In this episode of Inside the FBI, we highlight the 70th anniversary of our Ten Most Wanted Fugitives program—commonly known as the Top Ten list.
Steve Lewis: It was 1949. A reporter from the International News Service asked the FBI for the names and descriptions of the “toughest guys” the Bureau would like to capture. The resulting story generated so much publicity and had so much appeal that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover implemented the “Ten Most Wanted Fugitives” program the following year in March 1950.
The first person to be placed on that list was Thomas James Holden, wanted for the murder of his wife, her brother, and her stepbrother.
Since 1950, scores of fugitives have been added to the Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list and hundreds have been apprehended or located, all thanks to the help of listeners like you and the media.
And now in its 70th year, we’re celebrating the anniversary of the Top Ten list in this latest episode of Inside the FBI. I’m Steve Lewis.
Inside the FBI is a show that highlights the Bureau’s latest news, activities, and missions in audio form. You’ll hear character-driven stories from some of our most intriguing cases, interviews from the field, and historical topics, like the 70th Anniversary of the Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list.
So turn the volume up, sit back, and stay tuned—this is Inside the FBI.
Eric D’Orazio: Maybe you’ve seen them on the news or on social media. Maybe you saw them years ago in a post office or recently on a highway billboard. I’m talking about FBI wanted posters, the Bureau’s longstanding way of grabbing the public’s attention about wanted fugitives accused of the most heinous crimes.
Among the worst of those offenders? The FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives.
This is Eric D’Orazio with Inside the FBI, and today in this episode we’re highlighting the 70th anniversary of our Ten Most Wanted Fugitives program—commonly known as the Top Ten list.
The FBI has been hunting fugitives since its earliest iteration in 1908. Going back over a century, the Bureau would issue fliers to law enforcement agencies and departments notifying them of criminals we were looking for—these were called identification orders.
As that law enforcement outreach developed, the Bureau found that it could solicit public support through wanted posters and information on an offender provided to newspapers. What came next was engaging the media in this effort.
To explain that, here’s resident FBI Historian Dr. John Fox:
Dr. John Fox: So by the late-1940s, the media was actually getting very interested in how they could publicize information about this. And a couple of news services came to us, and eventually a reporter named William Hutchinson, who worked for the predecessor of UPI, said, “You know, I’d like a list of the 10 people that you’re most interested in catching, and I’m going to do little profiles of them, and it’s going to be a news feature that will go across the country.”
D’Orazio: The seeds of the Ten Most Wanted Fugitives program were planted with the article that Mr. Hutchinson wrote. Published in February 1949, the news story became so popular with the public that the Bureau soon considered a program to regularly publicize the criminals in which they were most interested. A national campaign could generate public support to assist in the capture of these at-large offenders. Seizing this opportunity, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover implemented the Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list on March 14, 1950.
Director J. Edgar Hoover [clip]: This is your FBI.
Once the Ten Most Wanted program kicked off, the FBI already had a number of different ways to get the information out to the public. This included local post offices, town halls, and other places that many people could see the information. The outreach didn't just stop with posting paper on concrete walls, however.
Fox: Sometimes we might mention something on a news program or a radio program, that sort of thing. The newspapers certainly did it as well. Most of our fugitive information went to fellow law enforcement. You know, there were only a number of cases or percentage of cases that we thought that the public would be able to help us out in them.
Chris Allen: Another thing I like to mention—I think this is kind of interesting—but if you think about a wanted poster, it really has not changed in 150 years.
D’Orazio: That was the FBI’s Investigative Publicity chief, Chris Allen.
Allen: The old wanted posters that would be nailed to a tree in the center of town, it’s the same basic format. It says “Wanted” at the top and it's got the charges—what did the person do. It's got a photo. If there’s a reward, it says what the reward is. Who to contact with information. So the format of a wanted poster is pretty static. It hasn’t changed. What has changed is where you find that information.
D’Orazio: Allen is pointing out that where the public is, you’ll find the Top Ten list. We’ll be talking about the modern-day Top Ten in just a minute.
But first, the Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list historically has reflected the concerns of the time. If you think about it, the people the FBI is searching for are the ones who commit the crimes that the Bureau is investigating. It mirrors how the FBI’s responsibilities change over time. As new things emerge, and as the nature of what the FBI does changes, so too does the Ten Most Wanted list.
Fox: So in the 1950s it was bank robberies and violent crimes, and of course a lot of those bank robbers as such. Getting into the ‘60s, it’s moving more towards things like the assassination of political leaders like Dr. King and the domestic terrorist bombings of the Sterling Hall additions.
And into the 1980s, we begin looking at more international-related crimes, so drug enterprise operations and things like that. And in the ‘90s, we start adding actual foreign terrorists, you know. Bin Laden is added then.
D’Orazio: Over the past two decades, Top Ten lists have focused on threats such as child predators, human traffickers, violent gang activities, and shootings in public places.
Fox: Really, there’s often, if not almost always, that connection with violent crime, certainly with the heinousness of the crimes that the folks are wanted for, and again that idea that we want the public helping us, because if we don’t get good information from the public we can’t do our jobs.
D’Orazio: When talking about wanted criminals, the phrase “Public Enemy #1” can often come to mind. Whether it was popularized by law enforcement officials or the media, the Bureau would adopt the term from time to time in its past as a catchy way to grab the public’s attention. However, when it comes to the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list, there is no Public Enemy #1, and no ranking from the most dangerous to the least.
Investigative publicity is all about putting information and photographs in front of as many people as possible. Whether that involves wanted fugitives, missing children, bank robbers, unknown subjects, or international terrorists, to be successful, the FBI has to go where the public is present. One of the foremost ways we do that is through television. Surely, all of us have seen at some point or another a crime-related show on TV while flipping through channels. You intend to watch for a little bit, but the intriguing nature of the case just pulls you in.
America’s Most Wanted, the hugely successful show hosted by John Walsh, was a prime example that assisted the FBI over the years.
Allen: Its very first episode captured a Top Tenner, David James Roberts. And in the entire run of the program, 17 Ten Most Wanted fugitives were captured as a direct result of tips aired on the program.
Currently, television shows including In Pursuit and Live PD: Wanted air FBI fugitives on their shows.
D’Orazio: Seventy years on, the Most Wanted Fugitives program continues to combine different ways of outreach on a criminal subject on a national level. Wanted posters, newspaper stories, radio shows, and TV programs have been supplemented by new outreach methods as the media landscape has changed. Both Dr. Fox and Allen have seen these changes firsthand.
Fox: And we’re using other means too. I mean, of course we put these up on the internet. We caught our first Ten Most Wanted fugitive from an internet-based tip in, what, 1996.
Allen: Right, so I said we go where the public goes, well, the public’s on social media—so are we. So we use platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to put out information about fugitives directly into the hands of the public. And then the information on those sites all go, as John said, all go back to the FBI website, where we’ve captured three Top Tenners as a direct result of people viewing the poster on our website.
D’Orazio: The FBI also uses billboards as another way of reaching out to the public, this time in their cars as they travel to work or run errands or enjoy a roadtrip.
The billboard program began in 2007 as a partnership with an outdoor advertising executive who attended an FBI Citizens Academy. Out of that relationship came the idea of putting FBI fugitives on digital billboards as a public service. And it was immediately successful—57 fugitives have been captured as a direct result of people seeing an FBI billboard. The program today involves a number of companies, across the country.
Allen: Also want to talk about mobile applications. So this is another way that we’re getting the information out. And this way we’re putting information about fugitives or other wanted cases directly in someone’s pocket, right.
So in 2017, the FBI launched a Wanted mobile app that allows the public to search, sort, filter, and bookmark the full range of information issued by the FBI, including fugitive photographs and information descriptions. So that’s another example of just taking the information and putting it wherever the public can easily find it.
D’Orazio: Across seven decades, 523 fugitives have been placed on the Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list, with 488 of them having been caught as of this broadcast. As a testament to the effectiveness of the Most Wanted program and its outreach, 162 of those captures were made with the public’s direct help.
Adding a fugitive to the list is an interesting process, especially the criteria that is used to single them out. Allen has seen this process at work many, many times.
Allen: When there’s an opening on the list—when someone gets captured or located—the FBI will canvass all 56 field offices for submissions to the list. Those nominations that come in will be reviewed both by the Criminal Investigative Division and by the Office of Public Affairs, and from there, a couple nominations will go up to FBI executive management for selection.
There’s sort of two main criteria that we use to sort through the nominations. The first one is the fugitive has to be considered a particularly dangerous menace to society—and that can be determined in a couple ways. One, if you have a lengthy, consistent criminal record, that’s one way of establishing that. Also, if the crime you’re wanted for is particularly violent or done in a very public setting—that also sort of qualifies as “menace to society.”
The second criteria would be publicity. So this is a publicity program—at its very heart, it’s a publicity program. So we have to have a reasonable belief that the publicity afforded by being on the list could aid in the location and capture of the fugitive.
D’Orazio: Out of the 488 Top Ten fugitives that have been captured, 54 of them have been arrested outside the United States. A fugitive’s location anywhere in the world is not a deterrent—if they are a dangerous menace to society and the FBI believes that publicity will assist in their capture, they will be added to the Top Ten list. The Bureau will look for them wherever they are. On occasion, even extradition will come into play.
Fox: When we have a fugitive who is found overseas, the FBI of course has to work with the law enforcement from the country where that person is found to get them arrested and then, through that country’s laws, get them returned to the United States to face criminal justice here.
D’Orazio: Contrary to what one might think, spies have not appeared on the Top Ten list in the past, as their inherently clandestine nature negates the publicity-related criteria of the list. Scores of other types of fugitives have appeared on the Ten Most Wanted list, however, from violent criminals, to domestic terrorists, even to international terrorists. Overall, the list represents the wide range of what the FBI investigates.
The Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list has had a great deal of interesting cases in its illustrious 70-year past. Most have involved violent crime, although cyber fugitives and persons wanted for crimes against children, drugs, and white-collar crimes have been added as well. A select few have even shook the foundations of modern American history.
The longest period of time in which someone has been on the Top Ten list is 32 years. That fugitive was Victor Manuel Gerena, who was added in May of 1984 and removed in December 2016.
The fugitive with the shortest amount of time on the Top Ten was Billie Austin Bryant, who was captured on January 8, 1969, by Washington, D.C. Police just two hours after being placed on the list. Bryant was wanted for the brutal shooting of two FBI agents while evading capture earlier that day.
Postings to the Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list come with a reward.
Allen: At a minimum, the FBI offers up to $100,000 for information on Ten Most Wanted Fugitives. In some instances that reward is significantly more than that. The highest reward we’ve seen is for Usama bin Laden, which was $25 million.
Fox: And he had actually gotten on the list before the September 11 attacks. He was put on for his masterminding the embassy bombings—our U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania—in 1998.
D’Orazio: Besides Usama bin Laden, a number of recognizable names have crossed the Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list over the decades.
Allen: Serial killer Ted Bundy. Eric Rudolph, the Olympic Park bomber. Andrew Cunanan, the serial killer and killer of Gianni Versace. James Earl Ray, who actually bears the distinction of being on the list twice—first for the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and second for a short-lived prison escape.
Fox: And he was the one we actually, we put out a wanted poster of him under a name that he had been using because we hadn’t identified his actual identity, but as soon as we did, we put out that name and of course his addition to the Top Ten list. And it turns out we caught him overseas.
D’Orazio: Today’s Top Ten list is replete with nefarious actors that mirror the alleged heinous and egregious crimes of the fugitives who came before them.
Allen: Eugene Palmer is the oldest fugitive we’ve ever put on the list. He brutally murdered his daughter-in-law in Stony Point, New York, outside of her school. And Arnoldo Jimenez and Bhadreshkumar Patel both murdered their wives. And Rafael Caro-Quintero is wanted for the kidnapping, torture, and murder of a DEA agent in Mexico.
D’Orazio: In rare cases, the Top Ten list can actually become a Top 11 or even higher. These situations involve what’s called a special addition—that’s “addition” with an “A.” If the Bureau has a particularly dangerous individual that we need to catch, and there’s not an opening on the Top Ten, the list is expanded to include them.
James Earl Ray was a special addition to the list in 1968 for the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ramzi Yousef also was a special addition following the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing. The very first of these additions to the list was Richard Laurence Marquette, who was wanted for murder.
Fox: And at one point, a couple years later, we actually added four people as special additions right at the same time because they were all wanted for the bombing of a research facility at the University of Wisconsin-Sterling Hall. It was an army mathematics research lab and led to the death of one of the postgrad students there.
D’Orazio: At its heart, the Ten Most Wanted Fugitives program is a publicity program, seeking the public’s assistance to locate and capture the most dangerous fugitives and reflecting the most prominent crimes of the past seven decades. It is a nationally-driven effort, same as it was back in 1950. And it’s been a remarkably successful program, a fact that Allen and Dr. Fox—as well as everyone at the FBI—are especially proud of.
Allen: In the 70 years, we’ve had 523 fugitives on the list; 488 of those were apprehended or located. And of those 162 were as a direct result of citizen cooperation. So somebody seeing a poster at a post office or on the website or in a newspaper and calling us and helping us find them. 162, that’s about a third of the cases as a direct result of citizen cooperation.
So there’s a lot of opportunity out there for the public to help us, and so we'd ask them to go to our website, look on their mobile application.
Fox: We’ve even had two of them identified from people who were on the FBI tour and saw the posters up on the wall and said, “That looks really familiar.”
D’Orazio: Something to keep in mind is that the FBI is not only looking for the 10 fugitives on the Top Ten list.
Allen: So also on our website we have the Most Wanted Terrorists list. So here's the Top Ten, or the Ten Most Wanted Fugitives, we also have the Most Wanted Terrorists list. The genesis of that list was 9/11. So right after 9/11, we added 22 terrorists to that list. That list has grown over time. There’s not a set number to that as there is on the Top Ten.
D’Orazio: Through our website and social media platforms, as well as the Wanted app and digital billboards, we get fugitive information into people’s hands, effectively helping us fight crime and reminding the criminals who commit them that the FBI never forgets.
Don’t forget the ways you can help the FBI capture these fugitives—visit fbi.gov/wanted, download our Wanted app, and follow us on social media.
And remember, the fugitives on this list are dangerous—if you come across one, contact the FBI at 1-800-CALL-FBI or online at tips.fbi.gov.
This has been Eric D’Orazio with Inside the FBI. Keep us on your dial, and we’ll keep you informed.