- America's Most Wanted was responsible for its first recovery of a child in 1988, less than a year after it went on the air. Back then, Kenneth Cole, a 24-year-old Massachusetts babysitter, became obsessed with one of the children he was supposed to care for, 5-year-old Nicole Ravesi, before he did the unthinkable and kidnapped her. AMW profiled Cole and Ravesi three times and each time, police and the FBI were swamped with tips placing them all over the East Coast. Just 39 days later, one of the tips paid off as Cole and Ravesi were found in a small Florida fishing town. With the arrest of Cole and the recovery of Ravesi, AMW showed it was not just good for capturing fugitives, but also for recovering missing children and persons.
- Paul Michael Merhige was wanted for four counts of first-degree murder with a firearm and two counts of attempted first-degree murder with a firearm after he opened fire on his family on Thanksgiving 2009 in Jupiter, Florida. The monthlong manhunt came to a head after a commercial for AMW was aired during the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 2, 2010, when the owners of the Edgewater Lodge in Long Key, Fla., recognized Merhige as a man who checked into their motel. Within hours, Merhige was in handcuffs and AMW capture #1,099. Merhige is currently awaiting trial and the prosecution is seeking the death penalty.
- On February 7, 1988, America's Most Wanted took to the air with the goal of capturing fugitives who had evaded justice. Law enforcement was initially skeptical that a television show could capture a wanted criminal, but those doubts were quickly erased. The show's first profiled fugitive was David James Roberts. In 1975, Roberts murdered a family of three in Whiteland, Ind., and then burned down their house. He was arrested but was let out on bail and in 1977, kidnapped a woman in Indianapolis, raped her, locked her in the trunk of her car and murdered her infant son. He was sentenced to prison but escaped in 1986 on a hospital trip. In 1987, Roberts was added to the FBI Ten Most Wanted List.
Enter AMW a year later. Immediately, tips poured in and one identified Roberts as the director of a New York homeless shelter living under an alias. His girlfriend told police he was in the hospital at the time, but he ran before he could be arrested. On February 11, 1988, AMW showed its effectiveness with the apprehension of Roberts in New York. That's right, the show's first fugitive was also its #1 capture, a Top 10 Fugitive arrested just four days after the show aired. Roberts is serving six consecutive life sentences for his initial crimes plus an additional 20 years for the escape and is ineligible for parole.
- In 1996, Amy DeChant was wanted out of Las Vegas for murder after she killed her boyfriend, rich bookie Bruce Weinstein. On Jan. 3, 1998, AMW aired the case and the broadcast paid dividends as they found that one good tip to nab the so-called "Black Widow." However, it also made for one of the most bizarre captures in AMW history. Authorities caught up with DeChant at the Sunset Palms nudist resort in Florida. Clothes or no clothes, DeChant was the milestone capture #500. In Oct. 1998, DeChant was convicted, but the conviction was overturned by the Nevada Supreme Court in 2000. However, in 2001, DeChant pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and is currently serving 10 to 25 years in prison.
- It can be rightfully assumed that of all the fugitives captured by America's Most Wanted hate the show. Perhaps no one hates the show more than Stephen Tatro. In 1997, Tatro killed his business partner, Daniel Duran, with a hunting rifle. AMW profiled the story in April 2000, but six hours before it aired, Tatro was arrested thanks to tips from commercials showing him, making him capture #604. The story doesn't end there, though. While awaiting trial, Tatro faked having a heart attack and used the hospital trip as a bid for freedom. The escape was short-lived as AMW profiled him on Dec. 30, 2000, and tips came in. One tip led cops right to where Tatro was hiding, a ranch in Arizona. That made Tatro not just capture #639, but the first (and so far, only) fugitive to be captured twice by AMW. In 2001, Tatro was convicted of murder and is serving 50 years in prison.
- Prince Alvarado was an aspiring DJ, but he put an end to his dreams after he was charged with four counts of attempted murder and multiple criminal weapons charges after he shot at four people outside a White Castle in Sayreville, New Jersey. On Nov. 14, 2009, Alvarado was profiled on AMW and in the early morning hours of Nov. 15, Alvarado was arrested at his Florida apartment thanks to several AMW tips. Police found Alvarado was living with his girlfriend under an alias, making a living as a telemarketer and selling shoes out of the trunk of his car. Alvarado was AMW capture #1,093 and is serving 21-25 years in prison.
- On Dec. 13, 2000, Joseph C. Garcia, Randy Ethan Halprin, Larry James Harper, Patrick Henry Murphy, Jr., Donald Keith Newbury, George Rivas and Michael Anthony Rodriguez escaped from a maximum-security prison in Texas and spent their time on the run with a trail of crime behind them. Dubbed the Texas Seven, the men committed a series of robberies to stay on the lam. The manhunt intensified on Christmas Eve after the Texas Seven murdered Aubrey Hawkins after the police officer responded to a burglary. Authorities quickly put out a reward and AMW profiled them several times. After the Jan. 20, 2001, show, a couple who owned a Colorado RV park called in after recognizing the men from AMW as a group who set up residence on their property. The tip proved to be golden as on Jan. 22, 2001, Garcia, Halprin, Rivas and Rodriguez were caught by police while Harper committed suicide as police closed in on him. On Jan. 24, Murphy and Newbury were also captured. The Texas Seven were AMW captures #642-648. All six of the surviving fugitives were sentenced to death for Hawkins' murder. Rodriguez was executed in 2008 and Rivas was put to death in 2012. Garcia, Halprin and Murphy remain on Death Row, while Newbury has been given a stay of execution.
- More often than not, nothing good comes from the murder of a child. America's Most Wanted is a great exception to the rule. In 1981, John Walsh was working as a hotel-management executive when his 6-year-old son, Adam, was abducted. Despite the efforts of the Walsh family, police and search parties, Adam's decapitated head was soon found in Hollywood, Florida (the rest of his body has never been found). Walsh turned his fury and grief into a positive as he spent the 30 years after Adam's murder successfully lobbying politicians to pass laws that better protect children and create harsher punishments for criminals. One of his greatest deeds was getting Congress to approve the establishment of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which works to rescue at-risk kids. Two made-for-TV NBC movies were made portraying Adam's death and the missing children's profiles that aired after the show resulted the in recovery of several kids, most notably Bryon Anthony McCain II, better known as Bizzy Bone from Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. In 1988, Fox approached Walsh about hosting America's Most Wanted and the rest, as they say, is history. Nearly 1,200 fugitives captured and more than 60 recovered missing persons has shown what America's Most Wanted has accomplished while adding emphasis on how important it is to track fugitives who harm children.
The one case that was never profiled on the show, however, was Adam's murder, which went unsolved for 27 years. Walsh and authorities always had their suspicions and in December 2008, police in Florida gave the Walsh family some overdue closure as a Christmas present in finally naming Adam's killer. The man they determined who was the killer was Ottis Toole, a serial killer responsible by his own admission to more than 200 murders (Toole died in prison in 1996 while serving a life sentence that had been commuted from the death penalty). Toole was long-believed by Walsh and cops to be Adam's killer and they finally had the proof, closing the case for good. Just because Toole was implicated didn't mean that Walsh was done with the manhunt and the show continues to air to this day.
- In 1993, police in Sacramento, California, charged Odis James Williams with sexual conduct with a child, oral copulation with a child under 14 and unlawful sexual intercourse with a child after he abused young girls for 10 years. Williams had managed to elude the law for 16 years before AMW profiled his case. On the first airing, on Dec. 12, 2009, a tip came in that was right on the money and Williams was booked just hours after the show as capture #1,097. Williams was convicted in 2010 and after his sentencing in 2011, he is serving 32 years to life in prison.
- Perhaps the biggest feather in the cap of America's Most Wanted was the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping case. On June 5, 2002, Elizabeth Smart, who was 14 at the time, was abducted from her bedroom in Salt Lake City. The case garnered widespread media coverage across the country, hundreds of candlelight vigils and a $250,000 reward, but tips came up empty for months. In February 2003, AMW began reporting that a former Smart handyman simply known as Emmanuel was a person of interest and had his composite picture plastered on TV.
On March 12, 2003, a couple recognized Emmanuel, who was with a woman and a girl who were both covered in cloth, in suburban Salt Lake City and called police, mentioning they remembered him from AMW. Cops immediately spring to action and found that the clothed girl was indeed Elizabeth Smart. While apprehending Emmanuel and the clothed woman, police found that "Emmanuel" was actually Brian David Mitchell, a sexually sadistic pedophile who considered himself the Messiah and believed he was told by God to take Elizabeth as a second wife, while the clothed woman was his wife, Wanda Barzee, who acted as an accomplice to the abduction. Mitchell and Barzee were capture #748 and 749, while Smart was recovery #36.
Barzee was convicted and is serving 15 years in prison for aggravated kidnapping, aggravated sexual assault and aggravated burglary. After many delays over his mental competency and if he was fit to stand trial, Mitchell was convicted in 2010 and sentenced to life in prison for a laundry list of charges that included kidnapping. In the years since, though, Elizabeth Smart is seemingly doing well for someone who was kidnapped, drugged and sexually assaulted. She has since went to Paris as a Mormon missionary, graduated from Brigham Young University with a harp performance major, works for ABC News as a corespondent for child abduction stories, wrote an autobiography and even got married and started a family. The case may certainly be the brightest moment in the long history of America's Most Wanted.
- One of the most amazing captures was #50, that of John Emil List. On November 9, 1971, List shot his entire family, including his wife, three children, and his elderly mother, and left their bodies to rot. He left a note confessing to the brutal slaughter (claiming he wanted to save his family from being "corrupted"), and took off, managing to evade justice for seventeen years. Enter AMW, who used a new technique to find him. They hired a forensic artist to make a sculpture of what List would look like as an elderly man, even adding a pair of thick, dark glasses they found at a flea market. More than two hundred tips came in, and one ended up leading them directly to List, who had been living in Richmond, Virginia under the alias Robert Clark. It took the FBI eleven days to track him down. The best part? The bust used looked exactly like List. The bust was even wearing the exact same make of glasses.
- Also the fact that List was a fan of the show and told his friends to watch it? Classic.
- Meta-example: usually, when a beloved show is cancelled, you can expect a few fans on the Internet to start a petition. When America's Most Wanted was cancelled, there was a petition, alright. Not only was the petition signed by fans of the show, it was also signed by police chiefs and governors.
- The road to 1,200 captures was completed with captures on back-to-back days. First was Zane Kiel Mason, who was wanted out of Fort Mohave, Ariz., for second degree murder after killing a 51-year-old man in an argument on Aug. 22, 2011. More than a year later, Mason's life on the run came to a halt on Oct. 21, 2012, when police apprehended him in Sacramento, Calif. The U.S. Marshals Service, who made the arrest, credited a tip to AMW for the capture, making Mason Capture No. 1,199. The next day in St. Petersburg, Fla., John Thomas Reardon became the next fugitive to face justice AMW style. Reardon had been wanted out of Charlotte, N.C., for failure to appear and possession of cocaine with the intent to distribute, on top of police wanting to talk to him about the disappearance of his girlfriend, Emily Gregoriev. An alert AMW viewer spotted Reardon and the USMS took him down, making Reardon the 1,200th capture linked to the show. As a bonus, Gregoriev was found alive and well in St. Petersburg, too.
Remember, you CAN make a difference.