The notorious case of Adam Walsh: Did police get the wrong killer and even the wrong victim?

The Notorious Case of Adam Walsh: Did Police Get the Wrong Killer and Even the Wrong Victim?

  • Adam Walsh disappeared from the video games in a shopping mall Sears store in Hollywood, Florida on July 27, 1981.
  • Adam’s kidnapping and murder prompted the U.S. Congress to pass the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act.
  • The murder case different from all other murder cases? There’s never an issue at trial as to the identity of a victim.

July 27, 2016, was the 35th anniversary of the day that Adam Walsh disappeared from the video games in a shopping mall Sears store in Hollywood, Florida. An awful lot has changed since then. Video games, for one. Sears is no longer in that mall. But one thing in all that time hasn’t changed:

No one has ever been charged with or brought to trial for the horrific murder of Adam Walsh.

And no one ever will. And now we know one of the very good reasons why not:

  • The official Adam Walsh case investigation was kept under wraps for its first 27 years, while police said they still had hopes of one day closing it by arrest. But after they finally gave up, among the things that true crime author Arthur Jay Harris found in his close examination of public records was the absence of all the proper ID records in the medical examiner’s case file.

  • Two weeks after Adam Walsh disappeared, a child’s severed head was found in water. The remains were quickly identified as Adam strictly by a comparison of teeth -- including the remains to Adam’s dental records. So you’d expect that for a possible upcoming homicide trial, the medical examiner would have saved those dental records…

  • ... And the report of the autopsy that was done just after, and the photos from it, and the forensic dental consultation report that normally would be done, to include an expert comparison of Adam’s dental X-rays with the found child... all the usual stuff.

But you’d be wrong on all counts. And for reasons never explained by the medical examiner or the police or state attorney, who also don’t have those documents. At a homicide trial, the state would have been handicapped without those records or their chain of custody. They would have had difficulty -- dare say it would have been impossible for them to have established the primary element at a trial:

  • That the defendant had killed the victim Adam Walsh because that’s clearly Adam Walsh who is dead.

  • Why is this murder case different from all other murder cases? There’s never an issue at trial as to the identity of a victim.

  • As it turns out, the dental match was based on just a single filling in a lower molar where children commonly get cavities. And it may not have even been the same molar. But didn’t Adam’s parents make their own visual ID? No, they weren’t present.

Perhaps, as shown below, it’s because there really is a question that the child they so long ago said was Adam -- was really him.

•   •   •

On a July summer weekday, six-year-old Adam Walsh’s mom took him to Sears at the mall to buy a brass lamp advertised on sale in Good Housekeeping magazine. Entering the store, he wanted to play at the display of video games -- it was 1981, and they were new. Other kids were there, so Mrs. Walsh let him stay. She said she’d be back in minutes.

The lamp wasn't in stock. And she never saw her son again.

Adam Walsh video Arcade

On an early evening two weeks later, 125 miles north by the edge of the Florida Turnpike near groves that produce the state’s famous oranges and grapefruits, two men who’d just launched their boat into a drainage canal saw floating on the surface what at first looked like a doll. Then to their horror they realized it was a child’s severed head. The next morning, the local medical examiner identified the child as Adam Walsh.

What kind of person would grab a small child, behead him, and leave the head by the road?

It was a hard question for police to solve, especially while its community was terrified that any other child could be next. The town was Hollywood, Florida, which relied on winter tourism, and could not afford that kind of reputation.

Adam Walsh Murder Scene
Adam Walsh Newspaper cut

The murder of Adam Walsh becomes famous

Adam’s parents, Reve and John Walsh, became crusaders for the cause of missing children. A network television movie two years later documented their tragedy -- and fight.

Adam Walsh Documentary called Adam

The day the movie premiered on TV, a weird man named Ottis Elwood Toole, a low IQ drifter from across the state, in Florida prison for a murder resulting from an arson of a boarding house, first told a detective he took and killed little Adam.

Case over, declared Hollywood Police late on a Friday night.

Ottis Toole and Adam Walsh

But Toole and his better-known partner, Henry Lee Lucas, were then in a sort of rivalry to confess to the most murders around North America. Police lost count after hundreds, or who knows, even more.

How did these men keep straight the details of so many killings? Police detectives helped them.

When the transcripts of Hollywood Police’s interviews with Toole were released, long after, it was plain he knew absolutely nothing about Adam’s murder.

Detectives kept prompting Toole piece by piece with information and pictures, apparently hoping it would help remind him of something real they hadn't yet told him.

It didn't work. And that’s how Toole learned the whole Adam Walsh case.

Police still spent months trying to connect him with the murder but couldn’t. A year later they let it out that they’d dropped Toole as a suspect.

Then 25 years later, under a new chief of police who admitted he had no new information, Hollywood Police closed the case and blamed Toole for killing Adam.

But by then, Toole had been dead 12 years and so couldn’t be prosecuted. He’d been in prison until his death.

Ottis Toole and Adam Walsh

The Jeffrey Dahmer connection

Jeffrey Dahmer
Notorious serial killer and sex offender Jeffrey Dahmer killed 17 men

But there was a much more compelling suspect: None other than the Milwaukee Cannibal, Jeffrey Dahmer.

A Miami police report proved that Dahmer was working 20 minutes, by vehicle, from Hollywood the month Adam disappeared. That was uncovered by a true crime author named Arthur Jay Harris, who has written a two-book series, The Unsolved Murder of Adam Walsh, and a YouTube documentary, Adam Walsh Serial.

Jeffrey Dahmer Adam Walsh

When Hollywood Police closed the Walsh case, which made all the files public record, Harris read them and found seven separate police witnesses who identified Dahmer as who they’d seen at the mall that day. Six said they saw him with or near Adam. The police weren't much interested.

The Miami police report said Dahmer had worked at a Miami Beach sub shop. Harris found it had had a blue van for pizza deliveries. Two of the police witnesses at the mall said they saw a man get away with Adam in a blue van. For the first month of the case, police had asked the public to tell them anytime they saw any blue van. Police tracked down hundreds of blue vans.

When Dahmer was arrested in Milwaukee in 1991, he had 11 severed heads in his apartment. None were as young as Adam’s age but he had an arrest history of masturbating in a public park in front of children as young as 12, and his U.S. Army bunkmate said he’d been caught by military police for doing the same near small children.

But the best evidence may be a police composite drawing of a suspect wanted for an attempted kidnapping of a 10-year-old at another South Florida Sears two weeks before Adam’s disappearance.

Jeffrey Dahmer Adam Walsh
Here is the composite next to Dahmer's 1982 mug shot
The Miami Herald for themselves investigated the evidence in The Unsolved Murder of Adam Walsh and agreed with Arthur Jay Harris
The Miami Herald for themselves investigated the evidence in The Unsolved Murder of Adam Walsh and agreed with Arthur Jay Harris

The autopsy report is missing

But even more shocking is that Harris’s search of the public records discovered problems with the positive identification of the found child as Adam Walsh.

In the files there were many irregularities that should never happen: Neither the medical examiner’s office nor police had an autopsy report -- and the chief pathologist who did the autopsy admitted he never wrote one.

Adam Walsh Newspaper cut

The child was identified as Adam by a match between its remains and Adam’s dental records of only a single dental filling -- and that in a lower molar where children commonly get cavities.

But the dental records are also missing from all the files although they were handled by two medical examiner’s offices and the police.

And although the ID was made strictly by teeth, no one ever consulted a forensic dentist.

Without those documents and with scant ID evidence, the state wouldn't have been able to prove in court that the murder victim was Adam Walsh. That is, had they ever brought to trial a homicide case.

"There's no way in hell" that's Adam Walsh

From a public records request to Hollywood Police, Harris got crime scene photos of the found child.

A forensic anthropologist who later took his own pictures of the skull at the request of Hollywood Police called the tooth in “almost all the way.”

Adam Walsh teeth
Left is a close up of Adam’s now-famous “Missing” picture. He had clearly lost both his top front teeth. Right is the found child, showing a top left front tooth as a buck tooth.

John Walsh has since become a host of crime-fighting TV shows, including “America’s Most Wanted.” In his book about the case, he wrote they chose Adam’s baseball picture as his “Missing” photo because it had been taken only the week before he disappeared. Harris found that more probably it had been taken a month before.

But Adam’s best friend says he last saw him a week or two before the disappearance -- and he still had neither top front tooth.

Again, when the child’s head was found, Adam had been missing exactly two weeks. The medical examiner who did the autopsy told the news media that the found child had been dead for as long as that. After death, teeth don’t keep growing.

If the found child is Adam Walsh, then in the last week or two Adam was still around his tooth grew in from not-yet erupted to in almost all the way.

That wasn't likely, said all the forensic and pediatric dentists Harris showed it to. “There’s no way in hell,” said one.

Which means it’s very possible -- if not overwhelmingly likely -- that a small child found beheaded was never correctly identified, and its family was never notified.

And then: Could Adam still be alive? The answer, in the book, is probably yes.

Arthur Jay Harris

Arthur Jay Harris is the author of five investigative true crime books including The Unsolved Murder of Adam Walsh. He is a specialist in gathering public records of murder cases and doing his own investigations to examine whether police solved cases correctly. He has appeared in crime documentaries and has produced crime news segments for American national television.

Crime, Serial killers, Unsolved mysteries
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