10 Biggest Manhunts of All Time

S.W.A.T. teams conduct a house-to-house search during the manhunt for a suspect in the terrorist bombing of the 117th Boston Marathon. See more police pictures.
Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

When folk singer Tim O'Brien wrote a ballad about a poor man from Tennessee who stole construction equipment, slipped out of handcuffs while outside a Waffle House in Georgia and stole country crooner Crystal Gayle's tour bus in an attempt to reach his dying mother, it wasn't a work of fiction. The song chronicled the life of Christopher Daniel Gay, called "Little Houdini" by police, who actually attempted these crimes in 2009. (Police tracked him to Florida and arrested him) [source: Jonsson].

Crime sprees and their ensuing manhunts are often stranger than fiction. It's no wonder so many televised crime dramas are based on real-life events. Whether it's a modern murder mystery or a historical homicide, if you take a closer look at some of the world's most compelling true-life crimes, you'll find one important component: the massive manhunt.


These organized searches have turned up plenty of drama all their own, either because of expense, duration or sheer scale. We've compiled some of history's biggest manhunts, some of which are freshly imprinted on our collective conscious and others that will certainly ring a bell.

10: Boston Marathon Bombers

Bostonians celebrated after law enforcement took Dzhokhar Tsarnaev into custody, believed to be one of the bombers in the Boston Marathon bombing.
Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

On April 15, 2013, two bombs housed in kitchen pressure cookers detonated near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. At least three people were killed and more than 200 injured by the blasts. Just days later, the entire city of Boston and its surrounding areas came to a screeching halt as one of the U.S.'s largest manhunts got underway.

The FBI released photos of two suspects believed to be responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings. The suspects shot and killed an MIT campus police officer, carjacked an SUV and tossed homemade explosives at law enforcement officials who pursued them.


While one suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was shot and killed by police, the other – his brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev -- slipped into the darkness of a residential neighborhood. The ensuing manhunt included dozens of law enforcement officers from national, state and local agencies, as well as helicopters hovering overhead. Residents of Boston and surrounding suburbs were ordered to "shelter in place." Officials stopped public transportation systems, instituted a "no fly zone" over the city, closed universities and schools, and shuttered area businesses -- an unprecedented shutdown of a major U.S. city.

The manhunt continued until Tsarnaev was captured and taken into custody on April 19. Although estimates are still coming in, the manhunt is expected to have cost more than $1 billion, which may make it the most expensive one to date in U. S. history [sources: Brooks, CBS News, Minch].

9: Osama bin Laden

The New York Daily News cover says it all the day after Osama bin Laden was killed.
© Viviane Moos/Corbis

The manhunt for the leader of the militant Islamist organization al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden, took so long, made so little progress and included so few clues that for a time he was simply presumed dead [source: Encyclopaedia Britannica].

The hunt for bin Laden began in 1998 after simultaneous bombings at U.S. embassies in Africa killed hundreds of people. Although al-Qaida was believed to be responsible for the attacks, bin Laden's whereabouts remained a mystery. After the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, also believed to be the work of al-Qaida, the manhunt intensified.


In 2011, the CIA discovered new information about bin Laden's whereabouts. Twenty-three Navy SEALS from Team 6 were mobilized in two MH-60 Black Hawk helicopters to capture bin Laden, who was hiding in a compound in the city of Abbotabad, about 120 miles (193 kilometers) from the Pakistan border.

After darkness fell on May 1, 2011, SEAL Team 6 boarded the aircraft, which had been outfitted with radar-avoiding covers and modified to stifle noise and heat, and flew into Pakistani airspace and then to bin Laden's compound.

The next 25 minutes were a real nail-biter. The SEALS entered bin Laden's house with an unfamiliar floor plan, encountered wives, children and expected booby traps or enemy fire. When they reached the third floor, they discovered bin Laden. A Navy SEAL shot him in the chest and radioed "Geronimo, E.K.I.A." for "enemy killed in action." At the White House, President Obama echoed, "We got him" [sources: Schmidle, White].

8: Ted Kaczynski

Ted Kaczynski sits and smiles during an interview in a visiting room at the Federal ADX Supermax prison in Florence, Colo., 1999.
Stephen J. Dubner/Getty Images

The 18-year manhunt for Ted Kaczynski was one of the lengthiest in U.S. history, one that began in 1978 when Kaczynski, known as the "Unabomber," mailed the first of 16 bombs to U.S. destinations. The homemade explosives he mailed until 1995 murdered three people and wounded 23 more, prompting the FBI to offer a $1 million reward and develop a psychological profile that was found (after the fact) to be stunningly accurate.

Unfortunately, Kaczynski was an expert at evading capture. He maintained a low profile at an isolated log cabin in Montana, emerging only to fire off the occasional manifesto to the media. It was one of these wordy declarations that finally led police to his doorstep.


In 1995, Kaczynski's brother happened to read the anonymous letters published in The New York Times and the Washington Post, recognized his sibling's style of writing and alerted the authorities. After Kaczynski's April 3, 1996, arrest, he was convicted of his crimes and continues to serve a life sentence without the possibility of parole [source: White].

7: Adam Yahiye Gadahn

This FBI alert shows Adam Yahiye Gadahn, aka Adam Pearlman, a California native who was highlighted in May 2004 as the person most likely to be involved in or have knowledge of the next al-Qaida attack.
FBI via Getty Images

Adam Yahiye Gadahn was born in 1978 to California goat farmers and homeschooled until age 17. And then things got a little weird.

Gadahn converted to Islam, joined a California mosque, punched its leader and moved to Pakistan, where he became a militant Islamist. After the terrorist attacks in New York and Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001, Gadahn stepped forward as al-Qaida's unofficial spokesman and was videotaped threatening more attacks against the U.S.


In 2006, on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, he released a video in support of the attacks, and one month later was charged in U.S. courts with treason. The State Department continues to hunt for Gadahn, believed to be hiding overseas, and is offering a $1 million reward for information leading to his arrest [source: CNN].

6: John Wilkes Booth

Illustration depicting John Wilkes Booth preparing to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln in the balcony of Ford's Theatre, Washington D.C., April 14, 1865.
Kean Collection/Getty Images

Although President Abraham Lincoln was shot and killed by John Wilkes Booth in 1865, the details of Booth's capture remain shrouded in mystery.

After Booth, a handsome actor, assassinated Lincoln in a crowded theater, he became the target of a 12-day, multistate manhunt spanning from Washington, D.C., to Maryland. Fleeing from federal troops -- and a $100,000 reward for his capture -- Booth spent five nights hiding in the Maryland woods and eventually crossed the Potomac River, where he sought refuge in a barn in rural Virginia. All while nursing a broken leg caused by an ill-timed theatrical leap after firing at Lincoln.


Booth was eventually discovered hiding in the barn, but refused to surrender even when the barn was set on fire. By some accounts, he was shot and immediately died. By others, he suffered a bullet wound to the neck and languished for days. Or he died of painful burns. One way or another, Booth died in 1865. Or did he?

Despite an autopsy thought to confirm his identity, some believe Booth escaped and lived under an assumed name in locales ranging from Granbury, Texas, to Enid, Okla., until he died of natural causes in the 1900s [sources: Biography, White].

5: 38 IRA Members

Perimeter fence of the Maze Prison, Northern Ireland.
© David Reed/CORBIS

A September 1983 prison break by members of the Irish Republican Army resulted in the largest manhunt in Northern Ireland's history, involving nearly 10,000 soldiers and police officers.

Northern Ireland's Maze Prison was the country's maximum security facility and thought to be inescapable -- until the day prisoners held guards hostage with smuggled guns, traded prison jumpsuits for the guards' uniforms and staged a coup in the main gatehouse. In the ensuing chaos, 38 prisoners scaled an outer fence and escaped, leaving behind 19 injured and one dead.


Although 19 escapees were captured within a few days, a manhunt for the remainder went on for another decade. Several escaped prisoners were eventually killed or captured, and half-a-dozen were discovered in Ireland and the U.S. As of 2013, however, two escapees remain at large [source: Crime Library].

4: Christopher Dorner

Photos of fired Los Angeles Police Department officer Christopher Dorner are seen at a press conference regarding the manhunt for him.

In February 2013, Christopher Dorner embarked on a personal vendetta against law enforcement. A former Los Angeles police officer, Navy officer and expert marksman, Dorner had been fired after falsely accusing a fellow police officer of kicking an arrestee.

Unsuccessful appeals and burgeoning frustration may have prompted Dorner to turn to social media, where in February 2013 he posted detailed accusations against the police department and members of the media -- and then went on a shooting spree. Dorner staged a series of attacks on police officers and their families, killing four people and wounding three others. The ensuing manhunt spread across California and into Mexico, lasted nearly two weeks and became one of the largest searches for a fugitive in LAPD history.


Dorner taunted police that they wouldn't be able to find him as he knew all their techniques. But they eventually cornered him in an isolated mountain cabin, where despite tear gas and a fire that caused ammunition to explode, he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound [sources: Carlsbad Current-Argus, Ford, Tomlinson].

3: Moammar Gadhafi

Libyan men and children line up to look at the corpses of Libya's ex-strongman Moammar Gadhafi and his son Mutassem, displayed inside the cold storage room of a vegetable market near a mosque on the outskirts of Misrata in 2011.

In 2011, rebel leaders successfully toppled the Libyan government, sending dictator Moammar Gadhafi into hiding in his hometown of Sirte. For two months, the fugitive former leader went off the grid, skirting public sightings in Sirte -- Libya's last outpost sympathetic to the fallen regime -- as he evaded the interim government's army.

For 42 years, Gadhafi had ruled Libya and had a reputation for brutality against his own citizens. Members of the Libyan army were accused of using civilians as human shields and using schools as weapon caches.


In a manhunt aided by many of the Libyan people, Gadhafi was ousted from his hiding place in a drainage ditch on Oct. 20, 2011. Rebels beat him, stabbed him in the backside with a bayonet and then shot him in the head. Gadhafi's death launched a global media frenzy – especially since some of his capture was caught on video -- and ended one of the world's most infamous manhunts [sources: Melnick, McElroy].

2: Ned Kelly

An illustration of Ned Kelly wearing his famous armor.

In light of the United States' 21st-century financial woes, the idea of a folk hero robbing banks and burning mortgage contracts takes on a whole new perspective. This particular Robin Hood, however, lived and robbed in the late 1800s -- long before any modern monetary maladies.

Ned Kelly was an Australian outlaw who took up the fight of poor colonists straining under the confines of British rule. After being accused of killing three policemen, Kelly and three compatriots took to the Australian bush. The group successfully hid from authorities for quite some time, emerging only to rob a couple of banks and light their fellow citizens' mortgage papers.


Perhaps the most notorious footnote about Kelly, however, concerns his capture. Upon realizing the police had surrounded his tree-lined hideout, Kelly lumbered out to greet them -- clad in a gigantic suit of homemade armor. The police were shocked to see bullets deflect off his steel-plated chest, but soon discovered Kelly's Achilles' heel: his unprotected legs.

Although the homemade suit of armor covered his chest and head, Kelly had left his legs uncovered. Soon he was shot, immobilized and captured -- only to be hanged on Nov. 11, 1880. His last words were, "Such is life" [source: White].

1: James Earl Ray

Telling his story in public for the first time, James Early Ray appeared before the House Assassination Committee in Washington in August 1978. Ray swore that he did not kill Martin Luther King, Jr. and was not even present at the murder scene.
© Bettmann/CORBIS

When civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968, it sparked a two-month manhunt that spanned several countries.

James Earl Ray, a small-time criminal who had escaped from a Missouri prison one year earlier, was the subject of the manhunt. Ray came under suspicion after investigators connected him to a hotel reservation made under the assumed name Eric Starvo Galt. They began tracking Ray and questioning his friends and associates, revealing Ray's multistate trek and potential plans to head out of the country. A search of 175,000 passports turned up one under the name George Ramon Sneyd that looked suspiciously like Ray. Ray, posing as "Sneyd," was tracked to Canada, Portugal and the United Kingdom. He was arrested on June 8, 1969, at Heathrow Airport in London.

After confirming his identity, Ray was extradited to the U.S. where he confessed to King's murder. A bundle found at the crime scene included a rifle with Ray's fingerprints on it. Ray entered a plea and was sentenced to 99 years for King's assassination. Three days later, Ray recanted, saying he was part of a conspiracy. By 1997, the King family agreed that Ray did not act alone and offered their support for a new trial. While awaiting this trial, Ray died in 1998 at age 70 [sources: CBS, CNN, Gribben].

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 Biggest Manhunts of All Time

Researching some of the world's largest manhunts -- and criminal acts -- offered an interesting glimpse into history. I was particularly intrigued with Ned Kelly and the mental images his homemade suit of armor conjured. What I didn't expect, though, was to discover rumors that John Wilkes Booth lived out his days as a citizen in Oklahoma or Texas. Although there's no proof that it's true, it's interesting to think about a fugitive's ability to assume another identity -- an act that would certainly have been easier in the days before camera phones and social media. If Booth attempted the same today, surely #boothsighting would trend on Twitter.

Related Articles


  • Biography. "James Wilkes Booth." (May 6, 2013) http://www.biography.com/people/john-wilkes-booth-9219681
  • Brooks, David. "Boston Shutdown and Manhunt Was Unique, but That Doesn't Mean it Won't be Repeated." The Telegraph. April 21, 2013. (May 9, 2013) http://www.nashuatelegraph.com/news/1001075-469/boston-shutdown-and-manhunt-was-unique-but.html
  • Carlsbad Current-Argus. "Massive Manhunt for Fired LAPD Officer Christopher Dorner Leads to San Bernadino Mountains." Feb. 7, 2013. (May 6, 2013) http://www.currentargus.com/ci_22538891/massive-manhunt-fired-lapd-officer-suspected-2-killings
  • CBS News. "Boston Marathon Bombings: Timeline of Events in the Manhunt for Bombing Suspects." April 19, 2013. (May 6, 2013) http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504083_162-57580402-504083/boston-marathon-bombings-timeline-of-events-in-the-manhunt-for-bombing-suspects/
  • CBS News. "James Earl Ray: Timeline." Feb. 11, 2009. (May 6, 2013) http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-201_162-7878.html
  • CNN. "Adam Gadahn Fast Facts." March 23, 2013. (May 6, 2013) http://www.cnn.com/2013/03/23/us/adam-gadahn-fast-facts
  • CNN. "James Earl Ray, Convicted King Assassin, Dies." April 23, 1998. (May 6, 2013) http://www.cnn.com/US/9804/23/ray.obit/
  • Crime Library. "The Biggest Escape in British Penal History." TruTV. (May 6, 2013) http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/photogallery/escapes-and-manhunts.html?curPhoto=6
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. "Al-Qaeda." (May 9, 2013) http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/734613/al-Qaeda
  • Ford, Dana. "Renegade Ex-cop Dorner Died From Single Gunshot to Head." CNN. Feb. 16, 2013. (May 6, 2013) http://www.cnn.com/2013/02/15/us/california-dorner-death/index.html?hpt=hp_t1
  • Gribben, Mark. "James Earl Ray: The Man Who Killed Dr. Martin Luther King." TruTV. (May 6, 2013) http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/terrorists_spies/assassins/ray/1.html
  • Jonsson, Patrik. "Little Houdini: Infamy by Stealing Crystal Gayle's Tour Bus." Christian Science Monitor. (May 9, 2013) http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/2010/0812/Elias-Abuelazam-arrested-four-famous-modern-manhunts/Little-Houdini-infamy-by-stealing-Crystal-Gayle-s-tour-bus
  • McElroy, Damien. "Colonel Gaddafi Died After Being Stabbed with Bayonet, Says Report." The Telegraph. Oct. 17, 2012. (May 6, 2013) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/libya/9613394/Colonel-Gaddafi-died-after-being-stabbed-with-bayonet-says-report.html
  • Melnick, Meredith. "Muammar Gaddafi." Time. Oct. 20, 2011. (May 6, 2013) http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2002407_2002427_2097411,00.html
  • Minch, Jack. "Boston Marathon Manhunt Could Cost $1 Billion." North Adams Transcript. April 20, 2013. (May 6, 2013). http://www.thetranscript.com/ci_23067670/marathon-manhunt-could-cost-1-billion
  • Tomlinson, Simon. "Killer Ex-cop Who Left Three Dead in LA Shooting Spree Sends CNN's Anderson Cooper a Bullet-Riddled Coin and Manifesto Declaring Vendetta Against Police Department That Fired Him." Daily Mail. Feb. 7, 2013. (May 6, 2013) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2274956/Christopher-Dorner-left-3-dead-sent-Anderson-Cooper-bullet-riddled-coin-vendetta-LAPD.html#axzz2KAse9614
  • White, Adam. "Ned Kelly." Time. Oct. 20, 2011. (May 6, 2013) http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2002407_2002427_2002424,00.html
  • White, Adam. "Osama bin Laden." Time. Oct. 20, 2011. (May 6, 2013) http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2002407_2002427_2002420,00.html
  • White, Adam. "Theodore 'Ted' Kaczynski." Time. Oct. 20, 2011. (May 6, 2013) http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2002407_2002427_2002426,00.html