Even if you don't watch the show America's Most Wanted, which I know everyone has at least once in his life, John Walsh is a household name. In 1981, his son Adam was kidnapped from a Sears at the Hollywood Mall in Hollywood, Florida, and murdered. His story became a two television movies, Adam and Adam: His Song Continues, and the Walshes' heartbreaking story became a life-saving message to children everywhere. Malls and stores across America adopted the Code Adam alert — a predecessor to the Amber Alert — where if a child were lost or missing, all doors to the store were locked and a store employee posted at every exit, while a description of the child was broadcast over the intercom system.
In 1988, Fox secured a deal with John to begin the broadcast of America's Most Wanted, which became the longest-running crime-reality show in Fox's history and contributed to the capture of more than 1,100 fugitives. AMW stayed at Fox for 23 years, until June of this year, when the network announced it wanted to air four two-hour specials of the show throughout the year and forgo the weekly broadcast. John asked Fox if he could shop the show around to other networks, and Fox agreed. Although it might seem like a strange fit at first to some, Lifetime Television jumped at the chance to broadcast AMW, and tonight at 9/8c the show makes it's debut on its new night and network.
I am honored to have had the chance to speak with Mr. Walsh about the show, Lifetime Television, and the power of AMW.
Celebrity Extra: When you got the news that Fox wanted to not proceed with the weekly format of America's Most Wanted, you had to have been surprised. AMW had been a staple of Fox's Saturday night crime-show block for years, and its ratings were only getting better.
John Walsh: I was very surprised when Fox decided not to go forward. We had a really great year last year. We had our highest ratings in about 10 years; we were No. 1 in February sweeps, and you know how important February sweeps are. We had caught more guys last year in a single year than we’ve caught in any one of the previous years, and we’ve caught about 40 guys off the website (amw.com) in two years, so I was really kind of caught off-guard.
But, you know, it was 23 great years. Who would give the father of a murdered child a chance to host the first reality show? Fox told me they wanted to do four two-hour specials. I just did one a couple of weeks ago, which was very highly rated, but I thought that my job wasn’t finished. We needed to continue on a weekly basis. I thought as long as I can do it, as long as there is some interest, I asked Fox if I could try to shop it somewhere else. They were very gracious and agreed.
The ladies at Lifetime, Nancy Dubuc, the president of Lifetime said: “John, I get the show. I get the mission. I’m trying to make Lifetime a little bit edgier. We’re going toward more original programming, and we would love to have you. We would love to support the show and the website and everything that you do.” The website is so important. As a matter of fact, while we were off the air for July and August, we caught five guys from the website and the hotline. We never shut down the website or the hotline. I’m excited and very, very happy and very pleased to be working with the people at Lifetime. They get it, and I think it’s going to be a good opportunity for me.
CE: Back in 1996 when Fox canceled the show the first time, there was such an outcry from supporters and fans protesting the cancellation, including longtime viewers, law enforcement and government officials. That must have made you feel pretty darn good about what you are doing.
JW: It was so gratifying. That was humbling. If I remember right, 39 governors signed the petition — I mean, I don’t think 39 governors could agree on how many stars are on the flag. There was a big outcry this time as well, but Fox was right upfront in saying, “We’re going to continue with some specials, and John can go somewhere else with it is he wants.”
There were some wonderful editorials in The New York Times and in The Washington Post. Time Magazine had a big article saying that this is the show that needs to be on the air. This is quality television and people like you have been huge supporters. I just hope and pray that my solid, die-hard viewers go to Lifetime. I hope they will. I think they will.
CE: I've been watching since the show first started airing, and I've followed you when you changed nights from Friday to Tuesday to Saturday, etc. I really think your fans, the kind of people who watch this show and really want to help make a difference, will follow you to Lifetime.
JW: I couldn’t agree with you more. You know, one thing I could never understand was why Fox never reran the show. I would say, "You should rerun it on FX or Fox News," but they didn't. Lifetime will rerun it. After the season premiere airs (tonight), during the week they are going to air it before the original the following week, so I’ll have a two-hour block on Lifetime. It will put more eyeballs to these creeps. We’ve caught almost 1,200 guys all over the world in 35 countries, and I think the more they air them, our capture rate will go up.
CE: Will the show be the same format we are used to, or will you be changing things up a little for Lifetime?
JW: It’ll be the same format, same thing: fugitives who have chosen to run from the law, missing kids, etc. The people at Lifetime, in particularly Nancy, got AMW so well because we are a big forum for women and children. We’re often called the court of last resort, so Lifetime's philosophy is: The show isn’t broke, so don’t fix it.
We’ll have the same type of stories and we speak so loudly for people who can’t speak. What’s going on with all the Penn State stuff, it’s something I’ve been talking about for 30 years. Listen to children. Listen to women. A woman stopped me at the gas station last night and said, “I’ve watched you for years, and I was badly beaten and abused, and finally I had the courage to come forward.” That happens to me on a regular basis. With Lifetime, we’re not going to change things — we may do more cases involving women, but most of my cases already do involve children and women.
CE: Especially when you put it that way, AMW seems to be an excellent fit with Lifetime Television.
JW: I hope so. I think women are very sensitive to getting justice, and I do think it is a good fit. They want me to produce other television, which would be great. I’ve always had Walsh Productions, and I’ve produced lots of products for Fox. And now I’m going to do some things for Lifetime and expand. I’m working on the World’s Most Wanted with a production company in England. I’ve caught guys in 35 countries, caught the uncatchable.
I caught a guy in Brazil in July on our last show that everybody said, “You’ll never catch this guy.” He’s wanted for the molestation of boys in two states. He’s disappeared for 14 years. There were a few tips that he might be in one of the big ghettos, what they call favelas, above Rio de Janeiro. I went to Rio, teamed up with a local, very popular show called Fantastico, which has 60 million viewers in Brazil, and we caught the guy. He was in the ghetto, teaching kids English and molesting little boys. We live in this global society: Our garbage runs other places and other garbage comes to our country. So I’m working on expanding, and Lifetime’s going to help me do that. It’s very exciting for me.
CE: What can you tell me about some of the cases/fugitives you'll be highlighting this season?
JW: The first case, ironically, is a case of a woman from Texas who organized the murder of her husband. She hired a hit man, and he actually did kill her husband, and then she took off and left three children behind. It's a big case down there.
I’m going to profile a football star in Chicago. Wonderful, wonderful kid, award-winning kid. Great scholar, great athlete, he comes home and gets shot. Killed, senseless murder. Chicago has so many of those senseless murders. So much gun violence. And the ironic thing is when he died he was a kidney donor, and he donated his kidney, and it saved his grandmother’s life. It’s kind of a bitter, bittersweet story, but I’m going to find the guy that killed that boy. I know who he is, and I am going to find him.
CE: I am sure you have lots of fond memories of shooting the show, especially when it's a happy ending. What are some of your happiest memories from AMW?
JW: Several cases stick out. One that sticks out the most, for me, of course, is the recovery of Elizabeth Smart. We profiled Elizabeth Smart many times, and after eight months, I showed a composite that the police didn’t want me to show. They thought they had the guy that kidnapped her: the handyman that had died in the prison cell from an aneurysm before they charged him.
Elizabeth was found because people who watched the show recognized the guy from the composite we showed, and by wonderful fate and circumstance she was with him alive. The family said: "Come out. Fly out here and meet Elizabeth." I kept saying to her parents: “Don’t let her do any interviews. I don’t even have to meet her.” And they said: “No, no. She wants to meet you.” And that 14-year-old girl, after being brutalized for eight months, to see her walk down those stairs, I had tears in my eyes. I didn’t want to touch her — you don’t touch a victim — I just looked at her and I thought: “As hard as I tried to find Adam, I couldn’t do it. I failed.” But I’m going to tell you, this was the highlight. Every bit of torture we’ve been through, and as hard and long as the days are, here is this television show that gets a girl back alive. It was just unbelievable. There are so many rewarding aspects of hosting this show. It’s a life-changer and it’s a game-changer.
CE: Who's been at the top of your list of people you really wanted to capture?
JW: I’m just thinking off the top of my head ... Paul Marhige is a guy who murdered the family here last Thanksgiving. This is the one-year anniversary. He murdered five people in the house and murdered a 6-year-old girl who was close in age to my son. I caught him, but there are several guys who are on the top.
I have my own Dirty Dozen. Several of them are child killers and one of them is a guy that murdered a 5-year-old girl, raped her and burned her body. He was arrested several times, and his DNA never collected. He’s No. 2 on the FBI’s Top 10 list. There are three or four child killers. There’s a cop who murdered his wife and molested several children, and he’s on the run. I haven’t been able to catch him for years. I’m putting some of my dirty dozen on this show and on the successive shows, and try to focus in on the guys that I hate the most.
CE: Doing this show must bring you a kind of fulfillment that we viewers can only imagine ...
JW: Everybody says, “Aren’t you thrilled when you catch somebody?” and when we caught Paul Marhige — that horrible guy I was talking about — when we caught him I thought: “This is really the power of this show. This is incredible.” Catching these guys and getting some type of justice to end these people’s pain ...
You know, it took 27 years to solve Adam’s case. Twenty-seven long, painful years knowing that the Hollywood Police had made big mistakes, and when Chad Wagner — he’ll always be one of my heroes, the relatively new chief of Hollywood Police — opened the case back up, he said: “We’re going to admit we’ve made mistakes. John, all that you’ve done for law enforcement, we owe it to you.”
I know what families of victims go through, their pain — they don’t want vengeance. They’re not vigilantes. I’m not a vigilante. I don’t believe you take the law into your own hands, but you want to end that chapter of your life. There’s no closure. It’s a word that's been bantered about but doesn’t mean anything. It’s about justice.
CE: My husband and I watch the show every week, just hoping we'll know someone you are profiling so we can help bring him to justice, and we'll continue to do so now that the show is at Lifetime Television.
JW: People like you who watch the show, who make those calls, who call up and say, “John, we’re not only going to support you on the show, we’re going to support you in the legislation you’re working for.” The Adam Walsh Act would have never gotten passed if it weren’t for the American public. Nothing gets through Congress, but when citizens get mad and they call up, that’s how we got the Adam Walsh Act passed. When President Bush signed that in the Rose Garden several years ago — he signed it on the 25th anniversary of Adam’s abduction — it turned a horrible day into a great day. And that was because of the good people who support me and watch the show. It is good people like you who make a difference.