On March 14, 1950, the FBI formally launched its Ten Most Wanted List. In the almost 70 years since its inception, it has managed to capture the nation’s imagination as the modern-day equivalent of the ubiquitous “Wanted” posters seen in old Western movies.
To celebrate its anniversary, here are a few little-known facts about the list.
1 – It all started with a conversation.
In 1949, then FBI Director Hoover had a conversation with William Kinsey Hutchinson, editor-in-chief of the International News Service (which would become part of United Press International). The reporter wanted to find out who the “worst of the worst” were.
Hoover obliged and furnished him a list that was later published in newspapers across the country on February 8, 1949. Enormous interest was generated from the public and leads started to pour in. The success of that initial list became the basis of the more formal list that was to follow a year later.
2 – Fugitives only make it to the list if their IDs are known.
The FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division starts by asking the bureau’s 56 field offices to submit a list of the highest-profile fugitives each field office is looking for. The nominees are reviewed and submitted for approval by FBI upper management.
To be included in the list, the criminals must be named and with photos and with warrants for their arrest. This is why the Unabomber and the Beltway Sniper never appeared in the Top Ten Most Wanted because their identities didn’t become public until their capture.
According to the FBI, the list is “designed to publicize particularly dangerous fugitives who might not otherwise merit nationwide attention.”
3 – The list used to be found in post offices but not anymore.
Christopher Allen is the current head of the Ten Most Wanted program at the FBI. He told CNN his unit “creates the iconic wanted poster,” makes the foreign language translations, and even contracts outdoor advertising agencies to spread the list to the public.
The lists used to be displayed at post offices but the cash-strapped US Postal Service prioritizes their display spaces to marketing its own products.
And since social media reaches more people, Allen and his team also take to Facebook and Twitter to highlight the 10 criminals.
4 – The list has helped capture some high-profile fugitives.
Some of the criminals that the FBI has managed to collar thanks to the list include serial Ted Bundy who was on the list for four days in 1978 after his second escape from jail. Ramzi Yousef, who was implicated in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing made the list for two years before his apprehension in Pakistan.
Andrew Cunanan made it to the list in 1997 on charges of killing five people, one of whom was Italian designer Gianni Versace. Although he wasn’t caught, he shot himself in the head in a houseboat in Miami Beach after being on the list for a month.
5 – Sometimes, the FBI will deliberately leave out a name from the list.
In the 69 years of the list’s existence, the FBI says that 162 of the 521 fugitives that have been listed were captured with the help of tips from the public.
But Allen says that there are certain circumstances when it’s better to leave out a fugitive from the list, particularly if going public could ruin an ongoing investigation. For instance, a fugitive might flee from a local area that agents are investigating if his or her face gets plastered in a billboard or shows up in a viral news story.
6 – The list is “equal opportunity” but only 10 women have made it to the list.
One of them is Black Panther activist and academic Angela Davis who made the list in 1970 on charges of kidnapping and murdering a judge. She was caught nearly two months after being put on the list.
She professed her innocence and was acquitted by a jury in 1972. Afterward, she had a long career as an activist and professor at several universities.
7 – Some notorious criminals don’t even make it to the list.
This is the case if the criminal is already well-publicized, said Allen. This also applies if the arrest warrant was issued by a separate law enforcement agency. For example, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was not on the FBI’s list because the Drug Enforcement Agency was handling his case which was already high profile.
8 – Those on the list are not ranked by priority.
Every fugitive that is on the list is just as important as the others.
The criminal who spent the shortest time on the list was Billy Austin Bryant in 1969. He was charged for killing two FBI agents and was captured two hours after being put on the list.
James Earl Ray had the dubious distinction of appearing on the list twice: once for killing Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, and in 1977 following an escape from a Tennessee prison (incidentally, the US Marshals Service has its own 15 Most Wanted list).
9 – Only 8 fugitives populate the current list.
This is because, in February, FBI agents homed in on Greg Alyn Carlson at a North Carolina hotel room and killed him after he resisted arrest. He was accused of burglary and sexual assault.
And last week, Lamont Stephenson was removed from the list after he was arrested in Maryland. He is up on murder charges for asphyxiating his fiancee and her chihuahua.
But the two vacancies won’t stay that way for long as the FBI has begun the process of filling it up again.
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