For decades, the baddest of the bad stared out from FBI wanted posters in post offices nationwide.
Bank robber Willie Sutton. Serial killer Ted Bundy. Osama Bin Laden.
Multiple murderer Thomas James Holden — the first name on the FBI’s first 10 Most Wanted Fugitives list, back in 1950. Holden once escaped from the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth and was captured two years later on a Kansas City golf course.
Seeing the faces on a post office wall is a rarity now. They have disappeared over the past decade.
Post offices no longer want the Most Wanted.
But only a few regular customers have missed them.
"I kind of liked seeing Osama up there to remind me that we’re still looking for that dude," said Mike Webb of Olathe. "They took down the clock, too. … I'm more interested in them speeding up the service than in their merchandising."
Richard Watkins, postal spokesman for the Mid-America district, said that most of the nation's 34,000 post offices took the posters off the walls several years ago.
"We decided to take them down and keep them in binders behind the counter," Watkins said. "They're still available, but customers have to ask to see them. Of course, they still might be up in smaller, rural post offices."
The walls are prime product display space now, he said. A "retail standardization" policy, issued in 1999 and updated in 2005, has prettied up post offices, making them more uniform and attractive — the better to move merchandise.
"It's the Wal-Marting of post offices across America," said Ron Pry, a retired postal inspector in Texas who collects old wanted posters. "Make them all look the same. Sell more stuff. Think about it. Would you ever see that FBI list (while) standing in a grocery store line?"
Pry used to watch for the Most Wanted.
“I always looked at ears, not eyes,” he said. “Ears never change.”
But post offices do.
Walk into most any post office and you’ll see vivid red signs and wildly colored envelopes. Track lights beaming on posters of Frank Sinatra, Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse. Some post offices, including three in the metro area, are starting to sell Hallmark’s Sunrise greeting cards.
But it takes years for these changes to occur in all the Postal Service’s 34,000 offices.
In the post office at 301 W. Lexington Ave. in Independence, the FBI’s Most Wanted was on display this month, although most of the names dated from 2002 and 2003. Bin Laden was included for bombings in Africa, with no mention of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The date on his flier: 1999.
The removal of the wanted posters came as a surprise to Nancy Pope, a historian for the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum.
“It’s a passing of an era,” Pope said. “Before post offices became a quasi-commercial affair, it was for many people in small-town America the face of the federal government.”
The FBI’s Most Wanted Fugitives began when a newspaper reporter in 1949 asked J. Edgar Hoover for a list of the “toughest guys.” Hoover liked the idea — and the publicity that followed.
The last official post office mailing from the FBI was in 2007, said Chris Allen, an FBI public affairs representative in Washington.
The Most Wanted list appears online on the FBI’s Web site, Twitter and Facebook. It’s featured on pod casts, widgets, blogs, the TV show “America’s Most Wanted” and digitized billboards.
“It’s a whole new frontier. We’ve learned that you go to the people wherever they are,” Allen said.