn't long before they discovered there was yet another thing they couldn't agree on — who stabbed who first. Both were arrested shortly after the incident.

It seems "Idol" has inadvertently swayed more than one character to bad break in its day. In 2010, Cynthia Bettis-Ware was arrested by police in St. Petersburg, Fla., after a fight over something that happened in the talent competition left her stabbing mad too. Evidently her then-boyfriend, who was less invested in the show — judging by his decision to flip the channel — went to bed to sleep off the "Idol" ire only to wake up to seven stab wounds and one severe hot-cocoa burn.

Heck, even a show as seemingly innocent as "Dancing With the Stars" has inspired at least one fan to make an unfortunate decision — beyond the usual ones, like getting a spray tan or wearing way too many sequins.

In 2010, fan Steven Cowan just couldn't handle the fact that Sarah Palin's daughter Bristol made it so far in the ballroom bash despite her problem-filled performances. Instead of writing about his Palin outrage on Facebook or Twitter as many other viewers chose to do during the show's 11th season, Cowan decided to act on his anger by shooting his TV. According to a criminal complaint filed by authorities in the man's hometown, "Steven was upset that a political figure’s daughter was dancing on this particular show when Steven did not think she was a good dancer.”

While everything from the darkest of dramas to the most innocent of shows can unexpectedly inspire crimes of passion, remember what these programs are here for: to take you out of your own world for a bit of made-up entertainment. So when "Breaking Bad" kicks off its final season Sunday, try to sit back, relax and enjoy the story telling. Leave the weapons, drugs and illegal behavior to the bad guys on TV.