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When the Long Arm of the Law Waves Cash

But bounties that the government offers don't always pay off.


The account from the yellowed newspaper clippings has a chillingly familiar ring: A huge bounty is placed on the head of a foreign renegade who has invaded the United States and ruthlessly murdered its citizens. Buildings are burned to the ground. The president orders the military to hunt down the terrorist, dead or alive.

Though any of this could be taken from recent headlines, the events actually took place in 1916, when Mexican rebel general Pancho Villa crossed the border and ransacked the town of Columbus, N.M., killing 18 Americans and setting much of the town ablaze. President Wilson ordered 7,000 American troops to give chase into Mexico and massed more than 100,000 soldiers along the border. The reward on his head was the then-princely sum of $5,000, more than most Mexican peasants would earn in a lifetime. The manhunt failed, and Villa, one of the great figures of the Mexican Revolution, went on to live a quiet village life until his assassination in 1923 by political adversaries.

The saga of Pancho Villa is but one chapter of how bounties have been used by the U.S. government in an attempt to capture criminals from the Unabomber to gangster John Dillinger, from people considered threats to the national interest to tax dodgers. The latest, of course, is the reward of up to $25 million--the largest ever offered by the U.S.--for the capture of Osama bin Laden, who is believed by American military officials to be hiding in the rugged terrain of Afghanistan.

Although the Bin Laden bounty is a rare example of a reward being used as a means to spur a military victory, bounties have taken different forms over the years--including newspaper "Wanted" ads in the early 19th century that offered rewards for the capture of a thief or a runaway slave.

Wanted posters for the likes of Jesse James and Billy the Kid became a staple of the Old West and, later, the stuff of Hollywood movies. One of the first national laws involving bounties, passed by Congress in 1899, provided a reward to anyone who turned in a tax cheat. Rewards also played a major enforcement role in the Prohibition era.

In more modern times, the bounty has been used in a variety of cases, including the capture of terrorists, even as the amount of money being offered has increased at a staggering rate. The largest payout so far--$2 million--went to a Pakistani informant who helped federal agents track down and try Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, one of the masterminds of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

A $1-million payoff went to the brother of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, who was caught in 1995 after a 17-year spree during which he mailed 16 letter bombs that killed three and injured 29 others. In 1995, Kaczynski's brother, David, tipped the FBI after the Unabomber's 35,000-word manifesto in the Washington Post aroused his suspicions. David Kaczynski created a tax-exempt fund in 1999 so that the money could be distributed to the victims of attacks by paranoid schizophrenics, the condition diagnosed in his brother.

Some rewards have been offered but never collected: $5 million for former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and other senior officials for war crimes; $2 million in the Oklahoma City bombing case; and $1 million for former Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega. Milosevic and Noriega were arrested without help from the public and the Oklahoma City reward was for John Doe No. 2, whom officials eventually determined did not exist.

One of the more intriguing cases is that of Eric Robert Rudolph, who has a $1-million price on his head in connection with a number of crimes, including the 1996 bombing of Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park that killed two and injured 120 others. Since then, the 34-year-old former carpenter has vanished, without a conclusive sighting in three years. It's believed that if Rudolph is still alive he's hiding in the dense forests of the North Carolina Appalachian Mountains. So far, the federal government has spent $24 million in searches of the rugged terrain, but to no avail.

So do these bounties work? Sometimes.

One of the more memorable successes was the 1964 "Mississippi Burning" case in which the federal investigation of the gruesome murders of three young men trying to register black voters was going nowhere. But when a community group raised $36,500, two Ku Klux Klan informants ratted on their colleagues.

The other side of the coin may be the Lindbergh kidnapping case, in which the famed aviator's 1-year-old son was kidnapped and murdered. Bruno Hauptmann, a German immigrant carpenter, was convicted and sent to the electric chair. But British author Sir Ludovic Kennedy, in his 1985 book, "The Airman and the Carpenter," contends that a local resident placed Hauptmann at the scene only after being offered a share of the $25,000 reward.

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