The FBI’s Top 10 List

When suspected serial killer Rafael Resendez-Ramirez turned himself in on July 12, he had been on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List for four weeks. What is the Most Wanted list?

The list is designed to focus the public’s attention and the bureau’s resources on accused criminals who have proved particularly elusive. A wire service reporter sparked the idea for the program in late 1949, when he asked the FBI for names and descriptions of the 10 men it most wanted to arrest. The resulting story generated so much interest that in 1950 Director J. Edgar Hoover implemented an ongoing list.

FBI headquarters takes nominations for the list from its 56 field offices, and the deputy director approves the final version. Ideal candidates have a long record of serious crimes–such as murder, kidnapping, or assault–or pose an extraordinary menace to society. While the list is supposedly limited to suspects who aren’t already well known, in fact it often includes notorious fugitives. James Earl Ray, who was convicted of killing Martin Luther King, is one of six men who have appeared on the list twice: after King’s murder and again after he escaped from prison in the mid-’70s. Only seven women have been listed, the first in 1968.

Notices describing the fugitives are posted in police stations and post offices around the country, as well as on the FBI’s Web site (click here to see the current list). The average suspect is 37-years-old and spends 316 days on the list. They’ve been caught as far away as Vietnam and Pakistan. Fugitives are removed if the charges against them are dismissed or if the bureau decides that they are no longer a threat (or, naturally, if they’re captured). There’s no regular schedule of updates; the bureau simply adds suspects as others are removed.

Although cop killers are perennials, the Top 10 list has changed with the times. In the ‘50s,  it was filled with bank robbers. Political radicals took over in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and drug lords dominated in the ‘80s. Today’s list includes terrorist Usama Bin Laden and abortion foes Eric Robert Rudolph and James Charles Kopp.

The Top Ten list has a 94 percent success rate–of its 457 suspects, 134 have been captured as a result of tips from the public, and 295 have been found through other means. Most die in prison or land on death row. Nine have been killed during capture, and the charges against 15 were dropped.

Explainer thanks Rex Skelton Tomb, acting chief of the FBI’s Fugitive Publicity Unit.

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