By Dena Potter
RICHMOND, Va. — Hours after "America's Most Wanted" was canceled, a small, passionate campaign emerged online to save the Saturday night staple that allowed anyone with a television set to become part of a nationwide manhunt.
The show has been rescued before. In 1996, an outpouring of support from fans, politicians and law enforcement compelled Fox executives to reconsider after they announced they were taking the show off the air, and a handful of Facebook pages aim to recapture that groundswell of support.
"Criminals all over America will be rejoicing if AMW is cancelled," said Jim Sitton, who credits the show for catching the man suspected of killing his 6-year-old daughter and three other relatives on Thanksgiving 2009.
Sitton created the Save AMW page because he believed he owed it to the program and its host, John Walsh.
The show helped capture Paul Michael Merhige, who disappeared after the shootings. Merhige was found after a couple who owned a Long Key, Fla., motel saw a promotion for the show during a January 2010 college football game and recognized him as a guest.
Hours later, Merhige was arrested. His trial is set for later this year.
On Tuesday, a day after the announcement that the show is being canceled, Sitton's page had 500 followers. Hundreds of others had "liked" or commented on other websites and pages dedicated to saving the show.
"I think somehow, some way America needs the service that John Walsh provides," Sitton said. "He can bring the heat on criminals like nobody else."
The show says it has helped catch more than 1,150 fugitives _ including 17 of the FBI's most wanted _ and find more than 50 missing children.
"With his help, we've made a lot of arrests and taken a lot of bad people off the street," said Louie McKinney, a former acting director of the U.S. Marshal's Service and a special investigator with the FBI. "I often said in the Marshal's Service 'You can run but you can't hide.' That's what John Walsh did _ he made sure that if you committed a crime you're going to get caught."
The program has been a great tool for law enforcement, especially as budget cuts trim the number of officers on the streets, said John Parizeau, police chief in Westfield, N.J., an affluent city of 30,000 not far from New York City. His department is down 12 percent in the past two years.
Fox dropped the show in 1996. At that point, the program had assisted in the capture of more than 430 fugitives. The success prompted thousands of fans, law enforcement agencies and the governors of 37 states to bombard the network with letters urging executives to keep the series alive. The FBI even weighed in with a statement saying the show "empowered millions of Americans to safely and constructively combat crime."
This time, though, the FBI's statement sounded more like a heartfelt goodbye.
"Few television shows have aired for so long. Even fewer have provided such a worthy public service, or have made such a lasting impact on the American public," said Michael P. Kortan, an FBI spokesman. "John and his team have always understood the power of the people in helping to bring criminals to justice. Their tenacity, their unwavering dedication to victims of crime and violence, and their commitment to law enforcement will be missed."
The show started when Walsh heard about David James Roberts, a convicted rapist who, while out on parole, killed a young Indiana family. A year later, Roberts abducted a woman and her infant, and sexually assaulted the woman before leaving the 5-month-old boy on the side of the road. The baby died of exposure.
Roberts was convicted, but escaped in 1986 while being taken to a hospital for medical treatment. Walsh's 6-year-old son, Adam, was kidnapped and kidnapped and murdered in 1981 and the killer was never captured. Walsh saw the Roberts case as a chance to catch a child killer.
By the first commercial break, the show's hot lines were abuzz with tips. Roberts, who was listed on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list, was arrested four days later in Staten Island, N.Y., where he ran a homeless shelter.
"We caught David James Roberts when the FBI couldn't catch him, and we've been doing it ever since," Walsh said.
The show turns down 50 or so cases each week, Walsh said. Now he questions where police and victims' families will go when the trail turns cold. In 2008, police closed the Walsh case saying that a deceased drifter, Ottis Toole, had killed the boy.
The network says it will replace the weekly shows with four, two-hour specials throughout the year. Walsh said he hopes those will convince Fox to reinstate the show.
"It's powerful, important television," he said. "I hope maybe that public outcry will change Fox's mind or we'll do something else."
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