A murder, a bad investigation, and finally, a killer found
If you like your true crime populated by clever killers, tenacious detectives and intriguing, eccentric suspects, and if you demand a whodunit mystery with a satisfying measure of redemption, “Bringing Adam Home” is not the book for you.
This is a tale of lazy, incompetent detectives, an unkempt, gap-toothed killer with an IQ of 75, and an investigation by the Hollywood (Fla.) Police Department that was so amateurish it took an outsider to clear the case — 27 years after the murder.
“Bringing Adam Home” chronicles the kidnapping and murder of 6-year-old Adam Walsh, which transformed his father into a national symbol for victim’s rights and, according to the book’s subtitle, changed the way parents, schools and daycare centers supervise children, and how law enforcement searches for missing kids.
John Walsh went on to host the television show “America’s Most Wanted” for almost 25 years, and in 1997 wrote his own book about the ordeal, “Tears of Rage,” which described his and his wife Reve’s struggle to survive the tragedy as well as his journey from grieving father to prominent crime fighter.
“Bringing Adam Home” focuses on the crime, the botched investigation and the subsequent cold-case search for the killer. Novelist and nonfiction author Les Standiford does a masterful job of re-creation, reporting and research. Although some readers might feel the narrative occasionally gets bogged down by investigative detail, police procedural buffs will enjoy the insider account.
The case was plagued by ineptitude from the moment Adam’s mother left him playing a video game in a Sears at a Florida mall while she shopped in another department. When a number of children began arguing and fighting over the games, the Sears security guard ordered them to leave the store. Moments after Adam walked out the door, he was snatched. The Walshes soon discovered that there was no nationwide system where parents could report missing children and where police nationwide could communicate and cooperate on cases. Two weeks after Adam was abducted, his severed head was discovered in a drainage canal more than 100 miles away.
As the criminal investigation languished, the Walshes vowed to change the system. They lobbied Congress to pass the Missing Children Act in 1982, which created a national database at the FBI on missing children. They founded the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children; and in 2006, President George W. Bush signed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which created a national sex offender registry.
There is no statute of limitation on murder, and homicide cases are, theoretically, never closed. By 2006, however, 25 years after Adam’s abduction, the Walshes, who had lost all confidence in the Hollywood Police Department, decided to initiate their own investigation. They contacted retired Miami Beach homicide detective Joe Matthews. A few days after Adam had been abducted, Matthews, a polygraph expert, was called in to consult on the case. At the time, he was appalled by the disorganized and muddled investigation.
Matthews had become friendly with the Walshes during their years of frustration, and after he retired he was hired as an investigator for “America’s Most Wanted.” In 2006, the Walshes met with Matthews and asked him to conduct an independent investigation. Standiford tells the story of how the retired detective, on his own time and without pay, sifted through 10,000 pages of documents, tracked down the faint trail of witnesses and suspects, unearthed lost evidence and re-interviewed scores of people.
Two years later, Matthews concluded that a drifter and pedophile named Otis Toole, who had been serving five life sentences for murder and died in prison in 1996, had committed the crime. Florida authorities concurred and, at long last, the case was closed. The new Hollywood police chief said at a news conference that Toole could have been charged before his death because detectives had sufficient circumstantial evidence.
“It was a sad thing for this country,” Reve said, “that the fight had to be led by two broken-down parents of a murdered child.…But we had to, because no one else was going to do it.”
This is not an easy book to read. The author spares no gruesome detail, and readers will be haunted by the maladroit investigation and the added anguish this caused the Walshes. Detectives jotted leads on matchbooks, botched interviews with key witnesses, misplaced important photographs, lost bloody carpet samples from Toole’s battered Cadillac, and later sold the car for scrap.
Two years after Adam’s murder, Toole confessed when he was picked up for another murder by Jacksonville homicide detectives. They turned him over to Hollywood police. He ended up confessing numerous times to the crime — he also recanted a few times — and included details never released by investigators. But the lead Hollywood detective, Jack Hoffman, whom Standiford depicts as arrogant and inexperienced, remained skeptical.
Reopening the case was never about closure, John Walsh has said. In a case as horrific as this one, there never is closure for the parents. Instead, Walsh said, finding his son’s killer was about justice.
Corwin is the author, most recently, of the novel “Kind of Blue.”
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