On Saturday, fugitive Eric Justin Toth, an accused child pornographer, was captured in Nicaragua after almost five years on the run and a little more than a year on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List. Toth was added to the list in 2012, taking the spot of Osama bin Laden, who, like Toth, was tall, thin, and someone you didn’t want around your children. Toth had been a third-grade teacher at an exclusive school in Washington, D.C., when officials there found explicit photographs of young students on his camera. Toth ditched town, faked his own death, and went underground. He popped up in Phoenix in 2009, working as a tutor at a homeless shelter under the name David Bussone, but hadn’t been seen since then.
Producing child pornography is a horrific crime, and if Toth is guilty, then he deserves all the punishment coming his way and more. But, as I wrote in November, it’s pretty clear that Toth wasn’t added to the Most Wanted List because he’s one of the world’s most heinous criminals. Rather, it’s because he’s goofy-looking.
The FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List is sort of like your high school’s homecoming court, in that the members of both are largely chosen based on looks. All other things being equal, an ugly or odd-looking fugitive has a better chance of making the list than a conventionally attractive fugitive. The point of the list, after all, is to raise public awareness of certain fugitives, and the public is more likely to remember the photograph of a weird-looking guy like Eric Toth than a blandly good-looking accused murderer like, say, Daniel Hiers.
Toth, who has an elongated head with a big nose and a very prominent mole under his eye, is certainly distinctive looking. In some pictures, he is gawking as if he just smelled something awful. In others, he sports a prodigious beard and looks like he knows where the bad smell is coming from. It’s the sort of face you’d remember, and perhaps notice if you saw it on some Nicaraguan street corner. (Also, weirdly, Toth seems to have briefly attended Cornell when I was there. I wish I could say I remembered him, or that his photograph looked familiar, but, really, there were a lot of odd-looking people at Cornell.)
Though it’s unclear at this stage whether the fact that he was on the Ten Most Wanted List had anything to do with his capture, it couldn’t have hurt. Weirdly enough, I was thinking about Eric Justin Toth the other day, trying to estimate the odds of his being captured. (Yes, this is the sort of thing I do in my spare time.) I pegged those odds as pretty high. Unlike some of his counterparts on the Most Wanted List, Toth wasn’t thought to be hiding in some country without an extradition treaty with the United States. And he wasn’t involved in some multinational criminal organization with the resources to hide him and protect him. He was running on his own, living by his wits, and the odds seemed decent that, one day, somebody would notice that the goofy-looking guy next door is also the goofy-looking guy whose photograph they saw at the post office. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what happened here.