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20 Surprising Facts About America’s Most Wanted

In 1988, one year before Cops began asking the bad boys of America “What'cha gonna do when they come for you?,” noted victims’ advocate John Walsh was turning every American with access to Fox into a potential crime-solver on America’s Most Wanted.

The series, which highlighted real-life cases of fugitives and suspected criminals who had managed to evade capture (or recapture), became the first hit show for the then-fledgling Fox network and turned into a cultural phenomenon. To celebrate its 30th anniversary, here are 20 things you might not have known about America’s Most Wanted.

1. IT WAS INSPIRED BY A LONG-RUNNING BBC TRUE CRIME SERIES.

America’s Most Wanted partly owes its existence to an assistant to Fox owner Rupert Murdoch, who suggested the idea of a true crime series along the lines of BBC’s Crimewatch, which featured reenactments of brutal crimes and hosts who implored the public to assist them with catching the criminals. The show began airing once a month on BBC One in 1984, and was cancelled in 2017.

2. JOHN WALSH WASN’T THE FIRST CHOICE TO HOST IT.

John Walsh attends a Paley Center event for 'America's Most Wanted'
Neilson Barnard, Getty Images

Though it’s hard to imagine America’s Most Wanted without its longtime host John Walsh—a hotel executive who became a noted victims' advocate following the abduction and murder of his young son, Adam, in 1981—the show’s producers considered a lot of other names before landing on Walsh.

“Stephen Chao—Fox’s vice president of program development—and an L.A. producer named Michael Linder sat down with [Fox’s vice president of corporate and legal affairs] Tom Herwitz to discuss the possibilities,” Walsh wrote in his autobiography, Tears of Rage, about the network’s search for a host. “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.”

It took a while for them to track Walsh down—“I was all over the place in those days, traveling something like half a million air miles a year,” he wrote—but after a handful of conversations, he agreed to shoot the pilot.

3. IT WAS FOX’S FIRST HIT SERIES.

Fox was still a new network—less than two years old—when America’s Most Wanted debuted, and it quickly became the network’s first big hit. Though it originally only aired in a handful of markets, by April the network was broadcasting America’s Most Wanted nationwide. In 1989, it became the first Fox series to be the most-watched program in its time slot. By 2010, each episode was being watched by about 5 million households.

4. THE ANNOUNCER’S VOICE WAS A VERY FAMILIAR ONE.

From 1996 until his death in 2008, legendary voice actor Don LaFontaine served as the show’s narrator. You probably know LaFontaine as the voice behind more than 5000 movie trailers, and the person most often associated with the “In a world…” trope. He was often referred to as “Thunder Throat” and “The Voice of God.” Wes Johnson took over the role following LaFontaine’s passing.

5. THOUGH INITIALLY SKEPTICAL, LAW ENFORCEMENT PROFESSIONALS QUICKLY EMBRACED THE SHOW.

In a 1988 interview with The New York Times, executive producer Michael Linder admitted that law enforcement professionals were initially skeptical of the show, though it didn’t take them long to embrace its purpose—and possibilities. “Now, they bombard us with tips and requests for help,” Linder said.

The FBI also played a big part in the series; the agency assigned a handful of agents to act as liaisons between William S. Sessions, the bureau’s then-director, and the show’s producers. On May 29, 1998, Sessions even appeared on an episode of the show to give a rundown of the latest additions to the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list (one of whom was captured shortly thereafter, thanks to a viewer tip).

Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau told The New York Times that he, too, was a fan of the series, saying that, “If the media, through publicity, can contribute to the apprehension of dangerous criminals, I'm all for it. Besides, it’s very expensive to track down criminals. A couple of detectives or FBI agents can spend months or years searching for someone. It seems to me that this is a wonderful way to save the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

6. THE AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION WAS NOT ON BOARD WITH THE CONCEPT.

Though many of the individuals featured on the show were fugitives, the American Civil Liberties Union had concerns that a suspect who appeared on the show would not be able to get a fair trial. “I suppose it’s like an electronic wanted poster,” Colleen O'Connor, the ACLU’s director of public education, told The New York Times in 1988. “The poster on the wall in the post office makes it seem like the fugitive is guilty, too … Can someone get a fair trial after he's been portrayed as a killer on television?”

But Linder contested this point, telling the Times that civil liberties were always at the forefront of the producers’ mind. “If one killer was set free because of pretrial publicity from us, the show would be a failure,” he said. The show also made a very clear point of using language like “alleged” and “reportedly” when discussing suspects who had not been convicted—and Walsh ended each episode with a reminder that the suspects featured in the show were innocent until proven guilty.

7. WITHIN FOUR DAYS OF THE SHOW’S PREMIERE, THEY HAD CAUGHT THEIR FIRST SUSPECT.

On February 7, 1988, America’s Most Wanted debuted on just a handful of Fox stations across the country. On February 11, four days later, a viewer tip led to the arrest of David James Roberts, a convicted murderer and rapist who had made a brazen escape from prison in 1986 while being transported to a hospital.

After the episode aired, the show’s tip line received dozens of calls from people who knew Roberts as Bob Lord, an employee at a homeless shelter in Staten Island. Roberts, who was on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list, was the first fugitive profiled on the show, and the first person caught as a result of viewer tips.

8. THE SHOW HELPED THE FBI CATCH 17 OF THEIR “MOST WANTED” FUGITIVES.

America’s Most Wanted proved to be a huge help to the FBI during the quarter-century it was on the air. According to the FBI’s website, 17 “‘Ten Most Wanted Fugitives’ have been located as a direct result of tips provided by viewers of this program” (beginning with Roberts in that very first episode).

9. WALSH MAINTAINED HIS OWN “MOST WANTED” LIST.

Like the FBI, Walsh maintained his own “most wanted” list, which was known as the America’s Most Wanted “Dirty Dozen.” It changed regularly, but included fugitives who had been featured on the show and had yet to be captured.

10. THE HOTLINE NUMBER CHANGED SEVERAL TIMES. 


Zaid Hamid, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In order to expedite the crime-solving process, the last two digits of the show’s hotline changed each year for the first few years in order to match the year the episode aired (1-800-CRIME-88, 1-800-CRIME-89, etc.). On average, the show received approximately 3000 to 5000 calls per week. In 1994, the number changed one last time—to 1-800-CRIME-TV. The number was shut down in June 2014. (As for the operators you saw during each episode: most of them were actors.)

Amazingly, crank calls weren’t a big problem for the show, according to Linder, though they did receive a lot of hang-up calls. (He suspected people just wanted to try dialing the number to see if someone would answer.)

11. LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICERS INVOLVED WITH THE CASES FEATURED WERE ON HAND IN THE CALL CENTER.

So that any promising tips could be quickly vetted and followed up on once an episode aired, The New York Times reported that, “In the television studio, there are some 30 telephone operators to take the calls. Also on hand are police officers or federal agents directly involved in cases being aired that night. When one of the operators gets a good lead, an officer picks up the phone and asks the caller further questions.”

12. A GROUP OF PRISONERS ONCE TURNED IN A FELLOW INMATE.

On May 15, 1988, Mark Goodman was in the final stretch of a brief prison stint following a burglary conviction in Palm Beach County, Florida, but was wanted elsewhere in the country for escaping federal custody following an armed robbery conviction. He was watching the show with a group of his fellow inmates when his face flashed across the screen. Though The New York Times reported that he tried to change the channel, it was too late: Goodman's fellow inmates informed the prison guards that there was an America’s Most Wanted fugitive in their midst. While being transferred to a more secure facility, Goodman managed to escape custody again. Fortunately, he was apprehended the next day.

13. FOX CANCELLED THE SERIES IN 1996. VIEWERS—AND THE AUTHORITIES—WEREN’T HAPPY.

In 1996, the powers-that-be at Fox—which now had a handful of hit series, including The Simpsons—decided to cancel America’s Most Wanted and push Married… With Children (which was in its final season) into the first half of its 9 p.m. time slot. The public let their outrage be known.

“We went off for four weeks,” Walsh told Larry King in 2003. “Everybody in law enforcement contacted Fox. Fifty-five members of Congress contacted Fox. Thirty-seven governors. I don't think 37 governors could agree on how many stars and stripes are on the flag, but they all went after [the network]—and they said it [was] a business decision. But … 200,000 good American citizens wrote Fox and said, ‘This is wrong.’ We were the shortest canceled show in the history of television.”

14. THE SHOW ALMOST HELPED APPREHEND GIANNI VERSACE’S KILLER FOUR DAYS BEFORE HIS MURDER.

This picture taken from the FBI web site on the Internet 16 July shows Andrew Phillip Cunanan, the sole suspect in the murder of Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace. Versace was gunned down in front of his Miami home
H/O, AFP, Getty Images

Fans of FX’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story probably noticed a recent shout-out to America’s Most Wanted. In the episode, an employee at a sandwich shop in Miami recognizes Andrew Cunanan when he comes in to buy a sub and calls the police to report it. But Cunanan managed to make his way out of the eatery just before the police arrived. While the episode left no doubt that it was indeed Cunanan (as portrayed by Darren Criss) who was ordering a tuna fish sandwich, the reality of what happened is not as clear-cut.

After Cunanan made his way onto the FBI’s Most Wanted Fugitives list on June 12, 1997, the bureau asked the show for help. They ran a segment on the alleged serial killer, and Miami police did respond to a call from Kenny Benjamin, an employee of Miami Subs, who swore that Cunanan was in the shop. Police arrived almost immediately, but the man in question had already left. And Benjamin had ended up blocking the security camera’s view of the suspect while making the call, so whether or not it was indeed Cunanan was never confirmed. But we do know that the call was made four days before Versace’s murder.

15. AT THE REQUEST OF THE WHITE HOUSE, THE SHOW TOOK ON TERRORISTS FOLLOWING 9/11.

In October 2001, in the wake of 9/11, America’s Most Wanted aired a one-hour special that profiled the FBI’s 22 most wanted terrorists. The New York Post reported that the episode was put together in just 72 hours at the request of White House aide Scott Sforza.

“These are low-life coward terrorists that we’re going to profile and hopefully we can get some of these s–bags off the streets before they hurt anymore Americans,” Walsh said, adding that: “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.”

16. MORE THAN ONE SUSPECT PROFILED ON THE SHOW WAS LATER ACQUITTED.

Not every suspect featured on America’s Most Wanted ended up being captured—or found guilty of their alleged crimes. One example: Suspected murderer Richard Emile Newman. Acting on tips that he was living in an apartment in Brooklyn following an episode of America’s Most Wanted that profiled his case, Newman was arrested in New York in 2004. He was extradited back to Canada in 2006 for trial, but in 2010 he was acquitted of those charges.

17. AT LEAST ONE SUSPECT TURNED HIMSELF IN.

On May 8, 1988, America’s Most Wanted featured the case of Stephen Randall Dye, who was wanted in connection with the shooting of a man in New Jersey in 1986 as well as the murder of a motorcyclist in Ohio in 1981. Nervous that he would be found out, Dye—who was living in California at the time—flagged down a police car in San Diego and gave himself up.

18. BARACK OBAMA MADE A SPECIAL APPEARANCE.

In 2010, to celebrate the show’s 1000th episode, Walsh was granted what he assumed would be a quick meet-and-greet with President Barack Obama to film a segment acknowledging the milestone. But when he arrived at the White House, he was taken to the Blue Room for an actual sit-down with the POTUS where they discussed Obama’s various anti-crime initiatives and the show’s impact. “It wasn’t a grip-and-grin or a photo op,” Walsh told the New York Post.

19. IT WAS THE LONGEST-RUNNING SERIES IN FOX’S HISTORY AT THE TIME IT WENT OFF THE AIR.

In June 2011, Fox television cancelled America’s Most Wanted for a second (and final) time. When the show went off the air, it had run for 25 seasons, making it the network’s then-longest running series. (The Simpsons has since surpassed it.) 

But that was not the end of America’s Most Wanted. As Walsh told the San Diego Tribune in the wake of the series’s cancellation, "I'm fighting hard to keep this franchise going. It's a television show that gets ratings and saves lives, and we'll find somewhere to keep going. We're not done.”

Walsh was right: The series got picked up by Lifetime, though its run on the network was fairly short-lived; on March 28, 2013, it was cancelled for good.

20. MORE THAN 1000 FUGITIVES HAVE BEEN CAPTURED BECAUSE OF THE SERIES.

In May 2008, America’s Most Wanted was celebrating the show’s 1000th capture. To celebrate, the network got some of the Fox family to tape celebratory messages (including some awkward congrats from American Idol judges Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson, and Paula Abdul). As of March 30, 2013, the total number of captured persons had risen to 1202.

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John P. Johnson, HBO
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Charles Dickens Wrote His Own Version of Westworld in the 1830s
John P. Johnson, HBO
John P. Johnson, HBO

Charles Dickens never fully devoted himself to science fiction, but if he had, his work might have looked something like the present-day HBO series Westworld. As The Conversation reports, the author explored a very similar premise to the show in The Mudfrog Papers, a collection of sketches that originally appeared in the magazine Bentley's Miscellany between 1837 and 1838.

In the story "Full Report of the Second Meeting of the Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything," a scientist describes his plan for a park where rich young men can take out their aggression on "automaton figures." In Dickens's story, the opportunity to pursue those cruel urges is the park's main appeal. The theme park in Westworld may have been founded with a slightly less cynical vision, but it has a similar outcome. Guests can live out their heroic fantasies, but if they have darker impulses, they can act on those as well.

Instead of sending guests back in time, Dickens's attraction presents visitors with a place very similar to their own home. According to the scientist's pitch, the idyllic, Victorian scene contains roads, bridges, and small villages in a walled-off space at least 10 miles wide. Each feature is designed for destruction, including cheap gas lamps made of real glass. It's populated with robot cops, cab drivers, and elderly women who, when beaten, produce “groans, mingled with entreaties for mercy, thus rendering the illusion complete, and the enjoyment perfect.”

There are no consequences for harming the hosts in Westworld, but the guests at Dickens's park are at least sent to a mock trial for their crimes. However, rather than paying for their misbehavior, the hooligans always earn the mercy of an automated judge—Dickens's allegory for how the law favors the rich and privileged in the real world.

As for the Victorian-era automatons gaining sentience and overthrowing their tormenters? Dickens never got that far. But who knows where he would have taken it given a two-season HBO deal.

[h/t The Conversation]

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Library of Congress (LOC), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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10 Fascinating Facts About Ella Fitzgerald
Library of Congress (LOC), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Library of Congress (LOC), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Today marks what would have been the 101st birthday of Ella Fitzgerald, the pioneering jazz singer who helped revolutionize the genre. But the iconic songstress’s foray into the music industry was almost accidental, as she had planned to show off her dancing skills when she made her stage debut. Celebrate the birthday of the artist known as the First Lady of Song, Queen of Jazz, or just plain ol’ Lady Ella with these fascinating facts.

1. SHE WAS A JAZZ FAN FROM A YOUNG AGE.

Though she attempted to launch her career as a dancer (more on that in a moment), Ella Fitzgerald was a jazz enthusiast from a very young age. She was a fan of Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby, and truly idolized Connee Boswell of the Boswell Sisters. “She was tops at the time,” Fitzgerald said in 1988. “I was attracted to her immediately. My mother brought home one of her records, and I fell in love with it. I tried so hard to sound just like her.”

2. SHE DABBLED IN CRIMINAL ACTIVITIES AS A TEENAGER.

A photo of Ella Fitzgerald
Carl Van Vechten - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Fitzgerald’s childhood wasn’t an easy one. Her stepfather was reportedly abusive to her, and that abuse continued following the death of Fitzgerald’s mother in 1932. Eventually, to escape the violence, she moved to Harlem to live with her aunt. While she had been a great student when she was younger, it was following that move that her dedication to education faltered. Her grades dropped and she often skipped school. But she found other ways to fill her days, not all of them legal: According to The New York Times, she worked for a mafia numbers runner and served as a police lookout at a local brothel. Her illicit activities eventually landed her in an orphanage, followed by a state reformatory.

3. SHE MADE HER STAGE DEBUT AT THE APOLLO THEATER.

In the early 1930s, Fitzgerald was able to make a little pocket change from the tips she made from passersby while singing on the streets of Harlem. In 1934, she finally got the chance to step onto a real (and very famous) stage when she took part in an Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater on November 21, 1934. It was her stage debut.

The then-17-year-old managed to wow the crowd by channeling her inner Connee Boswell and belting out her renditions of “Judy” and “The Object of My Affection.” She won, and took home a $25 prize. Here’s the interesting part: She entered the competition as a dancer. But when she saw that she had some stiff competition in that department, she opted to sing instead. It was the first big step toward a career in music.

4. A NURSERY RHYME HELPED HER GET THE PUBLIC’S ATTENTION.

Not long after her successful debut at the Apollo, Fitzgerald met bandleader Chick Webb. Though he was initially reluctant to hire her because of what The New York Times described as her “gawky and unkempt” appearance, her powerful voice won him over. "I thought my singing was pretty much hollering," she later said, "but Webb didn't."

Her first hit was a unique adaptation of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” which she helped to write based on what she described as "that old drop-the-handkerchief game I played from 6 to 7 years old on up."

5. SHE WAS PAINFULLY SHY.

Though it certainly takes a lot of courage to get up and perform in front of the world, those who knew and worked with Fitzgerald said that she was extremely shy. In Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography of the First Lady of Jazz, trumpeter Mario Bauzá—who played with Fitzgerald in Chick Webb’s orchestra—explained that “she didn't hang out much. When she got into the band, she was dedicated to her music … She was a lonely girl around New York, just kept herself to herself, for the gig."

6. SHE MADE HER FILM DEBUT IN AN ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MOVIE.

As her IMDb profile attests, Fitzgerald contributed to a number of films and television series over the years, and not just to the soundtracks. She also worked as an actress on a handful of occasions (often an actress who sings), beginning with 1942’s Ride ‘Em Cowboy, a comedy-western starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

7. SHE GOT SOME HELP FROM MARILYN MONROE.

“I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt,” Fitzgerald said in a 1972 interview in Ms. Magazine. “It was because of her that I played the Mocambo, a very popular nightclub in the ’50s. She personally called the owner of the Mocambo and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him—and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status—that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard … After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman—a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.”

Though it has often been reported that the club’s owner did not want to book Fitzgerald because she was black, it was later explained that his reluctance wasn’t due to Fitzgerald’s race; he apparently didn’t believe that she was “glamorous” enough for the patrons to whom he catered.

8. SHE WAS THE FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMAN TO WIN A GRAMMY.

Ella Fitzgerald
William P. Gottlieb - LOC, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Among her many other accomplishments, in 1958 Fitzgerald became the first African American woman to win a Grammy Award. Actually, she won two awards that night: one for Best Jazz Performance, Soloist for Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook, and another for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook.

9. HER FINAL PERFORMANCE WAS AT CARNEGIE HALL.

On June 27, 1991, Fitzgerald—who had, at that point, recorded more than 200 albums—performed at Carnegie Hall. It was the 26th time she had performed at the venue, and it ended up being her final performance.

10. SHE LOST BOTH OF HER LEGS TO DIABETES.

In her later years, Fitzgerald suffered from a number of health problems. She was hospitalized a handful of times during the 1980s for everything from respiratory problems to exhaustion. She also suffered from diabetes, which took much of her eyesight and led to her having to have both of her legs amputated below the knee in 1993. She never fully recovered from the surgery and never performed again. She passed away at her home in Beverly Hills on June 15, 1996.

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