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Man Hunter

A personal tragedy led John Walsh to become one of America's most dedicated crime fighters and the host of "America's Most Wanted."
Mervyn Rothstein
From the Print Edition:
Bo Derek, Jul/Aug 00

It is a cold Friday afternoon, and John Walsh is talking gravely into the camera at the Fox television studios in northwest Washington, D.C.  

He is wearing a shiny, dark-gray-silk double-breasted suit and a stark black turtleneck. His once-dark hair is more than slightly salted with white, and his craggy good looks are a little withered from time. Walsh, 54, looks charismatic and debonair, but also a bit foreboding. His demeanor almost shouts, "Wrongdoers, beware!" And with good reason. As host of "America's Most Wanted: America Fights Back," Walsh, along with his program, has become a leading crusader in humanity's never-ending battle against evil.  

As the cameras run and the tapes roll, two banks of operators answer telephones and multiple video screens fill with images of wanted posters and subdued men and women in orange prison suits being escorted to and from their cells. Walsh stares into the camera and appeals to the audience of millions who watch him every week. "We're counting on you," he says, grimly. "We need you to help capture these criminals and put them back behind bars, where they belong."

With the aid of hundreds of thousands of calls, many of them anonymous tips, "America's Most Wanted" has caught a veritable army of criminals. The numbers are staggering. In more than 12 years of prime-time Saturday nights, "America's Most Wanted" has helped apprehend more than 600 fugitives in the United States and elsewhere. Twelve of them have been on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Most Wanted list. And, perhaps even more important than catching escaped convicts, the program has helped rescue 26 children abducted by strangers.  

"Louis Freeh [the director of the FBI] told me that when they are looking for a dangerous fugitive, they always ask us to profile him," Walsh says, sitting in his personal Winnebago parked outside the Fox studio. "That's part of what makes it all worthwhile."   Life is very worthwhile for Walsh these days. In the past 19 years, he has been a tireless crusader for children's and victims' rights. Walsh and his wife, Revé, led the fight for passage of the federal Missing Children's Act of 1982 and the federal Missing Children's Assistance Act of 1984. The latter legislation created the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which maintains a toll-free hotline number (800-THE-LOST) to report a missing child or the sighting of one. The Walshes also founded the Adam Walsh Child Resource Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to legislative reform, which later merged with the missing children's center. 

Walsh's knowledge of the world of law enforcement is not secondhand. His epic battle against crime and criminals began on July 27, 1981, when his 6-year-old son, Adam, was kidnapped and murdered. Adam was seized at a Sears store in a Hollywood, Florida, mall after being left alone briefly to play a video game while his mother walked a short distance away to look for a lamp.   It is a horror that Walsh has written and talked about often; it was the subject of a 1983 television movie, Adam, starring Daniel J. Travanti of "Hill Street Blues," and a 1986 sequel, Adam: His Song Continues. (Photographs of a total of 110 missing children and a toll-free phone number followed the film; 65 of those children were retrieved or accounted for.) The tragedy also fills most of Tears of Rage, Walsh's best-selling 1997 autobiography, written with Susan Schindehette. It is the raison d'être behind everything Walsh has done--and become--in the last two decades. And it is the reason why when John Walsh talks about combating crime, it is with a passion and devotion that few others can muster.  

"The first guy we ever caught, back in 1988, was the reason I decided to do 'America's Most Wanted,'" he says over a Chinese takeout lunch that sits largely neglected. "I had turned Fox down for six months. I could never envision myself on television." The network considered Treat Williams, Teresa Saldana and many others. "And they all said yes," Walsh says. "But the producers wanted me."   What finally convinced Walsh was learning about David James Roberts, an FBI top-10 fugitive whom the producers hoped to feature on the first show. It was the possibility of capturing Roberts that persuaded Walsh to go on the air.   "He had raped a woman and killed four people, two of them small children," recalls Walsh, soberly. "He was a child killer who had escaped from an Indiana medical facility on his way back to prison and had gotten a gun, after being sentenced to six life terms. Every FBI manhunter was looking for him. They knew he was a psychopath. And we featured him on the first show and nailed him in four days.  

"And you know what? This FBI top-10 fugitive was running a shelter for the homeless in Staten Island, New York. Ed Koch, who was then mayor of New York City, had gone to Staten Island a month before and given him an award at the shelter. And Roberts's picture had appeared with Mayor Koch in the New York Daily News. So, it's been a great partnership with the FBI. That was the first, and it's never stopped."  

This past January, the first show of the new year led to yet another killer being nabbed. A phone tip from a couple in Dallas led to the capture less than 24 hours later of Kyle Bell, a 32-year-old child killer from North Dakota, who had been featured five times previously on "America's Most Wanted." In October 1999, Bell had escaped through the roof hatch of a bus that was taking him to a maximum-security prison in Oregon. He had been convicted of murder two months earlier in connection with the August 1993 disappearance of an 11-year-old girl in Fargo, North Dakota. Bell had a driver's license under an assumed name, but fingerprints and tattoos confirmed his identity.  

"Bell was our Public Enemy No. 1," Walsh says in his highly animated, rapid-fire voice. "I was so worried, because the show was preempted over the holidays. I kept on praying that he wouldn't hurt somebody. We put an FBI agent who was in the studio on the phone with the tipsters, Bell's neighbors in Dallas. The agent called the Dallas FBI, who called the Dallas police, and they staked out his apartment, found out he wasn't inside, waited for him to come back and got him. It was a great capture. And he's being taken to that supermaximum prison in Oregon where he belongs. So it was a good week."  

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