After 26 seasons as host of America’s Most Wanted and playing a key role in the apprehension of 1,444 fugitive and the recovery of 61 missing children, John Walsh had earned his retirement. And yet the same spirit that drove him to turn the 1981 murder of his son Adam into a cathartic pursuit of justice rather than vengeance, has led him back into the true crime reality landscape with ID’s In Pursuit.
The show, in the midst of its first season — but available for streaming anytime on the ID app — came about from the U.S. Marshals actually coming to him with a plea for help. “In 2018,” John, 73, explains, “we had 307 mass murders, 27 school shootings, and 144 cops killed in the line of duty, and I said, ‘I’m going to make a deal with ID.’ And the marshals said, ‘We have a horrible guy who is the top of our 15 Most Wanted List named Luis Frias, who murdered his ex-wife in front of their three children. We haven’t had a clue and would you consider putting this guy on your first show?’”
He did so, and Luis Frias was featured on the January 16 premiere of In Pursuit. Two weeks later, John enthuses, “We caught him in Mexico from a direct tip to our hotline. It was a great capture. His ex-wife that he murdered was a police officer, and when the marshals went down to get him, they said, ‘You know, we would have never found this guy if it wasn’t for that show and the tip we got.’ They took her handcuffs down there and put them on that bastard when they caught him.”
This call for justice and doing the right thing was instilled in John at a young age. “I had a hero dad,” he reflects, “who was a B-24 bomber pilot in World War II. On his deathbed — he died early at 52 of bone cancer — I asked him why he volunteered to go to war. He said one simple thing: ‘Evil prevails when good men do nothing.’ So I felt compelled to come out of retirement.”
One big difference between In Pursuit and America’s Most Wanted in its early days, is the prevalence of cell phones and social media that exists now that didn’t then. “The Internet is a wonderful thing,” he offers. “it’s the information super highway, but it’s also the hunting ground for bad guys, particularly pedophiles. Now we catch bad guys through social media, and our friends on social media are diehard. The fans of ID are a fantastic audience, but it’s really become a very much more dangerous world. It’s way different than when I started in 1988 where we had none of the tools we do now.”
John’s son, Callahan Walsh, is involved with the show as well, and notes of the social media aspect of things, “The Internet’s a double-edged sword for us. You know, the Internet has created life for the better in so many ways, but it’s created so many new ways to harm children. But technology allows us to recover these missing children faster than ever before as well, like the Amber Alerts. Social media was in its infancy when America’s Most Wanted was winding down. Now it’s part of everyday life, and we’re really harnessing the power of social media, getting as many eyeballs on these images as possible. Whether it’s our missing children or our wanted fugitives, it’s all about being the lynchpin in that investigation that could be the key that unlocks the door to justice. It’s really just about seeing that photo, identifying that individual and then giving us the call; giving us the tip.”
“I’ve got to say,” interjects John, “I always believed that the vast majority of people are good. We hear all about the bad guys all the time, but if you showed people how to do the right thing, would they have the guts to do the right thing? They’ve proven it to me time and time again. And I still say the same thing, ‘I don’t care if you’re legal, illegal, who you are or where you are, call me. We don’t trace calls, we don’t tap calls. My operators are trained — no cops answer the phone. Cops are there for every show, so are the FBI and the US Marshals, but not on the phone. Boy, I’m amazed at the response.”
At the same time he finds it disheartening that there is such a quantity of potential cases that need to be turned down on a weekly basis. “We’re the richest, most powerful country in the world; number one,” muses John, “and we have the most violence by far. Just incredible levels of violence and homicides. I can look back to 1988 when we started America’s Most Wanted and we were probably turning down 50 cases a week. Since we’ve been on ID, we’re turning down probably 250 cases a week. Law enforcement is overwhelmed.”
Despite that, and the sheer number of victims out there, he is gratified by the fact that the show has not led to vigilante justice. “Never had one incident of revenge or violence in all these years,” he says. “I thought there would be some overzealous nutcase out there with a sense of right who was going to be an avenger and take somebody down, but we haven’t. I say every week, ‘Don’t do this. Let us do it. We’re the pros at it. We’ll get that guy. He could be armed and dangerous and you could be putting your life in danger.’ But we have not had one incident of anybody picking up a gun. They pick up their cell phone. We don’t give enough credit to how smart people are; I’m amazed at how intelligent our viewers are, because they’re sitting there like Sherlock Holmes in their houses trying to help us catch the world’s worst fugitives.”
And some of that help has come from surprising place, with John noting, “Over the years, we’ve had at least 30 relatives turn in their own relatives, because that relative will run home and hide or go to Mexico or somewhere and say, ‘Oh, the cops want me for stealing a car,’ and then they’ll see In Pursuit and say, ‘No, he’s not wanted for stealing a car. He’s wanted for killing his ex-wife or hurting somebody.’ But it never ceases to amaze me the range of tips. We get tips from everywhere. I caught guys in 45 countries; we get tips online from counties that the show has not even aired in. It’s people who are fascinated with crime. They’re fascinated by the website. And they’re fascinated by what I’m doing and they just want to do the right thing. We’re the most watched show in prison, and we have tips from guys in prison who say, ‘I hate child molesters. I’ve got four kids of my own. This guy’s in my cell under an alias,’ etc. The tips come far and wide all over the world.”
In Pursuit with John Walsh airs Wednesdays on ID.