America's Most Frustrating

Fifteen years after America's Most Heinous Murder, new evidence emerges, pointing to a suspect police had once dismissed

More than two years later, on October 10, 1983, NBC aired a made-for-TV movie about the case and the Walshes' struggle to raise public awareness about the plight of missing children. Earlier that same day, Duval County Jail inmate Ottis Toole, then age 36 and serving a sentence of life imprisonment, mentioned to a Brevard County detective something about a child murder he committed in Broward. That admission turned into a full-scale confession given to Hollywood Police, who announced on Friday, October 23, that the case was solved. Toole would be indicted.

(Earlier in 1983, Toole had admitted to setting two vacant boarding houses in his Jacksonville neighborhood on fire, had pled guilty, and had been sentenced to twenty years. In jail, confronted with whether or not he had set a 1982 fire in the same neighborhood that resulted in a man's death, Toole confessed to that blaze, too, and was convicted of first-degree murder. For that he was sentenced to the electric chair, later reduced to life imprisonment.)

Toole confessed that he'd found Adam in Sears and drove him north in his junker Cadillac before killing him. He promised to lead police to the site where he said he left the remainder of Adam's body, a spot that turned out to be four miles away from where the head was found. A large team of police searched the area and dredged earth for a week but located nothing.

Toole then proceeded to flip-flop regarding his involvement in the crime: confessing, recanting, confessing again, recanting again. Transcripts of taped statements Toole made from October 1983 to January 1984 to the Hollywood Police Department's Jack Hoffman and Ron Hickman, co-lead detectives on the case, reveal that whenever Hoffman and Hickman asked Toole for details, he answered in generalities or cliches. And when he did come close to dealing in specifics, he hedged -- and he got an awful lot of things completely wrong.

For example, they asked him if he remembered in what month the murder occurred. "I ain't really sure on the month," Toole told them. "See, I always get jawed up on months all the time." Goaded into offering up an answer, he said January. That was in keeping with another of his responses -- that Adam was wearing long pants and mittens.

Then Hoffman pulled out Adam's famous "missing" picture, the one in which he stands smiling and holding a baseball bat, and asked Toole if he recognized it. "I don't think so," Toole answered. "No, I don't think that's the kid, though."

During his first interview with the Hollywood detectives, Toole said he was absolutely positive that his drifter buddy Henry Lee Lucas was with him at Sears that day, and it was Henry Lee who chopped off Adam's head.

"You're a hundred percent positive," Hoffman probed.
"Yeah, a hundred percent positive," Toole echoed.
But then detectives checked and learned that Lucas had been locked up in a Maryland jail the day Adam disappeared. When they presented Toole with proof of it, Toole quickly changed his story: He killed Adam -- alone.

Summarizing their case in January 1984, after putting in a total of 3500 man-hours, detectives realized, despite Toole's confessions, they could neither charge him with the crime nor prove he didn't kill Adam. Try as they might, they never were able to prove Toole was in Hollywood on the day of the murder, nor could they prove he was anywhere else on that day. Capt. Steve Davis, then commander of the Hollywood detective division, wrote, "At this point in the investigation, it has been determined that maybe he did and maybe he didn't" kill Adam.

And the remainder of Adam's body has never been found.
(Not long after the murder, John Walsh turned grassroots crusader. First he fought to publicize the problem of missing children. If not for Walsh, there wouldn't be pictures of lost kids on milk cartons and mailers. Later he battled for the rights of victims in court. In both instances he led the charge to change laws on both federal and local levels. In 1988 Fox TV, auditioning for a host for its new show America's Most Wanted, recognized Walsh's real-person, fed-up-with-crime stridency and hired him for the job.)

By 1995 the case was old and generally considered inactive. But then reporter Jay Grelan from the Mobile Register, a daily newspaper in Mobile, Alabama, asked Hollywood Police to let him read its Walsh file, which they had never opened to public scrutiny. In many if not most states, police investigation files are not made public, even after closure by arrest and/or conviction.

However, Florida's sunshine laws require police agencies to open files after closure or when a case is considered "dormant" -- vaguely defined as when a long period of time has passed since investigative action has taken place, and when the chances of eventual resolution look slim.

Turned down by police, Grelan and the Register went to Broward County court to argue that the case was indeed dormant. It was in the public interest to allow the press to inspect it, they claimed, because new press attention might bring forward new witnesses. When the case eventually was heard in court, John Walsh protested bitterly against the opening of the police files, which seemed ironic given the fact that week after week Walsh's TV show asks the public for help in finding dangerous fugitives from justice.

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