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.

Download the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up for The Explainer's free daily podcast on iTunes.

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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

War Stories

The Right Target

Why Obama’s airstrikes against ISIS may be more effective than people expect.

The NFL Has No Business Punishing Players for Off-Field Conduct. Leave That to the Teams.

Meet the Allies the U.S. Won’t Admit It Needs in Its Fight Against ISIS

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

Should You Recline Your Seat? Two Economists Weigh In.

Medical Examiner

How to Stop Ebola

Survivors might be immune. Let’s recruit them to care for the infected.

History

America in Africa

The tragic, misunderstood history of Liberia—and why the United States has a special obligation to help it fight the Ebola epidemic.

New GOP Claim: Hillary Clinton’s Wealth and Celebrity Are Tricks to Disguise Her Socialism

Why the Byzantine Hiring Process at Universities Drives Academics Batty

Moneybox
Sept. 23 2014 3:29 PM The Fascinating Origins of Savannah, Georgia’s Distinctive Typeface
  News & Politics
History
Sept. 23 2014 11:45 PM America in Africa The tragic, misunderstood history of Liberia—and why the United States has a special obligation to help it fight the Ebola epidemic.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 23 2014 2:08 PM Home Depot’s Former Lead Security Engineer Had a Legacy of Sabotage
  Life
Education
Sept. 23 2014 11:45 PM Why Your Cousin With a Ph.D. Is a Basket Case  Understanding the Byzantine hiring process that drives academics up the wall.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 2:32 PM Politico Asks: Why Is Gabby Giffords So “Ruthless” on Gun Control?
  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Sept. 23 2014 3:04 PM Chicago Gabfest How to get your tickets before anyone else.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 8:38 PM “No One in This World” Is One of Kutiman’s Best, Most Impressive Songs
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 5:36 PM This Climate Change Poem Moved World Leaders to Tears Today
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 23 2014 11:37 PM How to Stop Ebola Could survivors safely care for the infected?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 23 2014 7:27 PM You’re Fired, Roger Goodell If the commissioner gets the ax, the NFL would still need a better justice system. What would that look like?