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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

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Walsh has said repeatedly--he has been supported by police agencies and by FBI agents--that he believes that the Hollywood police botched the case and lost evidence, including the Cadillac that Toole might have used in the crime, which may have contained incriminating bloodstains. In 1996, Walsh had hoped to get a final deathbed confession from Toole, but the killer died before that could happen. "They should have indicted Ottis," Walsh says. "The evidence is overwhelming. To find out that they lost his car, they lost the bloody carpet in the back that Louis Freeh could have tested, and then in one day I would have known--it's frustrating. It would have provided closure of a sort. But in my heart I know that Ottis Toole killed Adam."  

Walsh has over the years also not had happy things to say about the media, and he still feels that way. It all began when subtle innuendos began to appear in Florida papers about his and his wife's possible involvement in Adam's disappearance, even though they had both been completely exonerated by the police after extensive lie-detector examinations. The press raised those questions in part because Revé had been having an affair that ended before the abduction and murder, even though her lover had been completely cleared as well.  

"More than ever," he says, "the press is not necessarily in the business of telling the fully objective story about anything. The Dan Rathers and Ted Koppels of the world have long said that the line between tabloid and mainstream journalism is now totally blurred. In things like the Monica Lewinsky story, the tabloids set the complete agenda. So there is no such thing as fair and objective reporting."  

Despite those additional heartbreaks and difficulties, Walsh knows that these days at least, he is blessed. "I have three more children," he says. "I have met thousands of parents of murdered children, people who come up to me and beg me to do their cases, parents of missing children who don't know what has happened to them. You can deal with the loss of a spouse, a parent, a sister, a brother, however difficult it may be. But you are not supposed to bury your children. They are your immortality. Eighty percent of the parents of murdered children wind up in divorce. Revé and I have had some very rocky times, very tough times. The only thing you have in common initially is the grief, the heartache, the sad memories. It puts a terrible strain on any relationship. But we have been blessed over these years to have these three more beautiful, healthy children. And I have had a way to channel my anger.  

"I never dreamed I would be a manhunter," he says. "I always fantasized, the way every parent of a murdered child does, about getting even with Adam's murderer in some way, if they could find him. That he would be punished horribly. But you know what? I've never had to pick up a gun, and we've caught more than 600 fugitives. And the thing I am most proud of is that we have those 26 children back alive. I've met 17 of those kids, and their parents have come up to me and said that 'if it wasn't for what you did--and for the TV program, and your wife, and the missing children's center'--their children would be dead in a field somewhere. So that's what I reflect on."  

When he is not thinking about society's problems or trying to help solve them, in those rare moments when he has spare time, Walsh has a few favorite pastimes: smoking cigars, collecting wine, riding motorcycles and playing in the water. He is an inveterate--and intrepid--scuba diver. Once, years before the tragedy, he was stranded for 18 hours in the waters off Florida and almost given up for dead. Not surprisingly, since he is a quintessential survivor, friends refused to give up the search and rescued him.  

He has in him, he acknowledges, more than a touch of the daredevil, a recklessness, a physical bravery in pursuit of the outdoor activities he adores. It is simply that the exhilaration outweighs the risks, he says. He has always loved motorcycles, for example, and despite being in two accidents that resulted in a fractured shoulder and 70 stitches, he continues to ride.   "I've loved bikes since I was young," he says. "I've owned lots of motorcycles. I love the off-the-road dirt bikes. But now I'm down to two--a big cream-colored Harley-Davidson Heritage Soft Tail, a collector's bike, and an English Royal Enfield from 1970, with a chrome gas tank and chrome fenders. I got the stitches from doing wheelies, fooling around on the bike. I like to do tricks, but I'm too old for that now. Riding is more of a therapeutic mind-cleansing thing. It takes my mind off everything else--you have to stay focused on that bike, because I know firsthand that any minute something can happen. People say it's dangerous, but when I get on a bike in the wind, my mind really appreciates the beauty of wherever it is I'm riding."  

He also enjoys surfing (although he doesn't surf as much as he used to), jet skiing, and scuba diving and snorkeling. He even has an antique wooden boat that he keeps docked near his summer home.   His love of cigars is among his gentler pursuits--a love that has lasted for nearly 40 years. "I had an uncle, Jim Callahan, who owned a big construction company," Walsh recalls. "He smoked cigars day and night, and because of him I've loved the smell of cigars since I was a little boy. So when I got to the legal age, I started smoking them. I smoked them in college, long before they were trendy."  

These days Walsh smokes about three or four cigars a week. He used to smoke more, but because of time constraints he had to limit his intake. "There's kind of a camaraderie about cigars, but I've also smoked them by myself. I like to smoke cigars by the ocean, by the water. To me, sitting by the water is the most peaceful, most relaxing thing. It's better than any therapist is. It really makes you understand how minuscule you are and how truly unimportant your monumental problems are. And a cigar is a great way to pass that time."  

He also enjoys smoking on location. "We put in 14- to 17-hour days on a regular basis. We'll sometimes shoot all night. And at 4 in the morning in, say, Las Vegas, I'll go into the Winnebago and smoke a cigar. Or I'll sit outside at 5 in the morning and smoke. It's a great way to wind down after a busy day, a great way to solve things."  

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