America's Most Frustrating
It was like Edgar Renteria singling in the eleventh-inning run to win the seventh game of the World Series but not being able to tell anyone for a whole year. Oh, Phil Mundy had wanted to talk about it and had hinted around about it, but secrecy had to be kept -- he was investigating a homicide, not playing second base. Finally he got clearance to say something, and when that moment arrived, he flipped his coffee mug by its handle into the air. Fortunately for him and everyone around him it was empty at the time.
That was five weeks ago, October 6. Mundy had been working on Broward's most famous, most unsolvable case of the past two decades -- the 1981 murder of six-year-old Adam Walsh, son of John Walsh, who since Adam's death has gone on to star as host of TV's relentlessly popular America's Most Wanted while evolving into a one-man television cottage industry. In February 1996 the Broward State Attorney's Office had dropped the case in Mundy's lap. In 1991 he'd retired at age 51 from the Fort Lauderdale Police Department's homicide bureau as one of its best detectives ever; too young to spend his days by the pool, Mundy took a job as a state attorney's office investigator. He'd been told by others who'd done the same thing that the position required little heavy lifting; it just took somebody who knew what he was doing: finding witnesses, serving subpoenas, checking facts. That may have been true for them, but when Mundy arrived he was quickly put to work investigating homicides, traveling all around the nation, perhaps working harder than when he was as an active detective.
By the time Mundy signed on to the Walsh case, it bulged with a file of nearly 7,000 pages, and the Hollywood detectives who had pursued it for most of the past sixteen years were convinced there was no one to prosecute. Mundy's assignment was to check their work -- read the file, see if anything promising had been missed or buried. Not to imply earlier incompetence; rather, fresh eyes had sometimes solved cases Mundy himself had worked on for months or years without closure.
Mundy thought he'd found what might be closure to Adam Walsh's vexing murder in the statement of a 76-year-old woman. Not that Mundy located her, but he was the first law-enforcement officer to pay her any real attention. After 30-plus years in the field, good detectives get a feel for who's trying to B.S. you, whose information is reliable, and who to walk away from. From the get-go Phil Mundy couldn't imagine that this grandmotherly Irish woman was lying to him. He knew the type so well -- she could have been the mother of one of his friends from his old Brooklyn neighborhood.
"She struck me as a lady who was brought up in the old school," Mundy notes. "She simply wanted to do the right thing."
That woman, Mary H. -- for her privacy, the Broward State Attorney's Office has not made public her full name -- told Mundy that back in July 1981, in the toy department of the Sears store in the Hollywood Mall, at the precise time Adam's mother Reve Walsh says she left her son alone for just a few minutes, she saw the boy talking to Ottis Elwood Toole.
"Listening to all this," Mundy explains now, "was an experience for me. I'm trying to appear noncommittal about it. I'm not going, Oh my God!"
But inside he was. This was the missing witness, the one person in the world who could put Adam next to his killer.
Resolution! For the victim, a brutally murdered six-year-old boy. For John Walsh, the father who had remade himself in anger and frustration as a child-safety advocate and apprehender of violent criminals. For everyone in South Florida and nationwide who had followed the case for more than sixteen years. A major national trial to put Broward County in the spotlight. And then ten days after Mundy spoke with Mary H., about the worst thing that could happen, did.
Background: On Monday, July 27, 1981, six-year-old Adam Walsh was reported missing. His mother, Reve, told Hollywood police officers who met her at Sears in Hollywood Mall that she had left him for five or ten minutes at an Atari computer games display in the store's toy department. She had walked to the lighting department to look at a lamp on sale, and when she returned he was gone. After searching the store for Adam and having him paged over its intercom system, she called police.
At first police treated the incident merely as a child gone missing temporarily, but when Adam didn't turn up by the end of the day, police mobilized the entire community to look for him. The Walshes made public appeals concerning Adam's whereabouts on TV and answered reporters' questions, staying in the news for two weeks straight until August 11. The evening before, two fishermen had found a severed head in a canal alongside Florida's Turnpike, about 120 miles north of Hollywood. On August 11 a medical examiner positively identified it as Adam's.
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.
Appearing on TV talk shows recently to promote his new book Tears of Rage: From Grieving Father to Crusader for Justice, the Untold Story of the Adam Walsh Case, Walsh railed against what he termed the irresponsibility of the press in general and Register reporter Grelan and his newspaper specifically, calling the paper a "tabloid."
But if not for Grelan and the controversy he engendered, Phil Mundy never would have wound up in the same room with Mary H., who in 1995 wrote a letter to America's Most Wanted, stating she had seen Toole talking to Adam in Sears. That letter, in turn, was forwarded to Detective Mark Smith of the Hollywood Police. Smith called Mary H. and spoke to her briefly, then put her letter on his things-to-do pile, never getting back to it.
John Walsh, currently on a national book tour in support of Tears of Rage, didn't respond to requests to his Pocket Books publicist for an interview. Then last week when Walsh was scheduled to speak at Liberties bookstore in Boca Raton -- his only scheduled South Florida promotional appearance -- he canceled on short notice.
In February 1996 Broward Circuit Judge Leroy H. Moe ordered Hollywood police to open the Adam Walsh file to the press and the public. Immediately after the decision, the state attorney's office assigned Mundy virtually full-time to the case. Mundy and Smith split up duties. One of Mundy's ideas was to track down the original witnesses and reinterview them -- not as easy as it sounded, considering the sixteen years that had lapsed since the murder. When Mundy read in Smith's report (only a paragraph) that Mary H. insisted she had seen a "trashy" man talking to Adam in Sears, he volunteered to follow up on the lead.
"That kind of perked me up a little bit," Mundy allows now. "But I didn't run out the door screaming or anything."
Talking to Phil Mundy, you're left with contradictory thoughts about his age. Chronologically he's 58, damn old for a homicide cop. But his blondish hair, which he wears combed back, is still wavy and thick. From behind his gold-framed eyeglasses, his blue eyes are sharp in color, like a younger man's. His build is solid, like maybe he once boxed, and it looks as if he can still stand his ground. Don't take it too far, though. Mundy's days of chasing after fleeing suspects on foot are over.
Five months after being "perked up a little bit," Mundy called and visited Mary H. Back when Adam was murdered, she had lived in Hollywood, not far from the Walshes. Since that time she had moved with her husband to a retirement community in Central Florida, where she had read a newspaper account that the Walsh case might be reopened. That surprised her, she told Mundy. She had thought the case was over when Hollywood Police called their 1983 press conference announcing that Toole would be charged with the murder.
She remembered being in Sears that day, a Monday, and also that it must have been about noon because she was beginning to think about lunch. She recalled passing down an aisle in the toy department, and that her pathway was blocked by some young boys playing computer games, as well as by what she termed a "trashy man" -- a balding, disheveled man dressed in old clothes with stains like paint on them. She also remembered that the man reeked of a terrible odor. One of the boys was Adam, she told Mundy. He was smaller than the boy next to him, and she noticed a gap in his teeth. The trashy man, she recalled, was talking to the boy, and he didn't appear to be the boy's father.
Mary H. claimed she got close enough to the man that he gave her a weird smile. Mundy had interviewed Toole himself in the mid-Eighties, back when Toole was volunteering to police that he had committed as many as 100 murders. (He was charged with some of the murders, but all charges were later dropped.)
"Having sat and chatted with Ottis Toole myself, trust me, the man made an impression on me," assures Mundy. "Not so much his physical stature -- sometimes doing prison interviews they do attack you, and I wasn't afraid Toole would do that -- but his mannerisms. As I was sitting across from her, I thought, my God, she's describing Ottis."
Mary H. dramatized the man's smile, which she still remembered: He opened his mouth, widened his eyes, and tilted his head high to the right, at almost a 45-degree angle. Then the rest of his face brightened. Mundy recognized the affectation; Toole had used it when he was letting on to Mundy that he might have been involved in some of the aforementioned child murders. Toole had also alluded to the fact that he was a pedophile. When the subject of necrophilia arose, Toole told Mundy, for maximum effect: "Nothin' says you can't fuck 'em when they're dead."
"If you hadn't met Ottis, you wouldn't pick up on stuff like that," Mundy contends. "You can't make that up -- you can't. You just don't forget that."
It was also true, Mundy adds, that Toole had a terrible body odor: "That was another reason you didn't want to be in a room with him -- Ottis stunk. He'd wear the same clothing for a week or two. I wasn't afraid of him, but he was one of the few people I was uncomfortable being with. It's just like, I don't want to be with this person. This is an evil person. He generated the aura of evil. I'm not trying to be melodramatic."
The investigator considered other corroborative parts of Mary H.'s story convincing. She recalled a very specific detail: She had looked down at Adam's feet and seen him wearing flip-flops -- rubber beach thongs. For Mundy that was Renteria's line-drive single to center. "I went, 'Excuse me?' When I heard that I thought, 'Ottis, your ass is mine. You're going to be indicted.'"
Eleven days after speaking with Mary H., Mundy found a second major witness. Bobby Lee Jones had also been doing time in the Duval County Jail in 1983 -- he was in for burglary -- when Toole said he had killed Adam. Hollywood detectives wanted to know whether Toole had watched the TV movie about Adam and gotten some of his facts from it. They asked a number of other Duval County inmates if it had been on the jail's community TV set. It hadn't. They said they'd watched Monday Night Football.
On November 2, 1983, after Toole confessed to murdering Adam, Hollywood detectives questioned Jones, who told them he had worked as a laborer at the same Jacksonville roofing company where Toole had worked in 1982. Jones added that while in jail Toole had admitted to him that he'd killed two "little kids" -- one of whom he cut up with a large knife. Jones also told police that before his conviction for burglary, he had lived in Hollywood -- in a motel close to the Greyhound bus station on Young Circle.
On September 16, 1996, Mundy visited Jones, who was in Liberty Correctional Institute, a Florida state prison in the panhandle near Tallahassee; Jones was serving a three-year sentence for aggravated assault on a law-enforcement officer. The interview came as a complete surprise to Jones, who had no clue why an investigator from Broward had come to see him.
Back in early 1982, Jones told Mundy, when Jones and Toole had worked together, Jones had mentioned that he had lived briefly in Hollywood. Toole responded by noting that he, too, had spent time in Hollywood. They talked about places. Jones hadn't owned a car back then, and so he didn't know much of Hollywood beyond Young Circle. Toole, however, not only knew Young Circle, but began describing a number of nearby landmarks on Hollywood Boulevard that Jones didn't know: something like a convention center, railroad tracks and an Amtrak station, a little park where Toole used to sit and watch kids play, and some kind of little school across from the park; then, further out, the Turnpike, a little airport, and a place for crazy people.
Mundy, who worked in Fort Lauderdale all his career, admittedly doesn't know Hollywood that well. The convention center reference confused him, although it sounded like the municipal complex on City Hall circle. West of I-95 is an Amtrak station. And the park sounded like it could be David Park, located about a block west of Hollywood Mall, just off Hollywood Boulevard. Last year when Mundy checked, he found that in 1981 David Park had a children's playground, and that Hollywood Hills United Methodist Church -- about another block west -- ran a preschool program. (Sears is gone from Hollywood Mall, closing in September 1992. Eventually the Sears building was demolished to make way for a Target.)
The rest of Toole's travel guide is unmistakable. The Hollywood turnpike entrance. North Perry airport. The "place for crazy people" is South Florida State Hospital, west of University Drive.
Back in 1982 when he worked as a roofer with Toole, Jones recalled Toole also volunteering that he had killed a little boy in Hollywood and cut him up. But Jones and others had ignored Toole when he said such things, figuring he was just trying to be outrageous.
As Mundy points out, "That puts him [Toole] here [in Hollywood] -- though not necessarily on the day -- through this witness. Ottis Toole had a working knowledge of Hollywood. Also, he had no reason to confess to Adam Walsh in '82. Put that together with other statements, and I'm very comfortable."
For additional corroboration Mundy cites three Sears employees who think they may have seen Adam in the store the day he disappeared -- although back in 1981 none of them, nor anyone else besides Reve, told police they were certain of seeing him there.
In 1995 when Detective Mark Smith first got the file as a cold case, he reinvestigated old leads and found Joanna Braun, who had worked at Sears on the day Reve reported Adam missing. Her position that day was behind the catalog desk, part of which was within a few feet of the video games display. The day following Adam's disappearance, after seeing the kidnapping story on the news, Braun told police she remembered Reve walking in the store holding the hand of a little boy. She could describe Reve but not the child.
Braun referred Smith to John King, another employee who had worked the catalog desk that day. Police reports from 1981 make no mention of King. But when questioned by Smith in 1995, King allowed how he also had seen Reve and a young child walking past his station just after he began work that day at noon. A little later he claimed he saw them both again at the video games display in the toy department, and overheard the child coax Reve into letting him stay there. Then Reve left the boy. King also said he recalled several other youngsters being near the video games.
Around the same time Smith spoke to King, he also reinterviewed Kathy Shaffer, who in July 1981 worked as a then-seventeen-year-old Sears plainclothes security guard. Shaffer had told detectives who had come to the store after Reve reported Adam missing that she broke up a fight between four boys in front of the video games. Two of the boys were black, two white. (Reve had reported to police that there were other children around the games when she left Adam, but that there wasn't any fighting among them.) Shaffer asked the black boys if their parents were in the store, and they said no. Then she asked the older white boy the same question, and he also said no. She presumed the younger white boy was with the older white boy and didn't speak to him. Then she threw all four boys out of the store.
In a very emotional interview, Shaffer told Smith she had been racked with guilt for years that she might have inadvertently removed Adam Walsh from Sears, leading to his death. She added that she was 85 percent sure the young white boy was Adam, because the dispute had occurred at about the time Reve said Adam was at the video games display.
And when Mundy called Shaffer a year later, in 1996, she cried and told him absolutely, the boy was Adam. She had known that since the day he was reported missing but was never able to say so.
This is what Mundy thinks might have happened that day at Sears: Reve drops off Adam at the video game display. Toole wanders around Sears and winds up in the same place. There are three other kids but only two joysticks to the game, and while Adam waits his turn to play, Toole whispers in his ear. When Mary H. walks past, she interrupts Toole talking to Adam -- that's when Toole gave her that frightening smile.
"Then something happened with those kids to cause Kathy Shaffer to show up," explains Mundy. "Ottis fades into the background -- the last thing you want when you're going to do something like this is attention."
Shaffer orders the black boys out one door, the white boys out another. Toole goes outside before -- or after -- Adam. Once outside the older boy takes off. From there, Mundy suggests, "Adam goes, 'What do I do now? Mom's in the store, but I'm not supposed to go in the store.' Then along comes shithead. Somehow he entices him into the car -- and that's the end of the story."
And now for the worst part. Those who speculated all along that Toole was their man had never felt rushed to close the case. Toole had been in custody serving a life sentence since 1983, and because no other child-murder case in the nation since that time had involved decapitation, there wasn't a desperate hunt for a still-at-large killer.
Toole turned 49 in 1996. But as the thirteen years since 1983 had progressed, he had turned sick with hepatitis. When Mark Smith interviewed him in 1995, the detective was forced to wear a surgical mask. Unbeknownst to Mundy, Toole was setting a new deadline for anyone trying to solve the case. Dead, Toole was safe from indictment and trial.
On September 15, 1996, ten days after Mundy took Mary H.'s statement and the day before he got what he believed was the statement that clinched the case from Bobby Lee Jones, Toole died of cirrhosis of the liver. When no one had claimed his body after four days, he was buried in the prison cemetery.
A year later Mundy is still crushed when he recalls the news. He pounds his desk. "Bastard! I wish he would have lived longer!"
A year later the state attorney's office is still chasing after some elusive leads, unable to close its file on the Walsh murder. Yet before anyone finally lays the case to rest, problems remain in Mundy's theory concerning Toole. Major questions remain unanswered.
"If Mary H. is a fraud or a liar, it would be one of the major disappointments of my career," sighs Mundy. The first and largest problem with Mary H. is why she didn't go to the police soon after Adam was reported missing, especially in light of the overwhelming publicity the case received. The answer isn't very good. Mary H. told Mundy that the day Adam disappeared, her husband was in Europe -- he was a traveling salesman at the time. Dependent on him she waited for him to return home, then asked what to do. He said that they should go to the Hollywood police. They got as far as the station house's lobby, where they either were treated rudely or were ignored. And so they left.
"I've seen it over and over," observes Mundy now, "where people have come to the station with good information and get fluffed off. I could see her, in her mild voice -- she's definitely not a pushy person. She might have said, 'Excuse me, I saw that young boy in Sears talking to some man.' And the [police] lobby clerk going, 'Yeah, yeah, lady, we know that.'
"I'm not going to be critical of the Hollywood Police Department. I wasn't there. I don't know what happened. But it's just a shame somebody didn't get hold of this."
Another problem is whether Mary H. actually recalled having seen Toole in Sears or was transposing a later memory of seeing Toole's picture when he was identified in the press around 1983 and again in 1995 as Adam's possible killer.
Mundy had shown Mary H. a police photo lineup of six men. "It was one of my best [lineups]," he asserts. "I went through 2000 pictures -- it was very difficult to find anyone who looked like Ottis Toole. She looked at all six, then came back to one and said, 'Yeah, that's the man right there.'" It was Toole.
But Mundy admits that Mary H. probably had seen Toole's photo in a newspaper sometime since 1983. In fact John Walsh and/or his Tears of Rage coauthor Susan Schindehette interviewed Mary H. in February 1997, six months after Mundy spoke with her; in their book, Walsh and Schindehette point out that Mary H. said she had seen Toole's picture before Mundy showed it to her.
Mundy also concedes that she may possibly have seen video footage of Toole being interviewed by TV reporters. That would account for her being able to describe Toole's mannerisms so accurately -- his weird smile, the cock of his head, his mouth opening.
Mary H. had done something similar with her identification of Adam. She recounted for Mundy in September 1996 that she had seen the boy wearing a red baseball cap in the store. He wasn't. Reve said Adam wore a beige captain's hat. But in Adam's well-publicized "missing" photo -- the one with the bat -- he wears a red baseball cap.
However, when interviewed by John Walsh or Schindehette, Mary H. described Adam's cap yet another way, saying only that it had a long bill and that he wore it pushed back on his head, making it appear that the hat was a little big on him.
Mundy recognizes that without Mary H. the entire case against Toole falls apart, reverting to where it was in 1983. He also admits that to read the transcript of the statement she gave him is less convincing than to sit across from her and listen to her, as he did -- the "you-had-to-be-there" problem. Mundy thinks she's recalling real events, that she did see Toole talking to Adam. But he also realizes that her credibility is based on his perceptions.
If Adam and Toole were both at Sears at the same time, that would seem to be good enough to go to trial with, given everything else. But is it true?
Phil Mundy acknowledges the loose ends remaining in the case. And yet he thinks he's right about Toole. Without a jury to make a decision, however, nothing will ever be resolved. "I don't think you can completely slam the door on this guy," Mundy says. "You've got to leave a little crack.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss New Times Broward-Palm Beach's biggest stories.
- Donald Trump Sticks to His Mexico Rhetoric Following NBC Firing
- Fort Lauderdale Cop Fired Over Racist Facebook Post
- Churches Look for Legal Loopholes to Resist Gay Marriage Ruling