Authors: Les Standiford
Later, as they were shopping for the things Mistler had forgotten, they heard an announcement on the store’s PA system, paging Adam Walsh. But again, Mistler did not connect the announcement with what he had witnessed in the parking lot more than two hours earlier. They simply picked up the things they needed, Mistler explained, and then they took their trip.
When they got back the following Sunday, one of his son’s friends came by the house and told them all about Adam’s abduction, Mistler said. At the time, he reminded his wife that they had seen Mrs. Walsh in the Sears store the previous Monday—that is why she had appeared so upset. Still, Mistler said, it did not occur to him to connect what he had witnessed in the parking lot earlier that day to Adam’s disappearance.
In fact, Mistler told Hoffman, it was not until a month to six weeks later, when he returned to Sears on yet another shopping trip, that a news story came on the radio and it suddenly hit him. He might in fact have witnessed Adam’s abduction. He actually turned his truck toward the nearby headquarters of the Hollywood PD right then and there, Mistler said, but that was the point at which the news was all about the search for the “blue van” that someone had seen Adam being pulled into. The story he’d been listening to closed on news of the search for that van at that very moment, Mistler said, and he decided that perhaps what he had to offer wasn’t that useful after all.
As to why he hadn’t come forward in 1983, when Ottis Toole’s picture was splashed across television and newspapers as the prime suspect in the case, Mistler told Hoffman that he thought other witnesses had come forward, or they wouldn’t have named Toole as the man responsible. Hoffman listened to Mistler’s account, then asked him if he would agree to take a polygraph exam and undergo hypnosis to see if those procedures would corroborate the truth of what he was claiming all these years later.
Mistler agreed without hesitation and returned to police headquarters the following day for the polygraph. While no record of the exam itself remains in the case file, a supplemental report filed by Detective Hoffman notes that the results of Mistler’s polygraph were “inconclusive.”
Three days later, on Friday, August 2, 1991, Mistler again reported to Hollywood PD, this time to be placed under hypnosis by a doctor attached to the Broward County Sheriff’s Office psychological services unit. However, during the prehypnosis interview, Mistler again became so upset regarding his recollections of the day that the physician adjudged him unfit to be hypnotized at the time. Instead, detectives drove him back to the west parking lot of the Sears Mall in hopes that revisiting the scene might jog Mistler’s memory as to what Adam had been wearing on the day of the kidnapping. But Mistler could simply not recall those details.
Finally, on Monday, September 2, Mistler returned again to police headquarters, where this time he successfully underwent hypnosis. During the session, he was able to recall that Toole had rotten, greenish teeth, a two-week beard, strange eyes, and was wearing dark pants and brown shoes. As far as Adam’s clothing went, Mistler said that the child was wearing a baseball hat.
Mistler, of course, was interested in what effects his decision to come forward would have on the long-stymied case. If the cops had not received proof that Toole had committed the crime, they now had an eyewitness who could give them exactly what they needed. Furthermore, during his initial interview with Hoffman, when he’d first begun to detail the sighting of Toole in the Cadillac that day at the Sears store, Hoffman suddenly snapped alert. He’d been listening idly to Mistler’s account of the day, cleaning his nails with a pocketknife. But at the mention of the Cadillac, Hoffman sat upright, making eye contact with Mistler for the first time.
“Nobody knows about that Cadillac,” Hoffman told Mistler, then left the room to get photographs of the car for Mistler to identify.
When Hoffman originally asked Mistler to submit to a polygraph and to undergo hypnosis, he assumed that it meant that the cops were excited and interested in what he had to tell them.
But Mistler began to worry the day of his second hypnosis session, when he ventured to ask Hoffman what was going to happen with Toole now. Hoffman glanced away, Mistler says.
“I don’t know,” the detective said. “I don’t think this is going anywhere.”
Stunned, Mistler asked him what he meant.
Hoffman shrugged. “Well, the mother doesn’t want to go into court and listen to all the gory details about what happened to her child. And Ottis is already convicted of another murder . . .” The detective trailed off.
At that point, Mistler had the chilling sensation that his decision to come forward meant absolutely nothing to the lead investigator in the case, but he went ahead with his session nonetheless. How could he not?
A few days later, he called Hoffman to check on how he’d done. If the polygraph exam and the hypnosis supported his account of what he had seen, then surely the cops would go after Toole for the killing, he reasoned.
“So how’s it going with the case?” Mistler asked when Hoffman came on the line.
There was a pause, and the sounds of paper being shuffled in the background. “Ah, well,” Hoffman said, “I went up and talked to Ottis, and Ottis assured me he didn’t do it. He told me, ‘Why would I lie to ya, Jack, I’d tell ya if I killed this kid.’ ”
Mistler had to take a deep breath. “Let me get this straight,” he said to Hoffman. “You give me a polygraph exam, you hypnotize me twice, you interview me four times, and you go up and have a little chat with this psycho and you believe him and not me?”
When Hoffman didn’t respond, something occurred to Mistler. “Look, tell me the truth, tell me what’s going on. If the Walshes don’t want to go through with this, that’s one thing, but at least you have to tell me you told them about what I saw.”
“Oh, yeah,” Hoffman said. “I told the parents.”
The offhand tone in which he said it so angered Mistler that he hung up the phone and turned to his wife to explain what it was all about. “He’s lying,” Mistler told her. “He never said anything to the Walshes. I’m gonna go over there to the PD and make him look me in the eye and tell me the same lie.”
But Mistler’s wife had the last word on that score. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” she said.
Upon reflection, Mistler decided she was right. Instead of confronting Hoffman, he placed a call to the FBI, asking to speak with the agent assigned to work with the Hollywood police on the Adam Walsh case. After some delay, he was transferred to a Mrs. Grey or a Mrs. White—“some kind of color,” Mistler recalls—who asked him again why he was calling. Mistler explained that he had witnessed the abduction of Adam Walsh by Ottis Toole and that though he had come forward to Hollywood police, he was worried that Detective Hoffman was not taking him seriously.
The person to whom Mistler spoke took down the information and said that someone would get back to him, but no call ever came. To Mistler it meant that perhaps what Hoffman said about the Walshes wanting to bury the case was true. They must have been told that he had come forward, Mistler reasoned, or the FBI would have called him back. “So it’s okay,” he told himself. He’d done everything he could. “It’s over. It’s done.”
Tallahassee, Florida—August 14, 1991
t the same time the drama between Bill Mistler, Jack Hoffman, and the FBI was playing out, Joe Matthews was in Tallahassee conducting a three-day seminar on investigative interviewing and interrogation techniques for the University of North Florida’s Institute for Police Technology and Management. Matthews’s coinstructor was a retired FBI agent named Bill Haggerty who had been involved in the investigation of the Adam Walsh case at the time Ottis Toole had first come forward with his confession back in 1983.
After the first night of classes concluded, Matthews and Haggerty were relaxing over a drink when the Walsh case came up. While Matthews had maintained an interest in the investigation, there was really little he could do—he was a homicide cop working for another police department.
Matthews was intrigued to know what the Bureau’s take on the matter had been—the Feds might not have wanted to get directly involved for various political and practical reasons, but that didn’t mean they hadn’t provided peripheral consultation. And indeed the agency had, the retired agent assured Matthews. In fact, when Ottis Toole surfaced as a suspect back in 1983, Haggerty told Matthews that he had eliminated Toole as a suspect almost immediately.
“Oh yeah,” Matthews said, curious. “Why was that?”
The agent leaned forward, his face a sage mask. “Think about it,” he said to Matthews. “A guy takes a bus ride all the way from Virginia to Jacksonville, maybe sixteen, eighteen, twenty hours. No way he’s going to get in a car and drive another five or six hours all the way to Miami or Fort Lauderdale and spend the night hustling gays.”
Matthews stared back at his federal counterpart, not sure if he wanted to start up with the guy. After all, they had a couple more days together. What was to be gained? But was this the kind of thinking upon which an FBI agent had based his investigation of the Adam Walsh case?
As Matthews saw it, Ottis Toole was the kind of guy who slept on park benches and on plastic bags in mulch piles. On a good night, he’d get blasted and sleep in his car. A twenty-hour ride on a plush reclining seat in an air-conditioned bus would be like a stay in the Ritz-Carlton to Toole.
Besides, what on earth had such off-the-wall suppositions to do with whether or not Ottis Toole had committed the crime he said he had? Matthews could only hope that the guy sitting across from him had not been the lead FBI investigator on the case.
Matthews was well aware that no one had ever conducted a proper investigative interview with Toole—after all, he was in Tallahassee to explain the very concept. All that Toole had ever provided were statements. For the most part Toole talked, and instead of asking questions, detectives simply listened, taking notes, following the agenda set by the suspect. It was the opposite of effective investigative interviewing in Matthews’s book, but with Toole that is what had happened.
What’s worse, Toole had never been polygraphed, not once. On a number of occasions he said he killed Adam Walsh, a couple other times he said he didn’t. It seemed to leave a lot of people in law enforcement guessing: On which days had he been deceptive?
But you didn’t have to guess, Matthews reminded himself, shaking his head at the smug agent sitting across the table. There was this scientific instrument called a polygraph that could help you learn the truth, and when he got back to South Florida, he would give it one last shot to see if he could put it to use on Ottis Toole.
Late that month, motivated by nothing more than his sense of duty and an innate desire to do the right thing, Matthews drove to the headquarters of Hollywood police, where he met with Captain Gil Frazier, who was then in charge of the Criminal Investigations Division. Matthews pointed out his concerns over the handling of Ottis Toole as a suspect and made a simple request of Frazier: let Matthews conduct a formal investigative interview of the type that had never been performed on the suspect. “What do you have to lose?” he asked.
Frazier thought about it for a moment, then nodded. Matthews was right; why not give it a shot? As Matthews looked on, the captain got Detective Hoffman on the phone. He wanted Hoffman and Matthews to travel to Starke, Frazier said, where Matthews would interview Toole about the Walsh case. Hoffman acknowledged his superior’s order and suggested that Matthews give him a call in a day or two to arrange a date.
Things couldn’t have gone more smoothly, Matthews thought, until he began trying to set a date with Hoffman. He left several phone messages for the lead detective, all of which were ignored. Finally, Matthews drove back to Hollywood PD headquarters and confronted Hoffman at his desk. When were they going to go interview Toole? Matthews wanted to know. “Soon,” Hoffman assured him, but right now he was busy with a million things. He’d get back to Matthews as soon as he possibly could.
Matthews was frustrated, certainly, but since he wasn’t signing Hoffman’s paycheck, there was little he could do. Without the detective in charge of the case, Matthews had no access to Toole.
Toole, meantime, was convicted in late September of three more homicides in Florida’s Jackson County, a rural enclave bordering Alabama and Georgia, and had returned to Starke with yet another life sentence tacked onto his list. Other jurisdictions seemed happy to investigate, charge, and convict Toole of murders he had confessed to, Matthews thought. What was the problem at Hollywood? Why on earth wouldn’t you want to do anything you could to try and solve this case?
On October 16, 1991, Matthews was back in Tallahassee, team-teaching another course with Bill Haggerty, the retired FBI agent whose misguided notions had provoked him into making his request of Captain Frazier at Hollywood PD a couple of months before. During a break, Haggerty mentioned to Matthews that he might not be in class the following day—he’d promised to drive the two hours to Starke to help out on a case.
No problem, Matthews assured his counterpart. He could handle the class on his own. But just what was it that was calling the agent away?
Oh, just a pain in the ass, really, Haggerty replied. He’d received a call from Jack Hoffman down at Hollywood PD. Hoffman’s boss wanted Hoffman to reinterview Ottis Toole for some reason, and Hoffman had asked Haggerty to accompany him. “Big waste of time, if you ask me,” the agent told Matthews, “but hey, I’m always ready to lend a hand.”