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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."
| By Mervyn Rothstein | From 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."  

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.  

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."  

He has no favorite brands, although he does enjoy Partagas, H. Upmanns, Davidoffs, Dunhills, Macanudos and Cuban Cohibas. "When I go to [cigar] clubs, whether or not I'm a member, people give me cigars, all different brands, all the time," he says. "I believe in being open-minded. I smoke Cohibas from Cuba. The Cohiba Robusto is a great cigar. I'm also very partial to cigars from Honduras. I often wonder, because I've tried so many cigars, is it the mystique or is the climate and soil in Cuba so conducive to making the world's finest tobacco? Or are they so special because you're not supposed to smoke them?"   Walsh collects humidors, of which he owns several Dunhills. He is also an avid wine buff and a collector of estate-bottled California Chardonnays. "I stopped drinking a while back, but I still use [the wine] for guests," Walsh says. "I'll go to Napa, Sonoma, Russian River, if I'm on location, and stop and have a case or two shipped back."  

Walsh has had more than his share of honors. In 1988 he was named the U.S. Marshals Man of the Year, and two years later he was given the same recognition by the FBI, the bureau's highest civilian award. He has been honored in the Rose Garden of the White House four times by three presidents: Clinton, Bush and Reagan (twice).   His lobbying efforts continue, especially for a constitutional amendment for victims' rights. He hosts training videos for the FBI. His second best-selling book, 1998's No Mercy, written with Philip Lerman, is about the hunt for some of the criminals profiled on "America's Most Wanted" and he is working on a third, about the show and its search for evildoers.  

Walsh has racked up a miraculous list of accomplishments for his 54 years. Perhaps accordingly, he says, his future goals are comparatively simple. "I'd like to get my kids through college," he says with a smile. "Because when Hayden goes--he's 5 now--tuition should be about a half million dollars for four years. I just hope--I've had a lot of close calls, a couple of motorcycle accidents, I've almost drowned twice, I was stranded in the ocean, I was on a commuter plane that collided with another one on the ground at an airport, I was mugged and almost stabbed--I'd like to live long enough to see my kids grow up."  

Walsh would also like to continue in the entertainment business. "I'm fascinated by television. I think of this as my career, until they bounce me out. I'd like to get behind the camera some day and be a full-blown producer and director. But in this business you're only as good as your ratings. It's a harsh reality.  

"You learn through all kinds of things--through experience, through meeting the parents of murdered children--that you take life one day at a time. I'm the perfect example that no matter how prepared you are, or how goal-oriented you are, no matter what your dreams and aspirations are, one day, one event can change your life forever."  

Until this moment, Walsh has been forceful, positive and strong. But now one question, one hypothetical query, will for a brief but telling moment change that impression, will reveal the pain beneath the strength, the anguish that powers this resilient man.  

Is it right to assume that if he could go back and change that one day, that one event, he would gladly give up everything he has accomplished since?   There is silence. His eyes glaze, moisture forms, his voice chokes, then breaks.   "Everything," he says, in a barely audible whisper. "In a minute. I wouldn't want anybody to walk in my shoes. For anything."   Silence again. But not for long.   "I gotta go to work," he says, rising and striding powerfully out the door.   He is, after all, John Walsh. Manhunter.

Mervyn Rothstein is an editor at The New York Times.

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