Robin Hood, a folklore hero, broke the law to do charitable deeds. He stole from the rich, gave to the poor, and now lives on in legend.
While the Robin Hood of lore is hailed as a hero, the story isn’t so black and white for one real-life outlaw. South Korean criminal Shin Chang Won rose to notoriety in the late 1990s, captivating the nation with his cat-and-mouse games.
Shin’s life of crime began young. He was first arrested in 1982 at the age of 15 for stealing a watermelon, having been turned in by his own father: a financially struggling farmer. Over the next seven years, Shin would be arrested thrice more for theft, battery, and leaving the scene of a traffic accident. That was just the beginning.
In 1989, Shin was sentenced to life in prison for committing an armed robbery that resulted in the victim’s death. Little did the world know that he wouldn’t be staying behind bars. For five years, Shin planned his escape, motivated by the inhumane treatment he claimed to have experienced at the hands of prison guards.
Shin spent months losing enough weight to squeeze through a bathroom’s vent and sawing through the bars that blocked its outlet. In 1997, his eighth year in prison, Shin escaped and police launched a nationwide manhunt.
For two years, Shin traveled the country, leaving behind a trail of thefts. During this time, he evaded capture three times and stole five cars, fifteen license plates, and approximately $60,000 USD from fifty houses.
At the time, public opinion about Shin was divided. Some called him Robin Hood or Hong Gil Dong (a Korean folk hero). He donated ₩1.00 million KRW (about $754 USD) to the “House of John,” a center for persons with disabilities in Pyeongtaek city of Gyeonggi province. Using the money he had stolen, Shin also shared ₩400,000 KRW (about $301 USD) with two teens in need.
How did Shin avoid capture for so long? He didn’t do it alone. A total of 15 women, who had all fallen for Shin’s charms, hid the fugitive in their respective homes. As a result, they faced prison terms and fines for abetting a criminal.
[Shin Chang Won] continuously said that he loved me and that he would carry me on his back when we would go outside. He also said that he would cook for me while referring to cookbooks. He said that he would not regret it even were he to get arrested right before my eyes.
— “Kim,” Shin’s then 26-year-old girlfriend
Shin’s then-girlfriend spoke of her beau sympathetically, but law enforcement painted a starkly different picture. According to police, Shin committed numerous crimes while on the lamb, including five burglaries and one rape.
In the end, Shin was finally captured, thanks to a repairman who’d tipped off police about his location. Shin was returned to the same prison he had escaped from in Busan in 1999.
23 years later, Shin’s story still fascinates the public. The colorful Missoni T-shirt he worn during his capture became a hot fashion item. It was featured in episode 12 of the K-Drama Twenty Five Twenty One.