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“The Departed,” Whitey Bulger, and America’s Most Wanted

There was more good news about the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list today: Just seven weeks after being able to mark “DECEASED” over Osama bin Laden’s photo, the bureau can now mark “CAPTURED” over the picture of James “Whitey” Bulger, the South Boston mob boss wanted for 19 murders, not to mention racketeering, narcotics distribution, and extortion. (You may know his story if you’ve seen The Departed - Scorsese’s character Frank Costello was based on Bulger.) Bulger evaded authorities for 16 years before he was finally captured yesterday in California, thanks to a tip which came in shortly after the Feds launched a TV and billboard campaign in the Los Angeles area featuring photos of the fugitive and his longtime girlfriend. But just how important was the media campaign to bringing Bulger to justice?

This wasn’t the first time television had been employed in the pursuit of Whitey Bulger: The mobster appeared on “America’s Most Wanted” 16 times between 1995 and 2010. Now, while those 16 appearances didn’t do the trick in Bulger’s case, don’t discount the power of John Walsh and his team: Their website boasts of 1,154 captures worldwide, and the impact of their work was measured in a 2005 paper by the University of Chicago’s Thomas J. Miles. His conclusion: “America’s Most Wanted has a large impact on fugitive apprehensions.” Miles wrote that his estimates “imply, for example, that when the program broadcasts the profile of a 30-year-old, white fugitive wanted for murder and sought by federal authorities, his expected flight is shortened by nearly 3 years.”

There’s only one problem: America’s Most Wanted was cancelled last month, and its final episode aired last week. Still, there may be a glimmer of hope - John Walsh is reportedly looking for another network to air the show, and if nothing else, you can sign the petition to bring it back.