How do you get on the FBI's Most Wanted list?

Answers to your questions about the news.
April 3 2007 6:50 PM

I Want To Be Wanted

How to get on the FBI's list of top fugitives.

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Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

Kansas City police arrested a woman from the FBI's Most Wanted Fugitives list on Saturday, minutes before a segment about her aired on national television. She was 24 years old and had committed just one murder, yet Shauntay Henderson stood in the company of infamous figures like Osama Bin Laden and Whitey Bulger. How do criminals get their names on the list?

They wait for a spot to open. Whenever a top-ranked fugitive dies or gets caught, the central FBI office surveys its 56 field offices for possible replacements. (A few of the Most Wanted have also been declared "inactive" and removed from the list.) A committee decides which of the field offices' nominees are most dangerous to society, and whose cases would benefit the most from added publicity. The list isn't always limited to the top 10 fugitives, though. At various times, it's been as short as seven or eight names after a string of arrests, and as long as 16 when a group of affiliated criminals all made the list together. (Fugitives beyond the traditional 10 are called "Special Additions"; Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, who planned the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, warranted such an addition.) Still, most fugitives have to wait their turn. Even Osama Bin Laden had to queue up—he joined the list in June 1999, almost a year after the embassy bombing in Kenya.

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The FBI says it doesn't apportion slots for particular crimes, but observers point out that the list regularly includes those accused of certain types of unlawful activities. In recent years, for example, the Most Wanted comprised the usual mix of a cop killer, a drug dealer, a sex offender, a serial killer, an escaped convict, someone who murdered his family, and an old-school mafia boss. In the 1960s and 1970s, political agitators like Angela Davis were sometimes listed. Robbers, who showed up often in the early years of the list, continue to make the list.

Dutiful citizens sometimes need a little monetary incentive, of course. The FBI started offering rewards of up to $50,000 in 1997, then bumped up the figure to $100,000 in 2004. (A few fugitives warrant higher price tags. Bin Laden is worth $27 million, while Victor Manuel Gerena, who stole $7 million from a security company, has a $1 million bounty.) But it's not clear whether the rewards have made a big difference. The FBI hasn't captured more fugitives since they start using bounties. In fact, the Bureau's most successful years were during the 1950s and 1960s.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.  

Explainer thanks Dary Matera, author of FBI's Ten Most Wanted, and Ernie Porter of the FBI.

Michelle Tsai is a Beijing-based writer working on a book about Chinatowns on six continents. She blogs at ChinatownStories.com.

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