Anna normally brings the lighter side to True Crime 101s. Not this time. She tells us about the murder of Adam Walsh and how it changed what happens when a child goes missing across America.
On the 27 July 1981, six year old Adam and his mother, Revé Walsh, went to the Hollywood Mall in Hollywood, Florida and entered through the north entrance. Adam was left in Sears watching some older boys play Atari games as she went over to the lighting department to look for a lamp. Revé finished her shopping and returned to where she had left Adam but discovered that he had disappeared, along with the other two boys. The store manager described how an argument had broken out between the boys as to whose turn it was next to play the video game and a security guard asked them to leave. It was suspected later by Adam’s parents that he was too shy to say that he was not with the other boys and so left the store via the east entrance.
It was believed that Adam was left outside the store alone. Revé had her son paged over the intercom system with no response. As she frantically searches the department store, looking for her son, she bumps into Adam’s paternal grandmother, Jean completely by chance. The pair continue to search for Adam but after 90 minutes, and no sign of Adam, they call the police.
Whilst the disappearance was taken seriously by law enforcement, at the time, in 1981, the standard time to wait before searching for a missing child was 72 hours. After four days, Adam’s parents, John and Revé, appeared on Good Morning America to appeal to the public. The FBI also become involved at this stage.
On the 10 August 1981, Adam’s severed head was discovered by two fishermen in a canal, 120 miles away from his disappearance. His body, sadly, has never been found. Despite the limited amount of remains, the coroner concluded that Adam died from asphyxiation and that the decapitation had occurred after he had passed away. The coroner further concluded that Adam had likely died not long after his disappearance.
Early in the investigations, witnesses claim that they saw a tall man follow Adam out of the store and pull him into a blue van but this was later discredited. Adam’s parents, John and Revé, were given polygraph tests and passed. John had an alibi for his whereabouts at the time of the disappearance and both parents were cleared as suspects. Another suspect was a family friend who had had a secret affair with Revé and the police believed that killing Adam could have been by way of revenge – but he also passed a polygraph test and was clear. A further suspect was unearthed when a man in prison reported that his cellmate had confessed to the murder going so far as to say that Adam had tried to extort money from him. However, despite this suspect reupholstering his car and a neighbour claiming he was not home at the time of Adam’s disappearance, the suspect’s employer gave him an alibi and he also passed a polygraph test.
Two years later, on 21 October 1983, police announced that they had caught the killer. The murder was attributed to serial killer Ottis Toole who had confessed to killing the young boy from the mall where he had driven him away for an hour to an isolate dirt road and had his murder-partner, Henry Lee Lucas, decapitate him with a bayonet.
Witnesses claim that they had seen Toole’s car, a white cadillac, around the mall at the time of the disappearance. Two recall seeing Adam in this car, with one witness undergoing hypnosis to remember the damage on the car that had not been public knowledge. Toole had also been active in that area during that time.
With Toole’s confession, Police brought the car in for examination and found blood but as technology is not as refined as today, they were unable to determine whether or not it belonged to Adam.
Some things didn’t add up, including that Henry Lee Lucas was in prison in Virginia at the time of the murder, and eventually Toole recanted his confession. Due to a lack of leads, the case went cold until 1994. A newly designated police officer asked for the blood stained carpet samples and Toole’s car to be tested but it was discovered that the car and the samples had gone missing. This was surprising as the case had been incredibly high profile.
On 15 September 1996, Toole died of liver failure in prison aged 49. He admitted to his niece on his deathbed, that he had in fact killed Adam. She phoned this into the programme America’s Most Wanted which, at the time, Adam’s father, John Walsh, was the host.
In 2008, the Hollywood police department held a press conference to confirm that the case was officially closed and that Toole had been the person who murdered Adam. No specifics were shared on the evidence but they confirmed that their evidence was not DNA related.
Adam’s disappearance and murder are as heartbreaking and as tragic as things can get however, even in the face of such a traumatic time, Adam’s parents were adamant that they should do everything they could to try and prevent it happening to other children and other families. Days after his funeral, Adam’s family started campaigning. They founded the Adam Walsh Child Resource Centre, a non-profit organisation dedicated to legislative reform. This was later merged with the Centre for Missing and Exploited Children. The Walsh family also organised a political campaign to help children who were missing or exploited. Despite bureaucratic issues, the family’s efforts eventually led to the creation of the the Missing Children Act 1982 and the Missing Children Assistance Act 1984. The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act was signed into law by the President, George W Bush, on 27 July 2006. This Act focusses on a national sex offenders registry, tough penalties for not registering as a sex offender following release from prison and access for citizens to websites that help track sex offenders.
By the late 1990s, many large shopping malls, department stores, supermarkets and other retail outlets have adopted what is known now as Code Adam – a movement first started by Walmart. This code is announced when a child is missing in a store or a child is found by a store employee unattended. All doors will be locked with staff being posted at every exit and a description of the child is broadcast over the intercom. Code Adam became synonymous with a missing child and is the predecessor to Amber Alerts.
In 1983, a television dramatisation aired on NBC, highlighting the days following Adam’s disappearance. His parents appeared at the end of the programme to publicise photographs of other children who were still missing. Later, a sequel, was produced and aired.
In 1988, John Walsh began to host the long running television show, America’s Most Wanted. It debuted on the 7 February 1988 as a half an hour programme. Within four days of the first broadcast, the FBI’s most wanted fugitive, David James Roberts (a convicted killer who had escaped from prison by digging his way out with a small axe), was captured as a result. Skepticism had been rife about the show by police agencies as to whether it would work or would assist. In 1994 the programme was extended from its 30 minute running time to an hour and ran for 25 seasons.
John Walsh went on to assist in other police investigations including the disappearance of Natalie Holloway, a teen who went missing in Aruba and the Elizabeth Smart case. John currently hosts The Hunt with John Walsh which debuted in January 2019.
John and Revé went on to have three more children after Adam’s murder.
Wikipedia – Adam Wals – https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_Adam_Walsh
Wikipedia – https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Walsh_(television_host)
Wikipedia – https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/America%27s_Most_Wanted
Stories of the Unsolved – https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/storiesoftheunsolved.com/2018/08/15/the-abduction-murder-of-adam-walsh/amp/