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Law Enforcement's Go-to Guy

'America's Most Wanted's' John Walsh, the man cops turn to when they are stumped, is an institution in the world of crime busters.

February 06, 2001|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A cop was dead and the trail was going cold. The Texas Seven had disappeared without a trace--again. The rogue band of prison escapees had killed the policeman in Irving, Texas, on Christmas Eve, then slipped into the night.

So the law called John Walsh. The jut-jawed host of the "America's Most Wanted" television series is law enforcement's go-to guy, the one cops call when they've run out of clues for those particularly heinous crimes that are standard fare for the weekly Fox TV show.

And because of that, he's the darling of cops nationwide. Walsh goes where other members of the media are banned; his arrival more often than not leads to a round of souvenir snapshots before work can begin.

Brief mentions of the Texas Seven on two previous episodes of "America's Most Wanted" had turned up nothing. So television's top crime buster opted to head for Texas, intent on dedicating most of his show to the gang he called "scumbags and cowards."

And, as usual, Walsh was treated like royalty when he got there. He listened as the Irving police told him what the Texas Seven had done to Officer Aubrey Hawkins, who was slain when he came upon the escapees as they were robbing a sporting-goods store of weapons, cash and clothing.

"They said to me, 'Let us tell you what these guys did to him,' " Walsh recalled. "They pulled him out of the car and shot him 12 times. They put their guns under his bulletproof vest and shot him. Then they ran over his head three times."

Such is the grist of John Walsh's life. Since it first aired in 1988, 650 criminals showcased on the program have been run to ground, most of them turned in by armchair detectives who recognized the crooks, many of whom had disappeared into the backdrop of ordinary lives.

These days, of course, there are many ways for law enforcement to highlight bad guys on the lam, ranging from traditional media to the Internet. Rare is the police department that doesn't have a Web site, complete with missing-persons and most-wanted photos (the LAPD's is particularly flashy). The FBI's Web site gets more than 1 million hits a month, and the most popular mouse click by far is the modern-day version of the most-wanted fliers.

"It's moving as fast as the changing media," said Rex Tomb, head of the FBI's fugitive publicity unit. Still, "America's Most Wanted" remains the most efficient tool in electronic sleuthing, watched by more than 9 million viewers each Saturday night in its slot between "Cops" and the evening news. There have been other such programs, including "Unsolved Mysteries," but "America's Most Wanted" is the senior citizen of those still in production.

The product of the Fox Network's infancy when there were only five outlets nationwide, it has endured 13 seasons and survived an abrupt cancellation (quickly rescinded) in 1996. Though never a blockbuster hit in the ratings wars, it has been a steady middle-of-the-pack moneymaker for Fox. And Walsh remains the staccato-voiced icon who leads his viewers each week through sordid criminal sludge.

That he was approached to do the show at all was because of a murder 20 years ago--his son's.

The death of 6-year-old Adam Walsh is, in a tragic way, the point of origin for John Walsh's celebrity. It has been like a row of cascading dominoes that has gotten him to this place where people recognize him in airports and line up for autographs.

At the time of the murder, Walsh was in the hotel business. Living in Hollywood, Fla., just north of Miami, he was the marketing and sales director for a hotel in the Bahamas. As the story goes, Walsh's wife, Reve, and Adam were shopping in a Sears store when the two separated briefly--she to the lamps department, he to toys. And then the boy disappeared.

*

In the weeks that followed, they mounted their own media blitz, culminating in an appearance on "Good Morning America." But not before receiving some disturbing news. A boy's decapitated head had been found by fishermen in a Vero Beach canal. A second call confirmed it was Adam Walsh.

First, John Walsh ripped apart his New York hotel room. Then he embarked--slowly at first--on a campaign to protect children. The hotel marketing man became a lobbyist for a law, passed in 1982, calling for the immediate investigation of any child reported missing. Two years later--in large measure because of his efforts--Walsh saw the creation of the nonprofit National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which has worked on more than 73,000 cases since its inception.

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