For 70 years, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been alerting the public to some of the most dangerous criminals in their midst. The organization's 10 Most Wanted list has become an iconic portrait of federal pursuit—referenced, parodied, and posted all around the world. For more on this famous rundown of felonious fugitives, check out these facts about how the Bureau approaches the most dangerous list in circulation today.
1. The FBI's 10 Most Wanted list started over a card game.
The notion of “wanted” posters has been around since the 1700s, when slave owners circulated descriptions of runaway slaves in an effort to force their return. The idea of itemizing society’s most hardened criminals originated in 1949, when a newspaper wire story profiled several “tough guys” who were in the Bureau’s sights. The writer had quizzed FBI director J. Edgar Hoover during a game of cards. After seeing how popular the story became, Hoover approved the idea of circulating a top 10 list as a way of soliciting tips and other assistance from the general population. The first name on the list, released March 14, 1950, was Thomas Holden, who had murdered his wife and two of her relatives. Holden was arrested after a newspaper reader in Oregon recognized his photo and alerted authorities.
2. You need to be really bad to make the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list.
Not just any run-of-the-mill felon is suitable for this kind of scrutiny. Typically, criminals who appear on the list are fugitives who have a long history of disobeying the law, have current charges of a serious nature, are believed to pose a considerable threat to the public, and have potential to be captured based on knowledge submitted by citizens. To make the list, all 56 FBI field offices are tasked with submitting names for consideration. From there, the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division and the Office of Public and Congressional Affairs weed out candidates for final approval by the FBI’s deputy director.
3. Having distinctive features can help you make the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list.
In selecting fugitives they think the public could provide information on, the FBI looks at the ease with which someone could be recognized. A person with unremarkable features might blend in more easily, but a criminal with a peculiar facial quirk or who otherwise stands out in a crowd might be more likely to be featured.
4. Most of the fugitives featured on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list have been captured.
As of 2020, the FBI had featured a total of 523 criminals in the 10 Most Wanted rundown. The Bureau says that 488 of those individuals were eventually captured, with the publicity of the list being a key reason. Of those 486, 162 were apprehended based on information shared by a tip.
5. The FBI's Most Wanted list is not always a list of 10.
Nice round number that it is, the FBI can’t always restrict their criminal prey to a list of 10. If names on a list are part of a string of arrests, the sheet can drop to seven or eight names before being replenished. If criminals are co-conspirators, it might grow to 16. Anyone numbering 11 or beyond is labeled as a “Special Addition,” which is a polite way of saying a person is so dangerous that their capture is imperative. Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, who planned the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, is just one example.
6. One guy remained on the FBI's Most Wanted list for more than 32 years.
At one time, the FBI might have considered changing their list from the 10 Most Wanted to “Victor Manuel Gerena and Nine Other Fugitives.” In 1983, Gerena was working as an armored truck escort when he decided to swipe $7 million from a Wells Fargo truck. Gerena tied up his co-workers and injected them with a mixture of aspirin and water to make them sleepy, then took off and disappeared. It turned out Gerena was a pawn in a larger robbery scheme involving a Puerto Rican separatist group. In total, 19 men associated with the heist were either caught or killed. Gerena, however, remains at large—though he was finally removed from the list in 2016. Though the FBI didn’t specify why, removal is usually only on condition of the perpetrator’s death, dismissal of charges, or the belief they’re no longer a public menace.
7. The FBI's 10 Most Wanted list changes with the times.
Looking at the list from different decades reveals a lot about which types of crimes happened to be in fashion during a given era. According to the FBI, bank robbers and car thieves populated the sheet in the 1950s. In the 1970s, counterculture figures engaged in sabotage or kidnappings took over. Today, terrorists and white-collar criminals are most likely to be the most wanted.
8. California is a hotbed of most wanted activity.
The FBI maintains a breakdown of crimes perpetuated by offenders in various states, and California doesn’t come out looking too good. Of the 519 criminals to make an appearance since 1950, 58 committed a crime in the Golden State. Illinois (38) and New York (33) are also prone to harboring Most Wanted activity. Alaska, Hawaii, North Dakota, and Rhode Island have never had one.
9. There's no time limit on being added to the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list.
Not all subjects have committed contemporary crimes. In 2014, the FBI added William Bradford Bishop Jr. to the list even though his crime—murdering his wife, mother, and children with a hammer—took place 38 years earlier in 1976. Bishop had been at large the entire time before the FBI made a “surprise” entry to the list, hoping someone might recognize the then-79-year-old with the aid of age-advancing imagery. After two years on the list, he was removed due to a lack of viable leads and because Bishop was no longer believed to be a danger to the public at large.
10. Only 10 women have ever made the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list.
Of the 519 criminals who have been featured on the list, only 10 of them—or less than two percent—were women. Ruth Eisemann-Schier was the first woman to earn the notorious distinction; she was added to the list in 1968 and wanted for kidnapping, extortion, and other crimes. She was eventually apprehended on March 5, 1969 and ended up pleading guilty at her trial. She was sentenced to seven years in prison but paroled after four on the condition that she return to her native country of Honduras.
11. The FBI's Most Wanted list has an app.
If you feel like scoping out your neighborhood for fugitives, the FBI has an app available via iTunes that guides you through their list and also allows you to be alerted to missing children or other public assistance situations in your region. It’s free, and if you have a tip that leads to capture or resolution, you might even get a reward.