The Life of John Walsh
By Louise Carroll, Contributor
August / September 2003
John Walsh, host of America’s Most Wanted and The John Walsh Show, talks about his family, his television shows, his thoughts on Ireland, and his tireless crusading.
Before he was a TV icon, crime-fighter, father of a murdered child, legislative harbinger and “the guy in the leather jacket,” John Walsh was an Irish-American everyman. Born in 1945 to Mary Jean Callahan and John Edward Walsh, he was raised in upstate New York in a traditional Irish Catholic home. The Callahans were lace-curtain Irish and they ran a construction company with Kelly green shamrocks on the trucks. His father was a World War II hero and a great role model to his children. He was very involved in their local parish and was a member of the Holy Name Society.
Despite a stable homelife with happily married parents, Walsh was a self-confessed hell-raiser in his youth. Many Sundays throughout his adolescence, Walsh and his brother Jimmy were ordered by their father to sit in the last pew of church because the boys had been tearing around town getting into fights and turned up at mass with black eyes and split lips. Walsh had a traditional Catholic education, attending Our Lady of Mount Carmel high school run by Carmelite priests. After graduating from the University of Buffalo with a degree in history, Walsh moved to Florida in 1966. Soon after, he married his long-time girlfriend Reve and they had their first child, Adam, in 1974.
In 1981, six-year-old Adam Walsh was abducted from a Florida shopping center and murdered. Despite a massive effort by the Walshes, no arrests were ever made in the case, and the family learned first-hand that there was no national, centralized system to track missing children. Shocked and dismayed that the FBI and other groups neglected these problems, the Walshes worked tirelessly to establish resources for parents in their situation. Walsh’s life as a resort hotel businessman slowed down, and his work for missing and abducted children took over. He and Reve led the fight to pass the Missing Children’s Act of 1982 and Missing Children’s Assistance Act of 1984, which created the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
In 1987, the fledgling Fox network approached Walsh to host a new TV series called America’s Most Wanted (AMW). Although he had not been an actor or TV personality, Walsh was becoming high profile because of his work for victims and children. He was reluctant at first, but Fox insisted he was the right person for the job. The following year the show aired and he was catapulted into the public eye permanently. After a six-week cancellation in 1996, a groundswell of support and letters from viewers brought the show back on the air. As a result of AMW, over 750 fugitives have been captured and 36 children have been recovered alive. A recent highlight of the show was finding Elizabeth Smart, the girl who was kidnapped from her bedroom at home in Salt Lake City. An AMW viewer phoned in after seeing Smart with her captors, and she was soon brought back to her parents and her kidnappers were apprehended. Fifteen years after its launch, Walsh still encourages his viewers to believe what he tells them each week: “You can make a difference.”
Last year Walsh began a second TV series, but rather than focus on crime, The John Walsh Show (TJWS) tackles issues for victims, families and children in the softer, more Oprah-style of show. TJWS debuted on NBC in September 2002 and has shown a different side of Walsh. He has shed the leather jacket for fuzzy sweaters and rather than chasing fugitives, he sits down and discusses a range of issues with his guests. The show was recently renewed for another year and he has made it a major point that the people on his program be treated with dignity. If AMW deals with solving crime, then TJWS deals with the repercussions for victims, the emotional and psychological impact, and how to prevent crime if possible.
Still married to his wife of over 30 years, Walsh and Reve make their home in Washington, D.C. with their children Meghan (20), Callahan (18), and Hayden (8). Their marriage has not always been smooth, and being in the limelight has made his infidelities a public part of their relationship. After Reve filed for divorce in July of last year (it did not go through), he started therapy and is determined to keep on the straight and narrow. The whole family has lived with the strains of his celebrity. Walsh is often the target of death threats and the family have had very tight security as part of their daily lives since the beginning of AMW. However, after a few minutes of talking with him, it’s blatantly apparent that for all his faults, his children and his wife are of ultimate priority in his life.
Louise Carroll: What would you say is the purpose of The John Walsh Show?
John Walsh: I want to be able to use The John Walsh Show to effect some social change. I want it to be a call to action. I want to be able to say to people, Here’s a problem in American society, here’s something you’ve seen in the news or read or heard about, and here’s how you can change it. I want to tell Americans how they can impact society, how they can get laws changed, and I want to right some wrongs and change some things, especially for victims, especially for children. And so far it’s been working. It has been an exhausting experience – I’m working for two networks and doing two shows – but the public is slowly but surely finding us.
Your son’s murder is something you discuss often on the show. Is that difficult for you?
No. Adam’s murder dramatically changed my life forever. It altered my perception of the world, of family, of good and evil, and it altered my career. It changed my emotional state and well-being for years. For me it was the springboard to try to change things to make sure that he didn’t die in vain. Adam’s always with me. I think about him all the time. I loved him so much. He’s a great inspiration to me, and I can go to that place and it’s not painful to go there. What happened to him that one day was horrible and painful, but the joy of his life and the celebration of his life and the things that have happened since then [are positive]. People helped us to change laws. They look on Adam as a symbol of changing some of the things that are wrong with society.
Everybody deals with the loss of a child in a certain way. A lot of people come on my show because they feel that I have walked in their shoes and that I will be empathetic. You will always be the parent of a murdered child. My wife Reve says it’s like trying to explain a color to someone who has never seen it – a color that you hope they would never see. And the only people who ever understand that color are other parents of murdered children – because you don’t bury your children.
If there was one thing that you could change about the justice system, what would it be?
I would change how victims are treated. The Constitution has been amended 27 times in the history of this country, four times for the rights of the accused, never for victims. The criminal gets 25 character witnesses to plead with the judge and the jury for mercy and he gets spared because he was fat or had acne and that’s the reason he raped 27 women and slit their throats; but the victims can’t make a five-minute statement. So I’m working on a victims’ constitutional amendment. I started with President Clinton, and we introduced the amendment with [Senators] John Kyl, a conservative Republican from Arizona, and Diane Feinstein, a liberal Democrat from San Francisco. I wanted it to be bipartisan. President Clinton endorsed it, and so did President Bush when he took office. I addressed the national governors’ conference, and 49 of the 50 governors endorsed it. But it still has not gotten out of the Senate. They never felt it was that important. There’s no big lobby behind victims’ legislation. I call it the criminal injustice system.
What was your reaction to Governor Ryan’s decision in Illinois to throw out the death penalty?
I think he’s a coward. Thirteen people were released from death row, justifiably so, they were cleared by DNA testing — thirteen terrible mistakes. But what about the 170 others that he gave clemency to, or reduced their sentences to life in prison? What gives one man the right to say to the House and Senate of Illinois, the people of Illinois and the court that tried these 170 cases and the juries that convicted these people, “I’m going to commute these sentences, I’m against the death penalty.” You can’t do that. That’s a dictatorship. The governor never had the balls, or the guts, or whatever you want to call it, to consider what the impact would be on the families of the victims. For them all of a sudden to be told, after the trial they sat through, the nightmare that they went though, that these people who were convicted and sentenced to death, are going to have their sentences commuted.
What should you do instead?
You slow down and you stop the system. You review every case, whether it takes five, ten, fifteen years. If DNA is available you look at it. Coward that he is, he does it at the last hour of his gubernatorial tenure. People in his administration are in [trouble] for corruption, which the press forgets while they’re covering his reducing of people’s sentences. He’s still facing investigation and indictment.
Have you considered running for political office yourself?
I’ve been asked to run for governor, and for the Senate. I can’t. I only have a couple of issues: victims’ rights and children’s rights. I couldn’t sit down with the auto manufacturers of America at lunch and listen to them for an hour. I really don’t care about the automotive industry. I can address 50 governors in one day and I can address Congress and I can address the State Legislature on what I want to do. And I’m not held accountable to an electorate.
What people don’t seem to understand and what I understand very clearly is that if you are the governor of a state you only have power in that one state. If you are a senator from Florida you are one of 99 other senators on the floor that can’t get anything done. If you are a member of the House of Representatives you are one of 435 well-intended people who are up for election every two years. But if John Walsh shows up on the capitol steps as John Walsh, private citizen, then I know that there will be 30 cameras there and the governor is going to come out and listen to me. If he doesn’t listen to me, he’s going to be embarrassed, because people are going to ask, “Why didn’t you talk to him?” I think I am a hundred times more effective on the outside as a private citizen. And being able to have a prime-time television show with millions of viewers on a Saturday night and a daytime TV show is much more effective. I don’t think any governor of any state, or any U.S. senator or U.S. congressman is on TV six days a week, but I am right now, fortunately, and if I want to get on my little bully pulpit [I can].
Where do you stand on gun control?
I am a very strong advocate of gun control. I own guns for my own self-protection because people threaten me all the time. But I am a great advocate for long, extensive background checks. I think that Japan probably has the best system for gun control. You have to take a psychiatric evaluation test. And they [the licensing bureau] go and talk to people at your place of work. You have to take a shooting skill test, and that’s all before you even get your gun. In the United States you can go to a gun show, and even though the Brady Bill says there is supposed to be a 24-hour waiting period, the gun shows are exempt from that. Canada probably had 800 homicides last year. Can you own a gun in Canada? Yes. Can you hunt? Absolutely. Do they participate in the Olympics in target shooting and pistol shooting? Yes. But America had 20,000 homicides last year, half of them gun-related. We’re a psycho-gun society. There are 250 million guns here. It’s absolutely insane. I’m a great advocate for countries like England and Ireland and Germany and Japan where they have very strict gun-control laws.
What is your opinion of the National Rifle Association?
I think the NRA is made up of a bunch of psycho gun-freaks. They use their money to terrify members of Congress and say, “If you support gun control I will come into your district and you will get un-elected.” They have done it. They have targeted members of the House and members of the Senate.
The NRA doesn’t realize that ninety percent of Americans are for reasonable gun control. I believe people should own guns if they can pass the background check, if they are not psychotic, if there is a waiting period, if they know about trigger locks. Fifteen kids are hurt, maimed or killed by gun accidents in the home every single week in the United States, but the NRA refuses to even deal with these statistics. I am probably one of the few guys in this country who actually needs a gun other than a cop. And I don’t carry my gun. I mean, I sometimes carry my gun if I get really heavy threats. But I’m highly skilled and I know how to use the safety.
Where do you think violence against children is most worrying, at home, at school, on the streets, or in the media?
Seventy percent of crimes against children are committed by someone they know, by someone in the home or a trusted authority figure such as a Catholic priest. I am a Roman Catholic but I am absolutely disgusted by the Catholic Church. All these years I watched my father put money in that plate. And I gave lots of money to the Catholic Church. And to find out that they have settled over a billion dollars in hush money, to try to keep victims from coming forward, is disgusting.
We are supposed to be a gentle, loving, nurturing religion that takes care of children, but bishops have known about pedophile priests for years and they just moved them from church to church. If I molested a boy I would be in jail. These priests belong in jail. And for the Vatican not to say three simple things at the Bishops Conference where they met to discuss the situation: We are absolutely sorry. We will no longer pay hush money, but we will pay for therapy. And if a priest is accused of sexual abuse, we will let the D.A. come in and investigate, and if it is proven that that priest is a sexual abuser, we will turn him over to the authorities and that priest’s ass will be in jail where it belongs.
That is the Catholic Church that I would like to see. I went to Catholic school my whole life. They [supposedly] teach you truth, you’re supposed to go to hell – it’s a mortal sin to sexually assault somebody. They preach to all of us that we will be held accountable for our actions and we must do the right thing. Are there priests who have done God’s work? Absolutely. But has the Catholic Church practiced what they preach? Absolutely not. That’s why I think the Catholic Church is hurting right now, that is why so many people are dropping out.
Would you say you are still religious?
I believe in a higher power. I don’t think you can name that higher power, you might want to call him Mohammed or Jesus. I don’t think you can say that the one true religion is Catholicism, and that Judaism, or Hinduism, the Muslims and the Protestants are wrong. What difference does it make what the name of that higher power is? That higher power is there and takes care of you and looks out for you. God gives you free will. You can be an evil, terrible person or you can try to make a difference and be a decent person.
How does your family cope with your celebrity?
They don’t know any different. I think that people say to [my kids] Meghan or Callahan or Hayden, “What’s it like? Everybody stops your father and there are bodyguards?” But they don’t know any different. That’s how they were raised. My kids know that we have to move here and we have to do this and we have to watch out. The weirdest thing is that they don’t think it’s anything special.
How do you cope with being a celebrity?
With the benefits and certainly the financial benefits and the certain degree of power or whatever you would call it, comes loss of privacy. There is a tremendous intrusiveness in your life. I was a very private person. I really loved building hotels and I liked being a private person. I never wanted to be on television. I don’t like the trappings that come with it. It certainly can be detrimental, but you just deal with it. To me, if people stop and say, “I’m proud of you,” or “You’re doing a good job,” I think that’s an acknowledgment of my work. That’s a pat on the back. I don’t look at that as an intrusion. I look at it as an affirmation that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing or that I’m doing something right.
This old lady stopped me in the airport one time and it was the most bizarre thing. She said to me, “I always knew I was going to meet you. So I have carried this Michael the archangel card around with me. Michael had this dark curly hair like yours and he was the avenging angel. And he wasn’t perfect, but God chose him to cast Satan out of heaven. And you are like Michael. You look like him, you’ve got that hair and you’re also flawed, but you fight back for those who can’t fight back. You’re tough but you’re fair.” I’m going “Holy mackerel” – in the middle of the airport this old lady is standing next to me telling me this. But she was wonderful. And what she said was very flattering.
Tell me about your visits to Ireland.
I’ve been to Ireland many times in several capacities. In the highly visible public capacity as a star of Manhunter – a hit show I had on [U.K. network] Sky, and also as a private citizen. And I really have to be objective because I’ve been to many, many countries all over the world, but I probably had the most fun in Ireland. I think the Irish are the most gracious and kind people of all. And I don’t say that because I’m Irish, because I went over there as an American. I went as a world traveler.
I just loved it. I rode Connemara ponies, because my wife and I ride horses and we rode along the cliffs. I had a flat tire outside of Ashford Castle and two guys changed the tire and never asked for a dime. People will help you, and they will give you directions, although it will take an hour because Irish people are long-winded like me; but they are gracious and accommodating. And it’s such a beautiful country.
Ireland is also a literary country and television is not such a big thing. You go to bookstores and you read about poets and writers. Ireland is a very educated country. Everyone I met could talk about all kinds of things. I always say to people, I don’t care what nationality you are. If you want to have a safe, interesting, fascinating, romantic trip, go to Ireland. Maybe there’s nothing to buy besides cable-knit sweaters but you’ll have a phenomenal time. And it’s a beautiful place to visit.
What are your views on Northern Ireland?
I could never figure out how England gave up India, South Africa, Australia, Jamaica – they gave up all this and they still keep Ireland. Just because of these Ulster men and these Orange Protestants who have a link back to the U.K. Northern Ireland should not be dominated by England. It’s the Emerald Isle; it’s an island that should be a republic. Protestants and Catholics can both live there. Why doesn’t England let them unite as a republic? People say, “Oh, you’ve got relatives who give money to the IRA.” That’s not true, but I have strong opinions from the Irish culture embedded in me. My father was born in Syracuse, New York on Tipperary Hill where the traffic lights are green at the top. My father and my mother are both Irish so I’m 100 percent. I’m proud to be Irish.
Do you think there’s something that America can learn from Ireland, because Ireland has been facing terrorism for so long?
What can you learn from it other than you have to put up with it? I don’t think there’s anything to be learned. The people in Belfast go out and they deal with it. But there’s no great lesson. The lesson is, let’s get it done with. Let’s come to some conclusion here. Get over it and get by it. There’s no living with terrorism. There’s no living with innocent men and women and children getting killed. I think the people of Northern Ireland want to be left alone. I think they want to be free. The lessons are that religion is not a reason to fight, but we’ve been fighting over religion for years. The lessons are that it’s horrible and it’s terrible and it’s stupid. Who wants to live with terrorism? Who wants to figure out a way to live with terrorism? We don’t. I don’t.
I was at Ground Zero where 2,800 people were killed, innocent people not soldiers, not me. Now, if someone was going to come up and shoot me on the street, I’ve got it coming. If you live by the sword you die by the sword, I’m ready for that. I believe that. Someone could shoot me tomorrow for what I do on America’s Most Wanted. I would understand that. I chose that, like professional soldiers do. But women and children don’t choose that.
I’m the kind of guy who believes you should go out and kill bin Laden, absolutely. I wish I could find him and kill him. You can end dictatorships and you can end terrorism. You know how you do it? You kill the figurehead. Hitler dominated Germany, killed six million Jews. But then Hitler committed suicide. Isn’t Germany a free country now? Isn’t it a democracy? It’s the land of Mercedes Benz. Mussolini ran fascist Italy; then they hung him in the square and what is Italy now? It’s the land of Giorgio Armani. You can end fascism. I’ve taken fifteen guys off the FBI’s ten most wanted list – will there be other ones? Yes. But Italy and Germany are democracies now because the two megalomaniac sociopaths that ran those countries were killed. I’d love to see bin Laden killed. I’d love to see all the bullshit that’s been happening in Northern Ireland stop.
Do you think there’s any hope for peace in Northern Ireland?
I think and I really believe that in this century, maybe in the next twelve years, people in Northern Ireland are going to get sick of it. They’re just going to give up. I believe that finally the British Parliament will say, what are we doing there? I have a good friend from Ireland named Sean Kinealy, who is a Royal Marine, he had to go over and fight in Belfast. How does an Irishman, who’s in the British Army, feel when he has to go over and kill other Irishmen? He hated it. He said, “This is insanity. I became a Royal Marine to protect Great Britain, to fight in the Falkland Wars and support the United States in Desert Storm, but I did not become a Royal Marine to go over to Northern Ireland and kill other Irishmen. I’m 100 percent Irish.” Now that I’ve solved the world’s problems, I’m going to go over to Northern Ireland and I’ll solve it! (Laughs).
Have you taken your children over to Ireland?
Callahan is going over next week to play rugby in Dublin. How’s that for an Irish name? Meghan has been to Ireland. Hayden hasn’t, but he can’t wait to go. He will go if I ever get a day off.
There was a New York Times Magazine profile written about you that said, “Happy is not a word that comes to mind when you meet John Walsh.”
If you know me, I’m happy. When I’m hanging out with Hayden and when I was watching Callahan playing rugby and when they beat the Welsh rugby team in a match, I was happy. There was a smile on my face. And to see Meghan’s art and to see her in college. I like to ride my motorcycles and go scuba diving, go jet skiing, ride Nascar at 120 miles an hour. I do all kinds of things that make me happy. If you ever worked with me, you’d see what a real Irish wise-ass I am, I have that sense of humor. That article was one reporter that spent one day with me. We did a whole 12-hour heavy day shoot with all the cops around, it was really intense. [I was] memorizing 50 pages of script and trying to be a professional. So that’s probably not a happy day in most people’s lives. But I enjoyed it. I thought it was fun. There are times when I am extremely happy and I feel very blessed. As much sadness as I have had in my life, as much sorrow, as much heartbreak – I have also had the greatest luck of anyone I know.
What would be the perfect day in the life of John Walsh?
To go to the Rose Garden with my family and a lot of other victims and see the United States Constitution changed; for the Victims’ Rights Constitutional Amendment to become the law of the land. In every one of the 50 states victims like myself and the other 40 million Americans who are victims of violent crimes would get the same treatment and be treated with the same dignity as the criminal and the accused. That would be great. I’ve been honored in the Rose Garden by four presidents. Is it wonderful? Absolutely. Is it nice? It’s great. But to see something permanent put in place, that would be a great day. And to have all my kids there, that would be wonderful. Because you know, I spend a lot of time away from my kids. And I’ve acted up terribly in my life. So it would be something that they could be proud of. ♦