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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

(continued from page 1)

Walsh pauses and reflects. It has not only been a good week, he says, it has been a very good, very rewarding and very busy year. Before the Christmas holidays, Walsh traveled to eight or nine cities in two weeks. The demands are high on a host of a high-profile television show. Walsh is no exception. "We do nearly 50 shows a year--there are no repeats--and we're on location four months a year. And I'm still giving speeches at colleges or other venues, testifying before legislatures--anything that has to do with children's rights, victims' rights, repeat-offender statutes for hard-core criminals. So I'll meet with governors and testify--that's my own agenda, it has nothing to do with the show.  

"I thought the travel would diminish somewhat last year because it's really tough on the family. I bring the family on location with me, but it's not the same as being home." Walsh and his wife, who maintain a residence outside of Washington, D.C., have three children: a daughter, Meghan, 18, and two sons, Callahan, 15, and Hayden, 5.  

The rewards help to compensate for the time away from his family, he says. In September 1999, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children dedicated its new headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia. The state-of-the-art facility features Adam Walsh's photo in the lobby. The center--Walsh is on its board--has worked on more than 68,755 cases and helped to recover more than 50,605 children; its recovery rate has risen from 69 percent in the 1980s to 93 percent today.  

Although he has played a prominent role in the children's and victims' rights movements, Walsh is quick to credit others rather than take the glory himself. "I believe everything we have been able to accomplish, including the show's being on the air 12 years, is because of the public," he says. "When I think back to everything we did that some people predicted would never happen--the bills they said would never pass, the national center they said would never come to be--it was the public that made it work. In 1996, when Fox wanted to cancel 'America's Most Wanted,' the public brought it back. I was amazed at the reaction. It was overwhelming, and it was so gratifying.  

"I knew every police agency would get mad, and they did. The U.S. Marshals protested. Federal law prohibits the FBI from commenting on a commercial venture. But Louis Freeh wrote a letter to Fox. And that was ironic, because when we first tried to get the Missing Children's Act passed, the FBI opposed it, and now we're the best of friends. And 37 governors wrote letters backing the show, as did every attorney general of every state. But Fox still didn't buckle.   "But you know what? It was 200,000 viewers--200,000 average people--who wrote Fox and made the difference. The public was the judge--not the bigwigs, not the critics, not the pundits, not the prognosticators. And it was the shortest cancellation--six weeks--in the history of network television."  

One member of the public to whom Walsh says he will be forever grateful and to whom he owes the way he has spent much of the past 19 years is Dr. Ronald Wright, a retired medical examiner from Florida.  

"When Adam was murdered, it naturally enough shook me to the core," says Walsh. "I had been raised Irish Catholic, in upstate New York. My father, who ran a cash-register company, had gone to Notre Dame. I loved life. I loved Florida. I loved to be in the water, to scuba dive. I had a job [as a partner in a Florida hotel-management firm], a career. I had started a family.   "My cousin, who's a monsignor, did Adam's memorial service. I asked him, 'How can this benevolent, wonderful God allow this to happen, this brutal homicide of this little child? If this God is really all-powerful? My cousin didn't have any answers. I was very critical of all the people who tried to console me--rabbis, priests, Protestant ministers. Many of them gave me very bad advice. I questioned how a priest, who didn't have any children, could try to give me advice.  

"Well, one day back then, I went to see Dr. Wright, and he really put things in perspective. I was trying to get Adam's remains--they're still in the coroner's office in Broward County, as evidence--and I haven't made a concerted effort to get them back because we have a headstone for Adam near my father's. I went to see Dr. Wright late at night, because his hours are as strange as mine, and he said I looked terrible and he asked me if I was contemplating suicide. I said I wasn't, because I didn't want anybody to know how completely destroyed and devastated I was. He said that [suicide] was the easy way out, that I would doubly victimize my family if I took that course. But I had heard so much bullshit from these religious people, how time will heal. Well, come on, if your child is murdered you're going to think about it every day of your life. The only time the pain will end will be when they put you in your grave. All that stuff about it being God's will--I couldn't believe that this omnipotent, all-powerful higher power decided to have Adam murdered so I would become a child advocate. Absolutely not!   "I asked Dr. Wright how he could do what he did. He had these four girls in the cooler; they were runaways--nobody knew who they were, he was trying to find their parents --and they had been tortured, probably by a pimp. They were Jane Does. And I asked him how he could do these autopsies, how he could look at these little girls who had had their breasts cut off. And he said, 'Because I put evil people in jail. I am the guy who comes up with the evidence.' He said he believed that great evil walks on this planet, and that he saw it firsthand on a continual basis.  

"The people who prey on children like Adam, he said, do not want to live by the rules of society. They want to rob, they want to rape, they want to kill. Some of them are bright, some of them are sick, some of them are just totally evil. And it was his choice, his free will, to be the one to put them away. So I went and started talking to religious groups and said that what they should do for parents of murdered children is to just listen to them. Don't give them that high-minded rhetoric. And I got an award in Miami from a group of 1,000 clerics for changing their attitudes toward dealing with victims' parents. I believe my Catholicism and my belief in a higher power sustained me."  

Another thing that sustained him was the need to find Adam's killer, a quest he believes that he has attained but that has been frustrated by the Hollywood, Florida, police. Two weeks after his son's death, Adam's severed head was found in an isolated canal near the Florida Turnpike, west of Vero Beach, about 100 miles north of where he had been kidnapped. No further traces of his body have ever been discovered. In 1983, Ottis Elwood Toole, a 36-year-old inmate at Florida State Prison, confessed to the crime. But the convicted serial killer later recanted his confession, confessed again and recanted again, and the Hollywood police said they did not have sufficient evidence to indict him.  

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