HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — The heinous murder of a 6-year-old boy that shook the nation 27 years ago has been solved, Hollywood, Fla., police announced Tuesday.
Adam Walsh's abduction from a Sears store in Hollywood and his murder have been largely a mystery. But at an emotional news conference with Adam's parents, Reve and John Walsh, and their three children, Hollywood police Chief Chadwick E. Wagner said investigators are confident that drifter Ottis Toole killed the boy, whose head was found two weeks after his July 27, 1981, disappearance.
Wagner said there is no new evidence in the case. Still, he said a meticulous review of the record and talks with the investigators determined that pedophile and serial killer Toole murdered Adam. Toole twice confessed to the slaying, but recanted before dying in prison in 1996.
The chief, a department veteran who has been in his current position about a year, acknowledged that shoddy police work, lax procedures and lower standards of the time contributed to the failure to charge Toole.
The announcement brought to a close a case that has vexed the Walsh family for more than two decades, launched father John's America's Most Wanted television show about the nation's most notorious criminals and inspired changes in how authorities search for missing children.
The Walshes long ago derided the investigation as botched. Still, John Walsh praised the Hollywood Police Department for closing the case.
"The not knowing has been a torture. That journey's over. A lot of horrible memories, in this Police Department looking for that little boy. Now I think it's only fitting that it ends here, in this Police Department," John Walsh said.
"In our 27 years, doing what we do, we have educated law enforcement," Reve Walsh said. "I think they are more sensitive to the needs of missing children and their families. It's a great day for children, it's a great day for my family, it's a great day for me."
Toole, who confessed to dozens of killings over the years, was a longtime companion of another serial killer, Henry Lee Lucas. Police determined that most of the confessions were lies. Toole's niece told John Walsh that her uncle confessed on his deathbed in prison that he killed Adam.
Many names have been mentioned in connection with the case in the years since the killing, including serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, but Toole's has persistently nagged detectives. Toole died in prison of cirrhosis in 1996 at the age of 49. He was serving five life sentences for murders unrelated to Adam's death.
The case has remained in the national spotlight since Adam disappeared on July 27, 1981.
Reve Walsh left her Hollywood home with Adam that morning to run some errands.
They arrived about noon at a Sears and the mother left Adam at a video game while she walked to the lamp department. When she returned about five minutes later, her son was gone.
A teenage security guard would later report she had thrown Adam out of the store along with several other children who were bickering.
Then on Aug. 10, two fishermen found Adam's head in a canal near Vero Beach, 120 miles away.
The abduction and murder set off an epic manhunt. The case netted hundreds of leads and dozens of suspects, but not one arrest.
In October 1983, Toole told police he abducted Adam and drove a white Cadillac to an isolated dirt road and decapitated the boy.
Details in the story changed, but Toole would lead police to the Hollywood Mall and correctly identify the spot where Adam had been ejected from the store. He also took police to a dirt access road near mile marker 126 on the turnpike, where he said he had buried the body, and to a canal near mile marker 130, where he correctly pointed out the place Adam's head was discovered.
Police, however, could not find Adam's body where Toole said he left it, and there were allegations his confession was tainted by a Jacksonville detective seeking a book deal.
Investigators lifted bloodstained carpet from Toole's car. But without the DNA testing available today, there was no telling if the blood was Adam's.
And when Sgt. Mark Smith, a Hollywood police detective assigned to the case in 1994, wanted to order DNA testing on the bloodstained carpet from Toole's car, the evidence had vanished. Toole's car, too, was gone.
For all that went wrong in the investigation, the case contributed to massive advances in police searches for missing youngsters and a notable shift in the view parents and children hold of the world.
Adam's death, and his father's activism on his behalf, helped put faces on milk cartons, shopping bags and mailbox fliers, started fingerprinting programs and increased security at schools and stores. It spurred the creation of missing persons units at every large police department.
"In 1981, when a child disappeared, you couldn't enter information about a child into the FBI database. You could enter information about stolen cars, stolen guns but not stolen children," said Ernie Allen, president of the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, co-founded by John Walsh. "Those things have all changed."
The case also helped create a national database and toll-free line devoted to missing children.
What it also did, said Mount Holyoke College sociologist and criminologist Richard Moran, is make children and adults alike exponentially more afraid.
"He ended up really producing a generation of cautious and afraid kids who view all adults and strangers as a threat to them, and it made parents extremely paranoid about the safety of their children," Moran said.