May 16, 2011 marks the day Fox Television announced the cancellation of the highly successful crime program America’s Most Wanted. It has the distinction of being the longest-running show on Fox. John Walsh, its famous host, helped to establish the program after surviving the abduction, rape and murder of his 8-year-old son Adam Walsh. The capture and incarceration of criminals, along with victim rights support for surviving family members, defined the rest of Walsh’s life.
July 27 1981
Adam John Walsh was born in 1974 and died in 1981 at the age of 7. It was a particularly brutal sexual murder of a child and it became national news. Little Walsh was abducted on July 27, 1981 from a Sears department store in the Hollywood Mall, Hollywood, Florida. Reve, Adam’s mother, took her son shopping at the mall into the department store. While she browsed in an aisle to check out lamps, her son wandered into to a kiosk with Atari 2600 video games. Atari was a bid deal in 1981. It was the Wii of its day.
Several older boys were taking turns playing games. Reve returned to find that Adam and the other boys had disappeared. A store manager informed her that a scuffle had broken out over whose turn it was at the kiosk, resulting in a security guard attending the scene. After asking the older children if their parents were in the store, they answered no and the security guard ordered them to leave. Walsh was sent away with them. Reve and John later told authorities they believed their shy son was too intimidated to speak up and tell the security guard that his mother was in the store. He was herded outside with the other boys. He was then left alone near an exit that was unfamiliar to him. Having no idea how to re-enter the store, little Walsh was left alone and unprotected. It was the perfect moment for a predator to strike.
Minutes after she realized her son was missing, Reve reported him as missing to mall authorities who called police. A massive manhunt began for Walsh. John and Reve waited in agony, hoping vainly that their little son was alive and well. But as the hours went by into night-time, they knew something was terribly wrong. Two weeks later, on August 10, 1981, two fishermen were fishing on Abacoa Florida Canal when they noticed a strange object near the shore they mistook for a doll’s head. The object turned out to be Walsh’s head. The fishermen had found Walsh’s only decapitated remains. His body was never recovered.
The coroner had a particularly unpleasant autopsy to conduct. Not only was the victim a child, but the victim’s head was all that remained. The once-tanned skin was chalk-white. The hair was tangled and matted. John Walsh was contacted to identify the remains. Unable to recognize his son’s face, he asked if the mouth could be opened. It was and Walsh saw a familiar sight: a new tooth emerging between a gap in his bottom teeth. It was his son. Walsh stated that for years he was haunted by the image of his late son’s face, sometimes wearing his red baseball cap.
Based on the damage to the head and what remained of Walsh’s neck, the coroner ruled that the cause of his death was asphyxiation and that the decapitation had occurred later, perhaps to render his remains unidentifiable or the cause of his death indeterminable. As if the decapitation wasn’t bad enough, asphyxiation is a dreadful death. It takes 90 seconds for a human being to suffocate. Hopefully little Walsh was unconscious long before then.
During what was undoubtedly already the most difficult time of his life, Adam’s father John Walsh was a prime suspect as the police investigation started to become exhausted. After about a week, he was absolved of any foul play following a highly emotional press statement that was televised nationally. Police finally concluded that Walsh was abducted by a drifter named Ottis Toole near the front exterior of the Sears that afternoon, after being instructed to leave by a security guard. Toole was a 34-year-old man with a gruesome criminal history. He once partnered with Henry Lee Lucas, another vicious rapist and murderer. Toole was convicted of 6 counts of murder upon his arrest and trial in 1983, two years after he killed Adam Walsh. The photograph above is that of Henry Lee Lucas’ first murder victim when he was a teenager.
Ottis Toole was born March 5, 1947 to an abusive mother in Jacksonville, Florida. Toole claimed she would dress him in girls’ clothing and call him Susan. His father was an alcoholic who abandoned him. In the documentary Death Diploma, Toole claimed he was forced to have sex with a friend of his father’s when he was five years old. Toole claimed that as a young child, he was a victim of sexual assault and incest at the hands of many close relatives and acquaintances, including his older sister and next door neighbor. He claimed that his maternal grandmother was a Satanist, who exposed him to various Satanic practices and rituals in his youth, including self-mutilation, and dubbed him “Devil’s Child”
Toole was considered to be mildly mentally retarded, with an I.Q. of 75. He suffered from epilepsy, which resulted in frequent grand mal seizures. Throughout his childhood, he ran away from home often and slept in abandoned houses. He was a serial arsonist from a young age and was sexually aroused by fire. After he was arrested and interviewed in 1984 by Texas Ranger magazine, Toole stated, “you done kill one [person] and you get killing and killing and it gets easier and easier and it don’t really bother you.” It was this twisted individual who abducted Adam Walsh on that tragic day in July 1981.
He lured Adam into his Cadillac with a damaged right bumper with promises of toys and candy, then drove north on Interstate 95 toward his home in Jacksonville. Walsh, at first docile and compliant, began to panic. Toole punched him in the face, but as this just made the situation worse, he then “walloped him unconscious“. While Walsh was knocked out, Toole drove to a deserted service road at Mile Marker 130 near Abacoa, Florida, and raped him for two hours. We can only pray the child was unconscious the entire time. When he realized his victim was still breathing, he strangled Walsh to death with a seat-belt, dragged him out of the car, and decapitated him with a machete. Toole later claimed to have disposed of the body by incinerating it in an old refrigerator. He drove around with Walsh’s severed head in his car for a few days until remembering it was in there, and then threw it into the canal, north of where he killed Walsh. He claimed that he wanted to adopt Walsh but given the close relationship Walsh had with loving parents, this couldn’t happen.
The police investigation of the child’s abduction was bungled from the beginning. They lost the bloodstained carpet from Toole’s Cadillac, the machete used to decapitate the boy, and eventually, the car itself. DNA testing was in a rudimentary state in the early 1980s and it was not possible then to determine the source of the blood found in the Cadillac.
Toole confessed 24 times to killing Adam Walsh and then recanted. As a result, he was not charged in the Walsh case, even though he provided accurate descriptions as to how he committed the crime. Several witnesses also place him in the Hollywood area in the days leading up to the murder. In September 1996, he died in prison, aged 49, of cirrhosis while serving a life sentence for other crimes. Afterwards, his niece told John Walsh that her uncle made a deathbed confession to the murder of Walsh’s murder. His confession was viewed as reliable, since he and Lucas confessed to, or implicated themselves in more than 200 different homicides, most of which they accurately described with details only the culprit would know.
In 1997, Hollywood Police Chief Rick Stone conducted an exhaustive review of the Adam Walsh case after the release of John Walsh’s book. At the time, Stone was a 22-year veteran of the Dallas, Texas, and Wichita, Kansas, police departments and had been appointed Hollywood’s chief of police in the previous year. Although the crime was decades old at the time of Chief Stone’s review, he analyzed the evidence, including reviewing taped interrogations of Toole by Hollywood Police Detective Mark Smith. Stone says his review found evidence to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Toole murdered Walsh.
In 1991, Dahmer was arrested for the numerous gruesome deaths he committed over several years. At the time of Walsh’s murder he lived in Miami, Florida. In 2003, eyewitnesses claimed to have seen Dahmer at the same shopping mall as Adam Walsh on the day he was abducted. Dahmer became a suspect in Walsh’s death but he continually denied killing the child.
America’s Most Wanted
After his nightmarish experience with the criminal justice system and his search for his son’s killer, John Walsh became an advocate for victim’s rights. He was approached by Fox Television Network to host a new program they were planning, America’s Most Wanted. Walsh agreed. Not long afterward he penned his son’s murder in Tears of Rage, wherein he related the infuriating experience he suffered at the hands of police and the District Attorney’s office while searching for his son’s killer.
In the early aftermath of their son’s death, the Walsh’s founded the Adam Walsh Child Resource Centre out of their garage. In 1982, Walsh helped to pass the “Missing Child Act” and on May 12 Ronald Regan met with John Walsh and signed it into law. On October 12, 1984, Regan signed the “Missing Children’s Assistance Act.” It mandated the Department of Justice to provide a toll-free phone number to receive information about missing children.
In 1994, Wal-Mart founded Code Adam, named after Adam Wash. It is a safety program for missing children. Along with the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children. Wal-Mart worked with NCMEC to train other companies in areas such as amusement parks, shopping malls, museums, parks and hospitals, to work with the program.
In June 1988, Brampton, Ontario, Canada a little 11-year-old boy named Christopher Stephenson was abducted from the mall Shoppers World and was repeatedly raped and murdered by Joseph Fredericks, a lifelong convicted psychopathic child molester, who had been inexplicably released from prison after being incarcerated for several monstrous sexual assaults against children. On two separate occasions Fredericks was paroled. He abducted and raped children each time before he met and murdered Stephenson. The Ontario government enacted Christopher’s Law, a sex offender’s registry and the Federal government enacted a national sex offender’s registry. Christopher would have been 38 today.
In James Bulger, 2, was abducted by two ten-year-old boys, John Venables and Robert Thompson from New Strand Shopping Centre in Bootle, England. He was tortured to death and his mutilated body was found Walton, Liverpool, two days later.
Social scientists maintain that child abduction is out of proportion to its incidence, stating that long-standing urban legends existed before the Adam Walsh case. And the Christopher Stephenson case. And the James Bulger case. Personally I believe the fear of child abduction cannot ever be out of proportion to its incidence. Even one child’s abduction and murder is too many. Stay alert. Stay close.
During his 1984 interview with Texas Ranger, Toole stated, “well I kind of feel bad about that Adam Walsh kid. That’s the youngest child I killed. He was only 6 years old”
Adam Walsh would have been 41 today.