FBI and San Diego Station Nab Nearly 60 Criminals

Two days before the FBI launched a major publicity campaign to nab killer James "Whitey" Bulger, a San Diego spinoff of "America's Most Wanted" featured the fugitive's case.

Coincidence? No.

Keith Slotter, head of the San Diego FBI office, moonlights as the host of "San Diego's Most Wanted" on the local Fox station. He knew the national campaign was coming and wanted to use the June 18 show for an advance push.

"81 years old and still running, we need to find this convicted mobster," Slotter told viewers about Bulger.  "Your tips could help us with one of the FBI's most puzzling cases."

San Diego was a key market in the FBI's effort this week seeking tips on Bulger's whereabouts since the bureau believed he had a link to the area.

The Bulger national manhunt had been featured on "San Diego's Most Wanted" several times before, even though the half-hour show generally seeks tips on local bad guys.

"With the new publicity push that was coming, we decided let's re-feature that because that will help everything that the bureau is trying to do," Slotter said.

Four days after the June 18 episode -- which was repeated the day after -- Bulger was caught in Santa Monica 135 miles north. The tip that led to his arrest and his girlfriend's did not come from the San Diego market.

Still, the fact the FBI was able to work with the show's production team to get timely coverage is an example of the show's uniqueness. Stations around the country have tried local versions of "America's Most Wanted."

But "San Diego's Most Wanted," which launched a year ago, is distinguished by having an active FBI official as the host and the bureau as a production partner. There are two members of the San Diego office assigned to work with executive producer Will Givens.

"There's a little bit more authenticity in our show ... and there's a whole lot more access," Givens said.

Since launch, 57 suspects profiled on the show have been captured, a remarkable figure in just a year. "You could say we're helping get a bad guy off the street every week," said Givens, who also heads branding operations at Tribune-owned KSWB.

The show was conceived by Slotter after he grew frustrated by a particular case last year. He called Ray Schonbak, KSWB's executive vice president, who was acquainted with a local "AMW" at a sister Tribune station in Seattle.

Schonback and the station embraced the concept. Slotter ran it by the FBI's national headquarters, which gave the go-ahead.

"The idea of being able to do a public service en masse, rather than a short newspaper clip, I thought would be a better benefit than anything that was currently being done," Slotter said.

The FBI doesn't get compensated for its involvement. Slotter's hosting duties come free. The FBI also pays the $1,000 rewards for information leading to suspects who are caught. KSWB pays production costs.

Executive producer Givens was clear from the get-go he wanted the show to fall under an entertainment banner, that it would not be affiliated with KSWB's news operations. That would give it more freedom to collaborate with the FBI without journalistic restrictions.

So, "San Diego's Most Wanted" could be slanted in ways that would help it best fulfill its mission of nabbing criminals. It could pull a profile if law enforcement felt the publicity might hurt its pursuit. It also wouldn't have to mention certain details, such as how much a particular business was robbed for.

"We did not want to embarrass banks that are getting robbed," Givens said. "We did not want to embarrass law enforcement agencies that have not yet found a killer."

Besides FBI cases, the show features suspects wanted from a slew of law enforcement agencies, from the border patrol to local cops throughout the region. Suspects can range from an ex-Tijuana policeman on the lam for 12 years to gang members.

The show airs at 7:30 p.m. on Saturdays, leading into Fox's Saturday crime block ("AMW" is now off the air) and a repeat comes Sundays at 11 p.m. Ratings have satisfied station officials as a one-year anniversary comes next week.

"We're very pleased with the show," Schonbak said. "We're seeing good audiences."

Givens said it generally finishes third in its time slots.

The show began with 15-minute episodes last summer following a newscast, but in March moved to its current format. Besides the criminal rundowns, it offers some features about law enforecement operations and other matters.

The FBI collaboration offers some special access such as an interview with the FBI's man who went through extensive interrogations with Saddam Hussein.

The FBI's Slotter had done TV appearamces before, but still wasn't sure how hosting a half-hour show would go. Yet, he appears to be a natural in front of the camera and appreciates the opportunity.

"It's a nice diversion from my day job," he quipped.

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