Adam Walsh: Looking back 40 years after the child abduction that changed America

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — When 6-year-old Adam Walsh vanished from a Florida shopping mall in 1981, no one could have known the impact the little boy would have on the way America views cases involving missing children.

Tuesday marked the 40th anniversary of Adam’s abduction and murder. It also marked the 15th anniversary of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which established a national system for the registration of sex offenders.

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The law is just one of the advances Adam’s parents have helped to build in the 40 years since their son was slain.

“The pain of losing Adam stays with us every day,” John Walsh said in a statement. “But my wife, Revé, and I have made it our life’s mission to do what we can to protect children.

“My family and I are honored that this law, named after my son, has made such a tremendous impact.”

“There’s no doubt that the Adam Walsh Act has made this country a safer place for our children,” said John Clark, the president and CEO of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

John and Revé Walsh co-founded the NCMEC, which serves as a much-needed clearinghouse for missing children cases. The nonprofit also provides law enforcement officials with a “coordinated national response” when a child is reported missing.

“NCMEC has circulated billions of photos of missing children, assisted law enforcement in the recovery of more than 348,000 missing children and facilitated training for more than 379,000 law enforcement, criminal/juvenile justice and healthcare professionals,” according to the center’s website.

Clark, who headed the U.S. Marshals Service when the Adam Walsh Act was signed into law, said Tuesday that he and his team, who had the responsibility of enforcement, were determined to make the effort a success.

“Come hell or high water, we were going to do it, and we did,” Clark said. “We enabled it. We activated it. We made it happen. We did it, and we’re still doing it.”

Watch John Walsh speak about Adam’s legacy below.

Since its implementation, the Adam Walsh Act has led marshals to conduct more than 39,000 investigations. More than 5,500 people have been arrested for violations of the registry laws.

“It’s surreal to now serve as the head of our nation’s leading child safety organization where we see the enormous impact of the act,” Clark said. “On this milestone anniversary, I hope everyone takes the time to reflect on Adam’s legacy.”

A brazen kidnapping

The way law enforcement handled missing children cases was far different on the afternoon of July 27, 1981, when Revé Walsh and her young son, who was dressed in a striped Izod shirt, green shorts and his favorite captain’s hat, went to Sears in the Hollywood Mall to check out a sale on lamps.

Adam’s attention was almost immediately captured by an Atari video game console that a group of older boys was playing with near the toy department. Adam asked if he could watch them play.

After making him promise not to budge from that spot, his mother walked just a few aisles away to look for the lamp she wanted. When she returned for him about five minutes later, Adam was gone.

What followed was a massive search that would turn into one of the largest in Florida history. The search also would serve as a springboard for John and Revé Walsh’s work to improve how missing children’s cases are handled.

In the meantime, they searched desperately for their son. The couple and their friends came up with a $100,000 reward for Adam’s safe return.

“We are willing to negotiate ransom on ANY terms. Strict confidentiality,” posters of the missing child read. “Do not fear revenge! We will not prosecute. We only want our son.”

The Walshes also used the media to their advantage at a time when cases of missing children did not typically make national headlines. They made numerous television appearances on both the local and national levels.

On Aug. 10, two weeks after Adam’s abduction, a pair of fishermen found the boy’s severed head in a drainage canal along the Florida Turnpike near Vero Beach, more than 120 miles from Hollywood.

The next morning, as the Walshes were in New York City appearing on “Good Morning America,” a family friend identified Adam’s remains from the gap where his two front baby teeth were missing. Dental records confirmed the identification.

Investigators would later learn that a teenage security guard working at Sears had kicked the older children out of the store because they began fighting over the Atari. The guard, who was 17 at the time, later said she was nearly certain Adam had been one of the children she forced to leave.

The girl told authorities she assumed Adam was with one of the older boys. Adam, who was described by his family as extremely timid and shy, didn’t speak up to correct her or tell her his mother was in the store with him.

Revé Walsh said Adam was unfamiliar with the entrance through which the boys were told to leave. Investigators believe he was abducted outside the store.

The rest of Adam’s body has never been found.

Who killed Adam?

Over the years, there have been a number of theories about who might have killed the boy. One of the most prevalent included Milwaukee serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who was reportedly living in South Florida at the time of the abduction.

Witnesses from the Hollywood Mall told authorities after Dahmer’s 1991 arrest that they’d seen a man matching his description at the mall the day Adam disappeared. Dahmer also reportedly had access to a blue van similar to one seen in the parking lot that same day in 1981.

Dahmer, who confessed in detail to killing 17 men and teenage boys, denied involvement in Adam’s murder, and authorities eventually ruled him out.

In December 2008, Hollywood police detectives announced that they were closing the investigation into Adam’s murder, satisfied that they had identified the boy’s killer — Ottis Elwood Toole, a drifter and companion of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas.

Toole, who died in prison in 1996, confessed to Adam’s murder in October 1983 as he sat in jail in connection with two other homicides. The unemployed Jacksonville roofer, a braggart who claimed he and Lucas were responsible for hundreds of murders, was ultimately convicted of six killings.

According to his confession, Toole abducted Adam outside the Sears store and drove off with him. He told police that he punched Adam multiple times in the face, knocking him unconscious after the boy began to cry for his mom.

Dr. Ronald Wright, who conducted the autopsy on Adam’s remains, found that he’d received blows to the face around his eyes and had a fractured nose.

Toole alleged that he pulled off the Florida Turnpike in a rural area and used a machete to decapitate Adam, whose body he said he then buried. He claimed he drove around for a few days with the child’s head on the rear floorboard of his car before throwing it into a canal.

A machete was found in Toole’s white 1971 Cadillac after his arrest, according to police reports obtained in 2018 by Local 10 News in Pembroke Park.

The confessed killer led police to an area southwest of Vero Beach where he claimed he’d buried Adam’s body, but searchers found no sign of the remains.

Over the next several years, Toole repeatedly confessed, and then recanted his confession, only to confess again. He also changed his story multiple times, at one point claiming that Lucas was with him during the abduction and that it was Lucas who used a bayonet to decapitate Adam.

Further investigation proved that Lucas could not have been involved because he was in prison at the time of Adam’s murder.

Mark Smith, a Hollywood police detective assigned to revisit the Walsh case in 1994, told Local 10 News that despite the inconsistencies and reversals in Toole’s claims, the drifter gave investigators details that only the killer should have known.

“The fact that his severed head was found 124 miles north on the Florida Turnpike, which would add credence to someone from Jacksonville being involved, kind of fit,” Smith said. “It’s not like it was found in the Everglades. It was someone that went north after abducting him. It fits Ottis Toole.”

Hollywood detectives were never able to confirm Toole’s involvement through physical evidence, however, because when they attempted to do so, they found that Toole’s Cadillac, along with bloodstained carpet removed from the car, had been lost.

Toole died before authorities could make any further headway in the case.

In 2008, despite a lack of new evidence in the case, then-Hollywood police Chief Chad Wagner announced that Toole was Adam’s killer.

“If you’re looking for that magic wand, that one piece of evidence, it’s not there,” Wagner said at the time.

The chief said he was satisfied that Toole could have been tried and convicted of the murder.

“For years, we took a defensive posture against (Toole)” as the real suspect, Wagner said, according to an Associated Press story. “This is three decades of investigators. In three decades, Ottis Toole has been the (only real) suspect.”

John and Revé Walsh said they, too, were satisfied that Toole was their son’s killer. Revé Walsh said after the announcement that Wagner’s words “penetrated (her) soul.”

“The not knowing has been a torture. That journey’s over,” John Walsh said. “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.”

A boy’s legacy

The Walshes became activists almost immediately after Adam vanished. Adam’s disappearance, which came two years after the high-profile disappearance of Etan Patz, also 6, in New York City, showed his parents just how haphazard the search for missing children could be in the 1980s.

At the time that Adam disappeared, the FBI did not routinely get involved in child abduction cases. Local police were reportedly hesitant to begin a full-scale search for Adam because they theorized that the 6-year-old might have run away.

According to Time, many police departments had waiting periods before they would even begin searching for a missing child.

In addition, departments that had missing children in their jurisdictions typically did not share information with one another, making it more difficult to find children taken out of the area.

The brutal lessons they learned during the search for Adam led his parents to establish the Adam Walsh Outreach Center for Missing Children in Florida. They founded the center just four days after Adam’s funeral.

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The couple also lobbied for the federal Missing Children’s Act, which was enacted in 1982 to require that data about missing children be entered into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database.

In 1984, the Walshes expanded the Adam Walsh Outreach Center into the national organization that became the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

“Adam’s legacy is part of the fabric of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, with many life-saving programs named in his honor,” a post on the NCMEC website stated Tuesday. “Team Adam deploys on cases of critically missing children to aid in the search. Code Adam helps employees of retail stores locate a missing child by immediately implementing a set of search protocols before the child is taken out of the store.

“The ADAM Program quickly disseminates posters of missing children in the location they’re believed to be. And the list goes on and on.”

John and Revé Walsh went on to have three more children, Meghan, Callahan and Hayden Walsh. Callahan Walsh, 36, works as a child advocate at the NCMEC. Prior to that, he worked as a supervising producer on “America’s Most Wanted,” the crime-fighting television series for which John Walsh is best known.

The original show, which launched in 1988 and ran for 25 seasons, helped police capture more than 1,200 fugitives, including 17 from the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List. A reboot hosted by Elizabeth Vargas ended its first season in April.

John Walsh now hosts “In Pursuit with John Walsh” on Investigation Discovery. Callahan Walsh co-hosts the show, and the television network announced in February that the younger Walsh would host an offshoot of the show called “In Pursuit: The Missing.”

Callahan Walsh spoke to Fox News earlier this year about following in his parents’ footsteps.

“I grew up in a family that celebrated Adam’s life,” Walsh said. “I knew his favorite sports and movies. We celebrated his birthday. But at the same time, I watched my parents channel their anger over what happened to Adam to make sure that Adam didn’t die in vain.

“I grew up with my parents saying that if Adam’s song is to continue, then we must do the singing. And I’m trying to do that every day as a child advocate. I want to help get families the justice they deserve.”