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November 29, 2012

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

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NEW YORK —

The list soon became a valuable publicity tool, a way for the FBI to increase the heat on those criminals who had proven the most elusive, like folk-hero bank robber Willie Sutton and noted cattle rustler Chester Davenport, who was caught two days after being added to the list. (He was arrested while milking a cow; it is unclear whether the cow had tipped anyone off.) Fugitives generally stay on the list until they are caught or confirmed dead. When a spot opens, the FBI field offices nominate potential replacements.

"To get one of your fugitives on the Top Ten list, you were a salesperson," an ex-FBI agent was quoted as saying in The Encyclopedia of the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List. "You had to present this person in the most negative light." In order to make the list, they have to be considered dangerous, elusive, and vulnerable to nationwide publicity. It also helps if they're ugly.

Eric Toth, an alleged child pornographer who took Osama bin Laden's spot on the list earlier this year, is a tall, thin dude with a weirdly shaped head and a distinctive mole under his eye. Rape and murder suspect Fidel Urbina, added to the list on June 5, has acne scars on his right cheek. Alexis Flores, wanted for the abduction, rape, and murder of a five-year-old girl, has scars on his forehead and right cheek. Jason Derek Brown, on the list since 2007, is a suspected robber and murderer who sort of looks like Sean Penn.

These fugitives are dangerous, to be sure, but they're hardly the sort of supervillains a layman might expect to find on the Ten Most Wanted list. Then again, "A Few Notorious Louts and Several Other Dangerous Guys with Visible Scars" doesn't have the same ring to it. Eric Toth is a bad guy, undoubtedly, but it's hard to say that he's worse than Randy Yager, a motorcycle gang leader wanted on racketeering charges involving murder and arson, or Daniel Hiers, an ex-cop wanted for molesting a teenager and murdering his wife. Hiers and Yager are both on the U.S. Marshals' 15 Most Wanted List, a similar rundown containing totally different personnel. Both men are relatively normal looking.

Peters writes Slate's crime blog.

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