BONITA, Calif. - In 1979, the man known to north Louisiana television viewers as "Mr. Wonder" vanished amid allegations that the children's show host sexually abused several kids during a camping retreat.
Now authorities say they have arrested him, living under another name in California, and officials and neighbors fear he could have preyed on other children during his 37 years on the run.
The man who faced a San Diego judge Wednesday denied he is the 76-year-old fugitive named Frank John Selas III who allegedly fled to Brazil in 1979 after authorities in Louisiana secured a warrant for his arrest.
CBS affiliate KNOE -- where Selas worked in the 1970s -- in Monroe, La., reports Rapides Parish Sheriff William Earl Hilton does not believe the denial.
"When you look at somebody who's changed his name, been arrested for smuggling aliens into the country, had a couple of different passports, and flipping social security numbers around, he's hiding something. We got the right guy," Hilton said.
Neighbors in a well-to-do section of a San Diego suburb knew him as Frank Szeles, a friendly Cub Scouts leader who frequently gave swimming lessons to young children in his backyard pool.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints banned Szeles, a member of a San Diego congregation, from contact with children years before his arrest this week.
He was "removed from all positions related to children" after failing to comply with the church's child protection policies, Eric Hawkins, a church spokesman, said in an email Thursday.
After his removal, a parent expressed "a generalized concern" about the suspect's behavior toward a child and the church urged the parent to report it to authorities, said Hawkins. He said he didn't know if the parent reported it.
The church spokesman said Szeles belongs to a group of Mormon congregations in the San Diego area called the Sweetwater Stake. But Hawkins didn't indicate which positions Szeles held and said he couldn't elaborate on the nature of the alleged incidents.
However, Hawkins said the church did not report the matter itself because "what we were told was not criminal in nature."
Asked to comment, the suspect's attorney, Marc Carlos, said, "Clearly whatever these allegations were, they were not serious enough to refer to the police, which is what they should have done if they were serious."
The Boy Scouts of America said Wednesday that the suspect was Cubmaster of Pack 888 in Bonita, near San Diego, but he was "removed from Scouting several years ago for non-compliance with our youth protection policies and procedures." Without elaborating, it said his removal followed a complaint from a parent who was not involved in the group and was unrelated to scouting.
Szeles was known to often have lots of kids around, and he frequently invited children to his suburban home to swim.
His family was in the courtroom after his arrest but didn't speak with reporters. The man's attorney, Marc Carlos, read a statement from the family that pleaded for privacy.
"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. "He is well-loved, respected and supported by his family and friends and the community here in San Diego."
Carlos said the developments were "a shock to everyone."
Szeles Enterprises advertised swim lessons, Cub Scouts and Saturday field trips for boys 5 to 11 years old in the San Diego area. Neighbors said Wednesday that parents often took their children to play in his backyard pool.
"He always had a lot of kids around him," said Haywood Gammon, who lives next door and said the man had been living there with his wife at least since he arrived in 1999.