The idea came out of a card game. A reporter playing Hearts with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover asked him to name the meanest, wiliest fugitives the bureau could not track down. He thought putting their pictures in the newspaper might help.
It was 1949 and Hoover long had insisted no one could outsmart his FBI, not for long anyway. But a few weeks later, 10 names and pictures appeared at the reporter’s door, and he got them plastered on the front of the Washington Daily News.
They were a sorry lot. Four escapees, three con men, two accused murderers and a bank robber. They were plucked from 5,700 fugitives hiding in the U.S. or abroad. To Hoover’s surprise, nine of the 10 were soon captured. A year later, the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list was officially born.
Since then, 497 fugitives have made the roster. Their photos and IDs have gone from newspaper pages to TV screens, from post office posters to iPhone apps. Some names remain etched in the nation’s psyche, including Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassin, James Earl Ray; serial killer Ted Bundy; and Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.
In recent months, new details about some of the cases have come to light as about 250 former FBI agents have told their stories in oral histories that will be housed at the National Law Enforcement Museum when it opens next year in Washington.
“There are some big names, and some unsung heroes in here,” said Susan Walton Wynkoop, a former agent helping spearhead the project.
John Fox, the FBI’s in-house historian, said the list reflects the changing phenomenon of crime in America. The 1950s: bank robbers, prison escapees and car thieves. The ‘60s and ‘70s: anti-war radicals and organized crime figures. The ‘80s and ‘90s: drug traffickers and sexual predators. The current era: international terrorism.
“You have to be someone ... who is missing, escaped from prison, disappeared after you were indicted,” Fox said. “You have to vanish.”
Candidates for the list are nominated by the 56 FBI field offices. Who is most dangerous? Who is likely to be found? Will national exposure help find them? At headquarters in Washington, the Criminal Investigative Division reviews the candidates and senior managers make the final call.
Slots open up when a suspect is captured or dies, or when charges are dropped. Some are caught within hours; some take decades.
About 94% of those on the list have been arrested, a third of them after tips from the public. “We certainly think it’s been effective,” Fox said.
First on the official FBI list was Thomas James Holden. On June 5, 1949, he killed his wife and her two brothers in their fourth-floor apartment in Chicago. He left the .38 revolver, four spent cartridges and two loaded shells on the dresser.
Agents tracked him to Cedar Lake, Ind., but the trail went cold. Yet as the list circulated, a reader of the Oregonian newspaper in Portland spotted a black-and-white photo on Page 7.
The paper said the fugitive was “a menace to every man, woman and child in America.” But the reader recognized the man in the photo as John McCullough, with whom he worked as a plasterer. The next day agents appeared at the job site and arrested Holden.
Glen Roy Wright, No. 8 on the original list, was a prison escapee out of Oklahoma; he had persuaded the guards to let him visit his supposedly ailing mother. After a string of robberies, he relocated to Salina, Kan., and patrons at a local drug store wondered about the stranger in town. The next time Wright stopped in, the FBI was waiting.
Those early captures thrilled the country and enthused the FBI. They kept the list rolling.
James “Whitey” Bulger Jr., wanted for mob killings in Boston, was the oldest fugitive -- 69 when he was added in 1999. He was 81 when the FBI caught him last year near his Santa Monica apartment.
Victor Manuel Gerena, who allegedly handcuffed two of his colleagues and made off with $7 million in their Wells Fargo armored car, has been missing the longest -- 28 years. Best guess? Hiding in Cuba.
“He still is a Top Ten fugitive,” lamented retired Agent William E. Dyson. All they know for sure, Dyson said, is the $7 million showed up in Puerto Rico.
After the 1996 Olympic bombing in Atlanta, Eric Rudolph took to the hills of North Carolina. Five years later, a sheriff’s deputy spotted No. 454 searching a garbage bin.
Bin Laden, No. 456, made the list for his role in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa, well before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He was killed last year in a Navy SEALs raid in Pakistan.
But what has made the roster so infamous is not the celebrity of those on it. Rather, it became a rogues gallery of sometimes colorful crooks who often got caught in unlikely ways.
Take Isaie Aldy Beausoleil, who made the list in 1952 for killing his female companion in Michigan. A year later, he was arrested in a women’s public restroom in Chicago, dressed in a blue blouse, green skirt and heels.
The first real woman on the roster was Ruth Eisemann-Schier, No. 293. In December 1968, she and Gary Steven Krist made the list after they kidnapped 20-year-old Barbara Mackle in Decatur, Ga.
Eisemann-Schier, 26, and Krist, 23, took Mackle from her motel room, buried her in a coffin with tubes for air, and demanded $500,000 from her father, a real estate developer. He paid.
A man believed to be Krist called the FBI and directed them to their victim. Krist was found soon after in Florida, and the loot was recovered. Eisemann-Schier reinvented herself as a 19-year-old in Norman, Okla., working as a carhop at the Boomerang Restaurant.
But when she applied for a job at a hospital, a state clerk ran her fingerprints and saw a match. So 79 days after the kidnapping, FBI agents pulled up to the Boomerang and she immediately confessed.
Now maybe someone will spot the newest entry on the list: Fidel Urbina, wanted in a 1998 slaying and two sexual assaults in Chicago. Urbina is 37, a Mexican national with a pock-marked right cheek who answers to three or more aliases. He was added to the list June 5.
A $100,000 reward is riding on his capture, which might begin no farther than your iPhone.