Recently we were on hand for a conference call when John Walsh and his wife Reve went to the White House on July 27, 2006. On this day President Bush signed into law The Adam Walsh Child Safety and Protection Act. The event was bittersweet for the Walsh family as it took place exactly 25 years to the day that their son Adam was abducted and murdered. The bill includes the following provisions:
- Establish a comprehensive federal DNA database of material collected from convicted molesters, and procedures for the routine DNA collection and comparison to the database when someone has been convicted of such an offense.
- Provide federal funding for states to track pedophiles using global positioning devices.
- Allow victims of child abuse to sue their molesters.
As the face and driving force behind the hugely popular and effective TV show America's Most Wanted, John Walsh and his family are living proof that something devastating doesn't only create victims.
John Walsh: First let me say thank you all for your patience. I'm right here at the White House; we're actually shooting components of this Saturday night's show around the bill signing today. As I think many of you know, this is the 25th anniversary of the kidnapping of our six-year-old son, Adam, from the mall in Hollywood, Florida, so it's kind of a bittersweet day for us. My wife, Reve, will be here; and our 24-year-old daughter, Megan; and our 21-year-old son, Callahan; and our 11-year-old son, Hayden. They, of course, never met Adam, but Adam is a big part of their lives, so it's a very special day for us.
We're very, very honored that Congress, so many members of Congress on both sides of the aisle deemed this an important piece of legislation and named it the Adam Walsh Child Safety and Protection Act. That's a real honor. But lots of other parents worked on this bill; Mark Lunsford from Florida; I walked the halls last week with Elizabeth Smart and her father Ed; and I know Marc Klauss, Polly Klauss' father, has worked on this; and many, many other parents, so many parents will be here today, and survivors.
I really believe that this may be the most important piece of child protection legislation passed in the last 25 years. I've been here for several bill signings, but this one is a really tough piece of legislation, it has teeth in it, it has oversight, it has about $1.2 billion worth of money, which we still have to go back to Congress and get, but that's the budget. It will really change the way we deal with convicted rapists of our women and molesters of our children.
It will mandate the creation of a national sex offender registry kept up-to-date in every one of the 50 states. Every state, whether the state has a good registry, a bad registry, or no registry, will now be mandated to have this federal template and there will be an exchange between the registries.
In the bill there is a federal component, money to hire and train 500 new U.S. marshals, who will then be assigned to fugitive task force all over the country and they will go after these convicted sex offenders who are in non-compliance with their parole or probation. The Justice Department estimates that there are at least 100,000 convicted sex offenders who have disappeared through the cracks, who are at large right now and non-compliance with their sex offender probation, parole, or registry requirements. So these are 100,000 guys that are out there right now.
It also mandates the collection of DNA from every convicted sex offender, which I believe will solve thousands of old crimes, cold cases, rapes and molestations. When we passed this bill on a state level in Florida, the DNA bill, several years ago, in the first six months 88 crimes were solved and 11 people over the course of a year were freed from jail that were innocent. So the DNA component will solve lots of crimes and get innocent people out of jail.
It also mandates more federal prosecutors, particularly to prosecute Internet crimes, distribution of child pornography over the Internet, and for pedophiles who try to lure children over the Internet. It allocates 35 more FBI agents; five of those will be assigned to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to help in cybercrimes and to catch these guys.
It also, for the first time in the history of this country, mandates a national child abuse registry and background checks of people who want to become foster parents. Years ago I profiled a guy who was a foster parent and was using young boys in child pornography, so now to be a foster parent you will have to have a background check and prove you are not a convicted sex offender.
So there are lots of really powerful, good components to this legislation. It was a long battle. Congressman Mark Foley from Florida wrote it about 2.5 years ago, when we were talking about sex offenders in Florida. James Sensenbrenner, the Chairman of the House Judiciary, got it passed three times, the last time being yesterday. And the Senate, on the Senate side, Bill Frist was a champion of the bill; Senator Oren Hatch introduced it to the Senate, along with Senator Joe Biden from Delaware, the democratic senator who became a champion of the bill. Senator Kennedy worked on it. Senator Leahy worked on it. Arlen Specter, the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary, was a very strong advocate for the bill. Diane Feinstein. There are a lot of people who worked hard to perfect and fine tune this bill to make it as tough as it is. I really think it's a true bipartisan piece of legislation. Finally, after almost 2.5 years it is passed and I really think it will impact the way that this country's criminal justice system deals with sex offenders.
Many small town sheriffs, many small town police agencies have said that they do not have the resources to go after sex offenders like the guy who allegedly killed the 19-year-old coed at Clemson University in South Carolina. He was a registered sex offender in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Florida, bragged about the fact that no one looked for him, he jumped the registry, violated his parole and probation, went to South Carolina and admitted killing that beautiful girl and said he may have killed other women, but he definitely raped women in other states because he said there was nobody looking for him. So this will be a great resource for small agencies, the FBI, the marshals, and the ICE, the Immigration Customs Enforcement group from Homeland Security will all be part of this bill going out to hunt these guys down on a national level. Again, we are so honored that they named it after beautiful little Adam.
In the years that you've been doing the show, has there ever been a situation when you've been say out in public and thought that you saw somebody that you had just profiled on the show?
John Walsh: Thank you for the compliments, David. That has never happened to me. We shoot the show all over the world, all over the country; we've done shows from the Persian Gulf, Ground Zero, Oklahoma bombing, etc., do them on the streets, and I've never, ever run into someone who was on the show.
Although one time I was told that when I was in Baltimore profiling a murderer and I was doing stand-ups there, that some of the people in the crowd had recognized him in the back of the crowd and that he disappeared and he was caught the next day. So I guess that's the closest that any fugitives have ever really gotten to me and I've never run into one.
It's probably not good for most people to take the law into their own hands. But if you did run into somebody like that, would you call the authorities or would you feel tempted, because of your passion for the job, to try and apprehend him, do a citizen's arrest?
John Walsh: No, I'm not a vigilante; I don't believe in vigilantism. I would certainly call law enforcement immediately. That's why America's Most Wanted has worked so well over the years. We are now up to 898 arrests of wanted fugitives, so close to 900. I believe people can make a difference and have the courage to make that call. But I always tell people don't do something stupid, don't put yourself in a very tenuous position to be hurt. Have authorities call the person. That's what I would do; I would call authorities right away. I'm not a cop and it's too dangerous to try to take down fugitives yourself.
My other question is in the tragedy that happened in your life that in some ways kind of kicked off this whole thing, I guess my question is is this in some ways kind of keeping Adam alive for you, in terms? Do you ever kind of sort of feel like he's right behind your shoulder, saying, "Thanks, Dad" or anything?
John Walsh: I absolutely do. Certainly Adam is the inspiration for almost everything my wife and I have done in the last 25 years. I was a pretty successful partner in a company that built deluxe hotels; we were building a $26 million hotel on Paradise Island when Adam was kidnapped. Certainly his murder changed our lives forever.
My wife always puts it very succinctly, she says, "I cannot understand how anyone could hurt a child, let alone brutally and heinously murder a child like Adam was murdered." And so many of the parents there today are survivors of the murders of their children. But Reve always said we wanted to make sure Adam didn't die in vain. Many times I'll be out on the road and we're in the middle of the night in a dangerous place, seeing some very bad things and very depressing things, and Adam, I always believe that he's there as the inspiration, saying, "Dad, go get them. I'm proud of you." And I hope he is proud of me because I hope I will see him in the next life.
Another case that I'm thinking of that happened last decade that you're well familiar with was the Jimmy Ryce case as well. Those cases just really, I think, changed the way we looked at protecting our children. I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about the world in 1981 versus the world now in terms of the things that parents didn't do then because they didn't even think about doing then, the things that parents do or should do now because it's a much different world?
John Walsh: You're absolutely right; it is a very much different world. Reve and I look back at how naïve we were in 1981. Reve was right three aisles away from Adam and was a great and still is a great mother - we've had three children since Adam was murdered - and a very protective mother, and it happened in an instant. The Ryces will be here today, Don and Claudine Rice; as will be Mark Lunsford.
Look at all the terrible cases that have happened in my home state of Florida. Look at all the support we've gotten from all the good people in Florida, but look at the cases. Most of the time it was a serious repeat offender: Carlie Bruscia, that guy had 17 convictions; John Couey that murdered Jessica Lunsford, 22 arrests. He was in violation of his sex offender probation and parole. He should have never been out on the streets. At least he should have been monitored, certainly specifically with an ankle bracelet.
So I always tell people that it isn't 1981, it's not 1950, it's not All in the Family/Father Knows Best, it's a difficult, difficult time. Now we have the Internet. We always talk about people telling their children, "Be careful when you're waiting for the school bus or walking home. Don't get near a car if it approaches." Now unfortunately the predators are in our living rooms, talking to our children over the Internet.
We've all seen the recent Datelines and we've been doing at America's Most Wanted for years; these guys are absolute experts at convincing children that they're another sympathetic 12-year-old or 13-year-old child. They try and lure that child to the mall or somewhere where they think they can get that child, and that child never knows they're talking to a 30-year-old man or a 40-year-old pedophile who's out there to hurt them.
So times have changed. The Internet is a great thing, but Interpol and the FBI say that child pornography over the Internet alone has become a $4 billion business. So it is a very different world than I grew up within, it's a very different world than it was in 1980, but I think people are aware and I really think this bill today is going to send a loud message. It only deals with convicted sex offenders, only the level one, the most violent ones, but it sends a message "You messed up one time, you hurt a woman, you hurt a child, but we have the right now to punish you. We have the right to know where you are. We have the right for that soccer mom to check a Web site and know if there's a convicted serious sex offender in their neighborhood." I think today's going to be a loud voice for a lot of victims that will be in the Rose Garden with my wife and I.
One of the other things that has changed in 25 years is that the police and law enforcement agencies are also much more better equipped to deal with this, aren't they?
John Walsh: Absolutely, but the real problem is, and I've seen it firsthand on America's Most Wanted, this is a country of 50 little countries called states, and there are 17,000 police agencies in the United States and 27 federal agencies and they still don't exchange information, they don't have the resources. Many times you'll have a case where it's just a one-man sheriff department, maybe a local chief of police with two people in his department; they don't have the resources to go after these sex offenders. This is what this bill will do.
There are going to be pilot programs in every state, teaching cops about cybercrime, about how to put cybercrime units together, how to track sex offenders. This bill is really a boon for law enforcement because it will give resources that teach cops who are more than willing to say, "We don't have the training. We don't have the manpower or womanpower and we really want to help catch these guys." So this is one really big component of this bill.
With the advent of DNA evidence and other things that help crack cold cases, I know what you've said before, but do you have any hope that they will ever find the person who killed Adam?
John Walsh: I never give up hope. I always talk about how my wife and I have never gotten justice. A lot of people think that Ottis Toole, who died in a Florida prison for some horrible crimes, he died of cirrhosis and AIDS in prison, was never charged. The sad thing is that they found a piece of bloody carpet in his car years ago when he was a suspect, and there was no DNA, and unfortunately the Hollywood police over the years misplaced that carpet, which is a real tragedy, because the FBI lab said to me, "Mr. Walsh, if you could give us that carpet, even now, in one day we would tell you whether Adam was in that car or not and whether that man, who is the main suspect, murdered Adam."
So I'm a great believer in DNA; I've often called it the fingerprint of the 21st century. This mandatory taking of the DNA of these sex offenders I think is going to get justice for thousands of victims. I can't imagine how terrible it would be to be in prison, convicted of sexual molestation or rape, and be innocent, and it will free the innocent. So this bill has a huge DNA component.
I wondered what you thought of the book Lost and Found and if you had any parts of it that spoke to you, aside from the profile of yourself and Reve?
John Walsh: I think that book, Lost and Found, it's a passionate statement about the victims, it's a photographic journey, and it's something I think all parents should probably take a look at. It bothers me when people say, "It can't happen to me," and you look in that book and say, "It's happened across all socioeconomic lines." It happens in the ghetto. It happens in Beverly Hills. It happened in the middle of a beautiful home in Salt Lake City.
The Smarts are in there, and today the Smarts will be in the Rose Garden and so will so many other parents of missing and murdered children. Elizabeth, of course, is a happy ending. But there will be a lot of other parents today who helped me work on this bill. It will be kind of a bittersweet day for Reve and I, and we all say the same thing that people in the media never seem to get, we all say, "We don't want to be here. We didn't choose to be here, but we're here because we want to honor our children and fight back."
The book is a great book. Today is going to be a bittersweet day, but it's a great day I think for children out there who may not be victimized because of this bill.
What is the best way for people to get a copy of this book? I think it might only be available through the Missing Children's.
John Walsh: They can certainly call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 1-800-THE-LOST. It's a toll-free number and they have a wonderful Web site, www.missingkids.com. I would even ask for it in book stores, but you can certainly call toll-free, 1-800-THE-LOST.
Right, it does not seem to be, for some reason, available in book stores.
John Walsh: It should be.
You did bring up an internet component. The pedophiles are using it, the predators are using the Internet, and I think if parents would learn the language that their kids are using that they would have a leg up on protecting their children.
John Walsh: Absolutely. You're 100% right. I always tell parents don't let kids take that computer into their bedroom, put it in the family room or living room and monitor there. There's all kind of software. Cox Broadcasting has a wonderful Web site, www.coxtakecharge.com, that teaches parents all the lingo. I even asked my son, "You're on a Web site here, what's that POS mean?" and he says, "Dad, it means 'parent over my shoulder,' we tip each other off." You're right, they have their own lingo. You should have the right to know, even if you're not computer savvy.
There are safeguards and there are software to block certain sites, there's software to check what chat rooms your kids are in. Tell your kids to never give out information. Use an anonymous name in that personal profile so that that person can't track you. It may be a 50-year-old pedophile that you think you're talking to a 12-year-old kid.
John, the DNA component in the bill is very impressive. Of course, it was introduced here in Florida a year ago, I believe. What do you feel, beyond just the sex offenders and the pedophiles and predators, I think this will have a component in solving other crimes; don't you?
John Walsh: Absolutely. The DNA may solve lots of other crimes, not only sex offences and sexual molestations. DNA has broken many other cases where DNA is a component. This isn't just targeted towards sex offenders; it's targeted toward child pornographers. Interpol says that child pornography is a $4 billion, run in many components by the Russian mob, some members of the Romanian mob, people in Amsterdam. So this bill is going to have some international implications too.
Now, John, on the America's Most Wanted program will you be doing any profile on the latest problems we're having here in Florida on human trafficking?
John Walsh: We do; we're going to do a special show this Saturday night around the passage of this bill. We'll be profiling several wanted pedophiles and we have always been involved in trying to stop human trafficking. So this week will be a very special show on America's Most Wanted this Saturday night.
Thank you very much and congratulations.
John Walsh: Thank you. Unfortunately, the Secret Service is here, telling me that I have to go out to the Rose Garden. I'm sorry for those of you who couldn't ask questions. It has been an incredibly busy day, but a really wonderful, productive day. I thank all of you for your wonderful comments. We're still battling. We're still fighting. So I have to go. God bless you. Thank you.