Authors: Les Standiford
In most cases, stricken parents could do little but grieve, but more than a few took the time to share their sadness and their frustration in letters to the Walshes. None of the aggrieved parents who had suffered the disappearance or murder of a child had any idea exactly what to do, but many sent checks to the Walshes urging them to use the money any way they saw fit.
And then, in September 1981, less than two months following Adam’s murder, the Walshes received a call from the office of Florida senator Paula Hawkins, who had tried unsuccessfully to get the FBI involved in the search for Adam at the outset. Senator Hawkins had joined the push on Capitol Hill to pass legislation that would require the federal government to maintain a centralized database on missing children and those who had been found dead but unidentified.
It seemed ludicrous to supporters of the bill, the Missing Children Act, that you could report your stolen car—or horse—to the FBI and have that agency spring immediately into action, while a child could disappear without so much as an eye blink from federal crime fighters. Outrage over the 1932 Lindbergh baby kidnapping had resulted in the passage of the Federal Kidnapping Act (the so-called Lindbergh Law), making it a federal offense to transport a victim across a state line or use the mail to send a ransom note. Ostensibly, the act gave the FBI the authority to pursue kidnapping cases, but the agency had maintained a long-standing reluctance to interfere with local police in such matters. It often made for bad politics, for one thing; for another, most kidnapping cases turned out to be the result of messy, interfamilial wrangling; and for yet another, they were reluctant to create more work for themselves. The official FBI line was that “local agencies have more mobile manpower,” necessary to efficiently pursue kidnappings.
Indeed, though Walsh had pleaded with the FBI to get involved in the initial search for Adam, and the agency pledged its support, records show that no such action was ever taken. The message that was passed down was this: If it got to the point where Hollywood PD was searching for a suspect somewhere out of state, then the feds would be happy to lend a hand. Otherwise, the local cops were on their own.
Though the prospects for passage of the proposed legislation were dim, a staffer for Senator Hawkins wanted the Walshes to go to Washington to lobby on behalf of the bill, and though it was a mission they would have to carry out at their own expense, they were more than happy to do so. At the very least, it was a way to vent some of the frustration they had felt from the outset of Adam’s disappearance.
It did not take the Walshes long to sense the enormous weight of indifference they were confronting, however. As even newly elected presidents have learned, trying to correct the conduct of business as usual in the federal bureaucracy is like trying to nudge an ocean liner off its path by standing on a rubber raft and pressing on the liner’s hull with your bare hands as it speeds by. But, fueled by their outrage and sense of injustice and buoyed by the support of so many strangers around the country, they had already formed their own nonprofit agency, the Adam Walsh Outreach Center for Missing Children, and they now threw themselves wholeheartedly into lobbying Congress on the Missing Children Act.
In October 1982 the effort, which had been joined by a number of prominent politicians, including Henry Hyde, Paul Simon, Arlen Specter, and even staunch FBI supporter Strom Thurmond, paid off with the act’s passage—and though it simply provided for the establishment of separate categories for missing children and the unidentified dead in the FBI’s national database, the legislation marked the first time in history that missing children, runaways, child prostitution, family abductions, and a host of associated ills were formally recognized as matters that impacted an entire nation.
For nearly two years following, John Walsh balanced his work for Paradise Grand Hotels and his efforts on behalf of the Walsh Outreach Center and various legislative efforts around the country.
, a made-for-television movie based on the case, had aired on October 10, 1983, just as Ottis Toole was making his first confession to Brevard County detective Steve Kendrick. Though one of Toole’s cellmates later told investigators that they had turned the movie off that night and watched a football game instead, in other parts of the republic the film was well received, critically and popularly. Forty million viewers watched as a roll call of photographs of fifty-five missing children played at the end of the film, and thousands of calls flooded the 1-800 number provided. As a result, thirteen of those fifty-five missing children were reunited with their families.
The Walshes, realizing the limitations of the Missing Children Act, next turned their attention to the establishment of a national version of their own nonprofit, a center where parents of missing and abducted children could go for practical help. Limited in effect as it was, the passage of the Missing Children Act had nonetheless broken the political logjam that impeded progress on such issues, and even President Ronald Reagan threw his support behind the establishment of a National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Finally, on June 13, 1984, the center was opened, in the form of a private organization, funded at the outset by a $3.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. The only hitch was that John Walsh had to agree to serve on the center’s board of directors, which in turn meant that he would have to leave his job with Paradise Grand.
In some ways it was a difficult decision. Revé had given birth to a daughter, Meghan, in July 1982, and in 1984 she was pregnant again. John’s pay would be a fraction of what he was making in the hotel business, but there was no fighting the tide. The Walshes had in fact helped accomplish the impossible—and once you had pushed against the hull of a massive ocean liner and felt it wobble from its intended course, you couldn’t simply stop.
There was great satisfaction for both John and Revé Walsh in what they had accomplished, but even though their work in Florida and Washington had helped other parents regain their children and see that persons who had committed such crimes received their just deserts, it did not ease the ache that filled them every time they thought of Adam. It did not matter that other children had come along. It did not matter that time had passed, and that life had brought them many blessings. Their firstborn was gone forever, and his killer remained unidentified. And despite their suspicions that Ottis Toole was responsible, the police certainly didn’t seem to think so. For all the Walshes knew, then, the person responsible was still out there somewhere, and was killing still.
Adam’s eleventh birthday, November 14, 1985, came and went with no word from the police, and as the years piled up and no progress was reported, the prospects that a break in the case would ever come dimmed. In January 1986, Hollywood police chief Sam Martin retired, and though insiders presumed that Leroy Hessler—prominently involved in the Adam Walsh investigation—would be his replacement, city commissioners were troubled by reports of rampant favoritism in matters of promotion, transfer, and assignment within the department. Instead of going along with Hessler, they appointed Richard Witt, a twenty-seven-year veteran of the City of Miami Police Department, to take Martin’s place.
If the Walshes thought it would mean anything in terms of progress on the case, however, they would be sadly disappointed. Witt had plenty to attend to without diverting his department’s resources down what was to him a dead-end road, and thus Adam’s twelfth birthday passed with no word, as did his thirteenth in 1987.
Then there arrived some news from a quarter the Walshes could scarcely have envisioned. A letter dated October 4, 1988, began:
My name is Ottis Toole. I’m the person who snatched, raped, murdered, and cut up the little prick teaser, Adam Walsh and dumped his smelly ass into the canal. You know the story but you don’t know where his bones are. I do.
Now you are a rich fucker, money you made from the dead body of that little kid. OK, he was a sweet little piece of ass! I want to make a deal with you. Here’s my deal. You pay me money and I’ll tell you where the bones are so you can get him buried all decent and Christian.
Elsewhere in this despicable letter to John Walsh, Toole explained that he wanted $5,000 right away as “good faith money” and Walsh’s signed promise of $45,000 more once Toole had shown him Adam’s bones. Toole closed by telling Walsh that Adam had been crying for his mother as he sodomized him.
“If you send the police after me before we make a deal then you don’t get no bones and what’s left of Adam’s hot pussy can rot,” Toole warned. “Tell the cops and you don’t get shit.”
“Tell the cops,” of course, is exactly what John Walsh did. He immediately gave the letter, signed by Ottis E. Toole—in script that precisely matched Toole’s signature on various prison forms—to Detective Hoffman at Hollywood PD. Walsh had become aware that Hoffman was unwilling to believe that Toole was Adam’s murderer—it had gotten back to Walsh that Hoffman thought Toole was simply trying to draw attention to himself by claiming responsibility. And while Walsh was willing to accede to Hoffman’s claims that there was no physical evidence linking Toole to the crime, he was sure that this blood-boiling message would reignite the detective’s interest.
Walsh was wrong—Hoffman simply filed the letter away. As it turns out, it was not the only letter that Toole sent out at the time. On the same day, he had also written an extortion note to Sears, explaining that he had cut a deal with a magazine to tell the story of how he had kidnapped, raped, and murdered Adam Walsh, and now, he said, he was threatening to tell the world how easy it was to abduct and assault children at their stores. “I do my shopping for juicy little kiddies at Sears,” he said in his missive to the company. But for a “fast check,” Toole said, he was willing to omit any direct mention of the chain in his magazine account. “See you soon,” he closed. “Bring money.”
On the following day, Toole sent off another letter to the
: “Someone told my ear that a big paper” like theirs might pay a “nice amount” for his personal account of the murder of Adam Walsh. And maybe once he told the story, people would leave him alone about it, Toole explained. But there were conditions: “No cops, no lawyers. Just me and a reporter. Please make me your cash offer promptly.”
For its part, the
summarily forwarded the letter from Toole to Detective Hoffman. “Probably not anything new to you, but here it is for what it’s worth,” reporter Sean Holton said, before adding, “Let me know if anything comes of it.”
Toole sent a similar letter to the
, which prompted reporter Charlie Montgomery to place a call directly to Jack Hoffman. His paper wasn’t about to offer Toole any money, Montgomery said, but it was his intention to write Toole back and ask what new details he might be willing to supply. If he got anything interesting in response, he would let Hoffman know. Meantime, he reminded Hoffman, he would very much appreciate hearing should anything new turn up in the case. More than seven years had passed since Adam’s death, and five since Ottis Toole had first confessed, and still, it seemed, the case exerted its great power over the collective psyche of the country.
By October 12, having received no offers from any of the major outlets he’d written, Toole was drafting “To whom it may concern” appeals, trying to find anyone who might be willing to pay him for his story. “Dear Editor,” began one such. “My name is Ottis E. Toole. I am the one who kidnapped, raped, murdered and hacked to pieces the boy Adam Walsh in 1981. I also murdered 3 women and a man up around Holmes County, Florida.” Toole went on to explain that he had already written to the sheriffs of both Broward County and Holmes County, a rural enclave in a part of the Florida Panhandle often referred to as L.A. or “Lower Alabama,” claiming that he was ready to confess to the aforementioned five murders. Furthermore, Toole said, he had decided to invite one member of the media to sit in on the confessions to ensure that police did not abuse him in the process. “If your paper is interested then let me know,” Toole said in closing.
Copies of this letter and the one that had been sent to Sears were forwarded to Hoffman without apparent effect, but another letter sent to Broward County sheriff Nick Navarro finally prompted some action. In this missive Gerald Schaffer, a fellow inmate of Ottis Toole’s at Florida State Prison, explained that he was actually writing on behalf of Toole, owing to Toole’s difficulties in reading and writing. However, Sheriff Navarro should have no doubt: Toole was responsible for the murder of Adam Walsh and for other unidentified murders in Broward County, and he was willing to admit formally to his involvement.
There were conditions, said Schaffer, a former Martin County sheriff’s deputy serving two life terms for the murder of two teenage girls. He was to be present during all interviews with Toole; the interviews were to be of short duration; and both Schaffer and Toole wished to be relocated to the Broward County Jail. It may have seemed a presumptuous offer, but if most of the other letters that Schaffer wrote on Toole’s behalf were dismissed, this one received significantly more attention.
Monday, October 17, 1988
hortly after Navarro’s office heard from Toole, on October 17, 1988, Captain Walter Laun, the commander of the Broward County Sheriff’s Office criminal investigations unit, summoned Detective Sergeant Richard Scheff, supervisor of the homicide unit, to a meeting where he handed over a copy of the letter they had received.