Criminal Justice Degrees Guide

10 Biggest Manhunts in U.S. History

An apparent new lead in the 40-year-old DB Cooper case has revived the mystery of the whereabouts of one of America’s most clever fugitives. A great source of storytelling and legend through the years, the perfectly executed hijacking of a Boeing 727 made him about $200,000 richer and somewhat of a hero to those who’ve closely followed the story. Fortunately, nobody involved in the event — except for possibly DB himself — was seriously harmed, which is why his apprehension wasn’t quite as important as the targets of the following manhunts. These men have been serious threats to the public, as evidenced by the urgency at which they have been pursued.

  1. John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln Assassination (1865)

    Given that Booth was a well-known actor and the assassination of Lincoln occurred in a crowded theater, avenging the tragedy merely hinged on catching him while he was still catchable. With a plan in place, he immediately fled the scene of the crime to rural Southern Maryland, prompting the dispatch of federal troops and the offering of a $100,000 reward for information leading to his arrest. On April 26, 12 days after Booth killed Lincoln, Lieutenant Colonel Everton Conger found him in a barn belonging to the Garrett family in Caroline Country, Virginia. Booth refused to surrender, and Conger’s accompanying soldiers set the barn on fire. When he remained inside, he was shot and killed. Although an autopsy later confirmed the identity of Booth, rumors have since persisted that he escaped and lived under an assumed name.

  2. John Dillinger, Prison Escape (1933-34)

    During an era in which the media embellished and even glorified the actions of criminals, Dillinger became a celebrity for his proficiency at evading law enforcement and robbing banks — infamously, his posse once posed as members of a film company scouting locations for a bank robbing scene. The Dillinger Gang formed after he returned to prison for a second time and devised an escape plan for eight other members. They proceeded to rob several banks throughout the Midwest before getting caught in Arizona and extradited to Indiana, where he again escaped from detainment — this time using a wooden gun smuggled to him by his attorney to round up the guards and lock them in his cell. In July of 1934, he was shot and killed by law enforcement at the Biograph Theater in Chicago.

  3. Suspect Unknown, Zodiac Killings (1960s and ’70s)

    The Zodiac killer remains unidentified and at large more than 40 years after he murdered high school students Betty Lou Jensen and David Faraday. Overall, police determined the he was responsible for seven murders, though he claimed 37 in the coded letters he wrote to Bay Area media outlets. Those letters served to heighten fear within the community, as he threatened schoolchildren and claimed to be collecting slaves. He continued to toy with the media through at least 1974, providing investigators with more material to fruitlessly examine.

  4. Suspect Unknown, Tylenol Murders (1982)

    Almost 30 years after 12-year-old Mary Kellerman died after taking a capsule of the popular over-the-counter pain medication, the investigation into the Tylenol murders remains ongoing. During the ordeal, seven people in the Chicago area died from cyanide poisoning, initiating a mass purging of Tylenol products from the shelves of grocery stores and pharmacies — it’s believed that the packages were removed from those locations, tampered with and then returned in their altered form. Several suspects have been investigated, including the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and James W. Lewis, who once demanded $1 million to stop the murders.

  5. Gary Ridgway, Green River Killings (1980s and ’90s)

    As the bodies of several young women were found near the Green River in the early ’80s, the King County Sheriff’s Office in Washington formed the Green River Task Force to find the culprit. Because the victims were runaways or prostitutes who had been strangled using a ligature, it was easy to deduct that a serial killer was at large. Although Ridgway was named a suspect in 1983, he avoided becoming the suspect by passing a polygraph test and cooperating with officers during their investigation, even giving them hair and saliva samples in 1987. In 2001, after DNA testing technology had evolved, he was arrested for the murders of four women, 67 fewer than he eventually admitted to killing. He’s currently serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

  6. Mir Aimal Kansi, CIA Shootings (1993)

    Upset with the policies of the U.S. government toward the Middle East, Kansi killed two CIA workers and injured three people by randomly opening fire on a row of stopped cars at traffic light in Fairfax County, Virginia. When authorities misidentified the culprit, he was able to flee for Pakistan the next day. A day later, his roommate reported him missing and he emerged as the prime suspect. In 1997, with the help of an informant, the FBI captured him in Punjab province and transported him back the U.S., where he was found guilty and sentenced to death in 2002.

  7. Texas Seven, Prison Escape (2000-01)

    It isn’t Alcatraz, but the John B. Connally Unit in Texas is deemed a maximum-security prison for a reason. Escaping from it requires a well-planned and well-executed effort, which the so-called Texas Seven efficiently carried out. The men, ranging from age 23 to 39, were incarcerated for terms varying in length, but each was motivated to risk harsher punishment for freedom. After subduing several maintenance supervisors and correctional officers during lunch, they stole their clothes, credit cards and IDs, and weapons from the guard tower. Using a prison maintenance pickup, they fled the premises and began a crime spree that resulted in the murder of police officer Aubrey Hawkins. More than a month after their escape, their appearance on America’s Most Wanted prompted the friend of an owner of a Woodland Park, Colorado RV Park to call police, leading to standoff with five of the seven men. Four were apprehended and one committed suicide, and the last two were later arrested at a hotel in Colorado Springs. George Rivas, the leader of the gang, was executed in 2008 for the murder of Hawkins.

  8. Bruce Ivins, Anthrax Attacks (2001)

    The fall of 2001 was certainly a chaotic time in America. In the weeks following the September 11th attacks, several members of the news media and two Democratic senators received letters containing anthrax, resulting in five deaths and infecting 17 others. Letters directed to Tom Brokaw, The New York Post, and Senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy read "DEATH TO AMERICA" and "ALLAH IS GREAT," causing many to suspect it was another terrorist attack conducted by Al Qaeda. In 2007, almost seven years after the investigation began, Bruce Ivins, a senior biodefense researcher at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, was announced by the government as the likely source of the attacks. He committed suicide before criminal charges could be brought against him.

  9. John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, Beltway Sniper Attacks (2002)

    Identifying and capturing the DC Snipers was an urgent task undertaken by law enforcement in the DC area, as the completely random nature of the suspects’ acts disrupted the lives of residents for almost a month. During that time, 11 people were killed and six were wounded while performing mundane tasks such as pumping gas or leaving a store. People simply stopped leaving their home for fear of becoming the next victim. On October 24, Muhammad and Malvo were found at a Maryland rest stop sleeping in their car. Muhammad, a former member of the army and admirer of Osama bin Laden, was executed in 2009, and Malvo, just 17 at the time of the attacks, is currently serving six consecutive life sentences.

  10. Adam Yahiye Gadahn, Treason (2006-present)

    Raised a Christian in California, Gadahn’s conversion to Islam when he was 17 years old caused an immense personal change and fueled a newfound hatred for his native country. His devotion to the religion took him to Pakistan, where he began supporting jihad. Following the September 11th attacks, he became a main communicator for Al Qaeda, eventually appearing in videos threatening attacks on U.S. soil. In 2006, he became the first American charged with treason in more than 50 years. Still at large, the State Department is offering $1 million for information leading to his arrest.