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December 2, 2012

Why handsome criminals seldom show up on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted

NEW YORK — Last week, the FBI announced the capture of Jose "Joe" Luis Saenz, an alleged gang member and murderer who, since 2009, had been on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. Saenz was captured in Guadalajara, Mexico, where he had been living above a beauty parlor. According to the Associated Press, Saenz had gone to great lengths to disguise his identity: losing weight, removing tattoos, disfiguring his fingerprints. But it's unclear whether he was able to alter his fat, distinctive baby face.

That baby face may have helped Saenz get on the list in the first place. Ever since the Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list was created in 1950, many have assumed that the list contains the worst of the worst — that it's something like a power ranking for crooks. And, indeed, the list has contained fugitives who've loomed large in the public imagination: Osama bin Laden, James Earl Ray, Whitey Bulger, Eric Rudolph, Ramzi Yousef.

But in a New York Times article this June, Michael S. Schmidt noted that "bureau officials have also tried to select other dangerous fugitives who may have been hiding in plain sight but could be recognized by the public because they have distinctive physical features." In other words, a weird-looking fugitive is more likely to make the list than a criminal without distinctive marks.

This makes sense. The whole point of the list is to motivate the public to help identify fugitives, and it's easier to identify someone whose face is hard to forget. Joe Saenz has the sort of broad cake-eater's face that would stick in your mind if you saw it, and might trigger recognition when you saw that face on a wanted poster.

The FBI issued its first "wanted poster" in 1919, in an effort to catch a runaway soldier named William N. Bishop. (Bishop had four vaccination scars and a "massive lower jaw.") The Most Wanted list was created after a wire service reporter in need of column copy asked the FBI for a list of its 10 worst fugitives. The subsequent story generated enormous positive publicity, and prompted J. Edgar Hoover to institutionalize the format; in 1950, the bureau issued an official list of 10 notorious murderers, kidnappers, escape artists and car thieves. An American legend was born.

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