November 26, 1999
Media correspondent Terence Smith reports on a long-running television
series with an impressive arrest record, "America's Most Wanted."
The NewsHour Media Unit is funded by a grant from
the Pew Charitable Trusts.
AMW WORKER: Beautiful. Stand by please.
JOHN WALSH: I'm John Walsh, coming from Vancouver, British Columbia.
TERENCE SMITH: Whether it's the search for women missing in Vancouver, the trail of the Yosemite murderer or the tracking of a fugitive on the run for more than 20 years, it's all fodder for one the nation's first truly interactive television shows, "America's Most Wanted."
JOHN WALSH: We've caught people in 30 countries.
TERENCE SMITH: John Walsh has been the host of "America's Most Wanted" since its inception 11 years ago.
JOHN WALSH: I think the public knows very clearly that we go after the worst of the worst and somebody that wants to avoid the system -- doesn't want justice.
We've got a lot cases lined up tonight, so let's get right to work.
|The audience comes to play|
TERENCE SMITH: Each Saturday night, the program profiles people on the run, invites the audience to call in and help catch them.
CALL CENTER WORKER: "America's Most Wanted."
TERENCE SMITH: To date, it has led directly to the capture of some
600 fugitives from justice.
TERENCE SMITH: Lance Heflin is executive producer of "America's Most Wanted."
TERENCE SMITH: Why do you think people watch this show? Is it for news or entertainment, the thrill of the chase? What is it?
LANCE HEFLIN: This audience comes to play. I mean, they want to do something. They want to catch a crook.
TERENCE SMITH: The show, which has 8 (million) to 12 million viewers an episode on the Fox Television Network, gets 2,500 calls a week.
CALL CENTER WORKER: Give me a call back and I'll be more than happy to take your information.
FBI TOUR GUIDE: The 10 men that you see here are currently the FBI's top 10.
|A partnership with law enforcement|
TERENCE SMITH: The FBI is an enthusiastic supporter of the show, and they say they need the help. Tron Brekke of the FBI.
TRON BREKKE: Well, the FBI is not the national police force the people think it is. We have 11,000 agents, which is about a quarter of the size of the New York City Police Department.
TERENCE SMITH: The bureau's fugitive publicity unit works to get the faces and descriptions of those on the run out to the public. They get 30 million hits a month worldwide on their Web site, but they say they still need the mass media.
TRON BREKKE: Oftentimes it's the people that just happen to cross these people that provide us with the leads that lead to their capture. We have to rely on the media to help us. We don't have an advertising budget, you know? We don't have our own TV show.
TERENCE SMITH: It's harder still for local police.
ALLEN VENABLE, Lafayette, La., Sheriff's Office: That would be the victim's car that was stolen during the homicide.
TERENCE SMITH: Allen Venable of the sheriff's office in Lafayette, La., is tracing a man captured on tape with the credit cards of a murder victim.
ALLEN VENABLE: He had traveled so many states in a matter of a week that we had no idea where he would be at this point. We needed this face all over America. And "America's Most Wanted" is the only people that can do that for us.
AMW WORKER: Are we going to Fed-Ex the piece or viv-ex?
TERENCE SMITH: The show's staff interviews police, witnesses, even friends of the suspects --
AMW REPORTER: One's charged with murder, the other one's charged with racketeering.
TERENCE SMITH: -- to gather evidence on what the fugitives might currently look like.
AMW REPORTER: Margaret Ruden -- we had this one photograph of her -- blonde, sort of a perm. And witnesses said that she currently had longer hair, dyed it in a brunette color, and that it was much flatter against the head.
TERENCE SMITH: Ruden, suspected of murdering her husband, was featured several times on the show. Tips from callers led police to the Boston area, where Ruden, known as the "Black Widow," was captured this month --as a blonde. The FBI says people hesitant to call law enforcement will call the show.
TRON BREKKE: There's a fear of getting involved. "America's Most Wanted" is different. I mean, it's entertainment; it's informative. And also the number is up there.
SPOKESMAN: Please call 1-800-CRIME-TV.
TRON BREKKE: It's different than just saying, "Go to your phone book, look up the number for the FBI, and call to some anonymous person at the FBI."
AMW WORKER: 15 to the floor everybody.
|Re-creating or sensationalizing|
TERENCE SMITH: The FBI says their relationship with "America's Most Wanted" is unique because of the show's longevity and single focus.
JOHN WALSH: Remember, your tip could be the one that leads to a capture.
TERENCE SMITH: It is so important to them that they even put out an announcement to their field officers, alerting them as to which cases will be featured on that week's broadcast.
JOHN WALSH: A mysterious phone call could be the best clue yet.
TERENCE SMITH: John Walsh is the television host who has become a spokesman for law enforcement --
JOHN WALSH: Hey, were we supposed to go live at the top of the hour?
LAW ENFORCMENT WORKER: We're delighted, Mr. Walsh, that you are here to help us.
TERENCE SMITH: -- blurring the line between media and the law.
JOHN WALSH: We work very closely with police.
JOHN WALSH: You can remain anonymous.
TERENCE SMITH: Critics say the broadcast engenders an exaggerated fear of crime. Criminologist Nancy Mahon of the Center on Crime, Communities, and Culture:
NANCY MAHON, Center on Crime, Communities & Culture: We are lucky in the United States now that we have the lowest homicide rate since 1967. Unfortunately, those rates don't correspond to people's perception of their safety. There's a series of shows like "Cops," "America's Most Wanted," and honestly, some very sensationalist coverage in the local news.
REPORTER: They believe a man who shot his girlfriend this morning may be holed up.
NANCY MAHON: Basically, there's all crime all the time. These shows collectively create a very warped perception of how safe we are. (Sirens and gunshots)
TERENCE SMITH: "America's Most Wanted" uses recreations to tell some stories because so often there are no pictures of the crime. Well, how do you draw the line between recreating a crime and sensationalizing a crime?
LANCE HEFLIN: Well, it's a fine line to walk between the two. Anytime you show a crime, a violent crime, it's by its very nature going to be sensational. (Gunshots) Frankly, we pull these crimes back a lot. If I showed the crime that occurred, you know, most people would have to get up screaming from the room. You could not watch an hour of this show. We get criticized from police for not being sensational enough sometimes, for not really showing the reality of what happened.
TERENCE SMITH: Nancy Mahon says the recreations mislead the viewer, showing only law enforcement's side of the story.
NANCY MAHON: As we know through courts of law, eyewitnesses are wrong, perspectives are wrong, they get the face wrong, they get the sequence wrong, and so we've really got a best-guess portrayal. It's not what actually happened and it's not truth.
SPOKESPERSON: And how long ago was that?
TERENCE SMITH: What percentage of the tips that you get from this broadcast lead to something?
LANCE HEFLIN: Very few.
CALL CENTER WORKER: You talked to him for how long? You didn't notice the glass eye? It wasn't him, then?
LANCE HEFLIN: Operators our trained, you know. When you've got it, you know you've got it. All it takes is one.
TERENCE SMITH: The fastest capture after a show? Twenty-nine minutes.
NANCY MAHON: The flip side of that is it also encourages a certain amount of vigilante-ism. We have trained law enforcement officers for a reason, and that's because they know how to enforce the law. And the notion that we're deputizing everybody who's sitting in their living room to become law enforcement officers, I personally think is a little scary.
LANCE HEFLIN: When the show started, there was a lot of criticism. People thought, "Oh, my God, people are going to running out in the streets with their guns. You know grabbing these people down." I mean, who's nuts enough to do that? If you see a guy kill four people on "America's Most Wanted," are you going to run out of your house and go tackle him? I don't think so. You're going to pick up the phone and call somebody and let the system work.
AMW WORKER: And hold your shots off cue. Roll 12.
TERENCE SMITH: Fox took the show off the air briefly in 1996 because of low profits, but pressure from law enforcement personnel, governors and the public forced the network to reinstate it.
JOHN WALSH: In many cases, we are the court of last resort. We're the last place where the parents of a missing child can come, the last place when law enforcement is completely stymied.
|A personal crusade|
SMITH: The show researches about 250 criminal cases for every one it airs.
Many of the suggested cases come from law enforcement. One was that of
Kathleen Soliah -- wanted since the '70s in connection with bombings attributed
to the Symbionese Liberation Army. She had lived a quiet, suburban life
as a wife and mother until her story was featured on "America's Most
TERENCE SMITH: What did you think when the FBI came to you with the Kathleen Soliah case? This was a very old case.
LANCE HEFLIN: We weren't terribly impressed. Basically it was a 25-year anniversary. They felt very strongly about it. And so we talked about it for awhile, and said, "Well, all right. We'll do it if it really means that much to you."
TERENCE SMITH: You sound as though you were almost doing them a favor.
LANCE HEFLIN: We were.
TERENCE SMITH: Soliah, now known as Sarah Jane Olsen, is scheduled to go to trial in January.
DAVID SCEPANSKI: There's a dual screen right down the middle.
TERENCE SMITH: David Scepanski, a detective in the San Antonio, Texas, police department, was tracking a suspected pedophile captured days after he was featured on the broadcast.
DAVID SCEPANSKI: We solicited "America's Most Wanted." We basically called them up and said, "Hey, look, we need help in finding somebody. Are you willing to help?"
TERENCE SMITH: Scepanski, like many in his field, is unconcerned about the merging of news, entertainment and the law.
DAVID SCEPANSKI: I think the community and the media, we should be one team. I mean, we send that message out there and let them know that we are citizens -- and I'm a citizen, too -- we're just not going to tolerate this type of activity. Then everybody working together is going to do whatever it takes to find these people.
TERENCE SMITH: John Walsh says he is furthering the rights of victims and their families, a cause he takes personally. His son, Adam, was abducted and brutally murdered 18 years ago.
JOHN WALSH: Back in 1981, nobody looked for missing children, nobody showed their pictures. Every news organization in the United States turned us down when we pleaded to put his picture on. NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS: "No, if we do it for you, we've got to do it for other searching children." So two weeks later, Adam's dismembered body -- parts of his body -- was found in a canal. And that changed our lives forever.
TERENCE SMITH: As he recounts a recent profile of a child allegedly tortured by his stepfather, it is clear Walsh is on a very personal crusade.
JOHN WALSH: The little boy escaped, was out on the street. A woman -- he was bleeding with just his pants on. A woman -- he called a woman and said, "Please help me." She said, "I'll take you right to the hospital." And he says, "Please, be my mother. Don't ever let me go. Don't ever leave me." A stranger -- it touched us, it touched the whole staff. So anyway --
TERENCE SMITH: The program broadcast the story. The stepfather was captured hours later.
JOHN WALSH: Remember, you can make a difference.
TERENCE SMITH: For John Walsh and "America's Most Wanted," another case closed.
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