- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 5, 2003

The abandoned warehouse buzzes with activity as the director gives instructions to the lighting crew, and the cameraman zooms in on the star. A makeup artist adds a few final brush strokes to the famous face of the man in a black suit. “Quiet on the set,” the director shouts, and then: “Action.”

It looks like show business, but it’s really much more. The crew and the star are not making a big-budget movie — they’re fighting crime.

John Walsh and the crew of “America’s Most Wanted” are shooting segments for the Fox TV series at Washington’s old Hostess bakery, chosen because the producers like the urban “mean streets” look of the century-old brick warehouse.

Now in its 16th year, “AMW” has become a Saturday night TV fixture, dramatizing the crimes of fugitives as Mr. Walsh urges viewers — in his signature phrase — to “make that call.”

And call they do. Tips from “AMW” viewers have led to the capture of 756 fugitives, including 15 from the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list.

As host of the longest-running reality series on TV, Mr. Walsh has become a cultural symbol, worthy of his own parody episode on “The Simpsons.”

“AMW” is such a powerful force that when Fox executives considered canceling the show in 1996, 34 governors petitioned on the show’s behalf, joining fans and law enforcement officials pleading to keep Mr. Walsh on the air.

In a culture of uncertainty and moral relativism, “AMW” depicts a starkly defined world where evil criminals prey upon innocent victims.

The fugitives profiled each Saturday night by Mr. Walsh are not described as “suspects” in “alleged” crimes; they’re “bad guys,” “cold-blooded killers” and “cowards” whose deeds are described as “brutal,” “sadistic” and “vicious.”

“Our one mission is to find fugitives — people who chose to flee the criminal-justice system — and bring them back for trial,” Mr. Walsh says.

Fighting crime is a deeply personal mission for Mr. Walsh, whose 6-year-old son, Adam, was abducted and murdered in 1981. He pushed for passage of the 1982 federal Missing Children Act, co-founded the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and campaigned tirelessly on behalf of crime victims.

His activism — and his telegenic presence — made him a natural choice for host when Fox premiered “AMW” in 1988. The result has been not only a show business success, but also a vital public service, Mr. Walsh says.

“We’ve figured out a way … to do a television show that gets ratings — we’re usually number one or number two on Saturday night — make money … and do something that provides a public service,” he says.

The show’s longevity demonstrates that “you can do something with dignity and integrity,” Mr. Walsh says. “The public will understand that, they’ll support it, because we wouldn’t be on if they didn’t watch the show.”

In the process, he says, “we’ve been able to educate the public over the years that, yes, anybody could be a victim of crime. If Bill Cosby’s son can be murdered for a Mercedes in Beverly Hills, Michael Jordan’s dad murdered for his car, my son murdered by a pedophile — anybody could be a victim of crime. And we all should be aware of that.”

His stance has made Mr. Walsh a hero to viewers, but some critics accuse him of exaggerating criminal threats. Libertarian writer Michael Fumento calls Mr. Walsh a “fear salesman” fueling an “ongoing hysteria” about child molesters.

Shows like “America’s Most Wanted” create “a very warped perception” about the danger of crime, Nancy Mahon of the Center on Crime, Communities and Culture said in a 1999 PBS broadcast.

Mr. Walsh “encourages a certain amount of vigilante-ism,” Ms. Mahon told “The Newshour With Jim Lehrer.” What’s more, “the notion that we’re deputizing everybody who’s sitting in their living room to become law enforcement officers, I personally think is a little scary,” she said.

The star of “AMW” rejects such views.

“We’ve never had one incident of vigilantism. I don’t believe in that,” Mr. Walsh says. “I believe you change the system through the system. You do it by obeying the law.”

While critics complain, “AMW” keeps catching crooks. The show has international scope, Mr. Walsh says, noting that viewers’ tips have led to arrests in 31 countries.

Perhaps the most famous and successful “AMW” case was the March recovery of kidnapped Utah teenager Elizabeth Smart.

“It was one of the most incredible experiences, because I grew so close to the Smart family, spent so much time with them over the nine months Elizabeth was missing,” Mr. Walsh says.

The Salt Lake City family’s 14-year-old daughter was kidnapped from her bed in the middle of the night in June 2002. Mr. Walsh repeatedly featured Elizabeth’s story on both “AMW” and his syndicated daytime talk show, even after the initial suspect in the case died in jail, leaving little hope the case would be solved.

Mr. Walsh says he was trying to keep the case alive. After the death of Richard Ricci, a former Smart family handyman who Mr. Walsh said was the logical suspect, police and the public feared the worst.

“We never gave up, even when everybody else gave up,” Mr. Walsh says. “Ed Smart came to me and said, ‘I have a new composite [drawing of a different suspect]. The police think that I’m way off track.’”

The drawing was of a homeless man whom Elizabeth’s mother had befriended. The Smarts knew him only as “Emmanuel,” and he had spent a few hours working on the roof of the family’s home. Months after Elizabeth’s disappearance, the girl’s younger sister told her father she thought “Emmanuel” had kidnapped the teenager.

“We showed that composite [on ‘AMW], found out who he was and showed the composite again and got more information,” Mr. Walsh says. Viewers recognized “Emmanuel” as Brian David Mitchell and said he “was wearing these Taliban-type robes … that he had a beard.”

“And guess what? We nailed him. And it just goes to show, you can’t ever give up.”

Two couples — “die-hard viewers” of “AMW,” Mr. Walsh says — spotted Mitchell and two veiled women near a shopping center in Sandy, Utah. Both couples called 911. Elizabeth was soon home with her family, and Mitchell and his wife were behind bars, where they await trial.

“They’d been on the run for months,” Mr. Walsh says. “This guy had been stopped by police twice, he’d been arrested [in California] for breaking in a church and, I think, spent four or five days in jail. … She’s alive because of a television show, because of our viewers.”

That kind of success is the result of trust between “AMW” and viewers, many of whom might be afraid to report felons to police, Mr. Walsh says.

“We give them the chance to call our hot line, anonymously if they want to, and turn that tip over to law enforcement,” he says. “And you know what? They call every Saturday night, and we catch the uncatchable. It’s amazing to me, but it just keeps working and working.”



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