Worst of the Worst: FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives List Turns 60

From gangsters to terrorists, 494 fugitives have appeared on FBI top ten list.

February 24, 2010, 12:18 PM

March 8, 2010— -- For 15 months in the early 1950s, Thomas J. Holden was the most wanted man in America.

A prodigious stickup man who terrorized Midwestern banks and mail trains for decades, Holden murdered his wife and her two brothers following a drunken row one spring night in 1949. He even escaped from Leavenworth Prison.

Holden was just one more criminal who was quickly forgotten, but the way he was finally caught gave him the distinction of becoming more than just a footnote in American history.

On March 14, 1950, Holden became the first criminal to find his name on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list, a new bureau initiative to enlist the public's help in tracking down men like Holden, who one agent called a "menace to every man, woman and child in America."

Fifteen months later, a resident of Beaverton, Ore., spotted Holden some 1,700 miles from Chicago where the murders took place. Recognizing Holden's picture in a newspaper, the Beaverton man called the cops. Arrested by federal agents, Holden was tried in Chicago for murder, convicted and sent back to Leavenworth.

The "Top Ten" list that Holden inaugurated turns 60 this week, and in that time, some 493 other fugitives have found their names counted among the worst of the worst.

In those six decades the list has hosted some of the biggest, baddest names in crime, from serial killer Ted Bundy, to Martin Luther King's assassin James Earl Ray, to terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden.

An astonishing 463 fugitives, or nearly 94 percent of all criminals who have made the list, have been captured and brought to justice.

"For something to continue for that long, it has to show itself to be a successful program. We're proud that the program has been so successful, that we've continued to use it for the past 60 years," said Brad Bryant, chief of the FBI's violent crimes and major offenders unit.

The most significant change in the way the bureau alerts the public to fugitives it needs help finding since "Wanted" posters cluttered the walls of Wild West post offices, the "Top Ten" list has evolved since its inception both in the types of criminals listed and the types of media – from TV to Twitter -- used to catch them.

FBI's Ten Most Wanted, Different Criminals for Different Times

The prototype for the first list was published in 1949 when James F. Donovan, a reporter for the wire agency International News Service posed a question to the FBI:

"Who are the ten toughest guys you are looking for?"

The bureau came back with a list of ten names -- four escaped prisoners, three con men, two murder suspects and a bank robber. Splashed on the front page of papers across the country, the story caused a sensation with hundreds of tips called into the FBI. J. Edgar Hoover, the imperious director of the FBI, realized the bureau was on to something and the next year, the list became official.

The types of criminals who make up the list have changed over time, reflecting the evolving threats against the U.S.

In the 1950s, many of the fugitives were bank robbers and burglars, even car thieves. A decade later, radical activists wanted for destruction of government property, sabotage and kidnapping made up the list.

By the 1970s, the list was mainly comprised of members of organized crime syndicates. In the 1980s, the list was dominated by drug criminals and serial murderers. Since the 1990s, the list has included members of large drug trafficking cartels, pedophiles and money launderers.

Increasingly, the list has reflected U.S. concerns with international terrorism, featuring both Ramzi Yousef, charged with masterminding the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, and Osama bin Laden, head of al Qaeda.

Of the nearly 500 fugitives whose names have appeared on the list, just eight of what the FBI calls "Top Tenners" have been women.

The first woman added to the list was Ruth Eisemann-Schier, who, in December 1968, was wanted for the kidnapping of 20-year-old heiress Barbara Jane Mackle. Seventy-nine days after the kidnapping, Eisemann-Schier was arrested in Oklahoma. Tried and convicted, she spent four years in prison.

The most recent woman to appear on the list, Shauntay Henderson, wanted for murder, spent just 24 hours on the list on March 31, 2007.

Though the FBI has a nearly 94 percent rate for apprehending fugitives who make the Top Ten, the Feds don't always get their man.

In May 1981, Donald Eugene Webb's name was added to the list, accused of killing a small town police chief in Pennsylvania. Webb remained on the list for 25 years and 10 months, making him the person to remain on the list the longest. He was removed from the Top Ten in 2007, but has never been captured. Today he would be 78 years old. The FBI did not say why Webb was taken off the list other than to say he no longer fit the criteria for a most wanted felon.

FBI Hunts Terrorists

By contrast, Billy Austin Bryant spent the shortest amount of time on the list, just two hours from 5 to 7 p.m. on Jan. 8, 1969.

For many agents, capturing a top tenner is the highlight of a career spent in pursuit of America's most hardened criminals.

Brad Garrett, a former FBI agent who works as a consultant for ABC News, was the first agent to question Ramzi Yousef following his capture in 1995.

Garret remembered just how influential the Top Ten list was in that initial interrogation.

Yousef refused to acknowledge who he was, so Garrett showed him a copy of the list, with his picture on it.

"I just happened to get my hands on a 'Top Ten' wanted poster and I held it up," Garrett said. "I said, 'Is Ramzi Yousef one of [the names you go by]?'" To which Youself said, "Oh, yeah. That's me in the picture.'"

Yousef is one example of when U.S. political and criminal history collide, but for Brad Bryant, head of the FBI's major offenders unit, no capture has been more significant than that of James Earl Ray, one of America's most infamous assassins.

On April 20, 1968, 16 days after shooting Martin Luther King Jr. at the Loraine Hotel in Memphis, Ray was added to the Most Wanted list. A little more than two months after the assassination, Ray was arrested at London's Heathrow Airport.

Nine years later, in 1977, Ray once again made the Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list when, on June 11, he escaped from a state prison in Tennessee. He was caught and removed from the list two days later.

Just five other fugitives have been on the list twice.

Bryant said he believed Ray was the most significant capture on the list to date.

"Because of the terrible crime he did, he is a very recognizable criminal in American history," said Bryant.

Ever since a private citizen reported Holden to the authorities in 1951, 152 fugitives have been captured as a result of citizen cooperation. Two of those citizens realized they knew the whereabouts of fugitives after learning they were at large during a tour of FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C.

"We follow up on every possible investigative lead in our pursuit of these fugitives, but we only have 13,000 special agents. That may sound like a lot, but when someone's trying to hide, it doesn't compare to millions of eyes out there looking for them," said Ken Hoffman, head of the FBI's Investigative Publicity and Public Affairs department.

America's Most Wanted

"We just publicize these fugitives and it's the public that makes the 'Ten Most Wanted' list so successful," he said.

Today, Hoffman said, the bureau uses "technology, the Internet and social networking sites, like Facebook and Twitter, to instantly communicate these faces to millions of people, not just within in the U.S., but around the world as well."

Perhaps the most dramatic use of new technology to disseminate the list came in 1988 with the airing of the first episode of "America's Most Wanted."

The program, which launched in 1988 on FOX has helped capture 17 Top Ten fugitives from the list.

"Calling someone a most wanted fugitive puts them in a different category, a category of urgency and danger," said the show's host John Walsh.

"These guys are the worst of the worst and need to be caught. The public is a huge part of this equation. "America's Most Wanted" is the electronic version of the wanted poster," he said.

Walsh said the FBI was initially reluctant to cooperate with the fledgling program, but after the first top tenner was caught within weeks of his story being broadcast on the program's first show, the bureau realized the impact the TV show could have.

David James Roberts was an accused rapist and murderer who left an infant on a roadside to die and killed another child when he set a family's house on fire. He spent a year on the list from April 1987 to February 1988.

He was caught weeks after the first "America's Most Wanted" episode aired when a number of tipsters called in to report that he was hiding in plain sight, running a homeless shelter in Staten Island, N.Y.

"That's what made the show a hit. That's when we all realized we could use technology to get these scumbags," said Walsh.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events