Remembering Adam Walsh 40 years after 6-year-old's disappearance

South Florida boy abducted July 27, 1981; decapitated head later found in Vero Beach canal
John Walsh, Reve Walsh sit next to picture of son Adam Walsh, Nov. 18, 1981
Posted at 7:27 AM, Jul 27, 2021

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — On July 27, 1981, Adam Walsh went missing from the Hollywood Mall and the country changed forever.

When the abduction happened 40 years ago, it was a time when parents routinely left their children playing in the store, unattended, and continued shopping.

When Adam entered a Sears department store with his mother, Reve Walsh, she allowed him to watch a group of older boys play video games in the toy department while she shopped nearby.

When she returned for him less than 10 minutes later, he was gone. Investigators learned a teenage security guard had asked the older children to leave because they were causing trouble. Adam, reportedly a timid child who might have been afraid to speak up, followed one of the older boys out and didn’t tell the guard his mother was in the store. He was likely kidnapped outside the store after the other child left.

Adam’s parents launched a massive hunt for their son, but on Aug. 10, 1981, his severed head was discovered by two fishermen in a drainage canal 100 miles away in Vero Beach. His body was never found.

In the aftermath of the crime, Adam's father, John Walsh, became a leading victims' rights activist and host of the long-running television show "America's Most Wanted." In 1984, he founded the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

The case led to advances in police searches for missing youngsters and a notable shift in the view parents and children have of the world.

In October 1983, career criminal Ottis Ellwood Toole, then an inmate at a Raiford prison, confessed to Adam's abduction and murder and also implicated serial killer Henry Lee Lucas in the crime, but later recanted. He claimed hundreds of murders, but police determined most of the confessions were lies.

Ottis Elwood Toole in Jacksonville courtroom, May 18, 1984
Ottis Elwood Toole, left, watched courtroom spectators as he was fingerprinted by an unidentified court bailiff, right, after he was sentenced to death on a murder and arson conviction in Duval County court, May 18, 1984, in Jacksonville, Fla.

Years later, serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who was living in Florida at the time of Adam's abduction, was considered a possible suspect in the case. Dahmer died in a Wisconsin prison in 1994.

On Dec. 16, 2008, the police department in Hollywood, Florida, announced that the case against Toole was strong enough to close the investigation into Adam's death.

John Walsh has long thought Toole was responsible, saying investigators found a pair of green shorts and a sandal similar to what Adam was wearing when he was abducted.

"I have no doubt," John Walsh said. "I've never had any doubt."

Toole's niece told John Walsh her uncle gave a deathbed confession to the crime.

Authorities made a series of errors over the years, losing the bloodstained carpeting in Toole's car -- preventing DNA testing -- and the car itself.

In 1997, John Walsh, released the book "Tears of Rage," that criticized the police department's work.

"So many mistakes were made," he said. "It was shocking, inexcusable and heartbreaking."

Toole died in prison of cirrhosis in 1996 at the age of 49. He was serving five life sentences for murders unrelated to Adam's death.