America’s Most Wanted dominated Fox television’s lineup in the late 1980s through the following two decades. Host John Walsh featured profiles of dangerous criminals through reenactments and interviews with witnesses and law enforcement authorities with one goal in mind — to track them down and put them behind bars. The show was a massive success for the network and was responsible for the capture of hundreds of fugitives. Read all about some of the series’ most fascinating facts here.
You might be surprised by some law enforcement agencies’ initial opinion of the show, which we’ll find out about later…
The Show Caught Its First Criminal Within Four Days Of Its Premiere
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The first episode of America’s Most Wanted aired on Feb. 7, 1988, across the United States. Just four days after the show aired, a tip from a viewer led to the arrest of suspect David James Roberts. Roberts was a convicted murderer and rapist who broke out of prison in 1986 en route to a hospital.
Following the airing of the episode, dozens of people called the program’s tip line. Many of them knew Roberts as Bob Lord, a man who worked in Staten Island at a homeless shelter. He was the first person who was caught from viewer tips and was on the FBI’s Most Wanted Fugitives list.
Host John Walsh Became An Anti-Crime Activist After His Son Was Murdered By A Serial Killer
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In 1981, John Walsh’s six-year-old son, Adam, was abducted in Hollywood, Florida. The boy’s severed head was found 16 days later, but the rest of his body was never recovered. The police finally concluded in 2008 that serial killer Ottis Toole was responsible for the crime.
Walsh went on to start the Adam Walsh Child Resource Center and made it his mission to help missing and exploited children. He and his wife are responsible for the Missing Children Act of 1982 and the Missing Children’s Assistance Act of 1984. Walsh has also been active in making sure sex offenders are properly punished.
Several People, Including Rudy Giuliani, Were Tapped To Host The Program
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Fox network executive Stephen Chao initially wanted former police officer and author Joseph Wambaug to host the series, but Wambaugh declined. Chao also tapped future New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani to join the show. He and Fox’s vice president of corporate and legal affairs Tom Herwitz eventually picked John Walsh.
Walsh noted in his autobiography Tears of Rage: “They considered the author Joseph Wambaugh, and a whole raft of actors—Treat Williams, Ed Marinaro, Brian Dennehy, Brian Keith, and Theresa Saldana, who had played herself in a TV movie about how she was nearly stabbed to death by some psychotic attacker. Then, during one of their marathon conference calls, Herwitz suggested me.”
How did law enforcement officers initially feel about America’s Most Wanted? We’ll find out soon.
Walsh Made Some Extremely Controversial Comments During The Show’s Run
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In 2006, Walsh jokingly told the media that authorities should insert exploding chips in the butts of sex offenders. He is quoted as saying: “Implant it in their anus and if they go outside the radius, explode it, that would send a big message.” He later said GPS chips should be implanted in these types of criminals.
Walsh was also maligned for saying people shouldn’t hire male babysitters. He commented, “It’s all about minimizing risks. What dog is more likely to bite and hurt you? A Doberman, not a poodle. Who’s more likely to molest a child? A male.”
The Show Aided The FBI In Apprehending 17 Of Their “Most Wanted” Criminals
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During its 25 seasons on the air, America’s Most Wanted helped the FBI in a major way. In fact, 17 criminals on the agency’s “Ten Most Wanted Fugitives” list were apprehended as a direct result of the program. The first was Roberts in the show’s premiere episode.
The FBI notes on its official website: “To date, seventeen ‘Ten Most Wanted Fugitives’ have been located as a direct result of tips provided by viewers of this program.” The agency’s most wanted list first appeared in the 1950s. The FBI has used television, radio and the internet to spread the word about dangerous criminals.
America’s Most Wanted almost helped capture a celebrity’s killer, as we’ll read in just a bit.
Law Enforcement Didn’t Initially Support The Show But Quickly Changed Its Tune
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In 1988, executive producer Michael Linder revealed in an interview with the New York Times that at first law enforcement officials were “suspicious” of the program. But it didn’t take them very long to respect the impact it had on catching criminals. He noted that it didn’t take long for them to ”bombard us with tips and requests for help.”
Until that point, the FBI had only provided advice to two TV shows that aired in the 1960s. They started helping out with America’s Most Wanted by providing several agents to act behind the scenes. Attorneys also lent their support to the program for helping catch dangerous criminals.
The Show Nearly Helped Capture Designer Gianni Versace’s Killer
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In 1997, the FBI put serial killer Andrew Cunanan on its Most Wanted Fugitives list. They turned to America’s Most Wanted for help in apprehending the criminal. The show featured a segment about Cunanan, and police in Miami followed a tip from a man named Kenny Benjamin who worked at a sub shop and claimed Cunanan was there.
Police went to the sub shop, but the suspect had left. It’s unclear whether Cunanan was actually in the shop because the man in question was hidden on the shop’s video camera, but the tip was made four days before Cunanan murdered fashion designer Gianni Versace.
How many criminals is the show accredited with catching? We’ll tell you…
AMW Was Fox’s First Huge Hit
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When America’s Most Wanted premiered on Fox, the network was still in its infancy. The series proved to become a big hit for Fox. The program initially aired in just a few markets, but after just two and a half months it was being broadcast across the country.
In 1989, it was not only the network’s number-one show — it was also the top show in its time slot. The program was initially just 30 minutes long, but it 1990 it was doubled in length to 60 minutes. By 2010, about five million viewers tuned in to each episode.
Over 1,200 Criminals Have Been Caught Due To The Show
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America’s Most Wanted celebrated its 1,000th capture in 2008. As of 2013, the show was responsible for capturing a total of 1,202 suspected criminals. In addition to the FBI’s Most Wanted Fugitives list, Walsh had what he called the “Dirty Dozen,” which was his personal most-wanted list. The list featured criminals who were profiled on the show but had not been apprehended.
The list included Robert Fisher, who murdered his wife and children in Scottsdale, Arizona, in 2001. Fisher even burned down their house in an attempt to cover up the crime. There was also Yaser Abdel Said, who was wanted for shooting his two teenage daughters in an “honor killing.”
The show had a very special guest for its 1,000th episode. Read on to find out who it was.
The Show Was Criticized For Presenting Gory Details About Crimes
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America’s Most Wanted was criticized by some for its tabloid-like presentation and combination of real events alongside melodramatic recreations. The program often centered on brutal crimes that featured reenactments with gory details. It wasn’t uncommon for victims on the show to have been raped and murdered in brutal ways.
Producer Linder told the New York Times that they wanted to present the material in a way that wasn’t offensive: ”Our field producers bring in some fairly shocking material, but we try to tone it down. We don’t want to brutalize the audience or turn them off in any way.” He added: ”It’s good discipline and good journalism.”
Walsh Interviewed President Obama For The Show’s 1,000th Episode
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In 2010, Fox commemorated the 1,000th episode of the series by featuring an interview between Walsh and then President Barack Obama. The interview took place at the White House and centered on the President’s crime-fighting initiatives. Walsh advocated the collection of DNA and gathering it in a single database.
Obama agreed, noting: “It’s the right thing to do. This is where the national registry becomes so important, because what you have is individual states — they may have a database, but if they’re not sharing it with the state next door, you’ve got a guy from Illinois driving over into Indiana, and they’re not talking to each other.”
Criminals Saw Themselves Profiled On The Show
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On May 15, 1988, a criminal named Mark Goodman was in prison serving time for burglary in Florida. He and several other inmates tuned in to watch America’s Most Wanted on a Sunday night when Goodman realized he was being profiled on the show for escaping federal custody after he was convicted of armed bank robbery.
Goodman tried to change the channel, but the other prisoners recognized his face and notified the guards. Officials decided to move Goodman to a more secure location, but he escaped en route. The following day he was captured at a shopping center.
Real Victims & Officers Participated Alongside Professional Actors On The Show
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It wasn’t uncommon for real victims to participate in the show’s reenactments. In addition, actual police officers were featured alongside professional actors. The program included interviews with witnesses as well as law enforcement authorities. America’s Most Wanted showed photographs of the criminals as well as their descriptions and psychological profiles.
Viewers were encouraged to call the toll-free tip line with any information. The TV studio featured dozens of operators who answered the calls. If an operator got a good lead the night the show aired, an officer or federal agent involved in the case was on hand to ask the caller additional questions.
How many tips do you think the show received every episode? You’ll find out next.
AMW Received Thousands Of Tips Each Week
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America’s Most Wanted received, on average, between 3,000 to 5,000 calls per week from viewers. To help people effectively call in a tip, executives changed the last two digits of the hotline each year during the show’s first few seasons to coincide with the year that the episode aired (for example, 1-800-CRIME-88, 1-800-CRIME-89, and so on).
In 1994, the hotline was permanently changed to 1-800-CRIME-TV until it was shut down in 2014. Linder said they did not receive a lot of crank calls, although hang-ups were common. He believed people just wanted to see if an actual person would answer the phone.
You’ll be surprised by what happened when Fox tried to cancel the show! Read on to learn more.
Famous Voice-Over Artist Don LaFontaine Was The Show’s Announcer
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Between 1996 and 2008, voice-over artist Don LaFontaine was an announcer on the show. His voice was familiar to millions of people because he recorded more than 5,000 film trailers as well as multiple thousands of TV advertisements, network promotions, and video game trailers. His nicknames were “The Voice Of God” and “Thunder Throat.”
After he died, the following episode of America’s Most Wanted was dedicated to him. LaFontaine was replaced by voice actor Wes Johnson, who served in the role until the series was canceled. Johnson is also a comedian and cartoonist who appeared in Homicide: Life on the Streets, The Wire, and Veep.
The Program Was Cancelled But Put Back On Air Six Weeks Later Following A Public Uproar
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In fall 1996, executives canceled America’s Most Wanted, citing high production costs. In its Saturday 9/8c times slot, they put Married…With Children and the new comedy Love and Marriage. Cops stayed put in its 8/7c slot. The cancellation did not sit well with fans, law enforcement, and other officials, including 37 state governors.
Ratings for the shows that replaced America’s Most Wanted didn’t fare well, so the program was resurrected as America’s Most Wanted: America Fights Back. It stayed on the air for several more years. The program, combined with Cops, was the network’s most stable combination of programming.
A Special Episode Focusing On Terrorists Was Quickly Put Together Following 9/11
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Following, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, America’s Most Wanted aired a special episode that focused on the FBI’s 22 most wanted terrorists. White House aide Scott Sforza asked the show to do the episode, and it was compiled in just 72 hours, according to the New York Post.
Walsh noted on the show: “These are low-life coward terrorists that we’re going to profile and hopefully we can get some of these s**t bags off the streets before they hurt anymore Americans. I’m going to send a big message to Bin Laden: You’re just a coward. Americans know it and we’re gonna hunt you down like the dog you are.”
Some Criminals Featured On The Show Were Set Free
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While many of the suspects on the show were captured, apprehended, and sentenced for their crimes, not all of the people featured on the program were found guilty of wrongdoing. Suspected murderer Richard Emile Newman was profiled on the show, and tips led investigators to an apartment in Brooklyn, New York.
He was arrested in the city in 2004 for the shooting of a Toronto nightclub bouncer and was extradited to Canada in 2006 to stand trial. Newman was acquitted in 2010 after the jury found him not guilty of first-degree murder. However, he still had to serve a 12-year sentence in the United States following a gun battle with U.S. Marshals.
One Criminal Turned Himself In To Authorities After He Was Featured In An Episode
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It wasn’t only viewers who helped America’s Most Wanted apprehend criminals. Sometimes the lawbreakers themselves watched the show and turned themselves in. In 1988, the show profiled a man named Stephen Randall Dye. He was suspected of shooting someone in New Jersey in 1986 and was also wanted for murdering a motorcyclist in Ohio several years prior.
Aware that he was in the national spotlight, Dye decided to do the right thing. He was living in California when the episode aired and stopped a police car in San Diego where he subsequently identified himself and turned himself in to authorities.
All good things must come to an end… but there was a twist when Fox finally did cancel AMW…
Lifetime Stepped In After Fox Cancelled The Program For A Second Time
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The show was canceled (again) in 2011 by Fox executives. By the time it ended its run, America’s Most Wanted had been on the air for 25 seasons, making it the network’s longest-running series at the time. It has since been beaten by animated series The Simpsons.
The cancellation did not deter Walsh, who wanted it to continue because he believed it was essential to keep catching bad guys and find missing kids. It was later picked up by Lifetime, which started airing new episodes later that year. AMW spent two years on the network before being canceled for good in 2013. Walsh currently hosts The Hunt With John Walsh on HLN.