Using Television to Capture Criminals With AM-TV Justice-List
LOS ANGELES (AP) _ In the end, a TV show helped accomplish in five days what investigators had not been able to do in 14 years: locate the man suspected of detonating the bomb that killed a Chilean dissident.
On Tuesday, Virgilio Pablo Paz Romero was arrested as he pulled up in his pickup truck to the landscaping business he has operated for six years near West Palm Beach, Fla.
The Cuban exile was the remaining fugitive in the Sept. 21, 1976, Washington, D.C., deaths of former Ambassador Orlando Letelier and aide Ronni Moffitt.
The arrest came after someone watching Fox-TV’s ″America’s Most Wanted″ on April 19 recognized Paz’s picture as the face of landscaper Frank Baez.
Paz, 39, was arrested on charges of conspiracy to murder a foreign official and conspiracy to manufacture explosives.
He has been held pending a bond hearing. On Friday, a federal magistrate in West Palm Beach decided to move the hearing to Washington.
″For us, this is a big capture,″ said John Walsh, host of the 3-year-old series based in the nation’s capital. Past accomplishments include the 1989 arrest of John Emil List, who eluded authorities for 18 years after killing his mother, his wife and their three children.
Of 347 fugitives profiled on the Fox show, 148 have been arrested as the direct result of viewer tips, said program spokesman Jack Breslin. Eight of those were on the FBI’s most wanted list.
″America’s Most Wanted″ and NBC’s ″Unsolved Mysteries″ have put new muscle into the long arm of the law.
President Bush has commended ″America’s Most Wanted,″ which offers a toll-free number after re-creating unsolved crimes taken from the files of police agencies.
″Unsolved Mysteries″ mixes crime stories with searches for missing loved ones and segments on mysterious legends. About 40 percent of its criminal profiles have resulted in arrests, a series spokesman said.
Despite their popularity, these shows have not escaped criticism. Some say they blur an already arbitrary line separating entertainment from journalism and that they encourage vigilantism and Big Brother spying.
″If they actually lead to the capture of a suspect, they become the story themselves,″ said Phil Gutis, national spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union.
″Although these programs are about actual crimes, they can foster a vigilante atmosphere where neighbors actually spy on each other in the hopes of getting some publicity.″
In the case of ″Unsolved Mysteries,″ a quest for publicity placed NBC’s hugely successful series in the uncomfortable position of unknowingly broadcasting an elaborate hoax.
An October segment featured Los Angeles disc jockeys Kevin Ryan and Gene ″Bean″ Baxter re-creating their June 13, 1990, radio show during which an unidentified caller confessed to murdering his girlfriend.
The confession generated about 400 calls from people who thought they recognized the caller or the case.
Six months later, the Los Angeles Times reported the confession was faked and that Baxter and Ryan admitted to orchestrating it to boost ratings. The two apologized on the air and were suspended for six days. The Federal Communications Commission is investigating.
As a follow-up, ″Unsolved Mysteries″ is working on an episode that examines KROQ-FM and its disc jockeys’ fraud.
″It was beyond belief when we heard it was a hoax,″ said executive producer John Cosgrove. ″I just find it stunning that anyone would do this. It goes beyond human nature.″
To safeguard against deceptions, Cosgrove said program participants are asked to sign affidavits swearing their statements are true.
Walsh said ″America’s Most Wanted″ has never been victim to an on-air hoax.
As for the ACLU’s criticism, Walsh said he has never heard those specific complaints from the organization. Most of the grumblings about the program, he said, have come from television critics and newspaper reporters.
″We have not, in 3 1/2 years,″ Walsh said, ″ever had one instance of people taking the law into their own hands. I believe people work within the system.″
Walsh became a national crusader for victims rights after his 6-year-old son, Adam, was abducted from a Florida shopping mall and murdered. The father’s efforts on behalf of missing children were dramatized in two made- for-television movies.
″I’ve been working within the system since my son was murdered,″ Walsh said. ″I’ve always believed that the American public is fed up with violent crime. This is reality TV. The public is the real judge.″