When Jim and Tim Clemente were growing up in Queens, their mother, a nurse, hoped they would go into medicine. Her sons had other ideas. It was the late 1960s, and gruff, heroic cops were always on TV, sprinting down alleys and tackling suspects. The brothers were temperamentally distinct—Jim was the thoughtful outsider, inclined to think his way through problems, while Tim was the adrenaline junkie with an uncanny ability to withstand pain. But they both agreed that catching bad guys seemed like a fun thing to do for a living. “Jim wanted to be a detective,” Tim told me. “I wanted to be a cop.” The brothers eventually got their way, and by the 1990s, both were working as FBI agents. Although their career paths were similar, their differences persisted. “I like to get into offenders’ minds, to figure out how they tick,” Jim told me, whereas Tim “says he likes to get into an offender’s mind with a .308-caliber sniper bullet.”
Thirteen years ago, the Clementes pivoted from the FBI to Hollywood, where they founded a production company, XG, that has become a force in the true-crime industrial complex at a time when viewers can’t seem to get enough of murder. This week marks the launch of their highest-profile project to date, a reboot of Fox’s fugitive-hunting juggernaut America’s Most Wanted.
The program debuted on Fox in 1988, the year of the Willie Horton ad and rising murder rates. It tapped into audiences’ preoccupation with crime, featuring interviews with weeping victims interspersed with grainy re-creations of kidnappings and gang shootings. Alongside Cops, which premiered a year later, AMW became a staple of the brash new network’s law enforcement-themed Saturday-night lineup. Host John Walsh stood in front of a set mocked up to look like an incident-response center, with a flock of phone operators standing by to pass viewers’ tips to police. The show kept a running tally of the fugitives it helped capture—more than a thousand, by its own count, over the course of its 25 seasons. The message was clear: AMW wasn’t just entertainment; it was a vital tool in the war against crime. “It’s a show that feels, looks, and sounds like a cop,” as one reviewer described it at the time.
On the surface, 2021 is a volatile time to bring the show back. Violent-crime rates are half of what they were when AMW premiered. (“Is that true? I didn’t know that,” Fox’s head of unscripted content, Rob Wade, said when I pointed this out. “That’s fantastic!”) Depicting members of law enforcement as straightforward heroes doesn’t sit the same less than a year after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd. “It’s so interesting that they think they can reboot a show like that when a lot of production companies are really having to rethink the ethical dimensions of crime programming post–Black Lives Matter,” said David Schmid, a professor at the University at Buffalo who writes about crime and popular culture. “I don’t know how successful it’s going to be.”
But Fox—and the Clementes—are banking on the idea that, despite progressive calls to reform the police, a large segment of the population is still eager to see people with badges and guns put bad guys away. Or even help them do so: In the days after the siege of the U.S. Capitol, Wade watched internet sleuths put names to pixelated images of rioters and thought the impulse toward DIY detection bode well for the reboot. “I remember going, This is it,” Wade told me. “People were sort of catfishing them, pretending to date them and turning them in to the police. I don’t think we’re going to be using those kinds of tactics. But it created a kind of community movement to solve crime, which is exactly what we’re aiming at.”
BY NOW, AFTER A DECADE in Hollywood, Jim and Tim Clemente are practiced at distilling their careers into propulsive narratives of heroism and hard-won justice. Jim’s account of how he came to join the FBI, in particular, has a fated quality. In 1986, he was working as a prosecutor in Manhattan when another of his brothers (there are six siblings in all) made an offhand comment about Michael O’Hara—the head of a Catholic summer camp they had attended as teenagers—and his stash of obscene Polaroids of teenage boys.
Jim had spent years trying to avoid thinking about O’Hara, who had sexually assaulted him a decade earlier, when he was 15. Jim had confided in his school guidance counselor about the abuse at the time and was instructed to say ten Hail Marys and never speak of it again. His experience as a survivor of sexual assault was intensely isolating, but if there was an entire cache of images, he realized, he probably hadn’t been O’Hara’s only victim—and since O’Hara was still working with young people, the abuse might have been ongoing.
Jim reported O’Hara to the FBI-NYPD Joint Task Force on Sexual Exploitation of Children. An agent came back to him with an unusual proposition. Any crimes involving Jim were beyond the statute of limitations, but the task force thought he could still help send O’Hara to prison. The team asked Jim to pretend to befriend his abuser and secretly record their conversations and hoped O’Hara would say something incriminating. On Halloween, Jim sat across from the man who had assaulted him, making small talk over beers. Later that night, after removing the recording device, Jim ran to the bathroom to throw up. He ultimately recorded hours of conversation with O’Hara—evidence that contributed to his eventual sentencing on child-pornography charges.
After the investigation was over, a member of the task force took Jim out to lunch and asked if he was interested in joining the FBI. “You’d take me even though I was a victim?” Jim remembers saying. He ended up working at the Bureau for the next 22 years. “Jim was one of the more unconventional agents,” his former mentor, retired FBI agent Ken Lanning, told me. “A little bit of a maverick, kind of a rebel.” Jim’s past left him suspicious of powerful institutions and particularly sensitive to victims. He told me that he spent three years undercover as a Wall Street broker, helping bust a price-fixing scam, and that after 9/11, he visited the military prison at Guantánamo Bay and was one of the first to officially report that the CIA was using illegal torture methods on detainees.
In 1998, Jim got a plum assignment at the Bureau’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, an elite group of a few dozen agents who study criminal psychology. BAU agents, who are popularly known as profilers, play an outsize role in pop-culture conceptions of the FBI. Profiler narratives present the appealing idea that crime is a matter of sinister masterminds being pitted against agents who thwart them with psychological acuity rather than brute force. When Clarice Starling interviews Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, she does so under the aegis of what is now the BAU; Netflix’s Mindhunter traces the unit’s early days. As a BAU agent, Jim investigated serial murders and abductions. He also began to speak openly about his own experience of victimization, which his superiors didn’t always appreciate. “The FBI didn’t want me to talk about it,” Jim told me. “They said I would look like a zealot.”
Meanwhile, Tim, Jim’s younger brother, was also building a career in law enforcement. In the early 1990s, as violent crime in the U.S. was peaking, he took a job as a beat cop in St. Louis, opting for the highest-crime neighborhood—the socalled Bloody Third—because he’d heard “that’s the busiest and most fun place to work,” he told me. When he joined the FBI a few years later, he grew a ponytail and infiltrated an international narcotics ring; in 2004, he volunteered for a counterinsurgency assignment in Iraq.
Over the years, the brothers’ temperamental and ideological divide became more apparent. Jim, who is unmarried and childless, describes himself as “areligious”; Tim is a devout Catholic with nine children. Jim supports gun control and opposes the death penalty; Tim is an outspoken conservative with a tactical gun range in his backyard. “We were both first responders on 9/11. I became much more of a pacifist as a result of that. I don’t want to see any more death and destruction,” Jim told me. “And Tim came away saying, ‘We need to fight violence with overwhelming violence.’” The brothers largely avoid talking about their contrasts. “It’s almost like we don’t even bother,” Jim said.
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