Ottis Elwood Toole was one of the most loathsome criminals of the second half of the 20th century. Along with his partner and fellow serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, Toole roamed the United States aimlessly and, depending on who you believe, the deadly duo either murdered hundreds of people, or possibly fewer than a dozen. Whatever the accurate body count, there is no doubt that Toole, with and without his partner Lucas, committed acts of savagery throughout his entire life. In addition to the crimes that put him in prison forever, 12 years after his death Toole was named the killer in one of the most high-profile cold-case murders of the 20th century.
Ottis Toole’s life story was the stuff that nightmares are made of. Toole was born on March 5, 1947, and grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, in the Springfield neighborhood. Springfield was full of grand, historic houses, but the area had been in decline for many years and was filled with seedy rooming houses during Toole’s upbringing.
Toole’s father was a violent man who sexually abused him. His mother belittled him and forced him to wear girl’s clothes. In addition to his chaotic upbringing, Toole only had an IQ of 75. By his teens, Toole was working as a prostitute and setting fires to abandoned houses and structures in the Springfield area. Toole discovered that fires sexually aroused him, and he became a serial arsonist.
Toole claimed that he murdered a human being for the first time at the young age of 14. He said a traveling salesman propositioned him for sex, and he ran the man over with his car and killed him. His first arrest, the first of many, came at the age of 17 for loitering. Over the years, Toole built up an extensive rap sheet for committing petty crimes.
From the late 1960s until the mid-1970s, Toole roamed around the country, but always drifted back to Jacksonville, supporting himself through prostitution and panhandling. He was the prime suspect in murders in Nebraska and Colorado, but was never charged with any of them.
In 1976, Ottis Toole met the man who would change his life forever. Henry Lee Lucas was an ex-con and a drifter who had done time for killing his own mother in 1960. Toole and Lucas met at a soup kitchen in Jacksonville, and a despicable partnership was born. The two men became lovers and, for the next several years, roamed around the country committing crimes and murders from coast to coast.
On January 4, 1982, Toole committed a murder that would eventually put him away for life. Still a firebug, Toole set a rooming house in Jacksonville ablaze, killing a 64-year-old occupant.
In April 1983, Toole was arrested and charged with another arson in Jacksonville. While in custody, he admitted to the deadly arson he had committed the previous year. Henry Lee Lucas was arrested a few months later in June 1983 in Texas on a firearms violation. After their arrests, Toole and Lucas both began doing something they became famous for: confessing to hundreds of murders all over the United States. Authorities in different parts of the country were eager to close murder cases that had been open for years, and many of Toole’s and Lucas’ confessions were readily accepted despite little or no evidence.
The two also claimed to be members of a deadly Satanic cult called the Hand of Death. Their outrageous stories of cannibalism, cult murders, and sacrifices have never been corroborated. The likely truth is that Ottis Toole and Henry Lee Lucas were merely deadbeat criminals who committed murders alone or with each other because they enjoyed it.
One of the many unsolved killings Toole confessed to was the notorious murder of six-year-old Adam Walsh, who disappeared from a shopping mall in Hollywood, Florida, in July 1981. The young boy’s severed head was found two weeks later in a canal — his body was never recovered. Walsh’s murder captured the nation’s attention, and the boy’s father, John Walsh, became an advocate and the public face for missing and murdered children in America. Despite compelling evidence, Toole was never officially charged with Adam Walsh’s murder. As a side note, there are some who believe it wasn’t Toole, but Jeffrey Dahmer who murdered Adam Walsh.
In May 1984, Toole was found guilty and sentenced to death for the arson murder at the Jacksonville rooming house. The death sentence was later commuted to life in prison. Toole was eventually found guilty of five additional murders in Florida and was given five more life sentences. Henry Lee Lucas was ultimately convicted of 11 murders and also initially received the death penalty in Texas. Lucas’ sentence was commuted to life in prison by Governor George W. Bush in 1998.
On September 15, 1996, Ottis Elwood Toole died in prison in Florida at the age of 49 while serving his life sentence. The cause of death was cirrhosis of the liver. Toole’s partner and lover, Henry Lee Lucas, died in a Texas prison in 2001 at the age of 64.
In December 2008, authorities in Florida, along with John Walsh, announced that the murder of Adam Walsh was officially closed after 27 years. Police announced that Ottis Toole, the man who had long been a suspect and had confessed to the crime but recanted several times, had indeed abducted and murdered Adam Walsh in July 1981.
This announcement finally put the Adam Walsh case to rest, and added a grisly bookend to the tumultuous life of Ottis Toole.
For more on Ottis Toole and Adam Walsh, watch “The Lost Boy” episode of Investigation Discovery’s Cold Blood on ID GO now!
Recommended For You:
Eat Thy Neighbour: A History of Cannibalism by Daniel Diehl and Mark P. Donnelly
The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers by Michael Newton
Main photo: Ottis Toole [Jacksonville Police Department]