On July 27, 1981, John Walsh lost an irreplaceable part of himself — his son Adam. A little more than two weeks after Adam was abducted, Walsh learned his son had been murdered. During this life-changing experience, Walsh discovered a sorry truth about the world we live in and a name for those responsible for some of the most gruesome crimes that can be committed against the youngest members of our society — pedophiles.
In the almost 27 years since Adam Walsh’s death, his father has worked tirelessly to capture some of the most evasive criminals in the country, many of whom are known sex offenders and child molesters. Although ‘America’s Most Wanted’ has aided in the capture of close to 1,000 criminals since the TV series’ inception two decades ago, John Walsh is not ready to give up the fight. STN recently sat down with Walsh and talked about some of the dangers children face on the daily journey to and from school.
School Transportation News: What do you believe are the most important safety tips a parent can teach their child when they are waiting for the school bus or on the way to and from school?
John Walsh: Don’t assume this couldn’t happen to you. I hear this cavalier attitude, ‘I live in a rural area, or I live in Beverly Hills or I live in a really nice neighborhood.’ Predators are very mobile. With the incident a couple years back of the two boys [in Missouri], [convicted kidnapper Michael Devlin] roamed out 60 to 70 miles from where he lived because he felt that kids in rural areas were much more naive, that they had a false sense that they were safer. He was a bus surfer. They will follow buses until they see a child — if their preference is girls they will wait for a vulnerable girl of a certain age. [Devlin] readily admitted when he was caught that he was a bus surfer, and he waited to find his type of child and then he would track them.
Children of a certain age should never be left at the bus stop; my personal belief is around 11 years old and under. Moms or Dads should get together and take turns to stay at the bus stop with their children. It’s not 1950, it’s not ‘Father Knows Best.’ It’s 2008, and we deal with these terrible guys.
I think bus drivers have a responsibility also on the other side of the coin. If somebody is supposed to be there to pick [the child] up, I don’t think bus drivers should get fired or be chastised if they wait an extra minute for somebody to come and get that child, or if they brought the child back to school because they didn’t feel comfortable dropping off a 7-year-old girl when nobody is there to pick her up. It’s education of the parents, it’s education of the children, and I believe it’s education of the bus drivers, too [to report if] they see something creepy, if they see somebody that’s been following the bus for two miles or if they see somebody lurking and waiting.
STN: The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a group you founded, points out that a lot of kids are taught to be respectful of adults and to listen to them. What kind of advice should school districts give to their students when it comes to those situations? What kind of behavior should children look for when being confronted by a stranger?
JW: I think we would all like our children to respect authority, but sometimes that’s a child’s downfall. I am not saying people shouldn’t teach their kids to be respectful of adults, but there’s always been one simple rule for me: No adult should get information or need help from children. Let adults get help from other adults. We’ve caught pedophiles that have actually created their own fake flyer looking for a lost puppy or a lost kitten. Children shouldn’t feel obligated or even bother to engage adults that ask them for information. We should teach our kids to be street-smart.
Many predators’ real safety net is their car or their van. And if the child runs the other way or crosses to the other side of the street, that’s one of the ways that you can try to prevent them from getting pulled into the van or that car, because predators don’t like to roam too far from their safety net. That safety net is their getaway vehicle. Always tell kids to be smart. If somebody pulls up behind you on the side of the road, get away from the road. Look for a house where there is someone that you know. The problem is the kids in the rural area, they have to travel from the bus stop to the home.
STN: Some people might think it extreme to tell kids to fight, kick and scream if someone tries to grab them, because, if they get in that car, they might never be seen again.
JW: Teach your kids to be fighters, because most of these guys are cowards. If they start screaming and put up a fight, hopefully it will distract the guy from doing it or someone will come along and help them.
STN: School districts use routing software to set up their school bus stops, and one of the features is a map overlay that shows where the sex offenders in the area live. Many transportation directors have said they specifically look for offenders convicted of sex crimes against children.
JW: I have caught many predators who roamed way outside of their sexual predator registry status. There are about a 100,000 guys that are in total violation of their parole and probation, that are not in any current registry. The registry is a good thing especially for the Level 3 sex offenders, the most violent and dangerous. Sex offenders have to live somewhere; they are a reality of this society. For example, the Adam Walsh Law was meant to target Level 3 offenders, not the kid that peed at Mardi Gras. The intention is to make society aware of the worst of the worst offenders and where they live.
It’s a very difficult thing. In some cases, municipalities in their fervor to do the right thing for their children have ignored the reality that sex offenders are of all different types and levels, and some are not as dangerous as others. They have to live somewhere. The different laws that have come out of that — Jessica’s law in Florida and the initial law in New Jersey, Megan’s Law — they were created because these violent sex offenders lived across the street from these little girls and preyed upon them. And nobody knew they were there. So the intention is a good thing. I think that software is good stuff, if school districts can afford it. For example, if you’re a bus driver and there is a horrible rabid pit bull somewhere near the bus stop, you would tell the kid, ‘Watch out for that yard. Those dogs are dangerous; don’t go near them.’ And the same thing with the software. It lets bus drivers and kids know where sex offenders live, and that’s a good thing. I think it would be a great thing for bus drivers to know if there was a Level 3 violent sex offender that was on parole or probation, that they lived somewhere and they could say, ‘Hey, I don’t really feel good about this,’ or ‘I should let these kids know or I am not going to leave these kids in the dark.’
Part of the Adam Walsh Act is that sex offenders have to come in and take a photo every six months. You should see the guys I have profiled on ‘America’s Most Wanted,’ serious guys that have committed 10, 15 offenses. They don’t look anything like their booking photos. They don’t look anything like when they got arrested three or four years ago. They’ve gained 60 pounds or lost 60 pounds.
STN: If sexual predators move across state lines and become lost in the system, is there any communication between the states?
JW: The real problem is that this present Congress, with all the problems that it has, hasn’t funded the Adam Walsh Act. Therefore, you don’t have pilot programs in certain states. I attended the National Attorneys General Conference last year. Forty-nine out of 50 attorneys general were there, attorneys general like Andrew Cuomo in New York and U.S. Sen. Joe Biden’s son, Beau Biden, in Delaware, saying, ‘I want to change my whole state.’ Where is the federal money that was supposed to be allocated to support the Adam Walsh Act to train states to provide a uniform sex offender registry and to comply with the U.S. Justice Department sex offender registry, to train Child Abduction Response Teams and exchange information? Theses guys know how to beat the system. They violate their parole or probation, move to another state, change their name and set up business, and that state has no clue that they are even wanted. Funding the Adam Walsh Act is crucial because there are so many of the good things in that bill that so many states really want to do but haven’t been able to.
STN: Let’s say a bus driver is on his route and he sees an abduction or someone suspicious. What would be the quickest way for a bus driver to get involved and start a chain of information to authorities?
JW: Maybe he would call 911, although lots of states don’t have 911. So school bus drivers need to be educated that, in those areas where there isn’t a 911 emergency response number, they need to know the number of the local police. They can immediately call and say ‘I’ve got a plate number; I’ve witnessed something.’ In the case of Ben Ownby, one of the boys taken in Missouri, the case was broken because a 16-year-old kid on that bus gave the cops the tip that he had seen a white truck following the bus. That kid, with the help of that bus driver, broke that case and saved two boys’ lives. It’s crucial to call 911 and get the information out.
STN: Many of these child predators believe they are going to have an adult-type relationship with a child. Can drivers be trained to point out these specific mannerisms and keep their eyes open because they are on the road every single day?
JW: It’s crucial; they're a huge part of it. They would be a great resource, but nobody has figured out what these pedophiles are thinking about. They think you’re the weird one because you don’t like to have sex with children. I know one thing from hunting them for years and from catching them. I never ever heard one pedophile say, ‘Oh, I’m cured. Let me out on parole or probation.’ They believe that we are the unnatural members of society; that what they do is a special thing. They never, ever considered it ruining a child’s life or the fact that there is no equal power based on him being a six-year-old boy — like my son and the 50-year-old man that was a suspect of his murder. I think that the more society is alerted, aware and educated, the better we are. When Adam was missing, during the two weeks I was looking for him at the Hollywood Police Department, they showed me a book of 50 guys that were on parole or probation. They didn’t know where half of them were. They said, ‘These are convicted pedophiles.’ I had never really even heard the term. The police said, “They all live within five to 10 miles from your home, but we don’t know (exactly) where most of them live.’ That was 27 years ago. That was a pretty harsh reality for me.
STN: Thank you.
Reprinted from the May 2008 issue of School Transportation News magazine. All rights reserved.