John Walsh’s Mission for Justice

John Walsh and his son Callahan talk to TV Real about In Pursuit with John Walsh, which airs on Investigation Discovery.

Luis Frias was on the U.S. Marshals’ most-wanted fugitive list for years after brutally murdering his ex-wife, Janett Reyna, in front of their three children. A tip called into In Pursuit with John Walsh on Investigation Discovery (ID) from a viewer in Mexico helped lead to his capture. Co-hosted with his son Callahan, the series from Jupiter Entertainment profiles criminals on the run as well as highlights cases of missing children. Frias was featured in the show’s debut episode. The series is John Walsh’s latest in a string of initiatives to bring justice to crime victims.

In the years following the murder of his 6-year-old son Adam (a crime that would remain officially unsolved for more than three decades), John devoted himself to finding missing children. He set up a foundation, Adam Walsh Child Resource Center, which would eventually merge with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), and pressed for the creation of a nationwide clearinghouse with information on abducted kids. With his long-running FOX show America’s Most Wanted, meanwhile, John had a hand in catching more than 1,200 fugitives in 40-plus countries, including 17 people on the FBI’s most-wanted list. “And we recovered 61 stranger-abducted missing kids alive,” John tells TV Real. “I had my own trained hotline operators. You call me, I don’t care who you are, tell me where that dirtbag is, and I will get him.”

The show ran for 25 years, at 51 episodes per season. “I traveled nonstop for 25 years,” John says. “I would leave on Sunday night and come home on a Friday night and be home for a day and a half. The Emmy Board of Governors selected me for a special Emmy for excellence in television. I said, This will be a good time to hang the spurs up. I had done a lot for FOX, and I had done European TV shows, movies of the week, a syndicated show—I wanted to retire.”

America’s Most Wanted ended its run in 2012 (with its last seasons airing on Lifetime) and was followed up by The Hunt on CNN in 2014. John says he was then content to spend time with his grandkids and play polo—until he heard from law-enforcement officers that 2018 was “going to be the most violent year in American history. This is what happened in 2018: 307 mass murders, 27 school shootings—in what first world country do you send your kid to school to get shot by other kids?—144 cops died in the line of duty, and the cities of Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore and New Orleans were breaking records for homicides.”

John says that his longtime friend Henry S. Schleiff, president of Investigation Discovery, suggested doing a new show for the network. Season one of In Pursuit with John Walsh was such a success that the show is returning for a second run, which premieres on ID today. “It’s a crime-fighting show that we use as an investigative tool for law enforcement,” says Callahan, who co-hosts and exec-produces (in addition to serving as a child advocate at NCMEC). “We have two main criminals each episode, followed by two more criminals that we feature on what we call our ‘15 Seconds of Shame.’ We’re also featuring two missing children, because we’ve partnered with NCMEC, an organization that has helped recover more than 300,000 missing children. I was a producer for America’s Most Wanted for a number of years. I helped co-create The Hunt on CNN. I’m honored to join my father on camera. We had some great captures and are looking forward to continuing that fight and helping get justice for families that haven’t gotten it.”

One of the biggest challenges, Callahan says, is selecting which cases to profile on the show. “We’re turning down cases all the time. We do have to look at a few criteria for a case that would make it. There has to be a wanted fugitive. We don’t do cases where there was a murder but we don’t know [who committed it]. We need to have an active warrant. We need to make sure the statute of limitations hasn’t passed. We also want to feature criminals that are catchable, that we know the public can help out with, and where law enforcement has hit a dead end. We also take a look at the victims and try to empathize with them and go after criminals who have left devastation in their path. We’re not going after white-collar crime or the guy who sold the nickel bag in the park. We’re going after the worst of the worst—child rapists, serial killers, murderers—the people that everybody wants off the streets.”

Selecting NCMEC cases of missing children to spotlight is also gut-wrenching, Callahan says. “We want to feature kids that we believe can be found. Of course, we never give up hope on any of our missing children. We know [the show] is a great tool for law enforcement, for these families who are desperately searching for their loved one. It is difficult to be able to pick and choose which ones make it on. If we could feature them all, we would.”

To help find these children, the show features aged-up photos made by NCMEC. “They age-progress a photo of a child after they’ve been missing for more than two years, and they age-progress that photo every two years after that until the child turns 18,” Callahan explains. “After that, they do it every five years. We keep age-progressing those images until the child has been found, or law enforcement tells us to no longer do it. We use familial photos, as many as we can get—mom, dad, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles. That makes it easier for our artists. It takes the artist about a full day to do one of those age-progressed photos. Our forensic artists don’t go off the last age-progressed photo. They go back to the original photo of that child, and it’s a different artist that does the next age progression. So there’s no bias created by the artist before them. It’s a touch of science and a touch of artistry that comes together. They also do the images almost like a painting rather than a photorealistic image. We do that to add a touch of ambiguity to that photo. We just want to spark that little bit of recognition.”

Social media has been transformative in aiding the search for kidnapped kids and wanted fugitives, Callahan continues. “We’re taking tips through our social media feeds. We want people to do the right thing. Not everybody wants to pick up the phone. Not everybody wants to say who they are when they call the cops. We have that bond of trust with the public that they can remain anonymous when they give us that tip. We’re not tracking your phone number; we’re not turning you over to law enforcement. We just want that tip. It often is the key that unlocks the door to justice. As insignificant as that tip may be, we want you to call us and give us that information. We’re also using social media to put those images of our fugitives and missing children out there. The most important tool when it comes to the recovery of a missing child is a photo of that child. People used to think of the National Center as the milk carton people—the pictures of missing kids on the back of milk cartons. That took time, getting the images to the printers and then the distribution of the milk cartons. Now we can do it instantaneously through social media and blast out these images and get millions if not billions of eyeballs on these photos.”

Callahan adds that ID is the “perfect home” for In Pursuit. “They know what they’re doing with true-crime shows. Their audience is engaged. Our show needs an audience that pays attention, who is going to do the right thing, who wants to do the right thing. ID isn’t just telling true-crime stories; they’re solving true-crime stories.”

In Pursuit with John Walsh returns to ID tonight.