FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted Fugitives” Program

The Beginning

On February 7, 1949, an article entitled FBI’s Most Wanted Fugitives Named appeared in The Washington Daily News. A United Press International reporter contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation and asked for the names and descriptions of the “toughest guys” the FBI wanted to capture. In hopes the publicity would lead to arrests, the FBI listed the names of ten fugitives it considered to be the most potentially dangerous. The story generated so much publicity and public appeal, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover permanently implemented the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted Fugitives” program a year later on March 14, 1950.

This “Top Ten” program relied heavily on the nation’s news media. Recognizing the need for public assistance in locating fugitives, the “Top Ten” program was designed to publicize particularly dangerous fugitives who might not otherwise merit nationwide attention. And it worked!  Citizen cooperation led to the arrest of nine of the first 20 “Top Tenners.” This included the very first “Top Tenner“, Thomas Holden, who was arrested after a citizen recognized his photograph in an Oregon newspaper.


Gone are the days when “Top Ten” posters could be found in post offices. Since 1996, “Top Ten” posters have appeared on the FBI’s Internet site,, allowing the FBI to extend its reach across domestic and international borders and obtain worldwide public assistance tracking these fugitives. Traditional media outlets, such as radio programs, television shows, and printed publications provide additional publicity for the fugitives on the list.

However, with the increased use of electronic and digital technology, the FBI has turned to some nontraditional and cutting-edge techniques to publicize the fugitives on the “Top Ten” list. Digital outdoor billboards appearing throughout the United States now feature images of these individuals. The FBI also has a Facebook page and a Twitter account where friends and followers can instantly receive information about the latest fugitives on the list. The weekly Wanted by the FBI podcast, FBI widgets, and a cell phone application all allow the public to download the latest fugitive information at the touch of a button.

As technology advances, the FBI intends to keep pace and continue using it as much as possible to profile fugitives and engage the public’s help in locating them.

The Program

Since its inception, 494 fugitives have appeared on the “Top Ten” list and 463 have been located. Not all fugitives have been arrested; some have surrendered peacefully, others have been found deceased, had their federal process dismissed, or were removed from the list because they no longer fit “Top Ten” criteria. But just as the priorities of the FBI have changed, so has the makeup of the “Top Ten” list. Through the 1950s, the list was primarily comprised of bank robbers, burglars, and car thieves. During the turbulent 1960s, the list reflected the revolutionaries of the time. Destruction of government property, sabotage, and kidnapping dominated the list.  In the 1970s, with the FBI’s concentration on organized crime and terrorism, the “Top Ten” included many fugitives with organized crime ties or links to terrorist groups. In the 1980s and 1990s, the list included sexual predators, international terrorists, and drug traffickers. This emphasis, along with crimes against children, white collar crime, and gang violence, continues today.

Criteria for Placement on the List

There are two primary criteria used to determine who should be placed on the list. First, the fugitive must be a particularly dangerous menace to society and/or have a lengthy record of committing serious crimes. Second, the FBI must believe nationwide publicity will assist in apprehending the fugitive.

The List

Logo of the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted Fugitives 60th Anniversary, 1950-2010

Many FBI offices are involved in selecting the fugitives who will make the “Ten Most Wanted Fugitives” list.  The Criminal Investigative Division (CID) at FBI Headquarters contacts all 56 field offices in an effort to solicit the most dangerous fugitives for consideration. CID Supervisory Special Agents and personnel from the Office of Public Affairs evaluate the nominees received from the field and select the “best” candidate. The candidate is then forwarded to the Assistant Director of the CID for his/her approval and then to the FBI’s Director for final selection.

Removal from the List

Unless a “Top Tenner” is captured, found dead, or surrenders, “Top Tenners” are only removed from the list when they meet one of two conditions. First, the federal process pending against the individual is dismissed. Second, they no longer fit “Top Ten” criteria. When a fugitive is removed from the list, another candidate is added.