'America's Most Wanted' Returning to the scene of the crime, on The Block


STEVE YEAGER pointed to a piece of paper taped over one of the lights along the wall of the 2 O'Clock Club on The Block.

"We put that up there when we were making 'On The Block' three years ago," he said, referring to the independent, low-budget movie he directed about Baltimore's famed strip of sin. "No one bothered to take it off."

Yeager was back behind the camera in the club, but this time the stripper on the runway had to keep her sequined gown on because this was going to be shown on TV. He was directing a segment for "America's Most Wanted," the Fox show that focuses on fugitives from justice in part by re-enacting their crimes.

Part of a program on prison escapes that will air tonight at 8 o'clock on Channel 45 (WBFF), Yeager's piece is about Bertha Keene, who was convicted and given a life sentence for the 1969 murder of Melvin Luckhart, the doorman at Judge's, then a nightspot on Greenmount Avenue in Waverly.

Three times she escaped from the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women. In 1971 and 1972 she was re-captured quickly. In 1976, she was out for 15 months before federal agents found her in Miami. In 1979, she escaped again and has eluded authorities for almost 12 years.

Keene, also known as Theresa Grosso, was a go-go dancer and Block regular. At the 2 O'clock Club, Yeager documents the night of partying that preceded the encounter with the Judge's doorman, whose request for identification from Keene spurred the shooting.

"I really wasn't familiar with the show," Yeager said. "They sent me a few segments and I was impressed with the quality. I told my crew that we had some work to do to live up to these standards. We're looking at this as an 8-minute feature film."

Local actress Kathryn James is playing the part of Keene and is said to bear a striking resemblance to Keene. "It's just my bone structure, nothing else," she quickly cautioned with a smile.

The segment was made in three days using seven different locations, with a Fells Point bar standing in for Judge's. The Howard County courthouse was also used, along with the Jessup penitentiary from which Keene escaped.

"They've put up some fences since she escaped, I think because of her," Mickey McKenzie, the segment's producer, said. "We shot in the infirmary area which still looks like it did in 1979.

"They were very cooperative with us," she added of the Jessup authorities. "They really want to catch this woman."

Catching criminals, and offering viewers a hit-the-lottery-type chance in participating in that drama, is what "America's Most Wanted" is all about. The show started as a program for Fox-owned stations but quickly proved so popular it was moved onto the network's national schedule in early 1988.

Since then, tips from its viewers have been credited with 148 captures of fugitives, including, most recently, the arrest of Virgilio Pas Romero, who was wanted for his alleged role in the 1976 car-bombing assassination of Orlando Letelier, the former Chilean ambassador to the United States.

"I think people watch because they think they're going to catch somebody," despite the long odds, said Lance Heflin, the show's executive producer. "People are really afraid of crime. They feel helpless. This show empowers them, gives them a way to fight back."

"America's Most Wanted," which is hosted by John Walsh -- whose son Adam was killed in a still-unsolved abduction and murder -- has suffered in the ratings this year, largely because it has moved from Sundays to Fridays and expanded to an hour. Still, the broadcast continues to generate, on average, some 2,000 phone calls each week from viewers with potential tips on the fugitives profiled.

"I think we made some mistakes when we first went to an hour by making some segments too long," Heflin said. "They felt like movies of the week. We need people to remember that this is not a movie, this stuff actually happened."

Still, he's frustrated that the show can't seem to break out of a loyal core of viewers. "If we can get you to watch for three weeks, you'll be hooked," he said. "Once you've seen a crime profiled, heard an update the next week, and then learned about a capture the third, we've got you. This stuff is that powerful."

For McKenzie, Heflin and others involved with the program, the power often comes from personal association with the victims of the crimes re-enacted.

"I stay in touch with a lot of them," McKenzie said. "You work with them closely on something that matters so much to them, you really feel responsible. You want to do a good job for them."

"Some of them remain good friends," Heflin said. "I don't think any of us can understand what it's like to become a victim of a crime like these, the devastating effect it can have on peoples' lives. Sometimes they can spend all their waking hours on their search for justice."

Heflin rejected the charge that "America's Most Wanted" is really just a way to get brutal violence in prime time by wrapping it in a cloak of social responsibility.

"I could be a lot more violent than I am," he said. "But we don't do that. We don't use any blood packs. We're not interested in that.

"You have to remember that one of our constituencies are the law enforcement people who see the types of things people can do to other people every day. Sometimes they'll look at a piece we've done and tell us that we've sold out to Hollywood by not making it brutal enough."

Heflin also said that he did not think, as some critics have charged, that "America's Most Wanted" helps turn the nation into a bunch of would-be vigilantes, sending us out to spy on our neighbors.

"I read those charges that were made when the show first came on and I just don't think it's played out that way," he said. "I think the show appeals to a fundamental sense of justice in the American people.

"And that's something that can exist even behind bars. We're one of the best-watched shows in prisons and we've had a lot of tips come from inmates."

Going by her record, behind bars is not where "America's Most Wanted" is likely to find Bertha Keene.

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