5 Facts To Know About The Tragic Kidnapping & Murder Of Adam Walsh
Ottis Toole claimed that he abducted Adam Walsh in a Sears mall parking lot after luring him with candy and toys.
On July 27, 1981, six-year-old Adam Walsh went to a Sears store in a mall in Hollywood, Florida, with his mother, Reve Walsh. When Reve went to the lighting section, she allowed him to play video games in the toy department a few aisles away. By the time she got back, he was gone.
She searched the store and had Adam paged, but there was no sign of him. The family called the police, and the case quickly made local and national news.
A few weeks later, Adam's severed head was found by a fisherman in a canal near Vero Beach.
Here are five things you should know about the horrific murder that shocked the nation and forever altered the way we think about child abductions.
Adam’s parents immediately became activists for missing children
Coming just two years after six-year-old Etan Patz disappeared in New York City while walking to his school bus stop, Adam became the new poster child for child abductions. The movement was fueled by Adam’s parents, Reve and John Walsh, who became activists in the aftermath of their son's murder.
They started the Adam Walsh Outreach Center for Missing Children out of their garage just a few days after Adam’s funeral. Later, the couple lobbied for the Missing Children’s Act, which would create a system for data to be entered into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database (NCIC).
In 1984, John Walsh cofounded the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. A few years later, he became the host of America’s Most Wanted. Currently, John and his son Callahan host ID's series In Pursuit With John Walsh.
In 2008, Florida police announced that serial killer Ottis Toole had killed Adam, and said they were closing the case file
On Dec. 16, 2008, Hollywood Police Chief Chadwick E. Wagner announced that the abduction and murder of Adam Walsh had been solved. He stated that drifter, arsonist, and serial killer Ottis Toole was the murderer, and said that police were closing the case file.
Along with his companion and accomplice, fellow serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, Toole made many confessions to murders that he later recanted. This complicated many of the cases in which he claimed involvement, including Adam's.
According to police, Toole had been a suspect in the case since 1983. Originally, Toole claimed that it had been Lucas who decapitated Adam — and Lucas backed Toole's confession. But after investigators discovered that Lucas was in prison at the time, Toole changed his story. Toole claimed that he'd abducted Adam in a Sears mall parking lot after luring him with candy and toys. He said that after Adam started crying, he punched him in the face before raping him and decapitating him with a machete. Toole then stated that he drove around with Adam’s severed head for several days because he “forgot about it” — and that he eventually tossed it into a nearby canal.
Toole was convicted of six murders and received two death sentences. Following an appeal, his sentences were commuted to life imprisonment. He died in prison when he was 49.
Over the years, some experts have expressed doubt that Toole was responsible for Adam's murder. When they announced that Toole was the killer, police did not announce any new physical evidence linking him to the crime. And Toole's car could not be tested for DNA due to the fact that police had reportedly lost the evidence. However John Walsh has said publicly many times that he believes that Toole is his son’s killer, according to NBC News.
A controversial “hidden face” in blood was a key clue
After arresting Ottis Toole in 1983, police reportedly searched his car with Luminol, a chemical agent used to identify the presence of blood. Many people, including John Walsh, reportedly believe that one of the photos taken of the floor of the car shows an “outline” of Adam’s face.
Former Miami Beach Police Detective Joe Matthews, who coauthored a book about the case entitled Bringing Adam Home: The Abduction That Changed America, also believes that the face is indeed Adam.
Others have expressed doubt. “But is it really Adam, or is it the forensic equivalent of the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich?” an article in the Broward Palm Beach New Times asked. John Walsh has repeatedly stated that he backs Matthews' claims that the crime-scene photo depicts Adam's face.
Early mistakes by the police in Hollywood, Florida, allegedly seriously hindered the case
Walsh has stated that the lack of a coordinated plan by the police in Hollywood, Florida, after his son was reported missing resulted in crucial hours being lost.
In his book Tears of Rage, Walsh wrote: "They were a tiny local police agency that had limited resources and never manned a search anywhere near this size. We did have a gut intuition that mistakes were being made. Everything seemed so chaotic and disorganized."
Over the years, Walsh claimed that police lost critical evidence, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel. This included Toole's impounded car and its blood-stained carpeting.
Police investigated — and ruled out — several other people of interest over the years in connection with Adam’s abduction and murder
Edward James, a man who had been arrested for abducting a boy in Florida, was investigated in connection with Adam’s case, according to Detective Mark Smith’s report on the abduction and murder of Adam Walsh. According to the report, James confessed to a cellmate that he had abducted and murdered Adam, and “felt confident detectives would never find blood in his car, a 1973 Plymouth Fury.”
During their investigation police learned that James had been gone from his apartment complex during two consecutive weeks in 1981, and also found out that he had a seat cover installed by an upholstery shop on August 27, 1981.
Detectives interviewed James and, according to the report, a taped statement he gave police was subjected to a computer voice stress analysis and showed no signs of deception. Based on this, and on the lack of evidence, detectives later concluded that the investigation into James’ potential involvement in the case be discontinued.
According to Detective Smith's police files, Walsh family friend James "Jimmy" Campbell was also questioned by police. But after verifying his story with two polygraph tests and hypnosis, Campbell was cleared.
Additionally, serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was also investigated in connection with Adam’s murder. Detectives concluded that, although Dahmer was staying at a hotel in Miami Beach at the time of Adam’s abduction, he relied on public transportation and did not have a car. When Dahmer was interviewed by police about the case, he stated that he had not killed Adam and was not a pedophile.
For more on the Adam Walsh case, stream Cold Blood: "The Lost Boy" on discovery+.
The tragedy of Adam’s murder has forever impacted the world of missing children and hope for their families. For more on John Walsh’s legacy, stream In Pursuit with John Walsh on Max.