The Next Page: High crimes, no misdemeanors -- the FBI's Top 10 List
The FBI's Most Wanted List turns 60 this month. Pittsburgh-area perps have had some special places on it, as Torsten Ove reports
March 14, 2010 9:00 AM
Leonard Zalutsky in the custody of Theodore Smith.
By Torsten Ove Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It's probably the most famous list in the world.
The FBI's Top Ten Most Wanted list -- a rogues' gallery of killers, gangsters, drug runners and terrorists -- turns 60 this month.
The bureau makes a big deal out of this roster, but that's less a function of hubris than of practicality: The publicity it generates can lead directly to capturing the world's worst criminals.
The U.S. Marshals Service has its own lists and the FBI now has a separate Top Ten for terrorists. But the original is still the one every one knows about.
It had its genesis in 1949 when a reporter asked the FBI to name the "toughest guys" it was hunting. An article featuring them helped nab several. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover took notice and started the Top Ten program in 1950. Mr. Hoover was a master of self-promotion, but he also had some good ideas and there's no doubt that the list has been a success.
Of the nearly 500 fugitives who have appeared on it, 94 percent have been caught, about 30 percent because of tips from the public.
Some infamous names are among the 6 percent who haven't been captured, among them Osama bin Laden and Boston mobster James "Whitey" Bulger.
The feds never captured DONALD EUGENE WEBB, either. He's the most recognized Top Tenner of local interest, wanted in the 1980 killing of Gregory Adams, the police chief of Saxonburg, Butler County. Mr. Webb spent the most time of any fugitive on the list. But the FBI finally removed him in 2007, presuming him dead.
Ever the hidebound bureaucracy, the FBI has protocols for who qualifies for the Top Ten. Fugitives must be a "menace to society" and should not already be notorious, although bin Laden violates that condition.
Fugitives are removed if they die, if charges are dismissed or if the FBI decides they aren't particularly dangerous anymore.
The list has changed over time, reflecting the bureau's shifting priorities. In the 1950s, most fugitives were bank robbers and thieves. In the 1960s they were kidnappers and anti-government types. The 1970s lists focused on Mafia figures, terrorists and serial killers.
Technology has changed, too. Once limited to Post Office bulletin boards, magazines and newspapers, the list is now online at fbi.gov.
Today's roster includes several fugitives with Pennsylvania ties. SEMION MOGILEVICH, a 300-pound Russian, is wanted in an alleged $150 million fraud scheme involving a Bucks County company. ALEXIS FLORES, a Honduran handyman, is wanted in the 2000 kidnapping and murder of a little girl in Philadelphia.
Over the years, there have been quite a few Pittsburgh-area connections. The most recent was GERALD WATKINS, who in 1994 shot his girlfriend and two children in Homewood. The FBI caught him 10 months later in Harlem. [See sidebar below.]
These are some other fugitives from the FBI's Pittsburgh region:
• CLAUDE MARKS and DONNA WILLMOTT. The pair had been on the list since May 1987 for their roles in a failed 1985 plot to free the leader of a Puerto Rican independence movement from a Kansas federal prison.
They lived under assumed names for seven years in Squirrel Hill until giving themselves up in 1994. They chose to settle here because no one knew them and Pittsburgh had been rated "America's Most Livable City."
But they gave up, they said, because they were frustrated at not being able to participate openly in political causes and because they missed their families. Mr. Marks, 60, was released from prison in 1998 and Ms. Willmott, 59, got out in 1997.
• RONALD TURNEY WILLIAMS. Mr. Williams, a coal-miner's son with an IQ of 145, was serving time for the murder of a police sergeant when he and 14 other inmates escaped from prison in Moundsville, W.Va., in 1979.
During the escape, he stole a prison guard's gun and used it to kill an off-duty West Virginia state trooper who tried to stop the fleeing inmates.
Skilled at disguise, he disappeared for 18 months and was placed on the most wanted list in April 1980. He taunted authorities, sent letters to his inmate friends, saying, "Wish you were here," and committed a series of crimes, including the murder of John Bunchek in Scottsdale, Ariz.
The FBI tracked him to Manhattan in 1981 and set a trap at a hotel. When an agent posing as a desk clerk confronted him, Mr. Williams drew a gun. The FBI man drew his and ordered Mr. Williams to drop the weapon.
"Drop dead! Drop yours!" Mr. Williams yelled and pulled the trigger. But his gun misfired. Another agent shot him four times. He survived and is serving several life sentences in West Virginia.
• CHARLES FALZONE. Known as "Little Mosco" while growing up in Buffalo, Mr. Falzone was indicted in 1947 in a payroll robbery at the boat company where he worked in Tonawonda, N.Y.
The FBI placed him on the most wanted list on Feb. 2, 1954. Long before then, he adopted a new persona, calling himself James LaValle and marrying a New York woman named Louise Mann Colmer who knew nothing of his past. They moved to New Bedford, Lawrence County, in 1947, and Mr. Falzone worked as a steel mill carpenter near Youngstown.
Neighbors liked the "LaValles," although the couple drank plenty and fought. Mrs. LaValle later said her husband beat her but doted on her granddaughter, Mia. One day in 1955, she and Mia went to the post office in New Bedford.
"FBI posters were blowing on a spindle and little Mia spotted a picture and cried: Daddy!" the Post-Gazette reported at the time.
When Mrs. LaValle confronted her husband, they argued over the accusation and she "ran a mile" to the office of a local magistrate. Agents and police surrounded their house on Aug. 17, 1955. He was asleep and they took him into custody without a fight. Inside, agents recovered 15 pistols, seven rifles and a shotgun.
• LEONARD ZALUTSKY. A native of Allentown, Mr. Zalutsky was a murderer and escape artist known as "Bad Eye" because he would remove his glass eye and drop it on the floor as a joke.
In 1933, while wanted on bank robbery charges in Philadelphia, he and a partner engaged in a gun battle with police in Miami after a holdup. His partner was killed, as was a Miami detective.
He was sentenced to life in prison in Florida but escaped. In 1938, he was caught in Philadelphia after a break-in, but he escaped once again by sawing through his prison bars. A detective pursued him as he tried to hop a freight train and chased him on top of several box cars. After the two grappled, the detective shot Mr. Zalutsky in the kidney.
Asked by reporters where he got the saw, Mr. Zalutsky said: "Always carry one in the sole of my shoe." But other sources said he stole it from a repairman sent to fix the plumbing in his cell.
Sent back to prison in Florida, he escaped once again in 1951 by throwing gasoline bombs at a guard tower, which started a huge fire. As he ran away, a prison guard tried to shoot him but his gun jammed.
Mr. Zalutsky and a partner grabbed the prison dentist's wife and, holding a knife to her throat, forced her to drive her car through the gate. When she deliberately wrecked in a ditch, the inmates ran. Police gave chase with bloodhounds, but Mr. Zalutsky got away.
He made the most wanted list on Aug. 5, 1952. A month later, two Beaver Falls residents recognized his picture at the post office. Police arrested him on Sept. 8 as he left a residence on 15th Street for his job as an orderly at a local hospital.
Mr. Zalutsky was released on parole in 1958 and returned to Allentown, where he reportedly lived out his life as a model citizen. In 1969, the governor of Florida granted him a pardon. He died in 1979.
• VINCENT JAMES RUSSO. Mr. Russo, an ex-Marine and a former Florida cop, abducted a liquor store clerk in 1978 near San Diego, told him "Merry Christmas" and shot him five times. The man survived.
The FBI placed Mr. Russo on the most wanted list in 1979 and tracked him for six years through Canada, Texas, Florida and New York before zeroing in on him in White Township, outside Beaver Falls, in 1985, where he had moved from New York in 1984.
Mr. Russo, who was living with his girlfriend and two children, had been working as an assistant manager at a Wendy's in Beaver Falls under the alias of Sonny Brainerd. FBI agents located him after he registered a new Pontiac under that alias.
They arrested him while he was taking a shower.
How they found Gerald Keith Watkins, a cold-blooded triple-murderer
Even for police hardened to homicide, the carnage that GERALD KEITH WATKINS left behind in a Homewood house in July 1994 was the worst anyone had ever seen.
Beth Ann Anderson, 30: Shot eight times in the head and chest. Kevin Kelly, 9: Shot six times in the head, neck and chest. Melanie Watkins, 18 days old: Shot eight times in the head and body.
The baby and the boy showed contact wounds, meaning Mr. Watkins -- Beth's boyfriend and Melanie's father -- pressed the gun against their bodies.
Philip Dacey, a since-retired police lieutenant, was on the scene that day. Contacted last week, he said he had been thinking about the case just recently. "Some of them stay with you," he said.
Detectives took at least some comfort in the fact that an infant would not have realized what was happening. But Kevin, who was not Mr. Watkins' son but worshipped him as a father, clearly did.
"It seems most people remember the kid's eyes," Mr. Dacey said then. "Some people say it was a look of terror."
Mr. Watkins, a 6-foot-3, 245-pound unemployed construction worker, had lived with Ms. Anderson. But when he found out that she was still married to another man, police believed, he became enraged.
After the July 20 massacre, he disappeared. The Chevy Cavalier he was driving, which belonged to his grandmother in Monroeville, was found a few days later in Fort Lee, N.J., not far from his childhood home in the Bronx. But the trail went cold after that.
Police questioned his girlfriends, relatives, associates. WTAE-TV ran a segment on the case. Leads developed that he was in New York or New Jersey, or maybe Georgia, Florida or California.
Iris Anderson, Beth's mother, pleaded: "I'm asking the public to please stop hiding him. Anybody capable of killing their own child is capable of killing anybody."
The district attorney's office asked the FBI for help in December 1994, and the job of tracking Mr. Watkins fell to FBI Agent Larry Likar, head of the Greater Pittsburgh Fugitive Task Force and now a professor at La Roche College. The bureau placed Mr. Watkins on the most wanted list on March 4, 1995, the last Top Ten fugitive from Pittsburgh.
Agent Likar, a former lawyer who had worked as a street agent in the Midwest, Puerto Rico and New York before coming to Pittsburgh, had caught lots of fugitives. But Mr. Watkins was a cut above.
Although he made most of his money selling drugs, he was a skilled carpenter and electrician with a high IQ who had been raised and doted on by his mother, a nurse, in New York City.
An analysis prepared by Mr. Likar described him as a drug and alcohol user with a violent temper and a womanizer with girlfriends scattered in Pittsburgh and New York.
Many women liked him because of his looks -- he was a muscular weightlifter -- and because he supplied them with simple household goods, such as diapers. The analysis also described him as a soft-spoken "people person" who had the ability to "engender confidence in other people." His parole officer said he was one of her best clients.
"He was shrewd," Mr. Likar recalled. "He had all the factors that made him a challenge. I knew that I would have to concentrate."
Placing him on the most wanted list made a difference. The FBI pulls out the stops on Top Tenners, providing resources other cases don't receive.
"It puts pressure on people," said Mr. Likar. "The whole bureau is watching."
The FBI has a powerful ally in "America's Most Wanted." The show ran segments on the murders in 1994 and 1995 that brought in hundreds of tips. Too many, Mr. Likar said, who had to narrow them down. He started re-interviewing people close to Mr. Watkins whom the police had talked to.
One in particular, who for obvious reasons can't be identified here, proved critical. The person didn't want to help. But Mr. Likar had leverage: Fear. He showed pictures of the crime scene and asked:
"If he would kill an 18-day-old baby, do you think he won't kill you?"
The person became emotional. After several hours, the individual agreed to help, placing Mr. Watkins in New York, explaining his use of angel dust and marijuana and the weapons he favored. There were also details that corroborated tips from other sources, including one that Mr. Watkins had been working as a handyman at a Harlem church. The FBI visited the church, but Mr. Watkins had stopped working there.
There had been other near misses. In the summer of 1994, New York police had Mr. Watkins within their reach but didn't know it.
Officers were contacted after he was found unconscious on the side of a road. He was treated at a Bronx hospital but discharged. Shortly after the release, "America's Most Wanted" aired its first show on the murders. Someone at the hospital recognized him, but it was too late. He was gone.
During his hunt for Mr. Watkins, Mr. Likar never let himself think about the crime. He focused only on the facts. "I know it sounds harsh," he said, "but I had no emotional involvement."
It's a truth that many investigators learn: Emotion clouds judgment.
In the spring of 1995, he got the break he needed. After "America's Most Wanted" aired a second segment, an informant called and specifically asked to meet with an FBI agent and not the police.
At a Pittsburgh bookstore, Mr. Likar learned that the informant knew someone who was in contact with Mr. Watkins in New York. An FBI team began tracking the man, who was visiting Mr. Watkins regularly.
Following three days of surveillance, agents surrounded the apartment on May 5 and broke down the door. Mr. Watkins tried to flee onto the fire escape, but agents caught him. After 10 months on the run, Mr. Watkins was in custody.
"The FBI is to be applauded in this case because of their tenacious tracking of him," city homicide Cmdr. Ron Freeman said at the time. "They were working on it night and day."
In the apartment, agents found bullets that matched the crime weapon, but they never found the gun. In a confession to city detective Dennis Logan, Mr. Watkins said he threw it into an incinerator.
He also said that the killings weren't planned but "just something that happened." He said he decided to shoot Kevin "because he knew who I was and what I had done." And he killed the baby, he said, because he knew that he couldn't raise her.
Mr. Watkins was sentenced to death in 1996. As he left the courtroom, he said to the victims' family: "I'll be back." Kevin's father retorted: "But not in our lifetime."
Mr. Watkins has been on death row ever since. Gov. Ed Rendell signed his death warrant in 2005. But Pennsylvania has what the governor calls a "de facto" moratorium on executions caused by endless appeals. It's unlikely that Mr. Watkins will be executed any time soon, if ever.
"If anyone deserves it," said Mr. Likar, "he does."