The Heartbreaking Story Behind The Origin Of America’s Most Wanted

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Over America’s Most Wanted’s multi-decade run, the show helped authorities apprehend hundreds of criminals, bringing closure to victims across the country. But that incredible level of justice came at a heartbreaking cost. Indeed, there’s a surprisingly dark and personal story behind the origins of this hugely successful series. And it’s one that’s haunted its famous host for nearly 40 years.

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America’s Most Wanted first debuted on Fox in 1988 and met with instant success. In fact, it went on to become one of the longest-running shows on network television, with 24 seasons in total. And its impact was felt across the nation, as it led to the capture of over 1,100 wanted criminals – 17 of whom had appeared on the Ten Most Wanted list compiled by the FBI.

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The show achieved this monumental feat of justice by bringing national attention to dangerous fugitives. America’s Most Wanted would re-enact their crimes, interview witnesses and law enforcement professionals and broadcast photos and psychological profiles of the suspects. And across each hour-long episode, host John Walsh became an authoritative voice for victims.

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At first, some law enforcement organizations weren’t convinced by the show’s merits. But it didn’t take long for them to change their mind. In 1988 executive producer Michael L. Linder told the The New York Times that lawmen “bombard us with tips and requests for help.” The F.B.I. also cooperated with the series, appointing agents to liaise between producers and the bureau.

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In the same article, Robert M. Morgenthau – Manhattan’s District Attorney at the time – praised the show. “If the media, through publicity, can contribute to the apprehension of dangerous criminals, I’m all for it.” He went on, “Besides, it’s very expensive to track down criminals. A couple of detectives or F.B.I. agents can spend months or years searching for someone. It seems to me that this is a wonderful way to save the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

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The show found its feet almost instantly. The very first criminal profiled on America’s Most Wanted, David James Roberts, was a fugitive who had escaped prison 18 months prior. He’d been serving multiple life sentences for kidnapping, rape and murder. And within four days of the episode airing, Roberts – who had made Ten Most Wanted list – was back in custody.

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As the show took off, calls began pouring in. In fact, in its early years, as many as 5,000 viewers contacted the hotline every single week. Back then, the series’ producers had to change the telephone number every year, to better track the tips received. For example, it was 1-800-CRIME-88 one year, and 1-800-CRIME-89 the next. Then, in 1994, the number changed permanently to 1-800-CRIME-TV, and remained open for another decade.

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Not everyone, however, was on board with the show. While the fugitives featured were mostly fair game, the American Civil Liberties Union took issue with America’s Most Wanted’s spotlight on suspects. The organization’s director of public education, Colleen O’Connor, told The New York Times in 1988 that these profiles could interfere with the course of justice. She asked, “Can someone get a fair trial after he’s been portrayed as a killer on television?”

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But producer Linder countered that civil liberties were always at the forefront of America’s Most Wanted. He said, “If one killer was set free because of pretrial publicity from us, the show would be a failure.” Walsh also closed off each episode by reinforcing that any suspects were innocent until proven guilty, while making pointed use of words such as “reportedly” and “allegedly.”

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And yet, despite its popularity, the show briefly went off-air in 1996, as Fox moved Married… With Children into its timeslot. The decision provoked outrage from all corners: 37 governors, 55 members of Congress and 200,000 members of the public wrote to the network to complain, alongside a vocal outcry from law enforcement. In the end, America’s Most Wanted was canceled for just four weeks.

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When America’s Most Wanted reached its milestone 1,000th episode in 2010, then-President Barack Obama made a surprising guest appearance. John had assumed his meeting with the leader would just be a simple meet-and-greet. Instead, Obama took him into the White House’s Blue Room to discuss the anti-crime initiatives spearheaded by his administration, as well as the impact the show had had on the nation.

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America’s Most Wanted ended its run as a regular series on Fox the following year, before moving briefly to Lifetime. Its new network ordered a total of 44 episodes, which led to the arrest of further 100 criminals. But its last episode pulled in just 800,000 viewers, and the broadcaster finally called time on the long-running show in 2013.

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Since the show’s inception, it’s become practically impossible to disassociate the host from the show, given his ubiquitous presence across its run. Surprisingly, though, John wasn’t the first name Fox considered for hosting duties. Actors Theresa Saldana and Brian Dennehy, as well as author Joseph Wambaugh, were all on the list. Ultimately, though, the role went to the former hotel manager, who by then was a prolific victims’ rights advocate.

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A native of Auburn, New York, John began his career in Florida’s hotel business in 1968. His college education propelled him through the ranks into management, and in 1971 he married his wife Revé. Three years later, she gave birth to their firstborn son, Adam. Events would soon drive the future host to leave the hospitality industry, however, and move into the sphere of children’s rights advocacy.

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In 1982, for example, the couple launched a political campaign that led to the introduction of the Missing Children Act. This groundbreaking law established a national clearinghouse for lost children across the United States, using the FBI’s National Criminal Information Center. Parents of vanished youngsters can access the center’s resources to ensure that local police departments are working together.

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But the Missing Children Act wasn’t the only new piece of legislation created that day. Then-President Ronald Reagan also signed into law a measure that orders judges to take into account the crime’s effect on the victim. “It is high time the legal system showed the honest citizen as much concern as it does the criminal,” he said at the time. But for the Walshes, this important step was just the beginning.

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Along with fellow child advocates, the Walshes went on to found the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in 1984. The non-profit, privately-run organization is the America’s centralized facility for issues concerning lost youngsters. According to its website, the facility provides “a coordinated, nationwide response,” underpinned by technology, laws, training and increased public awareness.

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In the nearly four decades since NCMEC was first established, over five million calls have been made to its hotline. The organization has also spread billions of images of missing children and aided authorities in finding over 327,000 lost kids. Furthermore, its team of volunteers has provided emotional support and resources to over 74,000 families.

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Even when John began hosting America’s Most Wanted, though, he persevered with ventures beyond the show. For instance, in 2008 he worked with John Morgan, a lawyer based in Florida, to establish Washington, D.C.’s National Museum of Crime and Punishment. The museum was intended to focus on the heroics of law enforcement, rather than the infamy of criminals.

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Visitors to the museum could learn about the history of crime in America, attempt to outwit a lie detector and even try to escape from prison. Walsh’s connection, though, wasn’t in name only. America’s Most Wanted even moved its production to a studio beneath the facility. Unfortunately, the paid attraction closed its doors for good in 2015, amid strong competition from the capitol’s free museums.

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The Walshes’ passion for children’s rights campaigning, however, didn’t come from nowhere. Indeed, it’s actually deeply rooted in a tragedy that beset the couple years before America’s Most Wanted aired. It was those heartbreaking circumstances that ultimately led to the future host’s career in victims’ rights advocacy – and, therefore, his role in making the show a success.

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On July 27, 1981, Revé headed to a Sears department store with Adam, then six years old, in tow. While shopping, she left the little boy in the toy section, where he was watching some older kids playing video games. But when she returned no more than ten minutes later, her son had vanished.

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It later transpired that the older group of boys had left the store at the behest of a security guard. Adam, possibly too afraid to say anything, simply followed them out. His parents immediately initiated a huge, widespread search for their son, but four days later, police hit a dead end. Then, on August 10 – some 16 days since his disappearance – two fishermen discovered the boy’s remains in a drainage channel 100 miles away.

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Adam’s murder went unsolved for two years. Finally, in October 1983, convicted murderer Ottis Toole confessed to the deed from a Florida prison, claiming to have buried the boy’s body. But police failed to find the remains at the site Toole gave. This, added to the subsequent lack of physical evidence, meant prosecutors couldn’t file charges against him. A few months later, the convict recanted his confession, taking the investigation back to square one.

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Toole, on death row for his previous crimes, passed away from AIDS and cirrhosis of the liver in 1996. The Walshes, then, were left without closure. But 12 years later, Hollywood, Florida’s police department announced it was satisfied that the convict was, in fact, guilty of Adam’s murder and closed the case. No new evidence, however, had come to light. The authorities simply decided it was time the little boy’s parents got some peace.

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At the time, Chad Wagner, the Hollywood Police Chief, admitted the initial investigation had been blighted by mistakes and apologized to the couple. Despite the lack of evidence, though, the couple were satisfied with the outcome. Walsh told AARP The Magazine in 2013, “When Adam’s case was finally solved, it closed that chapter completely for my wife, Revé, and me – and that’s huge.”

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Adam’s disappearance reverberated across America, stoking fear among parents. But it was also a catalyst for change in the way authorities and the press responded to news of missing children. What’s more, errors made during the investigation brought about improvements that have since saved lives, according to child advocates. The Walshes, meanwhile, began receiving letters from other people with lost youngsters, or who had themselves been exploited as kids.

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These letters prompted the couple to begin lobbying for change, propelling them into the national spotlight. During the initial hunt for their son, the Walshes had been frustrated by the overlapping jurisdictions and internal disorganization of local law enforcement. In the days following their son’s funeral, then, they set up the Adam Walsh Outreach Center for Missing Children.

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John told The New York Times that the couple’s focus shifted to establishing a national clearinghouse. He said, “It might not have helped us find Adam. But it certainly would have facilitated our heartbreak. When I started searching for Adam, I found that 70 percent of the police departments in Florida didn’t know he was missing. What chance did I have of getting my son back, alive or dead?”

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The Adam Walsh Outreach Center was the first step in an effort that would eventually lead to the creation of the NCMEC. The little boy’s case was also the subject of two TV movies, Adam and Adam: His Song Continues, broadcast in 1983 and 1986 respectively. Both aired on NBC, with the America’s Most Wanted host played by American actor Daniel J. Travanti.

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The influence of Adam’s case continued to be felt during the next decade. In 1994 Wal-Mart created the Code Adam program, which outlines strict procedures for retail employees to follow when a child is reported missing. Among the steps taken are store-wide dissemination of their description, monitoring of entrances and exits and notifying police after ten minutes. These guidelines have since been adopted by other stores across the country.

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Further lobbying by the couple saw the introduction of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act in 2006. The bill was supposed to establish a national registry for serious sex offenders, but states were initially uncooperative. According to critics, the law treats minors unfairly, as they can end up on the record for their entire lives. But the host says it’s actually meant to deal with the worst criminals who violated their parole and subsequently disappeared.

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In a 1992 interview with Syracuse, New York’s regional newspaper The Post-Standard, Walsh said the entire ordeal left him humorless. “I’ll tell you, I didn’t laugh or crack a joke for five years after Adam was murdered.” He went on, “I was the most morose, heartbroken father. [I’m] still a heartbroken father, but I’ve got two more little kids. And they cannot live in the shadow and specter of what happened to Adam.”

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The couple now have three grown-up children, in fact; their daughter, Meghan, and two sons, Hayden and Callahan. They also have Ava, their granddaughter. However, things could easily have gone very differently for the couple, according to Walsh. In the same 1992 interview, he told The Post-Standard that their marriage almost didn’t survive Adam’s loss.

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John recalled, “We loved each other, but for a long period, all we had in common was the long nightmare of Adam’s murder. We fought to stay together. I think we’re lucky. We beat the odds.” Part of the couple’s success may be down to their tireless crusade for victims’ rights which, the host said, was originally initiated at Revé’s urging.

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The aftermath of Adam’s kidnapping also destroyed any semblance of privacy the couple once enjoyed. Not long after his remains were discovered, a reporter arrived on the Walshes’ doorstep at 4:00 a.m. According to John, she was under orders from her editor to get a quote or find a new job. He recalled, “I said, ‘Tell that son of a b**** to come to the house. And I’ll never forget it.”

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Even while John hosted America’s Most Wanted, he still managed to travel around the United States, speaking out about children’s issues. And he told The Post-Standard that as a victim himself, he took an “ironic satisfaction” in fronting a series that helped to apprehend criminals. However, it also came with endless threats against his life and, consequently, he needed bodyguards.

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As of January 2020, Fox was aiming to relaunch the series – this time with a global reach. It’s unlikely the original host will reprise his role, though, as the venerable presenter currently fronts In Pursuit with John Walsh. The show follows a similar format to America’s Most Wanted, as John and son Callahan present unsolved cases to the public.

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Nevertheless, the ordeal is something that will never leave John. As he told Nightline in 2009, “I’ll always be the parent of a murdered child. Adam will always be in my mind. Your heart is broken. It doesn’t matter if it was six months ago or 27 years ago. Your heart is broken. People deal with it differently. Some descend into hell in different ways and you live in that hell.”

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If any good could come of the Walshes’ horrific experience, it’s that John managed to turn his grief into a crusade for justice. And thanks to his hosting of America’s Most Wanted, more than 1,200 criminals are now behind bars. It’s a stat that the doting dad hopes would have made Adam proud. “I think wherever he is, he is [proud],” he said. “He would be a 35-year-old man. I don’t know, I hope so. I loved that little boy.”

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