Crime History: 6-Year-Old Adam Walsh Disappeared 36 Years Ago Today

Adam Walsh [Wikimedia Commons/Fair Use]

Thirty-six years ago today, on July 27, 1981, six-year-old Adam Walsh disappeared and left a mark on the world that continues to this day. Back then, there was no such thing as an Amber Alert; this was even before pictures of missing children began appearing on milk cartons. Adam Walsh’s tragic and still unsolved disappearance and murder changed all that.

Related: Johnny Gosch: The Original “Milk Carton Boy” Is 47 And Still Missing

On that long-ago day, Adam’s mom had left him to play in the toy section of a Sears store in Hollywood, Florida, while she shopped. When she came back to get him, he was nowhere to be found. His mother and grandmother searched every inch of the shopping center to no avail, their panic growing by the minute. The police arrived two hours after Adam disappeared, and Adam’s father, John Walsh, worked with them to try to find his son. No sign of the little boy was found for over two weeks, when, on August 10, 1981, fishermen found Adam’s severed head in a Vero Beach canal 120 miles away. The rest of Adam’s remains have never been found.

John and Reve Walsh reportedly had an uneasy relationship with the police during the investigation of their son’s death. According to numerous reports, the Walshes believed that the Hollywood Police Department botched parts of the investigation. The police weren’t exactly denying it, either, as they even apologized to the family after they finally realized that they had sufficient evidence to close the case. They had long suspected that Ottis E. Toole, a drifter who became a convicted serial killer, was the likely murderer.

Ottis Toole

Ottis Toole [Jacksonville Police Department]

Related: Henry Lee Lucas: 5 Horrifying & Bizarre Facts About The Sicko Serial Killer

Toole had actually admitted to killing Adam approximately 24 times, but later recanted. There are reports that Toole even wrote a letter to the Walsh family in 1988, telling them that, for $5,000, he’d tell them the location Adam’s body. However, police could not find evidence to support Toole’s confession. When police tested bloodstained carpet from Toole’s white Cadillac, the more primitive DNA testing process of the time could not link that blood to Adam. There was an attempt to re-test the carpet in 1994, but when a detective went to get the carpet to obtain a sample, he discovered that both the carpet and the car had been lost and were no longer in police evidence.

However, Toole had always remained high up on the list of potential suspects, alongside Jeffrey Dahmer. When retired detective Joe Matthews went back to look at the cold case, he discovered more evidence that police appeared to have ignored during the initial investigation. The biggest discovery was a roll of film containing pictures of the crime scene, including Toole’s car, that had never even been developed. On that roll of film were pictures of blood in Toole’s car, even a bloody face print in the back of the car where Toole had claimed to have thrown Adam’s severed head. Unfortunately, Toole never stood trial for Adam’s death. He died in prison on September 15, 1996, in the midst of serving five unrelated life sentences. In December 2008, police finally declared they were closing the case, stating that Adam Walsh had been killed by Toole.

There are some who still disagree with the police’s conclusion that Toole killed Walsh. One prominent alternative theory from author Willis Morgan points the finger at Jeffrey Dahmer, who was reportedly at the Hollywood Mall around the same time as Adam Walsh on the day he was kidnapped. You can read more on Morgan’s theory here.

Related: Jeffrey Dahmer Was Arrested 25 Years Ago Today

As a result of Adam’s disappearance and murder, John Walsh became one of the preeminent activists for missing children. He became a regular presence in homes across the country as the host of “America’s Most Wanted” from 1988–2011. The Walsh family began the Adam Walsh Outreach Center for Missing Children in their home state of Florida in 1981, and it was folded into the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 1990. Thanks to the Walsh family’s lobbying, the Missing Children’s Act was passed in 1982. That legislation created a national computer database at the FBI containing information on missing children. The Walsh family’s efforts have, all told, led to the capture of over 1,000 criminals.

Watch every episode of Investigation Discovery’s Disappeared online now, on ID GO!.

Read more:

The New York Times

ABC News

Miami Herald

Florida Times-Union

NBC News

Frustrated Witness

Main photo: Adam Walsh [Wikimedia Commons/Fair Use]

  • Not Scorsese

    He would have been my age. Damn…

  • Kristina Dummermuth

    I am so SORRY for your loss.. As a mother of two, I would simply die if something happened to my kids… GOD BLESS YOU BOTH!!!!

  • Rosalind Meedendorp

    It’s amazing how far forensics have come in 40 years . We can tell a lot now just by a drop of blood or seamen .

    • Martha Bartha

      Release the Sea Men!

  • Joann

    May God be with you all. The walsh family had been a big inspiration to me and my kids. Cause of you we keep our eye out for lost kids to make sure they find there parents. It’s so heart breaking just the thought it can be any of us parents, going through what the walsh family has gone through with Adam. May he rest in paradise.

  • Pingback: Adam Walsh the missing child case that changed America - Crimes Lab()

  • Martha Bartha

    Then John Walsh found out his wife was having an affair!

    • Keykey

      Your just an internet troll why don’t you grow up what does an affair have to do with their sons murder nothing then your gonna say release the sea men how immature people like you don’t need to be on social media

    • SillyGoose

      Yes, and it was that affair that lead to the botched investigation. The original detective would not let go of his theory that the man in the affair kidnapped Adam.

      • Martha Bartha

        Well, they had to explore all options! They were never really sure who did it.😱

        • SillyGoose

          There’s no problem with exploring all options. That is not what happened here. The original detective explored one to the exclusion of any others. He let his gut get in the way of evidence to the contrary and that is why this case was not solved and the murderer not brought to justice.

          • Martha Bartha

            Yeah, I sorta remember hearing that.😱

  • Maria Silva

    Why would she leave alone her son I just don’t understand that she probably bless herself for doing that

    • SillyGoose

      This was common practice back then. You don’t leave you kids alone in the toy section today because John and Reve Walsh taught you not to.

      • Yeah, a common practice for idiots. You got these parents thinking just because they leave their kids in an area where there are a ton of people they are going to be safe, and that simply ain’t the case. You keep your children with you at all times, this is a dangerous world in which we live. There are crazed people out there that don’t mind killing adults as it is, so they’d obviously see children as a more easy target. Imagine cutting off someone’s head? Someone who didnt do anything, but be in the wrong place at the wrong time.