By official decree of the United States, Leslie Nicholas has just been declared a leader in his field. The government has a great deal to say on the subject, but Nichols could not be reached for comment.

Which is hardly surprising, because the distinction recently conferred on Leslie Nichols (also known by aliases, including "Leslie Murphy," "Trainer Barnes," and "Less Trainer") is a spot on the FBI's "10 Most Wanted Fugitives" list.

The 38-year-old former convict from Little Rock is accused of the slayings of four persons apparently involved with him in the drug trade. His long criminal history is not much different from those of the 10 assorted thugs who graced the list when it first appeared in 1950.

The FBI, however, is different from what it was 30 years ago, and the most-wanted list is something of a throwback to bygone days.

The list of what the FBI calls it "top 10" was one of the more inspired publicity ploys instituted by J. Edgar Hoover, the bureau's first director, who rarely missed a chance to polish his agency's "fighting G-men" image. A reporter asked Hoover to name the 10 "toughest guys" the FBI was chasing; the director was so taken with the idea that he made the list a permanent FBI program.

But the bureau's current director, William H. Webster, is far less concerned with public relations. Today, while the bureau still puts out a news release whenever a "most-wanted" fugitive is caught, there is none of the hoopla with which Hoover announced such successes.

The FBI says its list is still an important law enforcement tool, encouraging the public to help spot felons on the lam. But its value seems to have diminished in recent years. The bureau says that 108 of the people listed over the years were caught after tips from the public, but just eight of those cases occurred in the last decade.

Nichols, the newest nominee, is the 371st man to make the list (six women also have been on it). He is described as a dark-skinned black man of medium build with a dollar sign tattooed on his right arm. Like everyone on the list, he is "armed and extremely dangerous."

If Nichols lasts as long as the average most-wanted felon, according to the FBI's John Morrison, he will be caught within five months. But his place will be quickly filled. "At any one time we have at least 25 candidates who could be on the top 10," Morrison says.