John Walsh is known in households all over the country as the host of America's Most Wanted, which has moved to the Lifetime network for its 25th season, but he was thrust into the field of crime solving because of the murder of his own son, Adam, who went missing in 1981. With the recent developments in the case of Etan Patz, Walsh says the boy's parents are being put through another episode of anguish. He talked to TIME about what he and his wife, the Patzes and other parents go through with missing children's cases.
Now that Pedro Hernandez has been arrested, do you feel that this is the end of the case?
Well, my wife and I know the Patzes and are praying that this is the end of that roller coaster nightmare they've been on for 33 years. It took 27 years to solve and close our son Adam's case, so we've walked in the Patzes shoes. The nightmare it is not knowing what happened to your child and not knowing who did these terrible things to your child. And I'm praying and hoping that the Patzes get some resolution. I don't believe in the word closure, I think that's bantered around by lots of people. It's not about closure, it's about knowing what happened to your child and it's about getting justice, finding that person that kidnapped and murdered your child.
But also lots of people have confessed to murders that they didn't commit. I've been doing America's Most Wanted for 25 years and seen lots of nutcases come out of the woodwork to get their 15 minutes of fame. Everybody jumps to conclusions, everybody wants to see a resolution, but the Patzes have been through this before and I think they were convinced for years that a guy named Jose Ramos killed Etan. So you never really know until it's over, until the gavel comes down and until the prosecution is over.
Have you spoken with Etan's parents, the Patzes? If so, what are they telling you? Do they believe they really have finally found resolution in this ordeal or has this opened up old wounds?
I haven't spoken to them in a couple of years, but it does open old wounds. Years and years ago, different aspects of Adam's case would come to the forefront we'd think it was resolved, but it wasn't. Someone confessed and recanted and it opens that terrible wound. You'll always be the parents of a murdered and kidnapped child. You're damaged goods, I don't care what anybody says it rips a hole in your heart. My wife put it the best, I think: it's a wound that scabs over and events like this crack that scab open and you bleed. You don't die, but you bleed and bleed and you hope that you've reached the end so that the wound can heal somewhat.
If this is the guy and they go ahead with the trial, the trial will be painful. I've sat in lots of trials and talked to lots of parents of missing children. Number one, the not knowing kills you. Most people know that the odds are 99% that your child is dead; they just want to know, they want to get a body back so that they can honor their child and remember the best parts of their child's lives. We couldn't get Adam's severed head for 27 years because they keep body parts for evidence in the capital murder case. So only when the chief of police and the D.A. [gave permission for release], only then could we get his remains and have a private memorial service. I don't know if the Patzes will get that. This guy says he threw Etan away like a piece of garbage. If Etan is buried in a landfill somewhere, the odds that they get any of his remains are almost impossible, so they'll never get to bury Etan, probably. But if this is the guy, the trial will open a lot of those old wounds. The defense attorneys can be very tough and very hurtful and they'll have to relive Etan's last moments and how he died and all that stuff that haunts parents forever.
Have we done enough, in your opinion, to prevent children from being abducted in this country? Is there enough awareness?
Since Adam died, all my wife and I have done is try to create that awareness. I've testified multiple, multiple times before Congress, testified before every state legislature, and yes we've made some great headway. We have a National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that [President] Reagan opened up in '83; the missing children's bill got passed against the objections of the FBI; we have the AMBER alert now and we have the media diving in on cases. No one helped us in '81. That's how we met Julie Patz, when [ABC correspondent] David Hartman went up against the news director of ABC. He overrode the news director and said I'm gonna put the Walshes on. Julie Patz was waiting outside the studio [at Good Morning America] and she and another woman said 'we don't know how you got Adam's case on, but would you put our kids' cases on?'
There was so little help back then and I still say child protection education programs should be mandatory in every school. It should be part of the curriculum that children know that 80% of crimes committed against them are by trusted authority figures. I was raised in Catholic schools, but there were 10,000 pedophile priests, the Vatican says. Look at Jerry Sandusky at Penn State, a trusted coach, etc. And there are over a hundred stranger abductions every year in this country. I bet I could add up the unsolved cases of Great Britain, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Spain, Italy in the last 10 years and they wouldn't equal the cases in one year in the United States. I don't think we should create paranoia and scare people to death, but educate them and let them tell their children what to do and not put our kids at the bus stop at six years old and give them some solid, logical information and open those lines of communication.