Most of the 'toughest guys' on the run exposed via posters have been caught

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 March, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 March, 2000, 12:00am

James Bulger is described as a history buff who 'frequents libraries and museums'; James Kopp a 'devout Roman Catholic' and Donald Webb a 'dog lover, flashy dresser and a big tipper'.

Historian Bulger also just happens to be a leading organised crime figure in Boston, Kopp a killer of abortion surgeons and the sharp-suited Webb a crack jewel thief linked to the fatal beating and shooting of a Pennsylvania police chief.

All of them are considered armed and extremely dangerous and all are on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list - an American institution that has just celebrated its 50th birthday.

Unlike its featured guests, the list is heading into its next half century in pretty good shape.

Figures show that of the 458 men and women listed since its inception, 429 have been caught across virtually the entire US and overseas, some dying in a blaze of gunfire.

Its success is such that embattled FBI director Louis Freeh used the anniversary to hail the list as a 'demonstration of my agents' skill and dedication', as well as a rich and all-too-rare alliance between the public and law enforcement.

It also tickled the fancy of his legendary predecessor J. Edgar Hoover, who chanced upon a reporter's request for the agency's 'toughest guys' and insisted it should become a permanent feature in 1950.

The list, comprising detailed descriptions, mug-shots and attempts at 'age enhancement', now hangs in every post office, each fugitive carrying a US$50,000 (HK$390,000) reward.

'It's part of Americana,' chief of the FBI's fugitive-publicity unit Rex Tomb told the New York Times.

Traditionally, it featured bank robbers, escapees and even car thieves.

Now the list includes Osama bin Laden, the exiled Saudi Arabian multi-millionaire Muslim extremist who the CIA claims masterminded the fatal 1998 bombings of two United States' embassies in Africa.

Also included is domestic terrorist Eric Randolph, who the FBI links to the bombings at the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996. 'Now some of that [old] stuff looks almost quaint,' Mr Tomb said.

Modern technology is also playing a key role after decades in which the FBI relied on radio, newspapers and television.

The FBI's Web site is one of the most popular of all the US Government's online services, a reflection of the fact that the agency's headquarters in downtown Washington is one of the most frequently requested visits by schoolchildren arriving in the capital for the first time.

The fugitive pages include links to home movies of some of the wanted, providing crucial clues to gait, nervous tics and other mannerisms that cannot easily be hidden.

The Internet site has already proved its worth.

On May 19, 1996, a teenager was surfing the Internet in Guatemala.

Local handyman Bill Young bore a striking resemblance to the photo of Leslie Rogge, a convicted bank robber who had fled a prison several thousand kilometres away in Iowa.

The teenager's hunch proved correct and 'Mr Young' was quickly rounded up, hanging up his tools and saying goodbye to Guatemala forever.

But it has yet to sniff out Donald Webb, the jewel thief. Webb is described as a master of disguise and assumed identities whose ordinary-Joe looks have eluded capture since 1981 - longer than anyone else on the latest list.

But the 68-year-old doesn't just operate under at least 10 known aliases.

The Oklahoma City native is something of a jack-of-all trades, having turned his hands to butchery, car and real estate selling and restaurant management.

Not surprisingly, 'jewellery salesman' is also listed on his 'curriculum vitae'.

Investigators admit they are not even sure whether Webb is still alive, and note that he has been on the list far longer than most.

But his Web page suggests a possible Achilles' heel.

Webb is thought to be allergic to penicillin - which should put all doctors and pharmacists on the look-out.

Despite his ability to constantly change names, he also has 'DON' tattooed on his right hand and 'ANN' on his chest.