How the FBI Gets Its Men and Women

How the FBI Gets Its Men and Women

A 20-year Study of the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted Fugitives” Program 1989 - 2009

The theory behind the “Ten Most Wanted Fugitives” program is simple: the more people that know your face, the harder it is to hide. Engaging the public in the hunt for the nation’s most dangerous criminals by adding thousands of eyes to the search can be a valuable tool to investigators. With Agents following their trail, and a vigilant public awaiting them at every gas station and grocery store, the fugitive feels squeezed from every angle. Nine of the first 20 “Top Tenners” were arrested due to citizen cooperation. As the program has grown and matured, its success has continued. Nearly 94 percent of the fugitives that have been placed on the “Top Ten” list have been apprehended or located (463 of 494); approximately one-third of them a result of citizen cooperation.

When the program was born, fighting crime was the FBI’s primary business, and the weight of the organization was dedicated to solving crimes and arresting criminals; finding fugitives played a vital part. But things have changed. Counterterrorism, counterintelligence, and cyber crimes have taken on more prominence and a greater share of FBI resources. Our criminal investigative responsibilities have changed as well, with higher priorities placed on public corruption, white collar crimes, civil rights, and gangs.

In response to this organizational shift in priorities, the “Ten Most Wanted Fugitives” program has evolved as well. With fewer resources devoted to capturing fugitives, the role of the public has become even more important. To expand the public’s exposure to the fugitives, the FBI has turned to technology and unique media partnerships. “Top Ten Fugitive” posters moved from the post office to the Internet, where they are viewed by up to three million people a month. A variety of new media platforms, including television programs and digital billboards, are now used to keep fugitive faces in the public spotlight. Plus, in the last couple years the FBI has gone viral, publicizing “Top Tenners” through widgets, Facebook, Twitter, podcasts, and on YouTube.

The following study takes a look at the last 20 years of the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted Fugitives” list. How has the program changed since its inception? What crimes are featured on the list? How long do the fugitives remain on the run before being arrested? How has the program survived despite the organization’s shift from being primarily a law enforcement organization to becoming a hybrid law enforcement and intelligence agency? Has “new media” contributed to the apprehension of these dangerous criminals? To answer these questions, this study looks at the 72 fugitives that have been placed on the list since 1989.

Today’s “Top Ten” list more likely to include terrorists, organized crime figures, and child predators

The standard candidate for addition to the “Top Ten” list has changed as the FBI’s priorities have changed. The original “Top Ten” list was comprised entirely of murderers, bank robbers, and escaped prisoners. The current list, while it still includes several murderers, an escaped convict and a bank robber, also includes organized crime leaders and an international terrorist. A review of crimes for which the previous 20 years’ worth of “Top Ten Fugitives” have been wanted illustrates the expanded scope of FBI responsibility.

Figure 1.1 shows that, not unexpectedly, the predominant crime category remains murder. The act of murder alone is rarely justification enough to be placed on the list. Other factors come into play, including the number of victims, their relationship to the killer, and the motive for the attack. To better understand which types of murders have resulted in placement on the “Top Ten” list over the past 20 years,

Type of Crime Graph, Figure 1.1.

Murder Breakdown Graph, 1989-2009, Figure 1.2
Figure 1.2

Figure 1.2 breaks the murder category into a handful of distinct sub-categories. The two most common types of murderers to appear on the list involve family-member or domestic victims and killings with multiple victims. Other common crimes landing someone on the list include the killing of law enforcement officers, and other violent criminal acts, such as kidnapping or armed robbery, that escalate into murder.

“Top Tenners” Can’t Hide For Long

In the last 20 years, a total of 72 fugitives have been added to the list. This compares with 422 fugitives during the first 39 years of the program. However, a review of the overall “Top Ten” statistics reveals that the yearly “located” numbers have been roughly consistent since 1970. The majority of “Top Ten” captures appears to have occurred within a couple short time spans. In a five-year span between 1951 and 1955, a total of 76 fugitives were apprehended or killed; a total of 105 were located during a similar five-year span between 1964 and 1968.

Graph of Overall Time on List, Past 20 Years, 1989-2009, Figure 2.1
Figure 2.1

A “Top Tenner’s” odds of a long life on the run are not promising. Figure 2.1 breaks down the amount of time fugitives (other than current Top Tenners) have spent on the list. Nearly 60 percent of “Top Tenners” were caught within a year of being placed on the list, with more than half of those fugitives being apprehended within a month of being placed on the list.

Many Fugitives Found Far From Home

Another interesting way of viewing the “Top Ten” list is by looking at where the fugitives were found. Did the fugitives attempt to use local knowledge and support structures to evade arrest, or did they try to establish a new life and a new identity far from the scene of the crime? Figure 3.1 shows where the fugitives were located in comparison to where the crime was committed.

While many “Top Tenners” apparently chose to stay close (one-in-six fugitives never left the city), two-thirds were eventually apprehended far from the location of their crime. In fact, more than 40 percent of “Top Ten” fugitives over the past 20 years have been apprehended outside of the United States.

Figure 3.2 reveals the destinations of choice for fugitives that have opted to flee the country in a failed attempt to avoid the FBI’s grasp. The vast majority fled south, mostly to Mexico, but several went further south to South America. Three international terrorists and a Pakistani murder fugitive all sought refuge near their home countries in the Middle East.

Graph of Where Fugitive Was Located, 1998-2009, Figure 3.1
Figure 3.1

Graph of Locations Outside the U.S., 1998-2009, Figure 3.2
Figure 3.2

“Top Ten” Fugitives Increasingly Caught Through Publicity

Finally, perhaps the most important aspect of this analysis is how the fugitives were caught. As explained previously, the rationale for the “Top Ten” list is that increased publicity engages the public, and with it thousands of additional eyes, in the search for a dangerous fugitive. The publicity is not intended to replace law enforcement investigative activity, but to support and complement their investigative efforts: combining a vigilant public with determined investigators. Accordingly, the success of the program can best be measured through an analysis of how a fugitive is captured.

Graph of How Fugitive Was Located, 1989-2009, Figure 4.1
Figure 4.1

Figure 4.1, provides this information for the past 20 years’ worth of captures. Historically, almost one-third of “Top Ten Fugitive” cases have been solved as a result of citizen cooperation (152 out of 463). In the past 20 years, however, that ratio has increased significantly. As the chart demonstrates, nearly 40 percent of the fugitive apprehensions came as a direct result of investigative publicity, with most of the rest coming through law enforcement efforts. With FBI resources being diverted away from fugitive apprehension, it becomes more important for publicity to fill in the gaps.

Furthermore, it should be noted that a fully accurate number is difficult to determine. Many successful captures do not fit neatly into a single category; often those that are chronicled as law enforcement efforts owe a significant debt to publicity as well. Consider the example of Rafael Resendez-Ramirez, the railway serial killer. Resendez-Ramirez was identified as the killer through solid investigative work, and surrendered after negotiation with a family member; but most investigators credit intense publicity for forcing Resendez-Ramirez to end his killing spree and go into deep hiding in Mexico. Resendez-Ramirez is classified in the chart above as a “surrender,” but clearly law enforcement and publicity each played a vital role. Similar stories could be told of many of the other arrests. Accordingly, investigative publicity indirectly contributes to a far greater share of apprehensions than is captured statistically.

Graph of Breakdown of Publicity, 1989-2009, Figure 4.2
Figure 4.2

The “Ten Most Wanted Fugitives” program uses a wide variety of media avenues to put fugitive faces in front of the public. In addition to traditional outlets such as television news, newspapers, and wanted posters, investigative publicity targets unconventional avenues as well, including digital billboards, foreign language outlets, and television crime shows. Even the Internet, probably conventional by current standards, would have been considered unconventional during much of this study’s timeframe. Figure 4.2 identifies the specific publicity outlets that directly led to the arrest of a “Top Ten Fugitive.”

As you can see from the graph, the Fox TV show America’s Most Wanted is responsible for the most fugitive apprehensions. Two fugitives were located after being profiled on the television program Unsolved Mysteries, before it left network television in 1999.

Two more “Top Ten” fugitives were apprehended after citizens viewed them on the FBI webpage. Another fugitive was arrested after being profiled on a Spanish-language program airing on Azteca America TV.


The purpose of this brief analysis was to examine the past 20 years of the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted Fugitives” program, and how it has evolved at a time when the Bureau’s organizational priorities have grown and shifted to a larger national security focus, with less resources devoted to catching fugitives. Specifically, the analysis looked at the types of crimes for which “Top Ten” fugitives are wanted, how far from the scene of the crime they were when they were located, and the major factors that led to their capture.

Between 1989 - 2009 a total of 67 “Top Tenners” were located.

The pool of eligible crimes for inclusion on the list has evolved as the FBI’s investigative responsibilities have broadened. What was once an exclusive list of bank robbers, escaped convicts, and murderers now includes additional crime categories such as terrorism, crimes against children, and organized crime.

During this study’s range, 1989 - 2009, more than 60 percent of fugitives on the list were apprehended within the first year. The vast majority of fugitives were eventually arrested far from the location where their crime was committed. In fact, more than 40 percent of “Top Ten Fugitives” in the past 20 years have been located outside of the United States. Most of these international arrests have occurred in Mexico.

Within the past 20 years, more than 60% of fugitives on the “Top Ten” list were apprehended within the fi rst year.

The goal of the “Ten Most Wanted Fugitives” program is to leverage increased publicity as a complement to law enforcement investigation. At a time when organizational priorities are pulling resources away from fugitive apprehension, the role of publicity becomes even more critical. Fortunately, according to this standard, the “Top Ten” program is succeeding. Over the past 20 years, the percentage of “Top Tenners” captured as a direct result of citizen cooperation has increased from an historical average of 30 percent to nearly 40 percent. This increase is likely attributable to the use of previously unconventional media outlets, including the Internet, television crime shows, and foreign language outlets.

Over the last 20 years, the percentage of “Top Tenners” captured as a direct result of citizen cooperation increased from a historical average of 30% to nearly 40%.

The “Ten Most Wanted Fugitives” program is the standard bearer in the hunt for fugitives. To continue the success of the program, investigative publicity must continue to play a heightened role in putting fugitives’ faces in front of the public. To accomplish this goal, a variety of new media avenues continue to be explored, including a national digital billboard campaign, expanded outreach to foreign media, and continued exploration of social media outlets. Keeping the “Top Ten” program relevant and successful in a changing world and an evolving FBI is a challenge, but it is a challenge well worth the effort.