Secrets of the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list
Updated 10:11 AM ET, Fri March 15, 2019
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(CNN)It's our modern-day version of the "Wanted" posters that used to populate old Western movies.
Sixty-nine years ago this week, the FBI created its Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. Since then it's become part of American pop culture and featured some of the country's most notorious and dangerous criminals: Ted Bundy. John "Whitey" Bulger. Osama bin Laden.
The FBI launched its Ten Most Wanted program on March 14, 1950. Almost seven decades later, it's still making news. In the past month, authorities captured or killed two of its members.
Its history is the story of our own collective effort to grapple with evil.
It began with a conversation between Hoover and a journalist
It has its roots in a list of 28 "public enemies" the Chicago Crime Commission published during the Prohibition era.
Throughout the 1930s, then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and his bureau used the term "public enemy" to describe criminals like Al Capone, John Dillinger, and "Baby Face" Nelson. But the FBI never formally named a Public Enemy No.1.
The Ten Most Wanted list began with a conversation in 1949 between Hoover and William Kinsey Hutchinson, the editor-in-chief of the International News Service (which later became part of the United Press International). The reporter wanted to know who the "worst of the worst" were.
Hoover furnished a list. On February 8, 1949, newspapers across the country ran Hoover's list of the FBI's top 10 fugitives. It drew enormous interest, and leads from the general public poured in.
Only fugitives whose IDs are known make it into the list
The process begins when the FBI's Criminal Investigative Division asks the bureau's 56 field offices to submit names of the highest-profile fugitives they're searching for. Special Agents at the CID and in the FBI's Office of Public Affairs review the nominees and then submit proposed additions to the list to FBI upper management.
Those on the list must be named criminals with photos and warrants for their arrest. Notorious killers like the Unabomber and the Beltway Sniper never made the Ten Most Wanted list because their identities weren't public until their capture. And the identity of the Zodiac Killer, who terrorized Northern California in the late '60s and early '70s, remains unknown.
Officially the FBI says the list is "designed to publicize particularly dangerous fugitives who might not otherwise merit nationwide attention."
There's a reason you don't see it much in post offices anymore
Christopher Allen, who heads up the Ten Most Wanted program at the FBI, told CNN his unit "creates the iconic wanted poster," writes foreign language translations of the "wanted" notice and often enlists outdoor advertising agencies in getting criminals' faces plastered on billboards.
For decades, Ten Most Wanted fliers were displayed at post offices, but that's less common now as the cash-strapped US Postal Service devotes more display space to marketing its own products.
Today's public square is on social media, and Allen's team writes Facebook and Twitter posts highlighting the 10 criminals.
It has helped catch some high-profile fugitives
- Serial killer Ted Bundy spent four days on the Ten Most Wanted list in 1978, after his second escape from jail.
- In 1993 Mir Aimal Qazi opened fire outside the CIA's headquarters in Langley, Virginia, killing two CIA employees and wounding three others. The FBI placed him on its Most Wanted list and apprehended him after a four-and-a-half-year international manhunt.
- Ramzi Yousef, who was wanted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, was on the list for two years before being apprehended in Pakistan. Yousef shares a cell block in a Colorado prison with another Ten Most Wanted alum, Eric Rudolph, the man behind the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta.
- The FBI listed Andrew Cunanan in 1997 on charges of killing five people, including Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace. Authorities never caught him.