Adam Walsh's Killer Named After 27 Years

Adam's death led to advocacy efforts for missing children

John Walsh Jr. At National Governors Meeting
Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

The killer of 6-year-old Adam Walsh, whose 1981 death launched nationwide advocacy efforts for missing children and other crime victims, was finally named 27 years later. Police say Adam was killed by Ottis Elwood Toole, who confessed to the crime but later recanted.

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

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

Adam's Murder

Adam was abducted from a mall in Hollywood, Florida, 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 at a Sears department store in Hollywood. 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 the spot where she had left Adam, but he and the other boys were gone. A manager told her 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 they responded 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. According to the autopsy, the cause of death was asphyxiation.

Investigation

At the beginning of the investigation, Adam's father was a prime suspect, though Walsh was soon cleared. Years later investigators pointed the finger at Toole, who was at the Sears store the day Adam was abducted. Toole had been told to leave the store and was later seen outside the front entrance.

Police believe that Toole convinced Adam to get into his car with promises of toys and candy. He then drove from the store and when Adam got 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 a seat belt, and then cut off his head with a machete.

Deathbed Confession

Toole was a convicted serial killer, but he confessed to many murders that he had nothing to do with, according to investigators. In October 1983, Toole confessed to murdering 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 his niece told Walsh that on Sept. 15, 1996, from his deathbed, Toole admitted to kidnapping and murdering 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. For us it ends here," said a tearful Walsh at a 2008 news conference after police announced they were satisfied Toole was the murderer and closed the case.

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

Over the years, several suspects were identified in Adam's case. At one time, there was speculation that serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer might have been involved in Adam's disappearance. But Dahmer and 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 that the agency would not become involved in such cases unless proof could be provided that a 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.