The Untold Truth Of America's Most Wanted

Fox's "America's Most Wanted" premiered in 1988 with the goal of apprehending fugitives wanted for different types of crimes, such as murder, armed robbery, rape, and other serious cases. The inspiration for the show came from BBC's "Crimewatch" that first aired in 1984. "America's Most Wanted" was hosted by John Walsh — a former executive who became a victims' advocate after the abduction and murder of his 6-year-old son Adam in 1981 (via Crime Museum). The TV show informs viewers of fugitives' crimes, where they were last seen, and their physical appearance and asks help from the public in order to apprehend them.

The show was picked up by Lifetime in 2011, but the network canceled it just two years after. In 2021, "America's Most Wanted" was revived by Fox, but Walsh didn't return as the host, as he had his own show on Discovery titled "In Pursuit." Instead, per Deadline, award-winning journalist Elizabeth Vargas became its new host, with approval from Walsh. "I am so excited to hear 'America's Most Wanted' is coming back and I support its return," Walsh said.

The first suspect was caught four days after the premiere episode

The very first episode of "America's Most Wanted" aired on February 7, 1988, and it featured fugitive David James Roberts, who was convicted of rape and murder. Roberts had been incarcerated for his crimes, but he escaped in 1986 on the way back to prison from a hospital where he had undergone pulmonary tests. As reported by the New York Post, Roberts went to work at a Staten Island homeless shelter after his escape and went by the name Bob Lord.

When "America's Most Wanted" aired, his photo was released to the public and one of the tips received by authorities led to his arrest. Although the FBI had wanted posters of Roberts, he said that the photo barely resembled him. "I almost broke out laughing," he said in an interview with the New York Post. However, "America's Most Wanted" released a more accurate representation of his appearance, and that helped the tipster identify him. "I got caught because of that program. The picture they had was me," Roberts stated.

The American Civil Liberties Union was against the show

Colleen O'Connor, who was the director of public education of the American Civil Liberties Union when "America's Most Wanted" first came out, had some concerns about the show. In an article by the New York Times, O'Connor said that the portrayal of the fugitives makes it seem that they are guilty, and that may sway the decision of jurors if a case goes to trial. "Can someone get a fair trial after he's been portrayed as a killer on television?" she asked.

Those who work on the show, however, said that a majority of the people they showcase have already been convicted of crimes and who have escaped rather than those who have never been convicted. John Walsh also closes each episode by saying that those they are looking for are suspects and, in the eyes of the law, are considered innocent until their guilt is proven in court.

Inmates turned in a fellow inmate after seeing him on 'America's Most Wanted'

"America's Most Wanted" was such a hit when it came out that it was even watched by inmates in prison. In May 1988, a group of inmates was watching the show when they realized that the person being shown on TV was one of them. It was 23-year-old Mark Goodman who was on the last days of his short prison stint for a burglary conviction. As reported by the New York Times, however, Goodman was also wanted for escaping the custody of authorities in a different jurisdiction after being apprehended for armed robbery. Goodman attempted to change the channel, but his fellow inmates had already recognized him.

The inmates notified the prison guards of what they saw on "America's Most Wanted," and a decision was made to place him in separate quarters. On the way, however, Goodman was able to slip his hands out of the handcuffs, and he escaped by jumping the prison fence. Fortunately, the authorities were able to capture him the following day.

The show was briefly canceled in 1996

In 1996, Fox made a decision to cancel "America's Most Wanted," and the spokesman for the network stated that it was due to declining ratings. "The show couldn't continue to compete against the aggressive programming of other stations," per the statement. In place of its timeslot, Fox aired reruns of the sitcom "Married ... with Children." According to the Washington Post, plenty of fans showed their displeasure to the network for the cancellation, and even the FBI, members of Congress, organizations, and governors pushed for Fox to reevaluate the decision. Viewers rallied outside the Fox lot and wrote thousands of letters, with most of them saying they would rather watch "America's Most Wanted" than see reruns of a comedy show.

In an interview with Larry King in 2003, John Walsh recalled the time when the show was canceled. He said that he was devastated that it had to end (via CNN). The efforts of fans paid off, however. Walsh said, "Everybody in law enforcement contacted Fox. Fifty-five members of Congress contacted Fox. Thirty-seven governors..." In addition, about 200,000 citizens wrote letters to the network demanding the show's return. The show was canceled for only about a month before Fox decided to bring it back. "We were the shortest canceled show in the history of television," Walsh stated.

More than 1,000 fugitives have been caught

Since the premiere of "America's Most Wanted" in 1988, it has helped capture plenty of fugitives wanted for a variety of crimes. The show reached a milestone in 2008 when the 1,000th fugitive was arrested with the help of the show, as reported by Today. To celebrate the milestone, a special episode was aired live from Times Square in New York City wherein John Walsh stated, "Every one of the 1,000 fugitives our viewers have helped take down is a testament to what I say at the end of each broadcast. You can make a difference" (via The Futon Critic).

When "America's Most Wanted" was canceled in 2013, the show had apprehended a total of 1,186 fugitives. It was off the air for several years until 2021, and only a week after its return on television, a fugitive — Phillip Dent — was captured, according to Variety. Dent was wanted for carjacking and camera footage of the crime was aired on the comeback episode of the show. He was identified by a viewer who called the tip line, which led to his arrest.