When I was growing up as a child in the 1980’s, I remembered hearing stories about a little boy down in Florida named Adam Walsh who had been kidnapped from a Sears store and had his head cut off. And I remember watching his father, John Walsh, on his own TV show “America’s Most Wanted” every week for many years.
After I moved to Florida a few years ago, I remembered this old case when I realized that I now lived very close to where it had occurred long ago in 1981. I became curious about this case and began reading about it online. Since the case was finally officially solved and closed back in 2008, all of the police documents from the original case are now available to the public through the Hollywood Police Department. I looked through many, many pages of witness testimonies, police report statements, crime scene photos, and police interviews with Ottis Toole, the man who was eventually named as Adam’s killer. When I realized that I didn’t live far from the spot where Adam was abducted, I decided to go see it for myself in person. This is what the Hollywood Mall Sears store looked like in 1981 when Adam was abducted from it…..
And this is what the store looks like today. In 1993, it was remodeled into a Target store, but you can still see the resemblance between the shape of the old building in 1981 and the current building now. After the news of Adam’s fatal abduction from this shopping mall became national news, the entire mall suffered from a substantial lack of business. Although there are still several stores located in this shopping mall, it is no longer the popular, bustling shopping center that it once was 35+ years ago. The Hollywood Police Department is still located right across the street from the mall, just as it was in 1981.
Adam was abducted from the Sears department store in the Hollywood Mall on Hollywood Blvd and Park Road when he was six years old. His mother left him alone for only a minute or two to go look for a lamp only three aisles away while he played with the new Atari video game system display near the front of the store. Back in those days, it was perfectly normal and safe for children to be away from their parents in public. What ended up happening to Adam was unheard of in that era. While Adam and his mother were separated in that brief span of time, a scuffle broke out among a group of teenagers at the Atari display. A seventeen year old part-time security guard ordered the group of teens out of the store, including Adam, not realizing that he did not belong to the group of older kids who were fighting. The security guard ordered the two older boys to exit through the front of the store while ordering Adam and another ten year old boy to leave the store through the west door of the building by the Lawn & Garden area, an exit that Adam was not familiar with. Although he had been instructed by his mother to stay at the video game display until she returned, he likely became scared and confused when ordered to leave the store by the security guard since her uniform resembled a police officer’s uniform. Adam was seen by eyewitnesses sitting alone on a bench outside of the west side door when he was approached by a disheveled man described as Ottis Toole, a known pedophile and serial killer. After kneeling down and talking to Adam for a few minutes, he took Adam by the hand and led him to his 1971 Cadillac and set him in the front passenger seat. Then he drove down Park Road, turned west onto Hollywood Blvd, and then entered onto the turnpike heading north.
Toole’s original intention was to take Adam to his home up in Jacksonville to be his “adopted son”. But although Adam had went willingly with Toole, he soon became frightened and began to cry and fuss in the car and ask for his mother. Toole pulled the car over once or twice along the shoulder of the turnpike and in the parking lot of a service station plaza in order to give Adam a “talking to” and calm him down. When that did not work, Toole began to punch and beat Adam about the face and head and choke him. One of Toole’s blows to Adam’s head knocked him into the passenger side car door with enough force to either knock him unconscious or kill him. It is not known whether Adam was merely unconscious or actually dead at that point, but it is known that he suddenly went limp and silent after Toole struck him repeatedly in the head and choked him. Knowing that his plan had been foiled and that he couldn’t return Adam alive without getting caught, Toole drove to a dirt road in a remote wooded area off of Radebaugh Road near what is now mile marker 170 on the northbound turnpike (back then it was mile marker 91), laid Adam’s limp body face down on the ground, and chopped his head off with a machete. The medical examiner who later examined Adam’s severed skull after it was discovered was able to determine that Adam was likely already dead before he was decapitated since all four cuts to his neck with the machete were very close together, indicating that he did not move nor struggle while he was being decapitated. Toole admitted to raping Adam in several handwritten letters and confessions, but it was never known for certain whether he did that to Adam before or after he killed him. Toole claimed to have tossed Adam’s severed head onto the back driver’s side floor of his car while leaving the rest of his body in the wooded area. He intended to keep Adam’s head as a sort of souvenir, but then became worried that someone might see it lying in the back of his car. So he then drove four miles north to what is now mile marker 174 outside of Vero Beach and threw Adam’s severed head into a drainage canal where it was found two weeks later by a couple of fishermen. The rest of Adam’s body was never found. To this day, the small wooden footbridge where Ottis Toole claimed he stood and threw Adam’s head into the water still remains there.
I had always heard over the years that the Hollywood Police Department had messed up this case, but it wasn’t until I read through the actual case documents myself that I realized just how BAD they really botched this case. The Hollywood PD completely dropped the ball several times throughout this case, including failing to have a medical examiner conduct a full forensic exam of Adam’s skull rather than just a visual exam, failing to develop several film rolls of crime scene photos taken of the blood-soaked interior of Ottis Toole’s car after it was impounded, and even actually losing the entire car itself during the investigation. I mean seriously, how do you LOSE AN IMPOUNDED CAR??? Due to the incompetence of the Hollywood PD, it took nearly 30 years for Adam’s murder case to be definitively solved and closed, and by that time Ottis Toole had already died in prison where he was serving time on Death Row for other murders he had been convicted of. Ottis Toole had confessed to killing Adam multiple times throughout the years only to then recant his confessions. But he always remained a prime suspect due to the fact that he knew so many details about the crime that were only known to the police. He even drove with a team of investigators and showed them exactly where he kidnapped Adam, killed him, and then dumped his remains. He wrote a chilling, gruesome letter to Adam’s father detailing everything he had done to Adam that day and offered to show Adam’s father where the rest of his body was in exchange for a large sum of money. When Ottis Toole died of cirrhosis in 1996, his niece contacted John Walsh and told him that her uncle had confessed to killing Adam on his death bed.
Now that I live in South Florida, Adam’s abduction and murder hits a lot closer to home for me. I spend a lot of time in Hollywood, and I often drive past the mall on Hollywood Blvd where Adam was abducted on my way to and from the turnpike. I drive on the turnpike nearly every day along the exact same stretch of highway where Adam spent his final hour of life in Ottis Toole’s car. Adam was killed 150 miles north of his home, and there are two service station plazas along the turnpike within that stretch of distance: one in West Palm Beach and the other in Pompano Beach. Ottis Toole pulled his car into one of those service stations where he beat up Adam. It chills me to know that one of those two service plazas where I often stop for gas and refreshments is the same exact spot where Adam Walsh was on his last day alive.
John Walsh and his wife still live in Florida today with their three surviving children. I have watched John Walsh on TV for nearly twenty years. And to this day, 35 years after the murder of his son, I can still clearly see the pain and torment in his eyes and face when he speaks of him. His wife once said that she had thought it would get easier after 15, 20, or 30 years had passed, but it hasn’t gotten easier at all. I can’t even begin to imagine the fear, sadness, and pain they went through, first on the day Adam suddenly disappeared and then two weeks later when they received that fateful call from the FBI that their little boy’s severed head had been found far from home. And I can’t imagine the immense rage and frustration they must have felt while watching the police fumble their way through their son’s case and allow his killer to escape justice.
If there is any consolation or silver lining from this horrific event, it is that Adam did not die in vain. His short life and death has saved the lives of literally millions of other children. Millions of abducted children have been saved and many thousands of fugitives have been caught and brought to justice thanks to his father’s tireless advocacy that was inspired by Adam’s death. In addition to hosting the successful TV show “America’s Most Wanted” for nearly twenty years, John Walsh also created the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and successfully lobbied Congress to pass a slew of laws aimed at keeping a national fingerprint registry of children, revamping law enforcement procedures in the event of a child abduction, and punishing child abductors to the fullest extent of the law. It was Adam’s abduction and murder that led the movement for parents, teachers, and law enforcement personnel to begin talking to kids about “Stranger Danger”. I remember my brother and I being fingerprinted as young kids at school as part of John Walsh’s national child fingerprint registry program. Prior to Adam’s abduction and murder, there were virtually no law enforcement protocols in place in the event of a stolen child. In fact, police took little to no effort or interest in such cases. When Adam Walsh’s mother called the Hollywood police from the mall on the day her son went missing, it took over twenty minutes for an officer to appear on the scene…and the police department was right across the street from the mall!!! As John Walsh was once told by an investigator in the early days of his son’s murder investigation, the police departments at that time were far better equipped and willing to track down a stolen vehicle than a stolen child. But Adam’s death changed all of that. Now the FBI is legally required to immediately get involved in each and every reported child abduction case within 48 hours. It seems to me that although he only lived for six years, Adam most certainly came to this earth with a big purpose. And he definitely fulfilled that purpose.
I know there is nothing that can ever be done to ease the pain and suffering that his family must endure for the rest of their lives, but I’m quite sure they will see him again someday. 🙂