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12.02.11

John Walsh on the Revival of 'America’s Most Wanted' on Lifetime

The show criminals hate returned Friday night on Lifetime, and creator John Walsh says he’s ‘thrilled to back in the saddle.’ He tells Sandra McElwaine the secret to his long marriage, why Obama ‘has a lot of guts’—and his next crusade.

John Walsh is back. Not that he’s been gone very long, or that anyone is really surprised. It’s been six months since Fox, citing high production costs, pulled the plug on his pioneer crime-fighting series, America’s Most Wanted, and fans and law-enforcement officials have been clamoring for his return ever since. The show was canceled briefly in 1996, but the pushback was huge, and it was rapidly reinstated.

Now Lifetime television has stepped in and ordered 20 hourlong sessions of the durable program, which celebrates its 25th season at its new network Dec. 2 at 9 p.m. (The split from Fox is not complete. Walsh recently signed on for several two-hour specials throughout the year.)

The format for catching the bad guys will be slightly edgier, but remains the same. The charismatic 65-year-old crusader, once picked as one of People’s “most beautiful,” says he is “thrilled to be back in the saddle.”

Lifetime is equally pleased. “John is a rare, heroic guy ... an amazing TV personality. He’s built an incredible show with the influence and the literal power to do good. That’s awe-inspiring,” says Rob Sharenow, vice president of programming, who calls America’s Most Wanted “one of the great series in the history of television and a natural fit for Lifetime.”

The FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service are also eager to see him back on the beat. Walsh works closely with both agencies and is one of just three honorary marshals in the 200-year history of the organization. (The other two: John Wayne and Ronald Reagan.)

Since launching America’s Most Wanted, which Walsh labels the “first reality TV” show, on the fledgling Fox network in 1988, he has played a formidable role in the U.S. justice system, aiding in the capture of 1,100 notorious felons, including 10 of the FBI’s Most Wanted; leading the charge to rescue 61 abducted children and missing persons, most notably the kidnapped Elizabeth Smart; and initiating groundbreaking legislation to protect and assist victims of violent crime, most of them children.

Walsh is always on a plane, following up on tips sent to his website and an 800-number hotline in his Bethesda, Md., headquarters to profile and track down dangerous fugitives, whom he contemptuously refers to as “creeps and cowards.”

He depends on these tipsters for leads and information. Last summer, while he was off the air, AMW.com kept chugging along, collaring five men, two of them murderers, one across the street from the White House.

In a phone interview from his home, at an undisclosed Florida location—faced with death threats, Walsh is mindful of security—he talks in a rapid stream of consciousness, explaining that his success is based on personal tragedy: the abduction and murder of his young son, Adam.

In July 1981, Walsh, a hotel-management executive and his wife, Reve, were living with 6-year-old Adam in Hollywood, Fla. During a shopping expedition to Sears, Reve left Adam in the toy department while she went to look at a lamp. When she returned, approximately seven minutes later, he was gone. Sixteen days later, his severed head was found in a drainage ditch miles from their home. The rest of his remains were never recovered.

To alleviate their anguish, the couple turned to advocacy, helping to create the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and serving as catalysts in crafting federal laws to help and protect children from predators and sex offenders. The dramatic launch of America’s Most Wanted, with 5 million to 6 million devoted viewers, catapulted Walsh to stardom and served as a platform for him further to shape legislation supporting the 1998 Amber Alert, which broadcasts bulletins across the country, and the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which became law on July 27, 2006, 25 years to the day after Adam’s abduction.

“I’m a great believer in DNA, because it convicts the guilty and frees the innocent.”

“We had very tough times. We stayed together through luck and perseverance,” Walsh says of his marriage. “Reve is a beautiful and strong woman. We battled together to get those bills passed, and a year and a half after Adam’s murder, Meghan, our beautiful daughter, was born, which saved our lives. We couldn’t feel sorry for ourselves. We couldn’t be constantly morose. And then we had Callahan, 27, who works for me, and Hayden, who’s now 17. We needed to be happy. We needed to laugh, go to soccer, to do this and that.”

A sports fan, Walsh turned to motorcycles. More recently he and his two sons have taken up polo. He makes time to practice on weekends at home, and they travel the world playing in charity matches.

For his years of accomplishment and dedication, Walsh has received many honors and awards. Last summer, when he received a special Emmy for achievement, he quipped on the red carpet, “I’m probably the only guy on this carpet married to his original wife. It’s been 40 years.” Now Walsh has embarked on his next crusade: DNA testing on arrest, which has been made mandatory in 31 states and freed 600 people. “I’m a great believer in DNA, because it convicts the guilty and frees the innocent,” he says, adding that he has discussed the subject with President Obama, who Walsh says also supports the process, although some critics have raised the issue of racial profiling. “Nobody cares about the race, color, or creed of the victims. No one ever mentions the dead children, women molested, raped,” snaps Walsh. “He has a lot of guts, that guy, Obama. It’s a tough time.”

His career as a criminal hunter is a “passion” based on love for his murdered son, he says: “I did it out of hurt. I was heartbroken and angry and nobody would help us. I did it out of the way I was brought up—to fight back. I wanted to have some kind of purpose. I wanted to catch these creeps so there’s less chance they can kill another Adam or rape another woman.”