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Authors: Les Standiford

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BOOK: Bringing Adam Home
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There was that, Matthews said, and there was also the fact of Jack Hoffman’s personality. Hoffman, he thought, always seemed on “send,” never on “receive.” To Matthews, the effective way to get help, and information, was to present yourself with some humility—“Hey, I need a hand here, can you help out?” To Matthews it was a far more effective approach than the one that went, “Don’t bother telling me anything. I know it all already.”

Until that evening, Walsh had not realized that Matthews had been on loan to the Hollywood PD from Miami Beach at the time, and he was more than interested in Matthews’s critique of the shoddy procedures he had witnessed there. Nor had he ever heard another piece of news that Matthews passed along. Years ago, Hollywood PD had officially cleared Jimmy Campbell of any involvement in the case, Matthews told him. It was a welcome surprise to Walsh, even though he had never really suspected Jimmy. But he also wondered why the Hollywood PD had never passed along word that they had exonerated his old friend. In fact, Walsh told Matthews, he had never heard any news unbidden from Hollywood PD.

To Matthews it was quite a surprise to hear that Hollywood police had not informed the Walshes that Campbell had been cleared. For John Walsh, it might be important enough—validation that a person he considered a friend was innocent. But imagine what a burden would be lifted from Revé. She had lived with enough guilt for simply having left Adam alone for a few moments. To have it confirmed that Campbell was in no way responsible would have been more than a courtesy. It simply seemed insensitive in the extreme that Hoffman had not bothered to share such information with the Walshes.

Matthews could only shake his head. The fact was, he was not surprised by anything that smacked of Hoffman’s unwillingness to part with Jimmy Campbell as his prime suspect. He didn’t say anything more to Walsh about the matter, but simply commiserated with him over the frustrations he’d experienced over the years, and asked that his sympathies be extended to Revé as well.

He did tell Walsh that he wished he had been allowed to stay on the case originally, for it was his professional opinion that the Hollywood PD was simply too ill equipped, and the lead detective assigned to the case too inexperienced, for a proper investigation. Furthermore, so far as the viability of a case against Ottis Toole, Matthews had been involved in other successful murder prosecutions where far less evidence was at hand. In his estimation, the Hollywood PD seemed unnecessarily obsessed with the need for physical evidence linking Toole to the crime scene. Given the circumstantial evidence that had come to light, they already had more than what they needed to present the case to a prosecutor.

Walsh heard Matthews out, but at that point, he was still reluctant to divorce himself entirely from the system, though he did share his own feelings that Hoffman and Hickman were less than stellar investigators. Shortly after Adam had gone missing, Walsh told Matthews, Detective Hickman had taken him aside for some private counsel. Hickman handed over a religious pamphlet that invited Walsh to become “born again.” Hickman took Walsh’s arm and explained. “I know how you feel,” he said. “But if you’d take Jesus as your savior, your son will return.”

He didn’t know what to say to the detective at the time, Walsh told Matthews, but on a number of occasions since he had wondered if it was Jesus or the Hollywood PD he should have been counting on. He had lost sleep on many a night owing to his frustrations with the lack of progress in the case, but to repudiate the police department that he and Revé had placed their trust in for ten years was a difficult leap. He thanked Matthews for all his good work and expressed his hope that the segment they had just filmed would lead to a break in the Baby Lollipops case, and the two parted amicably.

W
alsh needn’t have worried. On Saturday, December 1, the Baby Lollipops segment aired, and a tip came in, identifying the murdered child as Lazaro Figueroa, his mother a thirty-year-old Cuban immigrant named Ana Cardona, and her lover as a woman named Olivia Gonzalez. Eventually, Cardona confessed to Matthews that she had left her seriously injured son to die in the bushes that night.

While an autopsy determined that young Lazaro’s skull had been crushed by repeated blows from a baseball bat, Cardona claimed that the abuse of young Lazaro was begun by her lover, Gonzalez, with whom she had begun an affair following the murder of the victim’s father. Owing to depression stemming from an abusive upbringing in Cuba and a dependency on cocaine that she had developed in the United States, she had lacked the courage to defend her child, Cardona claimed, and eventually joined her companion in starving, abusing, and beating Lazaro.

Though Cardona would ultimately plead not guilty to the crime, her lover turned state’s evidence and testified against her. In the end, Olivia Gonzalez received a forty-year sentence. Anna Cardona was sentenced to death.

As a result of his work on the case, Joe Matthews was named Police Officer of the Year by the Dade County Association of Chiefs of Police in 1991.

Miami, Florida—June 26, 1991

B
oth Matthews and Walsh were gratified by what had come of their collaboration in the Baby Lollipops case, but neither could be happy with the continued lack of progress in the investigation of Adam’s murder. And then, some six months after the break in the Baby Lollipops case, there came—seemingly by accident—an interesting development.

On June 26, 1991, the
Miami Herald
ran an article on the retirement of Major J. B. Smith of the Hollywood Police Department. Smith had been a cop at the agency for twenty-one years, the story noted, and was a sergeant in the robbery and homicide unit, assisting in the investigation of the disappearance and murder of Adam Walsh in 1981.

Smith spoke to the writer at some length about the still-unsolved case, adding, “Ottis Toole was probably the most complete investigation we’ve ever done to prove somebody didn’t do it.”

If the department had in fact unearthed any evidence to prove that Ottis Toole had not committed the crime, he did not share it, and the reporter—who apparently was content to believe that Toole had been “proven” innocent—did not inquire further. One person was dumbfounded by J. B. Smith’s comments, however.

In Hollywood, Bill Mistler read, then carefully reread the story, just to be sure he understood correctly. Back in 1983, when Ottis Toole was identified as the prime suspect in the abduction and murder of Adam Walsh, Mistler had wavered about coming forward to tell police what he had seen outside the Hollywood Sears store that day. But from the tenor of the stories he read at the time of the announcement, Mistler assumed that his testimony was unnecessary. Furthermore, until he read Detective Smith’s comments that day in 1991, he thought that Ottis Toole had been charged and that the matter had been concluded.

Mistler, who’d been carrying a burden of guilt for almost ten years, got up from his chair and went into the kitchen where his wife was fixing dinner. Did she know that Ottis Toole had never been charged with the murder of Adam Walsh? he asked, brandishing the newspaper. She didn’t, she told him, then listened as he recapped the details of what he’d read.

“What do you think I ought to do?” Mistler asked his wife when he’d finished.

She couldn’t tell him what to do, she answered. But did he remember how scared they’d been the day their own son had wandered off for half an hour during a camping excursion?

Mistler remembered very well how he felt, and the recollections were enough to send him finally to the telephone, where he did what he’d been meaning to do for a long, long time. When he finally got through to Hollywood PD, an operator transferred him to Jack Hoffman, still the lead detective on the case. Mistler told Hoffman who he was, and then gave a brief account of what he had seen in the parking lot outside the Sears store that day. “I’m telling you, I saw Ottis Toole kidnap Adam Walsh,” he said.

Hoffman waited for Mistler to finish, then thanked him for the call. It had been ten years since the incident, and here was some guy out of nowhere claiming he’d seen it all? Hoffman explained that he was a little busy right now, getting ready to go on vacation. If Mistler didn’t mind, why not get back to him in a couple of weeks, and they’d take it up again?

Mistler, who’d just battled past any number of fears and uncertainties to make the call, stared at the phone in disbelief as Hoffman hung up. The detective hadn’t even asked for his phone number or his address. He wasn’t even sure the guy had caught his name.

Still, Mistler had made up his mind. He’d felt better about himself from the moment he’d picked up the phone and began to dial the police. And so, at about noon on Monday, July 22, Mistler called again. “I’m the guy who saw Ottis Toole take Adam Walsh from the curb outside the Sears store that day and put him inside a car,” Mistler reminded Hoffman. He’d had no reason to believe he was witnessing a kidnapping at the time, for the child showed no signs of resistance or alarm. He simply assumed it was a family member taking the child home.

Mistler also explained to Hoffman that in 1983, when Hollywood PD announced that Toole was the chief suspect, he believed that Toole had in fact been charged with the crime and that the matter had been dispensed with. It was not until he stumbled upon the article concerning Major Smith’s retirement, Mistler said, that he’d realized the case was still unsolved. Hoffman listened to it all, and when Mistler was finished, the detective scheduled a meeting at department offices for the following Monday.

On Sunday, July 28, the
Miami Herald
ran a ten-year anniversary piece on Adam’s murder and included an interview with Jack Hoffman during which he told a reporter that he still hadn’t “totally eliminated” Ottis Toole as a suspect. Whether or not it was Mistler’s phone call that had reawakened his interest in Toole is difficult to say. Nothing of note had been added to his case file since the day in late October 1984 when Hoffman assured reporters that Toole had been unequivocally eliminated as a suspect.

In any case, on Monday, July 29, 1991, Bill Mistler appeared as scheduled at the offices of Hollywood PD, where he met with Detective Hoffman to make a voluntary sworn statement. Mistler broke into tears on two different occasions during the interview, explaining that he felt tremendous guilt for not having reacted differently to what he witnessed that day outside Sears. If he had approached Toole, or if he had summoned security or called police, he might have prevented Adam’s death. Make no mistake about it, Mistler said. It was Ottis Toole he had seen leading Adam Walsh away from the Sears store that day, and he had lived and relived every moment in his mind ever since.

He arrived at the Sears lot via the northwest corner entrance near the garden shop, he told Hoffman. He was waiting for an older woman to park her car when he first saw Toole, driving past him in his Cadillac, headed the opposite direction. He recollected that the car was in good condition, other than what looked like rust stains from well water and a sizable dent in the right rear bumper. It was bearing a Florida license plate, and there were what appeared to be a number of gardening tools in the backseat.

Mistler said that he saw Toole stop his car in the opposite driving lane, get out of the driver’s door, and walk around the car toward the curb. He remembered that Toole appeared to be checking out his surroundings, glancing left and right, and that the two actually locked eyes for a few seconds. Toole was an odd-looking type, he said, around six feet tall, with a wandering eye and reddish brown hair. He was dressed shabbily, his T-shirt filthy—hardly the picture of the typical suburban Sears shopper.

Mistler said that he watched as Toole approached the curb outside the entrance to Sears, where a small boy—maybe five years old—was standing. Because he was so caught up in Toole’s idiosyncratic appearance, Mistler said, he didn’t pay as much attention as he might have to exactly how the child was dressed, though he thought he remembered that the boy was wearing a hat.

Mistler said that Toole knelt down in front of the boy and began to talk to him. On the sidewalk nearby, he recalled, was a woman with a boy of fourteen or so, apparently searching for something in her purse. To Mistler, there was something wrong with what he was seeing. Toole and the boy with whom he was talking simply did not seem to belong together, if for no other reason than the comparative condition of their clothing, a guy off the streets talking to a kid who obviously came from a suburban home.

“I made the wrong call,” Mistler said. “I kept looking for Adam to give me some sort of a signal . . .” But it never came.

Mistler watched in his rearview mirror as Toole took Adam by the arm, but he saw no signs of resistance there. The two walked past the front of the Cadillac, with Toole talking to Adam all the while. Toole opened the driver’s door to the Cadillac, and Adam crawled in and across the front seat. By this point, Mistler noted that the parking space he was waiting for had finally been vacated.

He parked his truck, got out, and walked toward the curb. He glanced at the spot where the Cadillac had been stopped, but by then it was gone.

Mistler picked up a few items for the family’s camping trip, but inevitably he hadn’t managed to get everything everyone wanted. At 3:00 p.m. or so, he was back at the Sears store, accompanied by his wife and his nine-year-old son. Shortly after they entered, they noted a woman and a man involved in a heated discussion with “a fat security guard.” Mistler’s son nudged him and said that he knew the man and the woman. They were the parents of Adam Walsh, a kid his son knew from the playground at school. Mistler didn’t think much of it at the time.

BOOK: Bringing Adam Home
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