Frank John Selas III has spent his life surrounded by children. Young boys, to be precise.
In his early 30s, the lanky teacher worked at St. Mary’s, an international school in Tokyo. Aside from teaching the fourth grade, Selas was known to lead “adventure” trips called the “Junior Peace Corps.” On these “once-in-a-lifetime” journeys, groups of 30 to 40 adolescent boys from around the world traversed East Asia, riding on elephants and partaking in all manner of outdoor activities.
By 1978, Selas had left Japan for Monroe, La., where he was emceeing his own kids television program for the local CBS affiliate KNOE-TV. There he adopted the persona of “Mr. Wonder.”
The “Mr. Wonder Show” was a hit, but not owing to “any professional polish much less ‘personality'” on the part of Selas, according to former KNOE-TV investigative reporter Ken Booth.
It was the kids in the live audience that made the program popular, Booth explained on KNOE-TV’s website. Archival footage from the program shows Selas sitting among the children holding a slender microphone and making exaggerated hand gestures.
Susan Allain, a former KNOE-TV colleague, spoke to the station Wednesday. She shook her head in disbelief, her voice trailing off: “We all thought he was a little strange, but…”
But they never expected this: that Selas would be charged with sexually abusing children on a camping trip he organized as Mr. Wonder in 1979 or that he would then flee the country. Certainly no one thought he would be on the run for 37 years.
Yet this is what happened over the decades, as Louisiana detectives found traces of Selas — but no signs of the man himself — in Connecticut, Vermont, Texas and even Brazil.
On Tuesday, the Rapides Parish Sheriff’s Office in Alexandria, La., announced that “Mr. Wonder” may have finally been found. The U.S. Marshal Service located a “Frank Szeles” in Bonita, Ca., and charged him with two counts of obscene behavior with a juvenile.
Officers on the hunt had been anxiously awaiting the arrest.
“There are cases you never forget, some that always are in the back of your mind that you hope one day to solve,” Rapides Parish Sheriff William Hilton told the Associated Press. He was one of the detectives assigned to the case in 1979.
But the 76-year-old Szeles says that they have the wrong man. He was no “Mr. Wonder,” the arrestee claims.
“Despite the allegations, for 37 years, Frank Szeles has been a husband, father and grandfather and has always provided for his family,” the family said in a statement read in court by Szeles’s lawyer, Marc Carlos. “He is well-loved, respected and supported by his family and friends and the community here in San Diego.”
The arrest was a “shock to everyone,” Carlos said.
This Szeles has also had frequent contact with children. He used to be a Cubmaster in Bonita, but the Boy Scouts of America told the AP that he was “removed from Scouting several years ago for non-compliance with our youth protection policies and procedures.”
The organization said his dismissal was connected to a parent complaint from someone not involved with the group he used to run, and was unrelated to scouting, but it did not elaborate further.
A cached version of the website for the arrestee’s business, Szeles Enterprises, advertises swimming lessons, Cub Scouts trips, day camps and “High Adventure Field Trips.”
“He always had a lot of kids around him,” Szeles’s neighbor, Haywood Gammon, told the AP.
Police said in a statement Wednesday that the original Selas, a.k.a. Mr. Wonder, legally changed his name to “Szeles” in 1992 to mask his identity.
Szeles’s affinity for outdoor excursions with young boys aligns with that of the longtime fugitive. Selas’s trips through East Asia promised “goodwill sports tours” that would foster “friendship and brotherhood.”
“We want to assure parents that health and safety will be stressed throughout the trip,” Selas told the Tokyo Weekender in 1971. “We’ve gone on two or three ‘dry run’ excursions in the vicinity, principally around Yokosuka Naval Base. The boys have swum, sailed together, played baseball, camped out with one another. A fine group of boys.”
Each prospective participant needed recommendations from his principal and a teacher to even be considered. And Selas himself was supposedly no lightweight either: He told the Weekender that he was a Boy Scout Commissioner, had “a degree or two” from the University of Madrid and “a track record of living and working with youngsters in no less than 31 countries” as part of “Child Psychology” studies.
Rapides Parish police said Wednesday that they have since learned there were similar abuse allegations levied against Selas during his time overseas.
The camping trip that spurred the allegations that would follow Mr. Wonder for nearly four decades took place in the summer of 1979. Selas and a group of kids he had recruited camped in a wild area near Valentine Lake in Kisatchie National Forest.
He was their chaperone, but he allegedly became their abuser. When the children returned home, several told their parents that they had been sexually violated by Selas.
Law enforcement began investigating shortly afterward, but not before Selas allegedly escaped. Hilton and another detective looked for him at the TV station and his house, but he was nowhere to be found. Selas’s wife told them that he had left in their family car to “parts unknown.”
The vehicle was located in Dallas but without Selas in it. Police discovered later that he was probably in Rio de Janeiro.
Since then, the search for Selas has taken Louisiana officers across the country — until Monday, that is, when they arrested “Frank John Szeles” at his house near San Diego.
Szeles is currently being held without bail at the San Diego County Detention Center.
Is he the notorious, long-wanted Mr. Wonder? Rapides Parish police believe so.
“We have finally captured this guy,” spokesman Lt. Tommy Carnline told the AP. “Now the investigation can really start, because we believe there are more victims out there.”
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