ON VENICE BEACH IN LOS ANGELES, a little boy with a piece of paper shyly approaches John Walsh, seeking an autograph from the steely–eyed host of Fox's America's Most Wanted. For a moment, Walsh, shooting a segment of his show's syndicated spinoff, America's Most Wanted: Final Justice, stares grimly at the boy, who looks to be no older than Adam, Walsh's firstborn son. It was the abduction and murder of 6–year–old Adam 14 years ago that transformed his grieving father into perhaps America's best–known anti–crime crusader. "That your mom?" Walsh asks after signing his name. He points to a woman with a camera. The boy nods, and Walsh poses with him. "Here's America's most wanted kid," he jokes. Then he solemnly tells the boy, "Stay safe."
He means it, too. After Adam's slaying, Walsh gave up his job as a hotel executive to lobby full–time for passage of a 1982 act that mandates immediate investigation of any child reported missing. Two years later, another Walsh–backed bill established the nonprofit National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. By sharing its database with the FBI and police, the NCMEC (with Walsh on the board of directors) has helped locate more than 29,000 missing kids.
AMW, which nabbed the high–profile Walsh as its host in 1987, has also made an impact. Since the show's debut in '88, viewers, responding to the cases of more than 1,000 serial killers, armed robbers and other accused felons, have assisted in 400 captures by calling the show's toll–free hot line. Since last September, Walsh has been cohost and coproducer of both Final Justice (which tracks AMW fugitives after they've been caught) and Man–hunter, a European spinoff.
AMW's 162nd collar – John Hawkins, an L.A. businessman convicted in a 1988 murder and insurance–fraud case – is now the subject of a TV movie, The John Hawkins Story: From the Files of America's Most Wanted
, airing Feb. 6 on Fox. Melrose Place's Antonio Sabato Jr. plays Hawkins, who was apprehended on Sardinia after an AMW viewer's tip, and Walsh plays Walsh. "Very strange," he muses. "An acting coach is teaching me to play myself."
But why not? Walsh is, after all, not a one–dimensional character. Friends call him intense and driven. Though he won't disclose how much he earns from TV, he says he would give it up "in a minute" for Adam and logs more than 9,000 miles a week, arguing in free lectures for tougher crime laws against what he angrily calls creeps and dirtbags. Yet Revé Walsh, 44, a homemaker who married him 24 years ago, insists, "He's a lot of fun. People don't realize that. He's very serious about the issues of crime, but he's got a great sense of humor."
Certainly Walsh, 50, has plenty of reasons to smile these days. "I've got–these three beautiful kids," he says of daughter Meghan, 13, who was born one year after Adam's death, and sons Callahan, 11, and Hayden, 15 months. But the pleasure he takes in them was not always so apparent. "For years after Adam's death," he says quietly, "I didn't crack a smile. I was the most morose, angry father."
On July 27, 1981, Reve had taken Adam shopping at the Sears store near the family's Hollywood, Fla., home. Leaving him alone in the toy department, she returned 10 minutes later to discover Adam had vanished. Two weeks later, John and Reve flew to New York City to plead on Good Morning America for Adam's return. Later that day, the Walshes were in their hotel room when Hollywood police called with grim news. That morning, two fishermen had found a head bobbing in a canal in Vero Beach, Fla., 120 miles north of Hollywood. Dental records confirmed the remains were Adam's.
While his wife wept, Walsh, in a blind fury; trashed their room. Today, recalling the crime, which remains unsolved, his eyes well up, his voice chokes. "[Losing him] broke my heart; it almost killed me," he says. "Believe me, you never get over it."
"He's still angry," says a friend, NCMEC president Ernie Allen. "But he's turned that into positive action. He wants to make sure Adam didn't die in vain." Walsh's achievements have come at a price. Because of death threats he says he has received from felons serving time, thanks to AMW tipsters, Walsh travels with a bodyguard. Still, in some ways he remains exposed. "I can see sadness in his eyes, especially if it's a segment on a missing child," says Mary Ann Miller, who met Walsh when AMW depicted her mother's murder in 1990.
"It's a wound that never heals," Walsh says about Adam's killing. "I don't know what I'd do if I met his killer. But I truly believe that if he isn't caught in this lifetime, he will be in the next. I'll never give up hope."