David James Roberts helped launch a long-running television show 33 years ago today, but his starring role landed him in prison for life.
Roberts, 77, was the first fugitive profiled on the Feb. 7, 1988 premiere of “America’s Most Wanted.” He was also the first featured criminal captured — a brisk four days later. The show would continue for 25 seasons and catch 1,202 more bad guys.
“It was the program that brought about my demise, so I’m not tickled pink about” its anniversary, Roberts confessed during a phone interview with The Post from the maximum-security Indiana State Prison, where he is serving six life sentences for murder, arson and rape.
John Walsh, the father of a murdered child who created and hosted “America’s Most Wanted,” has said he will “never forget” the name David James Roberts. “This is really powerful television,” he reportedly said after viewing footage of the cold-blooded child-killer and rapist in handcuffs — after the debut show generated “over 1,000 tips.”
Many of the tipsters had a shocking revelation to report: The 6-foot-3, 215-pound fugitive was hiding in plain sight on Staten Island, where he was known as “Bob Lord,” a well-regarded counselor at a city-funded homeless shelter.
His murderous rampages came a decade before.
On Jan 20, 1974, Roberts ignited a blaze in a New Whiteland, Ind., home, killing William Patrick, 26, his wife, Ann, 23 and their 3-year-old daughter, Heidi, according to newspaper accounts.
A year earlier, Roberts was charged with driving off without paying for $311 worth of repair work at a Sears Auto Center, where William Patrick was the manager. Patrick had agreed to testify against the ex-con, and the case jeopardized Roberts’ parole, which stemmed from his conviction in a 1966 strong-armed robbery and rape, the Indianapolis Star reported.
Indicted on triple murder charges in March 1974, Roberts was held without bond until September, when a “sympathethic” judge set bail at $10,000, according to murderpedia.org. The next month, a freed Roberts abducted a 19-year-old Indianapolis woman and raped her twice before leaving her locked in the trunk of her car. He abandoned the victim’s 6-month-old son in the woods, where the helpless infant died of exposure during the night. The mother survived.
Roberts was convicted of four murders and sentenced to die, but “subsequent commutation of his sentence” left him facing six terms of life imprisonment instead.
On Oct. 25, 1986, Roberts was taken from his cell at Indiana State Prison to Wishard Memorial Hospital in Indianapolis for pulmonary tests after the cunning but amiable con complained of a persistent cough. In the custody of two careless guards, he made his move.
On the drive back to the state prison, when they stopped for lunch at a McDonald’s, Roberts persuaded the guards to loosen his leg irons and chains while he ate, according to an account in the Indianapolis Star. As they approached the prison, before the guards attempted to tighten the cuffs, Roberts pulled a derringer, took his escorts’ weapons, handcuffed them, and drove with them to the South Shore Railroad station in Gary.
Roberts then apologized for “ruining everyone’s day.”
Previously, while Roberts was inside making a phone call at the station, one of the guards had used a spare key to unlock his handcuffs. By the time cops arrived, Roberts was gone.
It has never been publicly revealed where or how Roberts got the gun, or who might have helped him get it, but it was obvious his escape was carefully planned.
“I had been in prison for 12 years and had no redress. … Anyone who has been in prison wrongfully would attempt to escape,” Roberts told The Post.
Roberts bolted for O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, where he bought himself a ticket to Newark Airport for less than $100.
“I first went to Manhattan. … I was going to go to Mexico and from Mexico to Cuba or Brazil, but I got sick,” Roberts recalled during his one-hour phone interview with The Post.
“I had to get someplace where rent was cheaper. I was looking for employment.”
He chose Staten Island, the “forgotten borough” where he hoped he could be forgotten.
Not far from the ferry terminal, he “stumbled” upon a homeless shelter. “I’m an escapee and I can’t afford to be arrested by police. … I looked in — and we used to call them bums — but they were homeless people,” Roberts said of the Staten Island outreach center.
Roberts walked into the Project Hospitality shelter on that cold November 1986 day looking for refuge. The Perth Amboy native told volunteer workers there he had been laid off from a Chicago steel company and made his way back East. After a brief stay at the shelter, the handsome, soft-spoken Roberts became a Project Hospitality volunteer. When the director of the non-profit shelter quit in April 1987, Roberts landed the $18,000-a-year job.
Roberts denies he’s a killer, so he does not speak of redemption. However, he does believe in the good works he did as Bob Lord, often working 12-hour days to help homeless people find housing, clothing and jobs.
“The people on Staten Island thought highly of me,” Roberts recalled proudly, recounting how he’d set up beds for seniors, and organized a Fourth of July outing where he’d “pack lunches and take them out to the beach.”
“I reached out and helped people,” he said. “I was doing things. … I was just not trying to impress anybody.”
Roberts said he didn’t take his new name — Lord — in vain.
“I was in the airport in Chicago and I heard them say Bob Lord over the loudspeaker,” he recalled. “That name just rang a bell.”
As for his capture, Roberts said the FBI never would have caught him off his wanted poster. He rememberd walking into the ferry terminal Post Office and seeing a poor likeness of himself on the wall.
“I almost broke out laughing,” he said. “I was No. 1 with the 10 Most Wanted.”
It was John Walsh and America’s Most Wanted that employed a more accurate photo that led to his arrest.
The seeds for his capture were planted on the cover of the Feb. 6, 1988 issue of TV Guide featuring the premiere of “America’s Most Wanted” and Roberts’ photo. The FBI tip line began fielding calls before the show even aired the next day.
The 44-year-old fugitive was apprehended Feb. 11 after a tipster told the feds he was staying at the Pine Street apartment of a one-time homeless woman.
“I got caught because of that program. The picture they had was me,” he said.
In custody, an agent asked him what kind of beer he drank and they celebrated back at the field office with a case of Budweiser and chips. They asked him to pose for a picture, and he did.
“The guy [the lead agent] was retiring. He said in 20 years they never caught anyone,” Roberts recounted.
The killer concedes that with today’s social media, “My picture would have been slammed on everyone’s phone. .. I wouldn’t have lasted that long.”
In prison, Roberts rises by 4 a.m. and picks up his blood pressure pills at the prison hospital. He then starts his job cleaning windows in the dormitory at 7. He does that three times a day, he said, “and after that I can lay down and watch MSNBC.” Lights are out at 9 p.m. In between, he enjoys listening to jazz great Wes Montgomery and Michael Jackson. He doesn’t read anymore because he has cataracts.
Unrepentant, Roberts spent most of the hour-long interview railing against prisons (“these places are devious because they are warehousing people”); the justice system (“I was railroaded”), and even former President Trump (“Had he been a decent president, we wouldn’t have 400,000 in graves due to coronavirus”).
He says he hopes to one day win his freedom, although he doesn’t explain how.
“I’m the same David Roberts who was on Staten Island,” he said.