The End of America's Most Wanted: Good News for Criminals, Bad News for the FBI

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Craig Blankenhorn / Corbis

John Walsh, Host of "America's Most Wanted."

The fugitives of the U.S. may be heaving a sigh of relief at the news that the television show America's Most Wanted is no more. After 23 years of profiling the dregs of the criminal underworld — directly leading to 1,154 arrests by law-enforcement agencies — the show was canceled in May by Fox, and its final episode aired last month. The close working relationships that host John Walsh cultivated with the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service over the years was an unprecedented collaboration between law enforcement and television. It was one of the very first reality shows that resulted in great TV and did a lot of good. Its cancellation leaves a hole both of those agencies will now need to fill.

"This is a big hit for us. The show is invaluable," says Geoff Shank, assistant director of investigative operations for the U.S. Marshals Service. "We have arrested so many heinous people and we've saved so many lives because of America's Most Wanted." Kevin Perkins, assistant director of the FBI's criminal-investigations division, echoes the sentiment. "I personally hate to see it go," Perkins tells TIME. "We had 17 of our most wanted fugitives captured because of them and over 550 different cases solved as a result of tips."

Launched in 1988, America's Most Wanted debuted spectacularly. Walsh had been plucked by executives of the upstart Fox Broadcasting Company while working as an advocate for missing children and crime victims after his son Adam had been abducted and murdered in southern Florida in July 1981 — 30 years ago this week. In the very first America's Most Wanted episode, Walsh laid out the case of David James Roberts, a prison escapee on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list who had been convicted of 17 rapes and of murdering a family and an infant. The story made for riveting television, and before the broadcast was even over, tips started pouring into the America's Most Wanted call center. Within four days, Roberts was captured. "Whoever was sitting in my desk at that time had to say, 'Man, we've got something good here,' " Perkins says of the show.

The combination of Walsh's passion, a favorable time slot (Saturday at 9 p.m.) and a production style with re-enactments that humanized the crimes without being overly graphic or salacious made for consistently high ratings; the show averaged 5 million to 6 million viewers each week. It also ushered in an era of efficiency in crime solving that was without precedent. As the show's popularity swelled, Walsh used it as a platform to help get legislation passed, including 1998's Amber Alert bulletins and the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act (named for Walsh's son), which created a national sex-offender registry in 2006. "We can send a thousand FBI agents out to knock on a thousand doors and talk to a thousand people, and we can send a couple of FBI agents to do America's Most Wanted on a weekend and touch millions of people," Perkins says. "The results bear that out. We've had captures come in a matter of minutes after a show was aired."

So why would Fox end a program that was helping catch criminals and solve high-profile cases like the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping? It may come down to dollars and cents. While the show remained popular with viewers through this past season, it wasn't a moneymaker — production costs were high, and each episode contained time-sensitive information, which means there's no opportunity for reruns. "Unfortunately, our show can't be repeated," Walsh says. "We're not Glee."

America's Most Wanted was produced in Washington, D.C., and each Saturday, agents from the FBI and the U.S. Marshals attended the airing of the show. "It was a reciprocal relationship," Shank says. "We provided them cases week in and week out." The toughest cold cases, fugitive cases and breaking missing-child cases were America's Most Wanted's specialty. "I've done white collar crimes over the years, but we always get the feedback to stick to the murderers, serial killers, child molesters and rapists. Catch those bastards first," Walsh tells TIME.

Walsh's personal commitment to fighting crimes against women and children led him to help found the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 1984, and he specifically advocated for it through his show. He also worked hard to build trust with viewers, whose tips made America's Most Wanted a success. "[Tipsters] know I guarantee anonymity," Walsh says. "We don't trace or tap calls. That would break the bond of trust I have with the viewers."

That bond was notably on display last winter when America's Most Wanted aired a segment on the murder of Hollywood publicist Ronni Chasen. A tipster called in; he was tentative and afraid. "We talked to him and nurtured him," Walsh says. This caller believed his neighbor Harold Smith had killed Chasen. Police investigated the tip, put Smith under surveillance and were apprehending him when he shot himself. According to police, Smith was in fact Chasen's killer. "[That caller] was the single most important tip," Walsh says. "He was the tip."

Other high-profile cases that were solved in conjunction with America's Most Wanted include Los Angeles' "Grim Sleeper" serial-killer case; the capture of Ira Einhorn, an activist who claimed to be a founder of Earth Day and who brutally murdered his girlfriend; and the Elizabeth Smart abduction case, which Walsh covered 10 times and counts as the highlight of his entire 23-year run on the show. "I couldn't get Adam back alive, but we got [Elizabeth] back after eight months," he says.

America's Most Wanted has spawned multiple local productions — among them Oklahoma's Most Wanted, Amarillo Crime Stoppers and Chicago's Most Wanted — and Walsh has increasingly ventured into other countries to track down American fugitives, catching more than 30 profile subjects in foreign lands. The most recent success came three days after the final show, broadcast from Rio de Janeiro and focusing on Kenneth Craig, a fugitive on the G-8 Most Wanted Sex Offenders list. Within three days of the show's airing, Craig, who had been teaching English to children in a Brazilian slum, turned himself in.

In the absence of Walsh and his team, the FBI and U.S. Marshals say they'll look for other ways to spread the word about their work. "We've got a robust public-affairs office, and we're constantly looking to exploit other media outlets," Shank says. And Walsh's quest to get justice for victims and their families won't go down with the show. Fox has asked him to host four two-hour specials next season, and beyond that, he is determined to find a home for an international incarnation of America's Most Wanted — he's calling it World's Most Wanted — which is a project he was working on prior to his show's cancellation. "We live in a global society, and I believe we should make the world a smaller place for these bad guys," Walsh says, adding, "I have a different motivation than most people on TV. A very, very different motivation."