Rupert Cornwell: FBI 'Most Wanted' list celebrates 60 years of notoriety

Out of America: It began as a publicity stunt by J Edgar Hoover, but it has helped the US track down everyone from the bank robbers of the 1950s to the international terrorists of the 21st century

Sunday 14 March 2010 01:00

From the outset, there was no way the venture could fail. After all, it combined America's eternal love of lists with the country's most celebrated criminals and the organisation that likes to think of itself as the world's most powerful law enforcement agency. And so it has proved. Today marks the 60th anniversary of a minor national institution here: the FBI's Most Wanted list.

In truth, the idea had originated a few months earlier, in late 1949, when a reporter for the now long defunct International News Service approached the bureau's director, J Edgar Hoover, about doing a feature on the "toughest guys" the FBI was seeking at the time. Hoover – who had made the FBI famous in the 1930s with its pursuit of the gangsters he dubbed "public enemies" – knew a good PR stunt when he saw one. He provided the names of 10 top fugitives from justice, the reporter wrote his story, and the public loved it. And so, on 14 March 1950, he made the stunt official. Not only has the list survived; it has become a mirror of the changing face of American crime.

Back in the 1950s, the bureau's top targets were robbers, murderers and mobsters who criss-crossed state lines. By the early Seventies, militant political radicals such as the Black Panthers Angela Davis and H Rap Brown were the biggest celebrities on the list. In 1978 it was featuring the suave and deadly Ted Bundy, one of the most prolific serial killers in US history.

These days, the Most Wanted still boasts its share of kidnappers, killers and hoodlums. Currently, the fugitive of longest standing is the Boston crime boss and racketeer James J Bulger whom the FBI has been chasing in vain for 15 years, despite reputed sightings everywhere from Illinois to Italy. But now you find drug smugglers and white-collar criminals on it as well.

The ninth face on the current list (though the FBI says the 10 are ranked in no particular order) belongs to Semion Mogilevich, a Ukrainian-born fraudster and mastermind of an alleged $150m US/Canadian stock scam. In 2009, even an animal rights activist made the Top 10: Daniel Andreas San Diego, a leading light of the "Animal Liberation Brigade" that bombed two office buildings in California.

And inevitably, since the 1990s, Islamist terrorists have featured as well, among them Mir Aimal Kansi, caught in 1997 and subsequently executed for the 1993 murder of two CIA employees outside the intelligence agency's headquarters here, as well as Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, a mastermind of the first World Trade Centre bombing of 1993, and captured in Pakistan two years later.

Thus far, of course, the FBI hasn't netted the biggest fish of all, Osama bin Laden, who has been among the Most Wanted since 1999. Oddly, his description on the FBI's rapsheet makes no mention of 9/11 – for the simple reason, according to the bureau, that there's no "hard evidence" connecting Bin Laden to that plot.

Naturally, you are not likely to spot the leader of al-Qa'ida sunning himself on a Florida beach – but just in case, the FBI describes him as of thin build, "between 6ft 4 inches and 6ft 6, weighing 160lbs, to be considered armed and extremely dangerous". In fact, the price on Bin Laden's head speaks louder than any words: $25m (£16.5m) from the federal government as well as $2m from the US airline industry. This compares with the $2m reward for a tip-off that brings Bulger to justice and the $100,000 rewards for lesser lights on the current list.

And just as the types of criminal have moved with the times, so has the technology behind the list. Mention it, and you think of a vanished age – of shows on black-and-white TV about straight-arrow G-Men in suits and pulled-down fedoras, who always got their man.

Back then, you'd see those "Wanted by the FBI" posters in a post office, at railway stations, even in the restrooms of family restaurants. These days the Most Wanted has gone electronic. If you do come across someone behaving suspiciously on that Florida beach and his face vaguely rings a bell, you can call up the current Top 10 mugshots on your BlackBerry or mobile, or check out the list on Facebook.

Most valuable of all, however, are probably the links with America's Most Wanted, the longest-running programme on Fox TV, on the air for 22 years and which last week celebrated its 1,000th edition with an interview with none other than President Barack Obama. Its host, John Walsh – who became an anti-crime crusader after his six-year-old son was kidnapped and murdered in 1981 – features his own gallery of fugitives on the show, many of whom are among the FBI's Most Wanted as well. Behind the scenes, the programme and the bureau work in tandem.

And the formula works. Walsh's show claimed to have clocked up more than 1,100 captures, while of the 494 fugitives who have appeared on the FBI list since its inception, 463 have been discovered and captured – 152 of them with the direct assistance of ordinary citizens, including four of the 10 on the very first list of all, back in 1950. After escaping police clutches twice, Bundy was caught for the last time in February 1978, just four days after being named among the Most Wanted.

Today, even in an internet age where everything is instantly available, the mystique of the list lives on. The FBI hasn't caught James Bulger; at 80 he might even be dead. But he too has played to the celebrity that a spot on the list confers. "Every day out there is another day I beat them," Bulger is said to have told an associate while he was on the run in the late 1990s. "Every good meal is a meal they can't take away from me." The legendary J Edgar Hoover may be cursing in his grave at this one who got away. But he'd be loving the publicity.

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