“People think they know about the Adam Walsh case," Les Standiford says.
Many of us remember the story, the photos of the sunny little 6-year-old who disappeared from a suburban Sears in Hollywood, Fla., in 1981 while his mother shopped, and the grisly discovery of his severed head in a canal a couple of weeks later.
And most of us are aware that Adam's father, John Walsh, has become a celebrity crusader for the victims of crimes, as producer and host of Fox TV's America's Most Wanted and as a force, with his wife, Revé, behind the passage of several federal laws to protect children.
But few of us know the almost unbelievable story of how Adam's kidnapping and murder were investigated, or how, despite the case's high profile, a long trail of bungles, turf wars and inexplicable lapses left it unsolved for 27 years.
"If we made this up, people would say, "Bulls---, couldn't happen,' " Detective Sgt. Joe Matthews says.
Matthews, a retired Miami Beach Police Department homicide investigator, and Standiford, director of the creative writing program at Florida International University and author of 20 books, have collaborated to write Bringing Adam Home: The Abduction That Changed America. It's a riveting, harrowing, tautly suspenseful book that reads like a crime novel (Standiford has written eight of them) but is all the more chilling for being fact, not fiction.
It will also cure any reader of the notion that criminal investigations in the real world are like the ones on television, where the police ask all the right questions and tie the case up with a bow on it in an hour, minus time for commercials.
Instead, there is Ottis Toole, the career criminal and serial killer who confessed to Adam's murder no fewer than 25 times — confessions replete with details never released by investigators — and yet was never charged with the crime. And there is horrifying physical evidence that he killed Adam — evidence that sat in a Tallahassee crime lab for 25 years, never even looked at by investigators.
It's no wonder that Standiford calls it "a story that had to be told." And, he says, "The Walshes put their trust in the police for a long time. That's the saddest thing of all."
Multiple agencies investigated Adam's case, but it was primarily handled by the Hollywood Police Department, whose headquarters was in sight of where he was kidnapped. Matthews, then a polygraph specialist and homicide investigator for the Miami Beach police, was called in to consult on the case as early as four days after Adam vanished, and was on and off it several times over the years, always clashing with the less experienced lead investigator on the case, Detective Jack Hoffman (to whom Toole confessed several times). Matthews tried over and over to interview Toole, who after 1984 was in Florida prisons after being convicted of other murders, but was always stymied by the Hollywood PD.
Along the way, Matthews became friendly with the Walshes, and after he retired, he worked as an investigator for America's Most Wanted. In February 2006, the Walshes met with Matthews to ask him to conduct a thorough investigation. "Revé said to me, 'John has always protected me from the worst things, and I appreciate that. But I want to know everything. I have to know the true story.' I was honored to take the case."
After finally securing the cooperation of a new chief of police in Hollywood, Matthews obtained, for the first time, the entire case file. "I had about 10,000 pages, and not in a computer. I'm computer illiterate," Matthews says. He set about methodically cataloging interviews and evidence and putting everything in chronological order.
According to the files, Standiford says, "No law enforcement official ever conducted a formal investigative interview or polygraph examination of Toole. Everything was treated as a statement, with the detective acting as a stenographer, and no substantive questions being asked" — a fact that still leaves Matthews, a master interrogator, astonished.
Among his most stunning discoveries were what was missing from the files: interviews with obviously important witnesses as well as physical evidence collected from the car Toole drove at the time of Adam's death. Matthews conducted his own interviews and tracked down that missing evidence — with astounding results. "I did not commit to Ottis Toole until I completed the entire investigation," Matthews says. But what he found convinced him Toole was guilty.
The case was officially closed in 2008 by the Hollywood police and the Broward County State Attorney's Office, on the basis of the 400-page report Matthews compiled: The evidence that Ottis Toole killed Adam Walsh was strong enough to take Toole to trial.
Or would have been, if he hadn't died in prison in 1996.
Revé Walsh told Matthews, "This can never happen again, these mistakes." So he decided to try to publish his investigation in textbook form, so students could learn from it. But a textbook editor told him he would do him a favor and not publish it. "He said, find an author I can trust and work with him."
Matthews connected with Standiford through lawyer Joseph Kaplan, who had worked with the Police Benevolent Association "when cops got in trouble — not that I ever got in trouble," Matthews says. Kaplan's son Mitchell Kaplan is the owner of the Books & Books chain in the Miami area and knows many authors, and he immediately thought of Standiford.
"I was on my way to get on a plane, on tour for my last book, The Man Who Invented Christmas," Standiford says. "Mitch calls me and says, 'I've got your next book.' "
Standiford and Matthews met for coffee "next to I-95." Standiford read Matthews' report during his trip and, he says, "I knew right then and there."
Switching from a book about Charles Dickens and Christmas to one about a gruesome crime didn't bother Standiford. "I was a crime writer, then I wrote these historical narratives. I thought, here's a marriage of the two."
Standiford says, "The core of the book is Joe's notes. I just felt it was necessary to create a kind of context around them."
He began the project, Standiford says, thinking he was writing the story of a crime. "But it turned out to be a social document. The Adam Walsh case changed the way the world operates. It was a real loss of innocence."
The world before Adam disappeared was a world with no missing kids on milk cartons, no national database of missing children, no Amber Alerts, no DNA Lifeprints, the organization Matthews founded to let parents gather their children's DNA, fingerprints and other identifying material, in case the worst happens.
"When I was a kid," Standiford says, "I'd just say, 'I'm going out, be home by dark.' And my family would say, 'Okay!' "
"Now they would probably be charged with child abuse."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435.