For 24 years, viewers of the Fox network’s television show, “America’s Most Wanted,” stayed glued to the couch to see if they would recognize any of the fugitives on their television screen.
Viewers also learned all the catchphrases of John Walsh, the popular crime show’s intense host with the gravelly voice:
“Let’s catch this scumbag.”
“Let’s make sure this guy gets handcuffed tonight.”
“Now, let’s see tonight’s Dirty Dozen and give them their 15 seconds of shame. Let’s see how many of them we can take off the streets tonight.”
And, perhaps most emphatically, “It’s us or them.”
This month will be the first time in nearly a quarter of a century that “America’s Most Wanted” — the longest-running television show that helped lead to the capture of 1,154 criminals and the recovery of more than 50 missing children — will not be airing any new episodes showing the faces of fugitives who have committed heinous crimes or loved ones who disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
“AMW” aired its last regular program on June 18, its cancellation after 24 years due to a lack of profitability because the show was not meeting the corporate bottom line, according to information from Fox, despite the invaluable public service the show provided for law enforcement agencies around the world and, above all, crime victims or their families seeking justice and closure.
Fox executives are not commenting on the cancellation of the show.
Airing on Saturday evenings, it was televised for many years before the Internet, Blackberries, iPods, iPads, iPhones and Kindle became distractions. Averaging 5 million viewers an episode this year alone, “AMW” reminded us that the most evil of criminals — murderers, rapists, child molesters, violent bank robbers and fraud artists — were on the loose and would not stop committing crimes until they were caught.
“America’s Most Wanted” aired dozens of cases from Mesa, Tempe, Chandler, Gilbert, Apache Junction, Scottsdale and Paradise Valley, leading to the capture of fugitives from the region, according to its website, www.amw.com.
Although Fox plans to air four new quarterly two-hour specials of the show in the future, with the first one 8 to 10 p.m. Oct. 29, law enforcement agencies throughout the Valley are lamenting its loss from television’s Saturday rotation.
“I’m very, very disappointed about the show being canceled,” said David Gonzales, the U.S. Marshal for Arizona. “I don’t understand it. It was a great tool for law enforcement. The show always had high ratings, it was very interesting and got the public involved in helping law enforcement solve crimes. People would even call into the show about fugitives who were not on the show, and the show would pass on those tips to us.”
East Valley connections
Among the East Valley cases “AMW” aired that viewers were instrumental in generating captures or leads for:
• Garrison Colby of Mesa, a child molester who was apprehended on Dec. 9, 2009, at a dry cleaning business in Washington state.
• Danny Moran of Tempe, who was arrested in Roanoke, Va., 10 years after he allegedly abducted his daughter Rebecca Braun when she was 2. Moran had spent two years in an Arizona Department of Corrections prison for kidnapping his two sons in 1986.
• Arthur Vitasek of Mesa, who police say was one of Arizona’s most prolific child molesters. He was arrested in Texas in 2006 after he was on the lam for about a year and a half.
• Paul Eischeid of Tempe, a Hell’s Angel who was one of “AMW’s” Top 15 Most Wanted and was on the run for eight years before being captured by U.S. Marshals in Buenos Aires on Feb. 3. He was charged with murdering a woman and disposing of her body in the desert.
“It’s a shame,” Capt. Tom Kelly of the Apache Junction Police Department said of the show’s cancellation. “I think a lot of leads and information were generated from the show. I remember when I was with the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration), one of the DEA’s Most Wanted was put on the show, and he was caught. The show is just another resource that law enforcement won’t be able to use for information from the public anymore.”
Criminals from many cases that aired through the years, such as the murderers of 23-year-old ASU student Gretchen White in 1981 and 19-year-old David Lopez of Tempe in 2008, remain on the loose.
A pair of Tempe bank robbers who committed home invasions on bank employees in 2007 also have not been caught. Nor has Ruben Rivera, an illegal immigrant from Mexico who lived in Mesa, and is wanted for the alleged 2007 murder of his cousin.
And then there is the Robert Fisher case. No one seems to know the whereabouts of the Scottsdale man — one of the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted.
Authorities believe that in April 2001, Fisher killed his wife and two children as they slept, slashing their throats and shooting his wife in the head before rigging their house to explode. “AMW” aired the Fisher case nine times between 2003 to 2009, generating hundreds of tips, but he never turned up.
But of all the unsolved cold cases that have lingered for decades, the murder of White from 30 years ago stands out.
Her case is older than the show that aired its details a number of times in search of her killer. “America’s Most Wanted” last updated information on the White case five years ago.
Justice for Gretchen
White was 23 years old when her body was found the morning of March 20, 1981, in the parking lot of Tempe’s Corona del Sol High School, about four hours after neighbors heard her arguing with a man outside her apartment, who screamed, “Gretchen, let me in!”
She had been strangled, sexually assaulted and run over with her own car.
The vehicle, a brown and blue Mercury, later was found in an unfamiliar parking spot at the Windbell Apartments at 1330 W. Broadway in Tempe where White had lived.
White, who studied textiles, was described as a reserved person, a good student who did not associate with people who caused trouble, and did not have any known enemies, according to past reports.
The mystery of the case remains centered on the man’s voice outside her apartment hours before her body was found, screaming her name — an indication that he knew her.
A neighbor told police she saw a man leaving White’s apartment, but could not see him clearly as she was not wearing her glasses.
White’s neighbors claimed they heard the same voice outside her apartment about a week before her death.
About 100 people have been questioned in the case, including the man White dated off and on for about a year. But no suspect has ever been identified.
Three decades after her death, the tips have stopped, according to information from Tempe police.
White’s parents, who lived in the Detroit suburb of Livonia, Mich., are now both deceased and Tempe police are caught up in current cases.
It was up to a program like “America’s Most Wanted” to keep her case in the public eye, with the familiar words of host John Walsh urging viewers at the end of the show: “Let’s get some justice for Gretchen White.”
Now, Gretchen’s case and those of the other victims will only be seen in re-runs and possibly syndication.
For more information, visit www.amw.com. Anyone with information about these crimes, can call Silent Witness at (480) 948-6377.
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