A reporter asked J. Edgar Hoover who he wanted to capture most and Hoover came up with ten names. It was an instant hit with the public, which already had been keeping close tabs on the FBI and their gangster targets through newsreels.
These days the latest list appears not only on America's Most Wanted, but the Internet as well. And as soon as one name is taken off, there are hundreds of candidates for its place.
To select new criminals for the list, "We ask 56 field offices to nominate individuals who they feel are very dangerous," explained Tom Pickard, the FBI's deputy director.
There are three criteria for deciding who should be on the list:
- First, that there is an outstanding warrant for the individual
- that they be considered particularly dangerous
- and that publicity might help aid in their capture.
It seems to work. So far, 134 top ten fugitives have been turned in by the public.
Hugh Morse was recognized by his neighbors in 1961 when they toured the FBI building on their honeymoon and saw the most wanted list.
We didn't pay too much attention, at least I didn't, to what our tour guide was saying," recalls Jeanette Carlson. "But as we went up closer, I said to Harry, 'It's got to be Jim. It looks like him. The tattoos are him.'"
FBI agents arrested Morse, known to the Carlsons as Jim Corwin, later that afternoon at his house in St. Paul. He was still carrying his murder victim's wristwatch.
In fact, the bureau nearly always gets its man or woman. Out of the 458 fugitives placed on the list, 429 have been apprehended. That's a 93% success rate.
There have only been seven women on the list out of the 458 total.
The makeup of the list has changed over the years. Once bank robbers dominated. Now, it's terrorists. Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the East African embassy bombings, is there. So is Eric Rudolph, the accused Olympic park bomber, along with James Kopp, the man accused of shooting abortion doctors. Putting the list on the Internet, the bureau has found, gives it worldwide reach.
"We get a tremendous number of hits on the FBI web page every day and a lot of people are interested in that," said Pickard. "We get e-mail and letters based upon it and telephone calls that aid us greatly with our apprehensions."
But they haven't got much help with Donald Webb. If you haven't heard of him, you're not paying attention in the post office. Donald Webb has been on the FBI's ten most wanted list longer than anyone else - 19 years now - nearly half the life of the list itself. Webb, who's 68 years old now, is wanted for murdering a police chief in Pennsylvania.
Given its popularity, the bureau will probaby always have a top ten list, even though some experts don't think it will be as necessary in a few years. In the future, cameras hooked to a data bank of human images will be able to pull a face out of a crowd far quicker than any human ever could.