A very long time ago — July of 1990 — I happened to be seated across from John Walsh as we were eating lunch on the Fox backlot in Los Angeles.
At the time, Walsh had been hosting “America’s Most Wanted” for two seasons, and I expressed my admiration for the work he was doing. And Walsh talked about how he never imagined himself as a TV personality, but that the death of his son changed that.
For those of you too young to remember, in 1981 Walsh’s 6-year-old son, Adam, was kidnapped from a Florida mall. Sixteen days later, the boy’s severed head was found in a drainage canal 120 miles away. The rest of his body was never found.
I found that unimaginable. If I had suffered a tragedy like that, I’m not sure I’d ever be able to get out of bed or leave my house again. And yet Walsh and his wife, Reve, founded the non-profit Adam Walsh Child Resource Center (which later merged with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children) to assist in the search for other missing children, and helped get a variety of national legislation passed — including the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2006.
Walsh has worked as an advocate for missing children and their families for more than four decades. Almost as remarkable, at least to me, is that after Adam’s death, John and Reve Walsh went on to become the parents of three more children — Meghan (born 1982), Callahan (1985) and Hayden (1994).
He hosted “America’s Most Wanted” on Fox from 1988 to 2011, when the network canceled it. Pretty much every time a show is canceled, there are protests — but when “AMW” got the ax because of low ratings, law enforcement officials and politicians accused Fox of undermining public safety. Those folks apparently never got the memo that TV networks are for-profit ventures, not public service outlets. But, on the other hand, who could blame them? “AMW” was credited with helping capture almost 1,200 wanted criminals and recovering 61 missing children.
Walsh then hosted a season of “America’s Most Wanted” on Lifetime before the show was canceled again. He did not host the five episodes of a series revival in 2021, because of his contract to host a similar series, “In Pursuit with John Walsh,” on Discovery.
But now, at the age of 78, he’s back — with his son, Callahan, as his co-host — for the latest revival of “AMW” (Monday, 7 p.m. Fox/Channel 13). The format in these six episodes is the same, with segments featuring re-creations of crimes, along with pictures of suspects, information about them and pleas to help locate them.
Walsh isn’t perfect. He’s said some dumb things over the years, and — to be as charitable as possible — he’s exaggerated the facts. (He just told “Entertainment Tonight” that “America is having the worst crime rates in the history of this country,” which is not true.)
But he’s also done an enormous amount of good. It’s almost trite to say that he channeled his grief in the best way possible, but it’s true.
John Walsh and Elizabeth Smart
Walsh played a part in the recovery of Elizabeth Smart after her kidnapping, but it wasn’t really on “AMW.” Elizabeth’s father, Ed Smart, appeared on the show in a segment about his missing daughter, and told Walsh off the air that his younger daughter, Mary Katherine, had recalled seeing a man called Immaunel (Brian David Mitchell) take her sister — and that Salt Lake City police had discounted her memory. In a subsequent appearance on CNN’s “Larry King Live,” Walsh told the host about the lead; the Smarts published a drawing of Immanuel/Mitchell; he was later arrested.
Over the years, Elizabeth Smart and John Walsh have teamed up multiple times as advocates for missing children and their families.
“AMW” helped capture several Utah criminals, including one in a most unexpected way. In March 1993, patrons at the Green Parrot Cafe in Salt Lake City were glued to the TV there, awaiting a segment that re-enacted the murder of Merritt Riordan, an aspiring actor who had been a chef at the restaurant.
What they also saw, The Tribune reported at the time, was a segment about child molestation charges against Kenneth Norman Lovci, who was a chef at the Green Parrot in March 1993. Restaurant staffers called police, and Lovci was arrested.
A man named Otis Elwood Toole confessed to killing Adam Walsh, and police later declared Toole (who died while serving time in prison on unrelated charges) the killer and closed the case.
Toole recanted his confession and, over time, confessed to more than 100 other murders. And he was never charged with Adam’s murder, in part because police lost evidence — including a car with blood in it. Nonetheless, John Walsh has said he is confident Toole killed his son.
Not the first choice
John Walsh was not the first choice of “AMW” producers or Fox to host the show. The first choice was reportedly author Joseph Wambaugh, who turned them down, journalists Linda Ellerbee and Bob Woodward, former Virginia Gov. Chuck Robb, and former Nebraska governor and U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey.
And former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has since seemed to move to the other side of the criminal line.
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