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Fugitive capture 986, which occurred four days after the man's image and violent rap sheet were broadcast throughout the nation March 22, was sure to bring a good night's rest to some crime-weary residents in Northeast Baltimore.

As John Walsh spoke about the nabbing, he could barely contain his exhilaration:

"My producers just called to say that they caught Kevin (Muggsy) Armstead." Armstead was sought by Baltimore police in connection with the death of "a handyman, a wonderful guy that everybody loved," said the host of the crime-fighting television show America's Most Wanted. It is the longest-running program in the history of the Fox network and the fourth longest-running prime-time television program on the air.

His excitement over the Armstead capture was similar to what Walsh experienced 20 years ago, when the show proved critics wrong by helping to capture a fugitive four days after its first episode. Walsh agreed to host the show as part of a personal vow to capture the type of criminal who kidnapped and killed his 6-year-old son Adam, whose 1981 murder was never solved.

A precursor to the reality television craze, the show blended the dark side of reality with elements of drama for an unprecedented, high-profile approach to law enforcement - a genre that continues with Fox's COPS and NBC Dateline's "To Catch a Predator." America's Most Wanted, which also helped build the upstart network into an entertainment juggernaut, is approaching two milestones.

After 20 years without an official headquarters - it's usually taped at the scene of the crimes in question - the show will have a permanent home in the new National Museum of Crime and Punishment in Washington, which is scheduled to open May 23.

The series, which airs Saturday nights, is also nearing its 1,000th fugitive capture. As of last weekend, it had been credited with catching 998.

"We're heading toward 1,000 captures, and it never fails to amaze me," said Walsh, 62. "I remember all the negative stuff 20 years ago. 'Who's John Walsh?' and "What's reality TV?' and "What's Fox?' It shows that the real, final judge of TV is the public, and we're still knocking them out on Saturday nights."

Once a real-estate developer, Walsh ventured into crime fighting overwhelmed with grief but determined to make a difference. He discovered a knack for conveying passion and counsel to a public that found him trustworthy. Since the show's Feb. 7, 1988, launch, Walsh became the face of anonymous-tip calling as he constantly implores viewers to call the show's hot line: 800-CRIMETV.

Baltimore residents, he says, contacted the show about Armstead, who lived in the 700 block of E. 43rd Street. On March 22, the show broadcast that Armstead was accused of being part of a group that shot and killed handyman Ricardo Paige in the 500 block of E. 43rd St. According to police reports, Paige was believed to have found drugs while refurbishing a rowhouse.

U.S. Marshals and Decatur, Ga., police apprehended Armstead while he was working at a car wash in Decatur four days later. Some episodes have had even quicker success, with arrests made before the show's final credits rolled.

"Its biggest influence on television has been civic, in that it has caught a lot of criminals," said Robert Thompson, a popular culture professor at Syracuse University. "It took over the role that post offices used to have in putting up criminals on their walls with composite drawings and their crimes."

The show is seen in more than 20 countries, identifying fugitives who have fled as far as India and China.

"He has been an immeasurable assistance to us, publicizing hundreds of our fugitive cases," Ernie Porter, chief of the FBI investigative publicity and public unit, said of Walsh. "Over the last 20 years he has been responsible for our removing 16 criminals from the FBI 10 Most Wanted List."

Walsh hopes to bolster his impact in linking with the National Museum of Crime and Punishment, a private, 28,000-square-foot interactive exhibit. The museum, at 575 Seventh St. N.W., will feature such attractions as high-speed police simulators, an electric chair (unplugged) and mob gangster Al Capone's jail cell.

"It will be Smithsonian meets Disneyland," museum general manager Janine Vaccarello said. She added that the museum will stress the consequences of crime as well as crime prevention. Walsh made sure it would before getting involved.

"The glamorization of thug life is pretty disgusting, and it probably cost Ricardo his life," said Walsh, a Washington resident. "The hope is that the museum has an impact on kids to say that there is a consequence for your actions."

That has been his mission since his son was killed. His other efforts include the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children which he and his wife, Reve, co-founded in 1984.

Fox briefly canceled America's Most Wanted in 1996, but public outcry, including calls from 37 governors, prompted the network to reinstate the show. Today, it's official name is America's Most Wanted: America Fights Back.

Thompson said many younger viewers are unaware that Walsh's popularity began with two made-for-television movies about his son's tragedy, Adam in 1983 and Adam: His Song Continues in 1986.

His mother left him in the toy department of a Sears store in Hollywood, Fla., where the Walshes lived, to play video games with friends while she shopped for lamps in the same store. When she returned to the toy department, Adam was missing.

Two weeks later, it was discovered that Adam had been grusomely murdered. No one was charged in the crime. Serial killer Ottis Toole, who was behind bars, claimed to have killed Adam but subsequently recanted. A police investigation removed him as a suspect. Toole died in a Florida prison in 1996.

The moving programs about Adam Walsh featured appearances by his father imploring viewers' help in stemming child abduction. Those segments prompted Fox executives to consider him as host for the America's Most Wanted show that they were modeling after a British show called Crimewatch UK.

"They said, 'We've tested some actors, but you're the guy,'" Walsh said. "For six months, I said 'no.' But then I thought, 'We had never got any justice for Adam's murder.' My wife said, 'This is what we do when you're the parents of a murdered child. This might lead to a capture.' And the rest is history."

The show gave him a voice in crime prevention well beyond its time slot. Last year, Boston officials called on Walsh to take part in a march to stem a "Stop Snitchin'" movement similar to one that gained infamy in Baltimore neighborhoods.

Two years ago, President Bush signed into law the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act on July 27 - 25 years to the day that Adam Walsh was abducted.

"John changes lives," said Julie Clark, founder of the Baby Einstein child products company, who has worked with Walsh on child-safety issues. "I've met a number of hard-working people in my lifetime, but know of no one who is as deeply committed to or devoted to a cause."

But Walsh's fame has come with a cost. He says that he has often been the target of threats, though he has never been physically harmed.

"Sometimes, it's pretty discouraging," he said. "I can't discount the threats. I believe it's like judges and prosecutors. It comes with the territory."

He added that the positive results outweigh the downsides. And that means that the man police often call "the court of last resort" for solving a crime will still consider the show as his life's work.

"I realized the day that Adam was abducted that life takes you down some of the strangest paths," he said. "The concept of the show was to catch bad guys, the murderers and molesters like the one who killed my son. And I think the public is a wonderful reinforcement of the work we've done."

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

John Walsh

Born:

Auburn, N.Y.

Resides:

Lives in Washington with his wife, Reve. They have three children, Meghan, Callahan and Hayden

Age:

62

Honors:

The past four presidents have recognized his efforts to combat crime. In 1991, he received the FBI's 10th annual Lou E. Peters Memorial Service Award, which recognizes citizens who give to their community and nation.

Maryland-related captures

Highlights among America's Most Wanted's 36 captures in Maryland.

Kendall Alexander

Captured Oct. 6, 2005:

Alexander, previously imprisoned for shooting a police officer, was wanted in connection with the stealing of $4,000 from a Baltimore bank on Aug. 10, 2005, according to police. America's Most Wanted aired his story Oct. 1, 2005, and tipsters' accounts led to his being captured in Baltimore County five days later.

Karl Goeke

Captured March 23, 2006:

Cecil County authorities issued a warrant for Goeke's arrest on Sept. 21, 2005, charging him with child sexual abuse and nine counts of second-degree sex offense involving young boys more than 20 years earlier. Investigated by cops since 2002, he fled across the country, assumed as aliases the names of deceased people, and was purported to have become a member of a raunchy comedy show in Los Angeles. America's Most Wanted aired his story Feb. 25, 2006. Less than a month later, he was captured in Portland, Ore.

Carol 'the Wig Lady' Silva

Captured Nov. 18, 2006:

Montgomery County police led the shutdown of a bank-fraud ring in the Washington area. Court documents show Silva, nicknamed the "Wig Lady" for the wigs, scarves and other accessories she wore as disguises, took information from stolen Social Security numbers, driver's licenses and other documents to take money from bank accounts in Maryland and D.C. from March 2006 to July 2006. Featured on the America's Most Wanted Web site, the Westbury, Mass., woman was arrested in the Boston area.

[Sources: "America's Most Wanted" Web site and other Web sites]

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