Most Wanted

updated 08/04/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/04/1997 01:00AM

ONE MONTH BEFORE HE ALLEGEDLY gunned down fashion czar Gianni Versace on July 15 in Miami Beach, Andrew Cunanan, 27, who police believe killed four men before he shot the designer, joined an elite fraternity: the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. Making the roster wasn't easy. "It's hard to get on the most-wanted list because it is reserved for major offenders who pose a threat to the public," says Robert Bryant, the FBI's assistant director of the Criminal Investigative Division. "Not just any criminal can make it."

Indeed the criteria are almost as complex as a Brinks job. All Top Tenners, as agents refer to them, must have an extensive record for serious crimes. In addition the FBI must believe that the nationwide publicity it gives an outlaw might result in his capture. Having a name is essential. The Unabomber, for example, whose identity was unknown, never made the list.

Still, qualified candidates currently number between 4,000 to 6,000. It falls to Bryant to whittle those names down to a tidy 10. "I make the final decision about who goes on the list," he says. "Cunanan was put on because he is a suspect in several violent crimes and warrants were issued."

If history is a guide, Cunanan's days are numbered: Since 1950, when former FBI pooh-bah J. Edgar Hoover first constituted the list, 421 of 449 most-wanted fugitives have been caught. (The rest either have died on the lam or have been cut from the list after the bureau no longer deemed them dangerous.) Of those apprehended, 131 have been nabbed thanks to old-fashioned snitching and the financial incentives that encourage it. After two CIA employees were fatally shot in Virginia in 1993, the FBI distributed thousands of flyers, posters and matchbooks throughout the Middle East, stamped with the face of Mir Aimal Kansi, 33, a Pakistani believed to have committed the crime. But it was the $2 million reward offered by the State Department, bureau agents say, that led to his arrest in Pakistan in June.

How rewards are established—and who pays for them—varies. "All I can say," says one agent who asked to remain anonymous, "is that if a police officer or agent is murdered, the stakes always go up. And that fugitive is almost automatically put on the most-wanted list. Nobody messes with agents of the government and walks away." (In Florida, $45,000 is being offered by a group of agencies for information leading to Cunanan; among current rewards for a Top Tenner, that amount is comparatively low.)

Despite Kansi's arrest, though, he remains on the list, albeit with a captured tag slashed across his face. "It's like a 'Sold' sign on a house. It's good advertising," says one D.C. agent. "Kansi was a good grab," adds Bryant. "Now we're looking for a replacement to fill his spot in the next few weeks." Not that there's a waiting list. When a slot opens up, field agents go through their files and send their nominees to Bryant.

The new listee will most likely be a man (there have been seven women on the list since 1950)—a terrorist, murderer or drug lord, the prevalent characteristics of today's Top Tenner. That's a change from the 1950s, when bank robbers and car thieves monopolized the list, or the '60s and '70s, when saboteurs and ideological radicals were in vogue. Another difference is the exposure that today's fugitives receive. In the last month alone, the FBI's Internet page (www.fbi.gov), which features the most-wanted list, got 12 million hits. In the end, catching bad guys comes down to one virtue: tenacity. "It's just a matter of time before all these guys are captured," says Phoenix Drug Enforcement Agency agent Gus Fassler. "That's the nature of criminal activity. Eventually we get them all."

PETER CASTRO
JANE SIMS PODESTA in Washington

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