Mission: Possible

John Walsh, host of `America's Most Wanted,' still hunts for criminals in what began as a personal quest 20 years and nearly 1,000 captures ago

April 28, 2008|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,Sun Reporter

Fugitive capture 986, which occurred four days after the man's image and violent rap sheet were broadcast throughout the nation March 22, was sure to bring a good night's rest to some crime-weary residents in Northeast Baltimore.

As John Walsh spoke about the nabbing, he could barely contain his exhilaration:

"My producers just called to say that they caught Kevin (Muggsy) Armstead." Armstead was sought by Baltimore police in connection with the death of "a handyman, a wonderful guy that everybody loved," said the host of the crime-fighting television show America's Most Wanted. It is the longest-running program in the history of the Fox network and the fourth longest-running prime-time television program on the air.

His excitement over the Armstead capture was similar to what Walsh experienced 20 years ago, when the show proved critics wrong by helping to capture a fugitive four days after its first episode. Walsh agreed to host the show as part of a personal vow to capture the type of criminal who kidnapped and killed his 6-year-old son Adam, whose 1981 murder was never solved.

A precursor to the reality television craze, the show blended the dark side of reality with elements of drama for an unprecedented, high-profile approach to law enforcement - a genre that continues with Fox's COPS and NBC Dateline's "To Catch a Predator." America's Most Wanted, which also helped build the upstart network into an entertainment juggernaut, is approaching two milestones.

After 20 years without an official headquarters - it's usually taped at the scene of the crimes in question - the show will have a permanent home in the new National Museum of Crime and Punishment in Washington, which is scheduled to open May 23.

The series, which airs Saturday nights, is also nearing its 1,000th fugitive capture. As of last weekend, it had been credited with catching 998.

"We're heading toward 1,000 captures, and it never fails to amaze me," said Walsh, 62. "I remember all the negative stuff 20 years ago. `Who's John Walsh?' and "What's reality TV?' and "What's Fox?' It shows that the real, final judge of TV is the public, and we're still knocking them out on Saturday nights."

Once a real-estate developer, Walsh ventured into crime fighting overwhelmed with grief but determined to make a difference. He discovered a knack for conveying passion and counsel to a public that found him trustworthy. Since the show's Feb. 7, 1988, launch, Walsh became the face of anonymous-tip calling as he constantly implores viewers to call the show's hot line: 800-CRIMETV.

Baltimore residents, he says, contacted the show about Armstead, who lived in the 700 block of E. 43rd Street. On March 22, the show broadcast that Armstead was accused of being part of a group that shot and killed handyman Ricardo Paige in the 500 block of E. 43rd St. According to police reports, Paige was believed to have found drugs while refurbishing a rowhouse.

U.S. Marshals and Decatur, Ga., police apprehended Armstead while he was working at a car wash in Decatur four days later. Some episodes have had even quicker success, with arrests made before the show's final credits rolled.

"Its biggest influence on television has been civic, in that it has caught a lot of criminals," said Robert Thompson, a popular culture professor at Syracuse University. "It took over the role that post offices used to have in putting up criminals on their walls with composite drawings and their crimes."

The show is seen in more than 20 countries, identifying fugitives who have fled as far as India and China.

"He has been an immeasurable assistance to us, publicizing hundreds of our fugitive cases," Ernie Porter, chief of the FBI investigative publicity and public unit, said of Walsh. "Over the last 20 years he has been responsible for our removing 16 criminals from the FBI 10 Most Wanted List."

Walsh hopes to bolster his impact in linking with the National Museum of Crime and Punishment, a private, 28,000-square-foot interactive exhibit. The museum, at 575 Seventh St. N.W., will feature such attractions as high-speed police simulators, an electric chair (unplugged) and mob gangster Al Capone's jail cell.

"It will be Smithsonian meets Disneyland," museum general manager Janine Vaccarello said. She added that the museum will stress the consequences of crime as well as crime prevention. Walsh made sure it would before getting involved.

"The glamorization of thug life is pretty disgusting, and it probably cost Ricardo his life," said Walsh, a Washington resident. "The hope is that the museum has an impact on kids to say that there is a consequence for your actions."

That has been his mission since his son was killed. His other efforts include the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children which he and his wife, Reve, co-founded in 1984.

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