“It’s like you’ve been in a terrible accident and had your arm amputated. After a while, the pain goes away, and eventually you even learn to get along without your arm. Some days you’re sad that you’re missing your arm, and some days you’re angry about it, and some days you’re okay. But, no matter what, not matter how long it’s been, you never stop missing your arm.”
And you never stop missing your son.
That’s why John had to do this. He was nervous and didn’t feel prepared. But there was too much riding on it and you couldn’t always be prepared, right? Not for everything. He knew that all too well. Sometimes you just had to do what had to be done.
So he took a deep breath and looked into the camera. They’d be live in seconds, but even now his mind drifted, drifted to a time when the world was still whole.
It was hot, humid, and crystal clear – par for the course for a summer day in Florida. But the mall had the welcome chill of air conditioning as Adam and Revé stepped out of the heat and into the toy department.
It was 1981 and video games were all the rage. ‘Asteroids’ was the hottest game going and they had a display right there in the toy department! Adam begged his mother to let him play.
Even though he was only six, Adam was still pretty mature and not one to run off or get in trouble. And she’d be right over in Home Furnishings, just a couple of aisles over.
So Revé kissed her son and said she’d be right back; just a few minutes.
And that’s all it was really, just a few minutes. Long enough to not find what she was looking for and go back to fetch her son.
But when she traced the few steps back to the toy department Adam wasn’t there. It was July 27, 1981.
A search of the store turned up nothing. The police were called, employees interviewed; nothing.
And to Revé and husband, John’s dismay, very little was being done. They expected flashing lights, detectives, police dogs, a SWAT team, something. But what they got was a couple of squad cars and few bored cops.
They quickly came face to face with an incomprehensible reality; police departments in 1981 had far more resources and incentive to find a stolen car than a missing child. Even the FBI, whose jurisdiction extended to any and all kidnapping cases, was reluctant to get involved in what it considered ‘local matters’.
And as for the local police, the prevailing attitude was that the child would just ‘turn up’. So very little, if any, police effort was put into the initial search. But Adam didn’t just ‘turn up’.
Adam had been taken on that hot summer’s day; abducted by sociopathic drifter. A random act that put an end to an innocent child’s life and, in a very real way, marked the end of America’s innocence as well.
So John steeled himself and looked into the camera. That faceless glass fisheye both dared him and beckoned him. Was it a blessing or a curse? He would soon find out.
But he’d stared down tougher things in this life and he could stare down this. So he looked into the camera, he looked into it for Adam, and for all the other children he’d come to know. Children who’d vanished off the face of the earth, leaving behind only heartbreak and devastated lives. And there were thousands of them. More than anyone wanted to know.
But John knew. Every time he closed his eyes he saw their faces, standing right there with Adam, his beautiful child, his only son. He knew them well. And he would make sure America knew them too.
It was not enough that just two weeks after Adam’s abduction, when there was still hope, Revé and John appeared on the set of Good Morning America, getting Adam’s face and story on national television.
It was not enough that six weeks later, when all hope was gone, John and Revé testified before a Senate sub-committee, telling Senators about the 150,000 children that go missing every year. They told them about the 50,000 who are abducted by strangers and how many, like Adam, never come home again. The numbers were staggering.
And it was not enough that, largely as a result of John and Revé’s passion and commitment, the ‘Missing Children Act’ was passed into law one year later. It established the first centralized system to relay information about missing children to law enforcement agencies across the country.
And it was not enough that in 1984, again spurred by John and Revé’s tireless efforts, the U.S. Congress followed with the ‘Missing Children’s Assistance Act’, establishing a National Resource Center and Clearinghouse on Missing and Exploited Children.
None of it was enough. It would never be enough. Not for John.
Adam’s story captivated the nation like nothing since the Lindberg kidnapping in 1932. People were outraged and demanded action. But what action? What more could be done?
On October 10, 1984 ‘Adam’, a made-for-TV movie aired to a national audience. Interactive television was unheard of at the time, but on that night, at the end of the show, a roll call of fifty-five missing children’s names and pictures was played. A toll-free number given and a plea for information, any information, about these missing children. Those faces reached 40 million TV screens around the country.
And the calls flooded in.
For three days, over one hundred calls per hour came in. Of the fifty-five missing children whose faces were shown, thirteen were located and reunited with their families.
Thirteen! Nearly a quarter of the children had been found. How many more were out there waiting to be saved?
‘Adam’ became one of the highest-rated made for television movies ever. In 1986, a second movie, ‘Adam: His Song Continues,’ was aired, followed by another roll call.
As a result of the broadcasts of those two movies sixty-five formerly missing children were located.
Several television projects followed. The documentary, ‘A Parent’s Greatest Fear’ aired in May 1984, followed by the critically acclaimed HBO special, ‘Street Smart’, based on the book ‘How to Raise a Street-Smart Child’, written by Grace Hechinger.
And then, in 1987 the Fox television called. Their fledgling network had an idea for a new kind of crime fighting show; one based on viewer participation. It had been tried in England with great success and Rupert Murdock, Fox’s new owner was convinced it would work in the United States.
They asked John to host it.
At first he balked. He’d been asked to do so many things since Adam’s death, but they’d all seemed cheap and exploitive, looking to profit off his grief. He would never do that; he would never cheapen his son’s name.
But when he heard of the 280,000 fugitives who were on the loose in the United States and how this show might be able to catch some of them, he reconsidered.
And so, here he was, staring down the barrel of an impassionate television camera as the seconds ticked down. Then, precisely at 6:30 pm on Sunday, February 7, 1988, a new era began in America.
“I’m John Walsh. Welcome to the premiere of ‘America’s Most Wanted’, a nationwide criminal manhunt, a partnership with law enforcement agencies across the country.”
During its twenty-five year run on Fox and The Lifetime Network, ‘America’s Most Wanted’, spearheaded by John Walsh and its ground breaking format, has led to the capture of over 1,200 fugitives and returned more than 50 children safely to their homes. It is lauded by law enforcement agencies and governments around the world.
Yet, it’s still not enough.
John and Revé Walsh, driven by a force much greater than they’d ever imagined, have changed the face of America’s justice and have been instrumental in the evolution of child advocacy and victim’s rights.
In 1990 Revé and John merged their four Adam Walsh Resource Centers with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Working together with law enforcement on over 53,000 missing-child cases, they have helped reunite over 35,000 of those children.
In July 2006 President George W. Bush signed into law the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act requiring convicted sex offenders to register their whereabouts as often as every three months.
Largely due to John and Revé’s passion and pioneering work, law enforcement is today better trained, more prepared and responds more swiftly and effectively than ever before when a child goes missing. There are tougher laws, better technology, more resources and more hope for parents whose only wish is that their child comes home safely.
More children are home, asleep safe in their beds tonight because of the tireless efforts of John and Revé Walsh.
Is it enough? Will it ever be enough?
Says John, “I only wanted to do one thing in all of this torture that Revé and I, and our family and friends lived through. Through all of the work we did, everything that we suffered, the only thing I wanted was to make sure that Adam didn’t die in vain.
And now I know for sure that he didn’t.”