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After 14 Years, Walsh Still on His Personal Crusade

Television* The 'America's Most Wanted' host relishes his role as 'go-to guy' for citizens and the government.

January 02, 2002|KAREN BRANDON | CHICAGO TRIBUNE

The scumbags and lowlifes, as John Walsh refers to them in his rapid-fire staccato monotone, must have dreamed of a moment such as this: Walsh, the force behind "America's Most Wanted," the Fox television show turned cultural phenomenon that has helped capture hundreds of fugitives, said he lay near death a few weeks ago in a Florida hospital, a priest at his side administering the last rites.

At that time, in mid-November, Walsh recounted in a recent interview in Los Angeles, he was believed to have a case of gastrointestinal anthrax, thought to be the result of a trip to the Brentwood postal facility in Washington, D.C. Walsh had gone there at the invitation of Postmaster General John Potter, who was announcing a $1-million reward for the capture of the people responsible for the anthrax attacks and had asked the "America's Most Wanted" operators to take telephone tips on the case. Walsh's visit took place before anyone realized the extent of the contamination that ultimately led to the death of two of the site's workers.

As Walsh lay in a Florida hospital's intensive care unit, his blood pressure falling precipitously, he said, his thoughts were of the absurdity of the situation. "You know, guys have tried to kill me. I've been in motorcycle crashes. I've been washed away at sea twice. People have shot at me, but I'm going to die from going to the post office," he recalled thinking.

It may have surprised Walsh's doctors, but few others, that Walsh, whose dramatic personal history and flair for derring-do give him a larger-than-life quality, survived that bleak November night. In fact, he didn't have anthrax but cholera, contracted while in the Middle East chasing terrorists, again by invitation. All par for the course for a businessman who was turned into a crusader by personal tragedy and who has helped change the laws of the land regarding missing children; a savvy broadcaster with no media background who founded one of television's longest-running shows, barely avoided cancellation and now looks to branch into a daytime talk show; a heartbroken father who first clashed with the FBI and then went on to win the agency's highest civilian award, as well as kudos from all levels of law enforcement.

Walsh today is the nation's "go-to guy," the man whom authorities called after the bomb went off in Oklahoma City, the man the White House called after the jets hit the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. When the kidnapping of baby Jasmine Anderson from a Chicago bus station became national news last week, Walsh was the expert CNN put on the air to talk about child-abduction cases. (Police later found the infant unharmed in West Virginia.) Three days after the first "America's Most Wanted" show aired in 1988, its first featured fugitive was caught, and the format has varied little since: File footage, background data and dramatic reenactment highlight a case, and viewers are asked to call the show's operators (not the authorities) with tips. "Most Wanted" claims to have helped catch 689 criminals, 15 of them from the FBI's most wanted list.

"We're the court of last resort," Walsh said. "We catch the uncatchable. If you're ever really desperate to solve a case," he says with pride and confidence, "you'll be calling me." In the wake of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, who has been featured on "America's Most Wanted" for years (as have other terrorists), the show seems to have a renewed purpose. Larry King had Walsh on his show last Thursday to talk about terrorists, with Walsh casually mentioning that his program "is very big in Saudi Arabia."

It may even, in some sense, have been a precursor of reality TV. "There's no more reality and illusion anymore. People don't know what's real and what's a metaphor," said Richard Walter, a professor and screenwriting chairman in the department of film, television and digital media at UCLA. "It's the real thing. It's reality, and it isn't. It's a television presentation. People are fascinated by this.

"It's absolutely a voyeuristic experience," he added, calling it "wonderfully involving" because the show calls on people to participate in crime-solving. The show, now in its 14th season, averages 9.4 million viewers on Saturday night (9 p.m., KTTV), according to Nielsen figures, down from its peak in its second year, when some 15 million viewers watched, but enough to make it one of Fox's highest-rated programs. Only three other prime-time network series ("60 Minutes," "20/20" and "Monday Night Football") have aired longer.

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