Maryland scores twice on 'Most Wanted' episode

January 09, 1995|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Sun Staff Writer

Saturday's "America's Most Wanted" television show reeled in an unexpected double catch: a Maryland man accused of murder was found in North Carolina, and a Florida man accused of rape was found in Maryland.

For such reality-based crime shows to work, people have to watch, and they do. "America's Most Wanted" draws 1 million viewers and an average of 2,500 calls to its hot line each week.

"It's a type of rubbernecking, but you get to see evil vanquished," said Sheri Parks, associate professor of American studies at University of Maryland at College Park.

Baltimore police spokesman Sam Ringgold added, "[People are] so fed up with crime, they're more eager to call."

The captures resulting from Saturday's show are numbers 336 and 337 for the 7-year-old program, which is based in Washington, D.C. It is the oldest of a wave of "reality-based shows" such as "Cops," "Unsolved Mysteries" and "Rescue 911."

The reality trend could be growing. Local news shows in Baltimore and most large cities already broadcast short segments on criminals wanted by police. This spring, New York City's Police Department will run a half-hour show up to five nights a week to display mug shots and criminal records of accused murderers, thieves and parole violators.

Some critics scoff at "America's Most Wanted" and other shows using re-enactments. Sometimes, people get confused and recognize the actors, and call in to report them, she said. And civil libertarians have questioned the fairness to people portrayed in the shows.

"Fear of crime is going up," Dr. Parks said, "as national crime statistics are actually going down. What people are doing is scaring themselves to death. Most of us are in more danger from people we know than people on the street, but we don't want to think about that."

Mr. Ringgold says the shows are helpful to police. "When your picture is on television, it's tough to hide," said the police spokesman, who was a TV news reporter for 14 years. He called "America's Most Wanted" recently about a homicide case, but city police made an arrest before the show could highlight the crime.

"We're in a higher calling, and we don't even worry about [critics]," said Ivey Van Allen, publicist for "America's Most Wanted." "A lot of the criticisms stem from jealousy. You just can't compete with this success rate.

"The very first show -- boom -- they caught one," she said of the original episode, which led to the capture of a man who had killed a child. "I think Fox and a lot of people were shocked at how effective it was."

The hourlong show is a hybrid: law enforcement, journalism and entertainment. Usually two or three featured segments are re-enactments combined with interviews of victims, police and witnesses. Another two or three cases have voice-over reports and photographs.

Before Saturday's show aired, a North Carolina woman called to say she saw a promotional ad -- purely by chance, because she doesn't watch the show -- and recognized Daniel Scott Harney as a man who had recently interviewed with her to land a job. Mr. Harney, of Ellicott City, is wanted by Howard County police in connection with the killing of his estranged wife Dec. 26.

When the show aired nationwide, about 100 more calls came in from people who said they had seen Mr. Harney. By then, he was already being arrested on the earlier tip, Ms. Van Allen said.

An unrelated segment during the same show was about five Florida fugitives. One of them, convicted rapist Charles Wilson, was found in Baltimore by city police after tips generated by the show.

The double capture is noteworthy, but not quite as unusual as the Salt Lake City chef mystery of 1993.

Patrons of the Green Parrot Cafe were watching a re-enactment about the murder of the bar's chef. The man hired to replace the chef was watching too, but went back to the kitchen when the segment ended.

The next segment was about a Texas police officer who was wanted on a charge of molesting a boy. A few patrons noticed that the man looked familiar.

He was the new chef. Local police arrived shortly afterward and arrested him at the grill.

And the man wanted for murdering the Green Parrot chef?

He hasn't been found, Ms. Van Allen said. But hot line callers have said they spotted him in Europe.

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