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Then & Now: John Walsh

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Then: After the death of his son, John Walsh became a leading victims' rights activist in the early 1980s.

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(CNN) -- In 1981, when the decapitated head of his abducted 6-year-old son was discovered, John Walsh pledged to turn his grief into action. More than two decades later, Walsh is a well-known victims' rights advocate and host of the long-running TV show "America's Most Wanted."

Despite his advocacy work (he has testified before Congress and state legislatures more than 55 times), Walsh says he has never attained "closure" in his son's death.

"You know, everybody uses this word [closure] and banters it around. ... I don't have any closure and most parents of murdered children or crime victims don't really have closure because your life is changed forever by that event," Walsh said.

In July 1981, Walsh's son, Adam, was abducted from a mall near his home in Hollywood, Florida. Walsh's wife, Reve, dropped the boy off in the Sears toy department while she looked for a lamp. When she returned, Adam was missing.

Police records in Adam's case released in 1996 show that a 17-year-old security guard asked four boys to leave the department store. Adam is believed to have been one of them.

"There was no 800 number you could call," Walsh told CNN in a recent interview. "There was no legislation regarding missing children. There was nothing on the state, local or federal level. ... My wife and I said, "Look, most of the United States doesn't know Adam is missing.' "

Two weeks after Adam disappeared, the child's severed head was discovered in a canal 120 miles away from the Hollywood mall. The body of the child was never recovered.

The prime suspect in the killing, Ottis Toole, died in prison while serving a life sentence for another crime. He was never charged in Adam's slaying.

The Walshes vowed to turn their grief into a purpose.

The couple's public pressure helped lead to the passage of the Missing Children Act of 1982 and the federal Missing Children's Assistance Act of 1984. The latter legislation established the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Three presidents -- Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton -- have honored John Walsh for his efforts to safeguard children.

Walsh also was instrumental in promoting the Amber Alert network, a nationwide coordinated plan of recovery of abducted children. The system uses radio, television, roadside electronic billboards and emergency broadcast systems to disseminate information about kidnapping suspects and victims soon after the abduction of a child is reported.

The Amber Alert was named in memory of Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old Texas girl who was abducted and slain in 1996.

In 1988, Walsh became host of "America's Most Wanted," a television show that has aided law enforcement in the capture of more than 800 fugitives around the world. It's the fifth longest-running show in television history.

"I didn't want to be on television ... didn't want to hunt men down, but you know what, as my wife always said to me, 'Let's make sure Adam didn't die in vain,' " Walsh said recently.

Today, the Walshes reside in Washington. They have three children -- two of them in college -- and John Walsh is busy lobbying for a constitutional amendment that would protect victims' rights.

He also is the author of three best-selling books, "Tears of Rage" (1997), "No Mercy" (1998) and "Public Enemies" (2001).

But he says his family will never fully recover from the loss of Adam.

"My son was murdered," Walsh says. "I say that I have a deep wound that scabs sometimes, and something will break it open and it'll bleed, but it never heals."

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