Adam Walsh's Killer Named After 27 Years

Adam Walsh
Family Photo

The killer of a 6-year-old boy, whose death launched nationwide advocacy efforts for missing children and many other crime victims, was finally named 27 years later. Police say Adam Walsh was killed by Ottis Elwood Toole, who once confessed to the crime, but then later recanted.

Toole, who confessed to dozens of murders, died in prison in 1996.

Adam is the son of John Walsh, who turned the personal tragedy in his life to a tireless effort to help missing children and victims of crime. He co-founded the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and started the still popular television show "America's Most Wanted" in 1988.

Murder of Adam Walsh

Adam Walsh was abducted from a mall in Hollywood on July 27, 1981. His severed head was found two weeks later in Vero Beach, 120 miles north of the mall. His body was never found.

According to Adam's mother, Reve Walsh, on the day that Adam disappeared, they were together at a Sears department store in Hollywood, Florida. She said that while he played the Atari video game with several other boys at a kiosk, she went to look at lamps a few aisles over. 

After a short time, she returned to where she had left Adam, but he and the other boys were gone. A manager told Reve that the boys had argued over whose turn it was to play the game. A security guard broke up the fight and asked them if their parents were at the store. When he was told no, he told all the boys, including Adam, to leave the store.

Fourteen days later, fishermen found Adam's head in a canal in Vero Beach, Florida. The child's body was never found. According to the autopsy, the cause of death was asphyxiation.

The Investigation

A the beginning of the investigation, Adam's father John Walsh was a prime suspect. However, Walsh was soon cleared.

Years later investigators pointed the finger at Ottis Toole who was at the Sears store on the same day that Adam was abducted. Toole had been told to leave the store. He was later seen outside of the front entrance of the store.

Police believe that Toole convinced Adam to get into his car with the promise of toys and candy. He then drove away from the store and when Adam began to get upset he punched him in the face. Toole drove to a deserted road where he raped Adam for two hours, strangled him to death with the seatbelt of the car, then cut off Adam's head using a machete.

Death-Bed Confession

Toole was a convicted serial killer, but he also confessed to many murders that he had nothing to do with, according to investigators. In October 1983, Toole confessed to the murder of Adam, telling police he grabbed the boy at the mall and drove about an hour north before decapitating him. 

Toole later recanted his confession, but a niece of his told John Walsh that on Sept. 15, 1996, from his death bed Toole admitted to the kidnapping and murder of Adam.

"For years we have asked the question, who could take a 6-year-old boy and decapitate him. We had to know. Not knowing has been a torture, but that journey is over," a tearful John Walsh said at a news conference today. "For us it ends here."

Walsh has long believed that Ottis Toole was the killer of his son, but evidence gathered by police at the time—carpet from Toole's car and the car itself—was lost by the time DNA technology was developed that could have linked the carpet stains to Adam Walsh.

Over the years, there have been several suspects in the Adam Walsh case. At one time, there was speculation that serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer may have been involved in Adam's disappearance. But the other suspects were eliminated by investigators over the years.

Missing Children's Act

When John and Reve Walsh turned to the FBI for help, they discovered the agency would not become involved in such cases unless proof could be provided that an actual kidnapping had taken place. As a result, Walsh and others lobbied Congress to pass the Missing Children's Act of 1982 which allowed police to become involved in missing children cases more quickly and created a national database of information about missing children.