History of the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List

About the history of the FBI's ten most wanted list of the worst criminals in the U.S and their crimes.

The FBI's All-Time Ten Most Wanted Fugitives List


TO BEGIN WITH: The dark side of America has long fascinated its citizens, and coupled with their penchant for rankings, what could be more natural than an all-star roster of the nation's most brutal, brilliant, and audacious criminals? Created in 1950 after discussions between the late J. Edgar Hoover and the International News Service, the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list aimed at capturing the nation's most menacing desperadoes through extensive publicity. To get on the list, a fugitive's past criminal record, the nature of his deeds, and his potential threat to the community were--and still are--reviewed. Occasionally, the list has been expanded to include a particularly pressing case, such as the 1961 manhunt for a West Coast butcher-murderer, and the 1968 dragnet for James Earl Ray after the Dr. Martin Luther King assassination. And while the list can claim some of America's top public enemies, there are some, such as John Dillinger, whose activities terrorized citizens before the list's inception.

Nevertheless, an overview of the roster in the 24 years of its existence provides a curious and revealing picture of lawlessness in America. What follows is a selection of the FBI's hit parade of crime.

As a side note: For all its interest in radical fugitives at the close of the stormy '60s, the FBI never added the names of those involved in the bizarre Patty Hearst kidnapping to the list. As one field agent put it, "They simply didn't qualify."

To END WITH: More than 320 fugitives have been on the list since 1950, their crimes ranging from the most brutal murders to sophisticated bank robberies. A composite of all the Top Tenners would be a 5' 9" male, weighing 167 lbs., who is 37 years old. An average fugitive would be on the list about 145 days, and his capture would take place some 960 mi. from the scene of his crime. Most have lengthy criminal records, have served prison terms, and have been the recipient of some type of judicial leniency. Until the 1970s, when the FBI ran into heavy criticism for the preponderance of extremists on its list, the bureau apprehended an average of 15 Top Tenners each year. Between 1970 and 1973, however, only 12 were caught. The radical fugitives, who dominated the list at its peak of 16 names in 1970, were able to disappear easily into a far-flung and well-knit underground. The traditional fugitive had no such option. Aside from generating accusations that the FBI was becoming an American Gestapo, some observers argued that the expanded lists did more harm to the program than good by diluting its impact. Still, with over 300 captures to its credit, the Most Wanted list and the FBI have proven to be valuable crime-fighting tools. As for the charges of suppression, former FBI director Hoover wrote:

We are forever in the unenviable position of the policeman being assaulted by the mob. The FBI agent neither enacts the law nor judges the legality of it, but it is usually he, and he alone, who must dodge the brickbats hurled by those protesting it.

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