One of America’s most exclusive clubs turns 60 this month. And none of its members even joined the club willingly.
They are the 523 fugitives who made it to the FBI’s Most Wanted list — criminals who fled from federal justice and are deemed particularly dangerous menaces to society.
Over 480 of the fugitives have been apprehended. A third were captured thanks to help from the public, which was alerted by the FBI’s Most Wanted posters. The rest — all but the current 10 — were dropped from the list because the FBI no longer considered them a threat to the public.
Prior to the Most Wanted list, the FBI applied the term “public enemy” to criminals like Al Capone, John Dillinger, and Baby Face Nelson. Then, in 1949, a reporter asked FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to list the nation’s most dangerous fugitives. The result became a program to ask the public’s help in apprehending some of the most desperate criminals of the last six decades.
“Most Wanted” bulletins were formerly a familiar sight to Americans when they visited post offices. Today, they appear less often; post offices reserve wall space to market their own products.
Incidentally, there has never been a ranking among the top ten. All are considered equally dangerous.
Looking back over its 60 years, these ten villains stand out.
1. Thomas James Holden was the first man to make the Most Wanted list. His long criminal career began in the 1920s with the robbery of a mail train. In 1930, he escaped from Leavenworth Penitentiary and was recaptured on a golf course in Kansas City. He was on parole in 1949 and drinking with his wife and her two brothers when an argument broke out. Holden shot and killed all three, then fled. The FBI caught him 13 months later, after receiving a tip from an Oregon man.
2. Ruth Eisemann-Schier was the list’s first woman, added in 1968. Eisemann-Schier and her boyfriend were charged with a particularly cruel kidnapping. They abducted a 20-year-old woman, buried her underground in a box, then demanded a $500,000 ransom. The young woman was dug up after 83 hours. The kidnappers were arrested when police found their abandoned car with a photograph in the glove box of the victim holding up a sign reading “Kidnapped.”
Ten women, in total, have joined the men of the Most Wanted.
3. Leslie Isben Rogge became a fugitive when he escaped Leavenworth Penitentiary by bribing a guard. At liberty again, he graduated from auto theft to bank robbery. But he turned himself in to the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala on May 19, 1996. Guatemalan authorities had been searching for him after he was identified by a person who recognized him on the FBI website. Rogge was the first Most Wanted fugitive captured with the help of the Internet.
4. James Earl Ray was the first man to join the Most Wanted list twice. He was first wanted for killing Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. He was captured two months later when a customs official at Heathrow Airport recognized his alias from a Canadian wanted list. In 1977, he escaped from a Tennessee penitentiary. Three days later, he was recaptured, and a year was added to his sentence, bringing it up to 100 years.
5. Victor Manuel Gerena has longest membership on the Most Wanted list. In 1984, he turned on two fellow workers
in their Wells Fargo armored car. After tying them up, he fled with seven million dollars and was never seen again. The FBI is still offering a million-dollar reward for information leading to his arrest.
6. Billie Austin Bryant spent the least time on the list. Convicted of bank robbery, he escaped custody
and killed two FBI agents who were questioning him. While the FBI was adding him to the Most Wanted list, he fled to a nearby house and hid in the attic. But the attic’s trap door had jammed when closing, trapping him inside. The owner of the house heard noises in his attic, called the police, and Bryant was arrested after being on the list for just two hours.
7. Eugene Palmer is the oldest man to make the list. Suspected of killing his daughter-in-law, he has been a fugitive for seven years. Eugene will turn 81 in April.
8. William Bradford Bishop brutally beat his wife, mother, and children to death and disappeared in 1976. In the next few years, witnesses claimed to have seen him in several locations overseas. Yet, for some reason, he wasn’t added to the list until 2014, when the Bureau had produced an age-advanced image of him to aid in his capture. It failed to turn up any leads, and two years later, he was dropped from the list. He would now be 84 years old.
9. Ted Bundy, serial murderer, is on our list just for sheer nastiness. This two-time member committed his first known assault and murder in 1974. Twelve more killings followed until one of his victims escaped. Before he could be arrested in 1975, he committed five more murders. During his 1977 trial, he escaped from the courthouse and was Most Wanted for six days before recapture. He was back on the list later that year when he escaped again. He committed three more assaults and two murders before being stopped for driving a stolen car.
10. Osama bin Laden was on the list well before masterminding the 9/11 tragedy. He became Most Wanted in 1993 for a bombing in Mogadishu that killed 18 Americans, and the first attack on the World Trade Center, which killed six people. He was also responsible for other attacks at U.S. military bases and embassies in the Middle East, resulting in the deaths of about 250 Americans. With his attacks of 2001, he is easily the most murderous fugitive to ever make the list.
While mentioning exceptional people, we should add the name of Scott Garriola. Now retired, Garriola was an FBI agent in Los Angeles who played a crucial role in capturing six Most Wanted fugitives.
In a 1953 article about the FBI’s Most Wanted List, the author observed that it was “hard to become a member of the ‘most wanted’ club. But even harder to remain one.”
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons / FBI)