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Adam Walsh case is closed after 27 years

Police in Florida say a man who died in prison in 1996 abducted and killed the 6-year-old boy.

December 17, 2008|John Holland

HOLLYWOOD, FLA. — A dead man was officially named Adam Walsh's killer Tuesday, but not because of any new evidence or a deathbed confession.

Police simply took another look at 27 years of tips, psychic revelations, often-botched police work and a serial killer's chilling admissions and decided it was time. Time to ease the suffering of the Walsh family and time to point the finger at the man Hollywood Police Chief Chad Wagner said had been the prime suspect all along: Ottis Toole.

"This is a process that is long overdue," Wagner told an audience that included Adam's parents, John and Reve Walsh.

Wagner acknowledged that not much had changed since 1996, when Toole died in prison while serving a sentence for an unrelated murder.

He had twice confessed to killing Adam and twice recanted.

"We could have charged him back then," Wagner said. "I've taken cases much weaker than this to the state attorney's office."

The announcement was long on drama and compassion for the Walshes, but it offered no new evidence against the drifter from Jacksonville, Fla., who passed through Hollywood on July 27, 1981. That was the day 6-year-old Adam disappeared from a Sears at the Hollywood Mall -- across from the police station -- while his mother shopped for lamps.

Adam's severed head was found two weeks later in Vero Beach, Fla., beginning a search that has haunted the Walsh family, Reve Walsh said Tuesday.

She thanked the family's three children, Meghan, Callahan and Hayden, who were born after Adam's death.

The abduction of a young boy from a busy shopping mall sparked fear among parents nationwide and changed the way police and the media responded to reports of missing children.

Wagner acknowledged that evidence was destroyed or overlooked and apologized to the Walshes for investigative mistakes.

Among the problems: Police lost a bloody carpet from Toole's 1971 Cadillac, then lost the car. They also missed leads, took poor investigative notes and didn't properly document evidence.

But the case led to improvements that law enforcement officials and children's advocates say have saved lives.

On Aug. 19, four days after Adam's funeral, the family established the Adam Walsh Outreach Center for Missing Children. It has since become a national clearinghouse for families and law enforcement officers dealing with reports of missing children.

The Walshes also lobbied for stronger laws before Congress and at the White House. John Walsh's television show, "America's Most Wanted," is credited with helping to solve hundreds of crimes.

"We can now move forward knowing positively who killed our little boy," John Walsh said. "I believe wherever Toole is, he's paying and being held accountable for his actions."

The lack of new evidence and the inability of Toole to defend himself won't quiet critics who said police got it wrong, Wagner said.

"If you're looking for that magic wand, that one piece of evidence, it's not there," Wagner said.

--

jholland@sun-sentinel.com

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