By COLLEEN LONG
NEW YORK (AP) — Ten years ago, a misunderstanding at a Memorial Day neighborhood cookout turned into a bloody night of gunfire.
Neighbors told police they thought a man named Danny Williams had gotten into the barbecue brawl with two men who were later shot. One died, the other was seriously injured. But police could find no trace of Williams, then a 25-year-old parolee known as D-Knife.
The trail went cold.
Enter John Walsh and his long-running television show “America’s Most Wanted.” Walsh’s team aired an episode on the shooting twice in 2009 and plastered Williams’ face on the show’s website.
On July 19, 2010, Williams was captured and arrested by detectives with the New York Police Department’s fugitive task force using fingerprints. He was found guilty of murder and sentenced earlier this year to 50 years in prison.
“Everyone wants to give us a huge amount of credit, but really the cops did all the work,” Walsh said by phone after a day of taping new cases in New York.
But Walsh’s show — dropped by Fox last year after more than two decades — is proving it’s still a venerable crime-fighting tool, whether on air in its new Lifetime network slot or online. There are more than 600,000 monthly visits to the site, and at least 40 captures came from online tips.
FBI and local law enforcement praise the work.
“They have an excellent reputation,” said Paul Browne, chief spokesman for New York City’s police department, the largest in the nation. “With the NYPD and law enforcement generally, and that’s because they get results, and they also conduct themselves professionally in working with police departments.”
Since 1988, “America’s Most Wanted” has helped bring almost 1,200 fugitives to justice. A dozen alone came directly from the 17 shows aired on Lifetime since Dec. 2. The network said recently the show has dramatically helped ratings.
“I’m a very loud voice for the voiceless,” said Walsh, ever the self-promoter. “I do mostly crimes against women, normal average humble people. I’ll do it as long as people watch. Our ratings are fantastic.”
Walsh’s formula relies on volunteers to work the phone during each episode. Callers are guaranteed anonymity, even if they don’t mind being identified.
“We don’t care who the person is calling. Fifty percent of them want to leave their names, but we protect them so they don’t get scared talking to cops,” he said.
Another featured New York fugitive, Joseph Roman, was wanted on murder charges in the vicious beating and shooting of a neighborhood man. Police say he fled and, through a tipster after the show’s airing, they learned he was living under the alias Jason Mendez.
Police arrested Roman in Las Vegas on March 28, 2010. He was extradited and has pleaded not guilty to murder and weapons charges.
Walsh launched his crime-busting crusade in the aftermath of the abduction and murder of his 6-year-old son, Adam. He became an outspoken advocate for tougher laws against sex offenders, more cooperation among law enforcement agencies and citizen involvement in flushing out fugitives.
He is a former hotel executive with no TV experience. But he brought a zeal to the project that would breed success.
About a year after “America’s Most Wanted” premiered in April 1988, it became the first Fox program to rank first in its time slot. During the 2010-11 season, the show was seen by an average 5 million viewers.
Walsh, now 66, returned his crusade to New York recently by filming spots on two fugitives wanted by the city’s FBI office: Rene Ramirez, a Mexican-born man suspected of trafficking child-pornography, and Jaime Alberto Macias, charged with killing his girlfriend’s 3-year-old daughter in 1993 while he was supposed to be baby-sitting.
“I walked in those shoes of these victims,” Walsh said. “It broke my wife’s heart, and damaged us forever, Adam’s murder. But the not solving it was worse. You never get over the murder of your child. You have a terrible mortal wound.”
Justice in the barbecue shooting came on Feb. 29 in Queens state Supreme Court. A jury found Williams guilty of killing Roshawn Tate and injuring his cousin, Mark Belizaire.
“It’s been a very long journey for the past 10 years of my life, and as for my family as well,” Belizaire said at sentencing. “This man disabled me for life … mentally, but also physically and financially.”
Williams was sentenced to 50 years to life on the murder and attempted murder charges after telling a judge, “I didn’t do it.”
The show netted several tips, but in the end, Williams was found when NYPD detectives investigating an unrelated case dusted a crime scene for fingerprints, and he was tracked to New Jersey where he was arrested. An accomplice pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, testified against him and got nine years.
Walsh knows from experience that the families of victims need plenty of patience and persistence. His son’s killing went unsolved for 27 years. By then, the drifter authorities believed responsible had already died in prison.
“One thing I know, we get justice,” Walsh said of his show. “I was dying for justice in Adam’s case.”
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