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John Walsh: fighting back.

It's 7:59 on a Sunday night, and John Walsh is starting to pace.

With just one minute to airtime, the pressure is building on the set of "America's Most Wanted," one of the hottest shows in TV-land. Phones are already ringing. Twenty-four trained operators are answering the first of 2,000 calls expected in the next four hours. FBI agents mill around metal folding chairs-not one of them sits down. It's a typical Sunday, but there's extra excitement in the air.

One of the FBI's 10 Most Wanted has written to say he wants to turn himself in, but only if he can talk to Walsh, the host of "AMW," directly and alone. Walsh has taped a plea to the fugitive; yes, he tells viewers, he is ready and waiting to talk to Donald Eugene Webb-tonight.

At 8:20-20 minutes into the show-an operator waves her arm frantically. "It's him!" she whispers. Walsh is at her side in seconds; he takes the phone, talks calmly to the alleged murderer in a business-like manner. "Yes, Mr. Webb, I am alone," he assures the caller. "The FBI is here in the studio but not near me.... Yes, I know this is serious business."

But the conversation quickly deteriorates. To screen crank calls, the FBI has provided four questions only the real Donald Eugene Webb can answer. The caller refuses to name his wife or the grandfather who raised him. He stalls; he rambles. He ends the conversation by saying he'll call back by midnight.

Walsh doubts he had the real man. The accent, he says, seemed fake. Yet he'll stay at the studio for the next 41/2 hours, waiting and hoping. Sure, he's tired; he's been at the studio since 8:00 a.m., and he has an early flight On-camera or off, Walsh, the father of a murdered son, stays in character as America's best-known crime-fighter. the next morning. But he shrugs it off. He'll do what it takes to bring this fugitive in.

No call comes. This time, John Walsh-the best-known crime-fighter in America-doesn't get his man. But it wasn't because he didn't try.

The first thing a person notices about John Walsh is his intensity. A short, handsome man, he rarely smiles-at least not in public. He has the habit of jutting out his chin in tough G-man style. Even when the cameras stop rolling and the rest of the crew lightens up, he remains somber, completely in character. Walsh looks as though he means business, and that, he says, is precisely what he does mean.

"We're not doing Wheel of Fortune' here," he says. "We're in a war--and I didn't come voluntarily."

"America's Most Wanted" wages its war on crime every Sunday night, and the results have been astounding. As of this writing, 96 fugitives have been nabbed by phoned-in tips-about one per week. Perhaps the most publicized capture: John Emil List, a New Jersey accountant wanted for the 1971 murder of his wife, mother, and two children. After evading the FBI for 18 years, List was captured in Richmond, Virginia, after viewers recognized a forensic bust created especially for the program.

Airing on 129 Fox-affiliate stations across the country and 10 independent stations in Canada, the show reaches an audience of 20 million, and calls to the show's toll-free number average 2,000 on most Sunday nights, 3,500 by the end of the week. The FBI has lent its full support, and William Sessions, the director of the FBI, even made a rare TV appearance on the show last year.

It's no wonder that all this attention has made Walsh a celebrity in his own right. But the cost of such celebrity has been high. Walsh was drafted into America's war on crime in the most brutal of ways.

In July 1981, this hardworking family man could never have imagined the course his life was about to take. A hotel developer, he had worked for more than ten years in order to become a full partner in a Florida management firm. "We were building the dream project of our lives, a $36 million hotel in the Bahamas called the Paradise Grand, and I really thought I had the American dream," he remembers.

"I had a wonderful family, a nice upbringing and great schooling, a wonderful wife, and a beautiful little boy," he says. "And one day while I was at the office, a random, violent act changed my life forever."

On that day, Walsh's wife, Reve (pronounced Re-VAY), took their only son, six-year-old Adam, shopping at a nearby Sears store. Adam wanted to stay in the toy section and play video games; Reve relented and said she'd be right back. When she returned minutes later, her little boy was gone. The only clue to his disappearance: a witness saw a man pull a boy into a red van. Two weeks later, Adam's mutilated body was found 150 miles away. Although in 1983 a man confessed to Adam's killing, he later recanted, and the murder remains unsolved.

"I don't think you can explain to anyone what the loss of a child is like," Walsh says. "I mean, losing my father or having friends killed-nothing compares to losing this wonderful, beautiful little person to a heinous act. A person who you think is going to live longer than you, and then, all of a sudden, he's dead and you're still alive and you're dying of a broken heart."

The months and years that followed took their toll on the Walshes. At first, John Walsh tried to throw himself into his work, but he found himself distracted, unable to concentrate. He lost his partnership, then his job; he came close to losing his house. His marriage was rocky. Today he admits what happened: "I became almost totally obsessed with trying to get this Missing Children's Bill passed."

During the two-week search for Adam, the Walshes had learned firsthand the inefficiency of the criminal-justice system. There was, at that time, no way to look for a missing child on a national-even statewide-basis. The FBI refused to get involved; police departments even 25 miles away knew nothing about Adam's case.

Walsh learned that the police and the FBI weren't infallible. He heard stories of other parents who had been through the same thing. He listened to the details of crime after grisly crime. "Eight years ago, I thought crime only happened in the inner city," he says. "I didn't realize the incredible level of crime that could happen to anyone."

Today he can tick off shocking statistics: According to a Department of Justice survey, 40 million Americans were victims of violent crime last year. A 12-year-old has an 83 percent chance of being a victim of violent crime sometime in his or her life. One of every 12 Americans is a victim of rape. There is a one in 133 chance of being murdered in the United States.

The more Walsh heard, the more he raged. "You learn one thing when you're the parent of a murdered child," he says. "Your long-range goals and plans and everything are not important anymore. You just try to fight to keep your sanity and do something, not to make some sense out of Adam's murder, but to make sure he didn't die in vain."

Walsh, a well-educated and well-spoken man, used his well-placed connections to land high-profile appearances on radio and TV programs across the country. He quickly learned that the media could be an ally by stirring up public support for new legislation aimed at centralizing child search procedures. Reve joined in the battle for reform and founded the Adam Walsh Child Resource Center. They crisscrossed the country, making hundreds of appearances, testifying before state legislatures and Congress.

A year after Adam's death, Meghan Jane was born, and Reve began cutting back on her work to become a full-time mom. Two years later, a son, Callahan Drew, was born. Walsh kept up the grueling pace, however, and today Reve admits that she sometimes wishes her husband could cut back a bit. But their intimate knowledge of crime, their loss of innocence, doesn't permit that luxury, she says matter-o-ffactly: "As long as we live in this country, we can't know what we know and not do what we do."

Their work has paid off. In 1982, Congress passed the first Missing Children's Act; in 1984, a supplemental Missing Children's Assistance Act was passed. The second act established the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which now operates a toll-free hotline to expedite the reporting of a missing child or the sighting of one.

Along the way, John Walsh became a media star. NBC made a TV movie about the Walshes' work, Adam 1983), and a sequel, Adam: His Song Continues (1986). Daniel Travanti, who portrayed Walsh in those movies, became a close friend; together they hosted a critically acclaimed HBO documentary, How to Raise a StreetSmart Child.

When the Fox Broadcasting Company began in 1987 to develop a crime show based on true-to-life reenactions for its new network, a lot of names were bandied around as show host: Theresa Saldana, an actress and a John and Reve Walsh appear on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Missing Children. Several months before, their son, Adam, was abducted from a Hollywood, Florida, store and mutilated by his captor, still at large. crime victim; Sen. Chuck Robb; the author Joseph Wambaugh; a bevy of broadcasters. But when Walsh's name was suggested, Fox believed it had found the perfect match.

"I knew right then we had our guy," says Michael Linder, executive producer of "America's Most Wanted." "He looks right for the part, he has a voice that's compelling. But more than that, he's a living metaphor for what we're trying to do."

Walsh and Reve talked over the job offer, and Walsh says he initially had a lot of reservations: "I had some real concerns-about not exploiting victims, about getting law enforcement to work together, about having a toll-free number and trained operators, about having anonymous phone calls."

Linder stressed that all those concerns would be addressed. But it was the pilot tape, a depiction of a brutal murderer in Indiana, that made up Walsh's mind. David James Roberts, out on parole, had stolen a set of tires from a Sears store. Afraid that the store manager might recognize him and incriminate him, he followed the man home that night. The store manager, his wife, and their one-year-old daughter were murdered.

But Roberts' crimes didn't end there. He was eventually captured and released on bond. The night of his release, he kidnapped a single, working mother who had just picked up her six-month-old daughter at a daycare center. The mother was raped and locked in the trunk of her car, and despite her pleas, her baby was left on the roadside to freeze to death.

"I looked at this segment, and it brought tears to my eyes," Walsh says. "I said, Listen, I want to do the show. Even if it only airs for one Sunday, if we caught one guy, this guy, it would be worth it."'

Walsh signed on, and three days after that first show aired, David James Roberts was arrested. He had been working as a homeless shelter coordinator on Staten Island, New York, when "America's Most Wanted" viewers tipped off the FBI.

The high-profile, high-pressure job hasn't been easy on Walsh. "I'm not a Tom Brokaw," he says. "I have to work really, really hard at this." The money, he admits, is pretty good--though he won't name a figure-and a far cry from the lean years immediately after Adam's death. During that time, Walsh supported his family by selling off stock; later he lived on a $32,000 salary as a consultant to the Justice Department.

But the disadvantages of his job are many. The family was forced to relocate to the show's headquarters in Washington, D.C., after Walsh's commuting schedule became unbearable. Seurity is a nightmare; Walsh and his family have received numerous death threats. "Of course they don't sit in jail and say, Hey, I murdered five women,"' Walsh says. "They say, Hey, I'm in jail because John Walsh put me there."'

Walsh also continues his fast-paced schedule of appearances and speaking engagements; he logs more than a half-million miles a year. Surprisingly, he remains in good health-a fact he attributes to a healthful diet and faithful exercise. "I'm such a stickler when it relates to food," he says. "I eat lots of chicken, fish, and vegetables. I don't drink coffee or smoke; I drink alcohol only in moderation." He refuses to eat airline food, but prefers to brown-bag it instead.

His only weakness is sleep. He doesn't get much. But," he adds quickly, "I do exercise." He unfailingly runs three times a week and lifts weights on the off days. "I tell parents of murdered and missing children that one of the best ways to deal with stress and grief is to try to keep your health, to keep exercising."

To keep perspective when surrounded daily by the most gruesome tales of murder, Walsh turns to his wife and children for escape. Though viewers see only his hardest edge, friends say there certainly is another side. Linder, the show's producer, talks about the annual Easter show, when Walsh arranges for the Easter Bunny to visit the "America's Most Wanted" set; Meghan and Callahan are special studio guests. Reve talks about how intensely ridiculous her husband can be in the privacy of his own home.

Walsh's voice softens, and he allows just the trace of a smile when he talks about his children, obviously the delight of his life. "I want to be the best father-a world-class father," he says earnestly, his eyes starting to moisten.

"I've got two beautiful little children. I don't want them to not believe in Santa Claus or Disney World. I don't want them to live in the shadow of Adam's murder.

"They believe he's in heaven, as I do, and they both kid about it and say he's a star up in the sky."

Callahan, he adds, "says every once in a while that it makes him sad to think about his brother. But they're doing the best they can."

Though Walsh is usually on the road at least three days each week, he says he tries to make the most of his limited time at home. He loves to read bedtime stories; one recent evening he joined Meghan for an "Indian Princess" daddy's night at school after treating her to a big-girl dinner date. He talks about how he has continued a family tradition started with Adam: "I used to tell Adam stories about an imaginary boy named Bobby and his dog Sparky. Now I've added Buckeroo Meghan and Buckeroo Callahan, and they help Bobby and Sparky."

Unfortunately, those moments are too few and too far between. John Walsh has serious work to do, a serious war he must fight. "I'll always be the father of a murdered child," he says. "I imagine I'll be fighting back until the day that I die."
COPYRIGHT 1990 Saturday Evening Post Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:host of "America's Most Wanted" television program
Author:Bartley, Diane
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Biography
Date:Apr 1, 1990
Words:2536
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