Crime: Hiding in Plain Sight

When notorious criminals evade capture, stereotypes may be to blame.

By Leonora Desar, published November 5, 2013 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

 Graphic of men some under magnifying glasses in a crowd

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Picture a prototypical villain or convict, and a stooped old man or a charming teenager probably doesn't come to mind. The heuristics we lean on when conjuring the "bad guy" allow offenders to slip out from under our noses. —Leonora Desar

James "Whitey'' Bulger

Bulger was America's most wanted gangster, but for more than a decade he convinced people that he was just an elderly eccentric. "We don't typically think of the elderly as horrific criminals," says Alan Castel, a UCLA psychologist. We are also more likely to recognize people who are the same age as we are, he adds; this may explain why law enforcers—who tend to be younger than Bulger's 83 years—didn't catch the Boston mob boss sooner.

Elmer Edward Solly

After escaping from prison, Solly—convicted of murdering his girlfriend's toddler son—boldly assumed the identity of the deceased lead singer of rock band Sha Na Na. "When people are that narcissistic, they tend to be very confident in themselves," speculates Katherine Ramsland, a forensic psychologist at DeSales University. "That kind of confidence is what others never question."

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

With his nimbus of dark curls and big brown eyes, Tsarnaev looks more like your typical college student than a person plotting to blow up innocent people, Ramsland observes. This was exactly his advantage: "We have an odd myth that mass murderers tend to be middle-aged white guys who are disgruntled," she says. "But this doesn't play out if you actually look at the cases."

Frank Abagnale, Jr.

While most young men worry about scoring a prom date, Abagnale—immortalized in the film Catch Me If You Can—was busy posing as a pilot, a pediatrician, and a lawyer. He also stole millions by cashing forged checks. His prestigious personas may have lowered people's guard, says Mary Ellen O'Toole, a retired FBI profiler: "You're more willing to trust those who have a certain status."