Happy 73rd birthday to John Walsh, an incredible story of resilience who turned his personal tragedy into a life of helping others.
In 1981, Mr. Walsh’s son Adam was abducted from a Sears department store in Hollywood, Florida. He was playing video games while his mother was just a few aisles away. Adam was only 6 years old. The loudspeaker bellowed, “Adam Walsh….please report to customer service.” His mom and grandma combed the aisles. Two hours later, the police were called. Twenty five officers worked around the clock for four days. Helicopters and ground searches were used. John Walsh and his wife Reve went on Good Morning America to appeal for help. No Adam, no answers, no leads.
It would be two weeks before what happened to Adam would become clear. Fishermen discovered his severed head in a canal 120 miles away near Vero Beach; the rest of his body never was found. The case remained unsolved for 26 years, until serial killer Otis Toole confessed on his deathbed.
Photo Credit: Associated Press
John Walsh felt strongly that law enforcement made many key mistakes in solving Adam’s case and in the pursuit of Otis Toole. It was then that he decided he would dedicate his life to victim’s rights, preventing crimes against children, and catching fugitive criminals.
Mr. and Mrs. Walsh started out by forming the Adam Walsh Resource Center in 1981 to help parents of missing children and force law enforcement to coordinate and modernize their efforts. At the time, there was no nationwide database for missing children, and various agencies didn’t really work together to help locate them. Upon pressure and urging from the Walsh’s, President Ronald Reagan created the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 1984, which would merge with the Adam Walsh Resource Center in 1990.
The Walsh’s persistent efforts got two major bills passed in congress. The Missing Children’s act was passed in 1982 which was the first piece of federal legislation to address the issue. In 1984, the Missing Children’s Assistance Act was passed. It provides $40 million each year for the training of local law enforcement, schools, etc. on how to respond to reports of missing children. It has been updated by congress three times, including a 2018 bill passed in congress and signed by President Trump.
With the legal efforts by the Walsh’s has also come a cultural and societal change in how we respond to missing children. 70,00 department stores now have a “Code Adam” during which employees are trained to lock doors and follow a protocol when a threat to a child or missing child is reported. Milk cartons with faces of missing children have gone into 85 million homes since 1985. In the mid 1990s, John Walsh was one of the key figures in making “Amber Alerts” a federal program.
According to CBS news, the percentage of missing children recovered in 1990 was 62 percent. Now, it is 97 percent.
In 1988, Walsh began a two decade run as the host of “America’s Most Wanted.” Within four days of the pilot, the show helped catch an escaped murderer, then took off from there. At it’s peak, it averaged between five and six million viewers per episode. It would be embraced by law enforcement, and even used in the war on terror after a special appeal from President George W. Bush. The show helped capture over 1000 fugitives, and led to the return of over 100 missing children. 17 members of the F.B.I.’s “most wanted” list were apprehended because of the show.
Photo Credit: Sidereel
In the face of an unimaginable tragedy, John Walsh has fought to make this country better and safer. Who can say how many people are still alive because of his efforts? How many children and families were saved when a predator was caught before they could kidnap, rape, and kill again? How many will be spared in the future because of programs which John Walsh served as the catalyst for? We should all be grateful for how John Walsh turned the horrific murder of his son into action that has undoubtedly had a positive impact on the world. We can also learn from his example that one of the few things we all share is our ability to choose how we respond. Happy birthday Mr. Walsh, and thank you for making your response to help America get better.
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