WALTER B. O'Donnell was no Gene Kelly to look at, but he was light on his feet and he had an unusual scam. He would slip on a toupee, go to a dance and pick out the fattest woman on the floor. After a few dances, he would tell her he was a doctor and offer her a chance to try a new reducing cure -- back at her apartment.

Back at her place, O'Donnell would give her two strong barbiturate capsules and wait for them to take effect. When the victim passed out, he would rob her apartment.

O'Donnell, the "Sleeping Pill Bandit," spent three days on the FBI's $10 Most Wanted Fugitives" list back in 1959. Then G-men nabbed him at a Norfolk, Va., hotel, where he was preparing to deliver an inspirational address under the alias A. J. Rossi to the local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous. He offered no resistance, pleaded guilty at the first opportunity and toddled meekly off to jail.

FBI officials hem and haw when asked if O'Donnell, the "Michkey-maker," would be put on the Most Wanted list today. There were, they point out, a large number of outraged victims, and those sleeping pills were dangerous: one woman spent four days in a coma before recovering. But it seems unlikely that O'Donnell would make the grade in 1978. In picking names for its elite list of criminals (and its most successful public relations tool), the FBI is -- there's just no other way to say it -- looking for a better class of criminal.

The changes in Top 10 are a textbook case of a bureaucratic tool that, after two decades of usefulness as a law enforcement and public relations device, got caught in changing political and social winds and became an embarrassment. Now, to her FBI officials tell it, the Bureau has changed, and the Top 10 has changed as well. They say the bureau is going after tougher criminals in general, and that the fugitives making the Top 10 are tougher than ever -- and genuinely hard to catch.

One thing has not changed: the Top 10 still makes good copy. Since its inception in 1950, the Most Wanted list has always been a publicity tool (it was first compiled at the suggestion of officials of the old International News Service, now part of United Press International). The bureau's awesomely efficient media services division puts out press releases on each fugitive -- one for newspapers and another, written to make a 60-second news spot, for radio stations -- along with a glossy photograph and the traditional "wanted" flyer.

Many television stations around the country get special slides of the fugitives which they show during station breaks or on evening news programs. And, of course, when agents arrest a Most Wanted fugitive, as they did six times last year, papers coast to coast carry the story. That by itself does not make the list illegitimate -- publicity undoubtedly plays a part in tips leading to the arrest of fugitives. But that kind of good press can be addictive to an image-conscious bureaucracy, and critics eventually came to question whether all those on the list during the next two decades were really the 10 worst public enemies.

In fact, the top 10 didn't always represent the cream of the nation's criminal crop. Former FBI agent William W. Turner charged in his 1970 book Hoover's FBI: The Men and the Myth that, in compiling the list, "the FBI kept its sights on the human tumbleweeds of crime: bank robbers, car thieves, freight car burglars, the whey-faced little men who passed bad checks in bunches, the hulking waterfront pilferers... cheap thugs, barroom knifers, psychopathic rapists, wife-beaters and alcoholic stick-up men."

In short, during two decades in which organized crime and drug smuggling burgeoned, the FBI seemed to be playing cops and robbers with the Walter O'Donnells of the world. In its first 20 years, only one organized crime figure made the Most Wanted list.

In the early '70s the bureau's autocratic director, J. Edgar Hoover, became obsessed with the crusade against political radicalism. The list began to include names like Angela David, Bernardine Dohrn, SNCC leader H. Rap Brown, and White Panther leader L. R. "Pun" Plamondon. At one point, after the bombing of a computer center at the University of Wisconsin, Hoover insisted on adding names of fugitives until the Top 10 had swollen to an unwieldy 16.

Angela Davis was arrested in a Howard Johnson's Motel in Manhattan, but Bernardine Dohrn was quietly bumped from the list in 1973, never found. The bureau dropped the last remaining suspect in the Wisconsin bombing when a federal judge let one of his alleged co-conspirators out on bond. Kathy Power, accused of a bank robbery in Boston in 1970, is the only name remaining of an era the FBI would just as soon forget. To hear them talk at the mammoth J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building on Constitution Avenue, it's a new day for the Most Wanted list.

Nobody at FBI headquarters is saying Turner was right. But they are quick to say the bureau has a "new focus," begun under former director Clarence M. Kelley and continued under current director William Webster -- a focus on "quality over quantity."

Under Hoover, the FBI tended to concentrate on low-level federal crimes such as auto theft and bank robbery. Those convictions were easy to get. Narcotics cases wee left to the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (now the Drug Enforcement Agency), and organized crime was a low priority.

Now the bureau's announced priorities are organized crime, white-collar crime and foreign counter-intelligence. In past years, according to Raymond Conley Jr., chief of the fugitive unit, "We had the individual wanted for the standard reactive-type crime like armed robbery, murder, escape." But as examples of the list's new look, he cites two fugitives arrested in 1978: accused sex-diller Ted Bundy and alleged pornography king Michael George Thevis. That new focus had given the Top 10 a visibility lost in recent years, Conley said.

"The people ar interested in this," he explained. "They're not as much interested anymore in the individual who robs a convenience store in Decatur, Ill."

The stated criteria used to pick a new member of the Top 10 remain the same as ever: he or she must have a record of serious crime, and the case must be one in which nationwide publicity will help. In addition, a Most Wanted fugitive "should not be notorious due to other publicity." (That's why Patty Hearst never made it.) Conley said the bureau now places tougher, more significant criminals on the list.

How does that brave promise stack up against the list as it stood on New Year's Day 1979? There are still quite a few fugitives (four) with ties to the radical lift -- and none involved with the right. (An FBI spokesman said Virgilio Pablo Pazy Romero and Jose Dionisio Suarez Esquival, suspects in the bombing-murder of former Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier, where considered for the list but weren't included because, "We've go enough publicity about them already.") There is only one woman (women have been under-represented on the list since its beginning. One current male suspect is on the list even though his wife is being sought on more serious charges than he is), two suspects who are accused of having ties to organized crime, and one who was allegedly involved in a large drug operation. None of them seem particularly "whey-faced" and most are accused of using weapons more lethal than a barbiturate bottle. Four on the Left

The four fugitives whose cases are tinged with politics are something of an embarrassment for the FBI for two reasons.

First, despite all the revelations about the bureau's use of informers and less savory means to gather political intellignce during the Hoover years, the FBI seems to have been stymied in its attempts to get inside information about the hard-core terrorist left. This may be linked to the fact theat the bureau is a heavily white male organization which is trying to cope with a movement in which women, blacks and Hispanics have played a significant role.

Second, there is the familiar, and justified, charge that the bureau has served in the past as a political police force, harassing leftwingers and others espousing causes unpopular with Hoover. FBI officials emphatically deny that any of the four now on the list could be called "political fugitives." All, they said, are wanted for violent crimes.

No one could argue that Charles Lee Herron is being chased for his opinions. Herron, a 41-year-old black man, was on the fringes of the black power and civil rights movements in Nashville, Tenn., in 1968. But he is one the Most Wanted list as a result of an incident on Jan. 16 of that year in which gunmen shot and killed two Nashville policemen. Herron, one of four charged with the killings, was never apprehended. The other three were given 99-year terms, but managed to escape when Tennessee prison authorities allowed them to go on a picnic outside prison waslls. FBI officials believe the three escapees have teamed up with Herron.

"Apparently they're not hiding," said Joseph Bonner of the Memphis field office. "They're out there for God and the world to see." God and the world saw them living in the Atlanta area during the years 1974 to 1976, but the bureau didn't, and the group has apparently moved on.

"There is a strong possiblility that these individuals have fled to an African nation," Bonner said.

Next in seniority is Kathy Power, who was a Brandeis senior in 1970 when, police say, she teamed up with a Brandeis alumna, Susan Saxe, and three male parolees to burglarize a Boston National Guard armory and rob the State Street Bank. During the robbery one Boston policeman was shot to death. The three experienced criminals were quickly rounded up, and a quick-witted Philadelphia policeman spotted Saxe on a street a few years ago.

But the Kathy Power trail has grown cold. "What she looks like now is really anybody's speculation," said Joel A. Carlson of the Boston field office, adding plaintively, "we would hope that some of her associates who are very hesitant to talk to law enforcement would realized that she is accused of a crime, and it has to be cleared up." Officials said she wouldn't be dropped from the list unless charges were reduced or she were thought to be dead.

Raymond Luc Levasseur is considered by the FBI to be "one of the more proficient bomb technicians" in a shadowy group called the Sam Melville-Jonathan Jackson Unit of the People's Forces, which has claimed credit for a number of bombings in recent years in the Boston and northern New England area. He's technically wanted on bank robbery charges, but Conley said the main reason for putting him on the Top Ten is "being a member of this group."

As noted above, Carlos A. Torres is a member of the Most Wanted list even though his wife, Marie Haydee Beltran Torres, is wanted on a more serious charge. FBI agents and police say both aremembers of a Puerto Rican independence group known as the FALN, or "Armed Forces of National Liberation," which agents say has claimed credit for 93 actual or attempted bombings -- resulting in five deaths -- in New York, Chicago and Washington since 1975. Carlos Torres is being sought because he allegedly "owned or controlled" an apartment which was allegedly being used as a FALN "bomb factory" in Chicago. Marie Haydee Torres is also charged with second-degree murder. The FBI says it found her fingerprints at the Mobil Oil office in Manhattan after a bomb there killed one person on Aug. 3, 1977.

A Chicago FBI spokesman said the bureau believes the Torreses are hiding in New York. Three on the Lam

Also on the Most Wanted list are three tough mugs who are AWOL from federal or local prisons. Here again, there is little resemblance to Walter O'Donnell.

Willie Foster Sellers is a convicted bank robber with a fondness for automatic weapons, a former member of the so-called "Billy Ray Dawson Gang" which FBI officials say was responsible for about 100 bank robberies in the Southeast between 1971 and 1976. Sellers was serving a 65-year sentence in a federal slammer in Marion, Ohio, when he was temporarily transferred to a Georgia jail to testify in another robbery case. FBI agents say he and another prisoner somehow got an acetylene torch and cut their way to freedom.

Since then Sellers has been charged with robberies in Higbee, Mo., Virginia Beach, Va., and Omaha, Tex. FBI agents believe his wife, Barbara, is traveling wigh him, along with their four children -- the youngest of whom, a daughter, was born while the family was on the lam. Agents are following up reports that Sellers needs a root-canal, and they also are trying to track him through his need for daily doses of Orinase, an anti-diabetic drug.

Ronald Lee Lyons is charged with taking part in a September 1977 mass escape from a state prison in Only, Tenn., where he was serving time for a robbery conviction. FBI spokesmen said "outside co-conspirators" hid guns in the ceiling of a men's room in a bowling alley in Dickson, Tenn., shortly before the inmates went there to bowl. Lyons and three others allegedly retrieved the guns and escaped during a shootout with guards.

From the bowling alley the group fled to the Dickson airport, where they forced the airport manager to fly them across the Arkansas line. The plane made a crash landing near Mountain Home, Ark., where police and FBI agents hunted down the other three with dogs. But Lyons allegedly took two elderly hostages in a pickup truck and forced them to drive him to Covington, Ky., where agents say he politely asked to borrow $2 and strolled across an Ohio River bridge into his native Cincinnati, leaving a sawed-off shotgun behind. Two in the Rackets

The next two names are the bureau's pride -- alleged real-life mobsters. During Hoover's tenure the FBI acquired a reputation for refusing to get involved in the complex and time-consuming area of organized crime. Of the Most Wanted Fugitives listed before 1970, only one, F. J. Tenuto, was regarded as having authentic mob credentials. Tenuto, put on the list in 1950, was removed in 1964 when the bureau heard through underworld sources that he might be buried under a new stretch of roadway somewhere on the East Coast.

Carl W. Hurst Jr., who as head of the fugitive unit supervised the Most Wanted list during the last of the Hoover years, said, "The problem with organized crime is that there are not that many candidates [for the list] -- there's not that many on fugitive status."

The two alleged mob figures currently gracing the list come from towns with thriving underworld traditions -- Boston and Cleveland. Joseph Maurice McDonald, who is technically wanted on Charges of "Illegal transportation of stolen property," was a member of the Winter Hill Gang in Boston, with special responsibility in the areas of loansharking and gambling, said the FBI's Carlson. The "stolen property" in question was a stamp collection worth $500,000 that was stolen in Boston and taken to California. A witness scheduled to testify against McDonald and another defendant was shot to death in Los Angeles.

Anthony Dominic Liberatore was an official of the Laborers Union Local 860 in Cleveland and a member of the regional sewer commission. So it came as something of a surprise to the citizenry when he was indicted last March on Charges that he had conspired to kill Cleveland mobster Daniel J. Greene, who was exploded following a visit to the dentist as part of what Justice Department officials describe as an ongoing dispute about synedicate leadership between his Irish Gang and a more established, heavily Italian group known as the Jack White Organization.

Liberatore has not been seen since the day before his indictment, though the union reportedly continued to apy his salary for a time after his dsiappearance.

FBI agents said it's likely McDonald is hiding in or near the Boston area; They won't speculate about Liberatore's whereabouts. He has money and contacts, they say. If he is caught it will be because of underworld informers with wagging tongues, or because of his own taste for high living, deep-sea diving and private planes. "He's the type of a guy who's going to stay in a Ramada and not in a sleazy motel," said George J. Lyford of the bureau's Cleveland office. Murder at Sandy Creek

And there is Charlie Hughes.

The presence of Charles Everett Hughes on the Most Wanted list may be the best indication that the Hooverera obsession with the FBI's image is waning. A thoroughly corrupt bureaucracy would do almost anything to keep the story of Hughes -- and of the four "Sandy Creek Murders" with which he is charged -- from becoming widely known. By publicizing the Hughes case, the bureau is voluntarily alerting the press to a situation in which an agent of the bureau acted at best clumsily.

The case has sparked graver charges by a local prosecutor and grand jury in Florida and is cruuently under internal investigation by the Department of Justice in Washington.

On Jan. 23, 1977, Harold Sims, 39, and Douglas Glen Hood, 21, picked up a pair of teen-aged sisters, Sheila and Sandy McAdams, 14 and 16 respectively, at a night spot near Panama City, Fla., and drove with them to a deserted stretch of Gulf coastline known as the Sandy Creek area. Seven months later, a group of University of Florida students skindiving in a deep sinkhole insearch of Indian artifacts found the skeletons of the four, tied and gagged and weighted with cement blocks. During the investigation of their deaths, it was learned that the Florida Marine patrol had found several bales of marijuana floating in the water near Sandy Creek on the night they disappeared.

An investigation by the U.S. Customs Service at the time had implicated a man named Bobby Joe Vines in a possible marijuana smuggling operation. But there was a complication: Vines was an FBI informant who had been feeding information to Agent Donald Baldwin of the Tallahassee office about an impending drug deal.

Baldwin had met with Vines to ask about the deal, but since those meetings the informant had vanished. Then, with the impetus of four murders, a renewed hunt was begun, and Vines was eventually arrested at a Texas border station. In return for immunity, he agreed to testify about the murders, and told this story:

The hapless four had stumbled on a major smuggling operation, possibly involving 15 or more tons of marijuana. Sims had been shot on the spot by Walter G. Steinhorst, one of the "guards" Vines had hired to protect him and his crew as they unloaded the dope from a shrimp trawler named the Gunsmoke. When he learned of the killing, Vines said, he ordered Steinhorst, David Goodwin and another "guard," Charlie Hughes, to intimidate the others into silence and then let them go. Instead, they had methodically executed the remaining three, thrown them into a sinkhole, and bragged about their thoroughness when they saw Vines later that night. Vines said he hurriedly sold the share of dope he received for his role in the unloading, then offered the proceeds -- $10,000 -- to Baldwin at their meeting a few days later. Baldwin reportedly later said that he had turned the money down because he feared it was a bribery setup.

After a grand jury investigation of the murders and the dope deal, Bay County state attorney Leo Jones charged that the deal had been set up by a "paid informant" of the FBI and charged the bureau with a cover-up of its role during the seven months before the bodies were found. Eleven people have been convicted on federal drug charges growing out of the smuggling-murder incident. Steinhorst and Goodwin have been sentenced to death for the murders. Hughes, also charged with murder, was never caught.

Baldwin and John O'Rourke, special agent in charge of the Jacksonville Field Office, both refused to comment on the bureau's handling of the case, except to say that it is now under investigation by the Justice Department. O'Rourke did say that Baldwin has not been disciplined.

Assistant U.S. atorney Donald Modesitt in Tallahassee minimizes Jones's charges. "Up to the time that the deal occurred, I can't see anything that Baldwin should have done differently," he said. He conceded that Baldwin's handling of Vines after the incident might be criticized, but said there was "not a word" of proof that the FBI had tried to cover up the drug operation before the bodies were found. "His [jones's] statements are just so incredible," Modesitt said. "It's so sad that he distorts them like he did."

O'Rourke said that the testimony before the Florida grand jury had been released to the Department of Justice and forwarded to the department's office of professional responsibility in Washington, which investigates allegations of misconduct by Justice Department employes. Michael E. Shaheen, counsel for the office, said an investigation was under way, and that his office could, if it saw fit, recommend criminal or disciplinary action against those involved. He refused to comment further.

Meanwhile, Charlie Hughes remains a fugitive. FBI officials say he is an avid motorcyclist, with a taste for Harley-Davidsons and a talent for auto repair. "He's been heavily involved in the drug scene," said Richard Staver of the Jacksonville office. In fact, Hughes is wanted as a potential witness to a shooting which took place in May 1977 in College Park, Ga., during another drug transaction. "He's not the type of Pretty Boy Floyd who goes around machine-gunning people," Staver said. "But, given the right situation, he would use lethal force. He's known to carry firearms on him at all times."

The FBI now believes it knows within "some proximity of where he may be," Staver said. "That's not to say his capture is imminent or anything like that." Vintage Gee-whiz

So there they are: 10 accused firebrands, incendiaries, cutpurses, rogues, escapees, mobsters, killers: the FBI's 10 most wanted fugitives in the nation as of lthe first day of 1979.

Like a lot of what the FBI does, the list is a mixture of solid law-enforcement, slick public relations, political savvy and vintage American gee-whiz. One of the 10 may have been caught by the time these words are printed. If so, there will have been lots of ink in newspapers coast to coast devoted to the story, most of it favorable to the FBI.

And there don't seem to be any Walter B. O'Donnells on the list -- no "Why-faced little men" who pose s limited threat to society. Most of us small depositors would be better off if Willie Sellers came back to finish his 65-year hitch. A lot of East Tennessee law officers would breathe easier if they found Billy Dean Anderson in a cave in Big South Fork or on the streets of one of our major cities; and as for Kathy Power, well, like the man said, it has to be cleared up.

Even William W. Turner himself, who had characterized the list so unflatteringly in his book eight years ago, agrees the list is not what it used to be.

"It has changed," he said after a minute. "I'm glad to see them grappling with some of the tougher problems." CAPTION: Picture 1, Carlos Alberto Torres; Picture 2, Ronald Lee Lyons; Picture 3, Anthony Dominic Liberatore; Picture 4, Katherine Anne Power; Picture 5, Raymond Luc Levasseur; Picture 6, Charles Everett Hughes; Picture 7, Charles Lee Herron; Picture 8, Billy Dean Anderson; Picture 9, Willie Foster Sellers; Picture 10, Joseph Maurice McDonald; Picture 11, The 10 Most Wanted Fugitive list is a triumph of modern public relations. FBI publicity materials include wall posters, "indentification orders" bearing fingerprints, slides for television stations, pre-timed radio scripts and wallet-sized cards for identification of the fugitive. Publicity can help catch fugitives. It can also improve the bureauhs image.; Pictures 12, 13, 14, 15, Kathy Power and Charles Lee Herron are the two long-timers on the Top 10. With both fugitives, agents are hindered by the lack of current photographs. In Power's case, they don't even have fingerprints. And, says an agent in Boston, "what she looks like is anybody's speculation." Above, an FBI artist's speculation about possible hairdos, added to a videotape image taken when she was cashing a check. With Herron, says a spokesman for the Memphis office, "when you don't know what you're looking for, you don't see it right." In the photo above he sports a "composite snap-brim hat" because no one knows how he's wearing his hair now.; Picture 16, Above, a communique signed by the FALN, a Puerto Rican nationalist group which FBI spokesmen say has claimed credit for 93 actual or attempted bombings since 1975. Five people have died in bombings credited to the FALN. AP; investigate a blast at the Mobil Oil office in New York which killed one person. Agents say that a fingerprint found at the scene belonged to Marie Haydee Torres, wife of one of the Top 10. Left, the last time anyone saw Kathy Power, she was living in this Boston apartment. Police say they found stolen weapons there. Picture 17, 18, Above left, police Picture 19, Anthony D. Liberatore dropped out of sight last March when he was indicted in the bomb slaying of a Cleveland racketeer.; Picture 20, Bobby Joe Vines, the FBI informant who hired Charles Everett Hughes and two other men who have already been convicted of the Sandy Creek murders, testifies against one of his former employes. Federal and state authorities gave Vines immunity in exchange for testimony. Photograph by Vern Miller, Panama City News -- Herald; Picture 21, "Sandy Creek," a deserted stretch of coast near Panama City, Fla., was the site of four grisly murders which spurred charges by a local prosecutor that the FBI "set up" the drug operation which led to the Killings. One top 10 fugitive, Charles Everett Hughes, is charged with the murders. Photographs by Vem Miller, Panama City News-Herald. Illustration, Cover painting by Steven Dohanos. Reprinted by permission of the Saturday Evening Post, Copyright (c) 1953, The Curtis Publishing Company.