Adam John Walsh, age six, is abducted from a mall in Hollywood, Florida, and later found murdered. 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.
Early in the afternoon on July 27, Adam entered a Sears department store with his mother, Reve. 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; however, on August 10, 1981, his severed head was discovered by two fishermen in a drainage canal in Vero Beach, Florida, some 100 miles from Hollywood. His body was never found.
In October 1983, career criminal Ottis Ellwood Toole, then an inmate at a Raiford, Florida, prison, confessed to Adam’s abduction and murder and also implicated serial killer Henry Lee Lucas in the crime. However, investigators soon discovered that Lucas couldn’t have been involved because he was in jail in Virginia when Adam was kidnapped. Toole then admitted he had carried out the crime on his own and police announced they had found Adam’s killer. However, investigators were unable to locate Adam’s body where Toole claimed to have buried it and without any physical evidence the Florida state attorney couldn’t prosecute the case. Several months later, Toole recanted his confession. In the years that followed, Toole repeatedly confessed to killing Adam Walsh and then took back his story. He died of cirrhosis of the liver and AIDS in 1996 in a Florida prison, where he was on Death Row for another murder. 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 December 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 channeled his grief into advocacy work for crime victims. He was a founder in 1984 of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and in 1988 he became host of America’s Most Wanted, a show that has since helped law enforcement officials track down hundreds of fugitives. On July 27, 2006, 25 years after Adam went missing, President George W. Bush signed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act into law, which created a national database of convicted child sex offenders, strengthened federal penalties for crimes against children and provided funding and training for law enforcement to fight crimes involving the sexual exploitation of children via the Internet.