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.

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Arthur Jay Harris