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John Walsh has been hunting down bad guys on “America’s Most Wanted” for nearly 40 years — and he’s not done yet.

The show’s creator is returning to host a new season on FOX alongside his son, Callahan Walsh, a child advocate for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

The patriarch, 78, originally launched the series in 1988 after he faced a personal tragedy — the murder of his firstborn, Adam Walsh.


“I grew up in a nice, gated community — didn’t think crime would touch us,” Walsh told Fox News Digital. “… I’ve learned in all of these years that the bad guys will come right into your area. It doesn’t matter who you are, or where you are. They can do something to you and get you.”

Before he was a victims’ rights advocate, Walsh was living “the American dream.” In the 1980s, he was a successful developer of luxury hotels. But that dream quickly became a nightmare on July 27, 1981.

Adam, who was 6 years old, and his mother Reve entered a Sears department store near their Hollywood, Florida, home. The matriarch allowed him to watch a group of other boys play video games in the toy department while she shopped nearby. But less than 10 minutes later, he was gone.

Adam Walsh holding a baseball bat

The Walshes led a massive hunt that was televised as they desperately searched for their son. They pleaded with the public, urging them to provide any leads that would bring Adam home. The couple even put up a $100,000 reward to draw as much attention to the case as possible.

Walsh recalled paying for the gasoline of those who offered to help in the family’s search. Meanwhile, local police found themselves “overwhelmed,” leading to “a huge amount of mistakes” in the investigation, he alleged.

Walsh previously claimed that it took 16 days after Adam’s disappearance for his picture to finally be shown on national television.


John Walsh and Reve Walsh in a court room looking somber and speaking to the public

“When Adam was kidnapped… the FBI did not help us,” Walsh explained. “… The FBI refused to enter Adam in the NCIC, or the National Crime Information Computer, which, at the time in 1981, stored millions of records of convicted felons, stolen boats, stolen cars, stolen planes… There was no unidentified dead file, no missing children’s file — nothing.”

Less than two weeks later, Adam’s severed head was discovered by two fishermen in a drainage canal in Vero Beach, some 100 miles from where he was abducted. The child’s body was never found.

Walsh said his health spiraled down “into hell.” He lost 30 pounds and his will to live.

John Walsh looking to the side in a black leather jacket

“I was dying of a broken heart,” he admitted.

Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who was living in Florida at the time of Adam’s abduction, was considered a possible suspect. It wouldn’t be until 2008 when Hollywood Police Chief Chadwick E. Wagner announced that Adam’s case had been solved, Investigation Discovery reported. Serial killer Ottis Toole, who had been a prime suspect, was declared the murderer and police were closing the case file, the outlet shared. Investigators believed that their case against Toole was strong enough.

A close-up of Jeffrey Dahmer in an orange jumpsuit in court

In 1983, Toole, who was then an inmate at a Florida prison, confessed to Adam’s abduction and murder, reported. He also implicated his accomplice and companion, Henry Lee Lucas. Toole claimed he buried Adam’s body, but investigators were unable to find the remains. Without physical evidence, the Florida state attorney couldn’t prosecute the case.


A mugshot of Ottis Toole

Over the years, Toole would confess to Adam’s murder and then take back his story, the outlet revealed. Toole, who was convicted of six murders, died behind bars in 1996. He was 49.

Walsh’s pain turned into purpose. Along with his wife, he successfully pushed for the passage of national legislation to make efforts to find missing children more effective. He was also instrumental in the founding of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. The nonprofit works with families, law enforcement and the public to prevent child abductions and recover missing children. It also provides services to combat child sexual exploitation.

According to Callahan, it has helped recover over 450,000 missing children since its inception.

A close-up of John Walsh speaking to the public

Callahan is the executive director of the organization’s Florida branch. He told Fox News Digital that Adam has always been a part of his life.

“I was born after Adam’s disappearance,” the 39-year-old explained. “But I grew up in a home where we celebrated that little boy. I knew his favorite sports and movies, which were baseball and ‘Star Wars.’ There wasn’t a time when I can remember when my parents just sat me down on the couch and dropped a bomb. It was something I always knew because we always talked about him. There are pictures of him all across my childhood home.”

“I watched my parents channel their emotions and their anger over what happened to Adam, to make sure that Adam didn’t die in vain,” Callahan shared. “My parents said… that if Adam’s song was to continue, then we must do the singing. I saw them do the singing every single day. And I’m trying to continue that in making sure that Adam didn’t die in vain and to continue his legacy both in my work at the National Center, and the work I do with my father on ‘America’s Most Wanted.’”


A close-up of Callahan Walsh looking serious

In 2006, 25 years after Adam went missing, then-President George W. Bush signed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act into law, reported. According to the outlet, it created a national database of convicted child sex offenders and strengthened federal penalties for crimes against children, as well as provided funding and training for law enforcement to tackle crimes involving the sexual exploitation of children online.

When FOX initially approached Walsh to host “America’s Most Wanted,” he believed it would be an outlet for him to feature cases from across the country of children who were harmed or missing. The show offers a tip line at the end of each episode where viewers can provide leads in hopes of bringing justice to victims. Since its inception, the show has helped capture more than 1,190 criminals, including serial killers, child abductors and rapists.

Elizabeth Smart in a green dress looking at a man in glasses

“What drove me was that no one helped us look for Adam,” Walsh said. “We put a man on the moon, and we couldn’t put missing children into the big FBI computer. But we persevered. We loved that little boy so much, and we didn’t have a clue who murdered him. It took 27 years to find out. It was a wonderful retired detective and DA [district attorney] who looked at those files, discovered Adam’s murder and solved Adam’s case. But it’s that driving force, our love for him, that has pushed me.”

President George W. Bush looking at John Walsh as he gives him a thumbs up

“That little boy was our first son,” he reflected. “I loved him so much, and he died in a horrible way.”

It was also the public’s support, Walsh said, that has kept him going over the years.

“I remember the post office came one day with a truck,” he said. “They dumped 40,000 letters and cards on our driveway and in our garage. They all came from people who said, ‘We pray for you.’ Or, ‘I have a runaway child’ and ‘I have a murdered child and no one is helping me.’”


Poster for Americas Most Wanted

Walsh said his work to bring about justice for other families in need is far from over.

“I’m a horse guy,” he said. “I live on a ranch. And we’ve got to saddle up… So, Callahan and I are going to saddle back up… You tell me where those dirtbags are, and I’ll go get them.”

“America’s Most Wanted” returns with an all-new season on Jan. 22 at 8 p.m. Fox News Digital’s Christina Coulter and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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