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