Yesterday, police in Hollywood, Florida announced that they were officially closing the Adam Walsh Murder Case and declaring it solved. Adam Walsh disappeared on July 27, 1981—it took 10,004 days to close the case. Though no new evidence had been found or presented in the recent years, it was an external review of the case that concluded that Ottis Toole—who has been imprisoned for other murders since 1984, and dies on Death row a decade ago—was the killer.
That Ottis Toole was the killer is far from certain. Were he still alive, there would be sufficient evidence to charge him, though a conviction would be far from certain. The other primary suspect in the case was Jeffrey Dahmer—who lived in South Florida at the time. The killing does have certain things in common with other Dahmer murders, though one striking dissimilarity is that Adam was significantly younger than any of Dahmer’s other victims.
I’m not sure we’ll ever know, for certain who killed Adam Walsh. But both primary suspects died in prison, one by cirrhosis, one killed by another inmate. Maybe for Walsh’s parents it just seemed pointless to keep hounding the investigators. You can’t ever get justice for something like this anyway—the most you can hope for is closure.
The Adam Walsh murder changed my life. Not for any personal connection, but because the murder changed South Florida.
I lived in Hialeah, about 20 miles from the Mall where Adam disappeared. In fact, the week earlier, I had been at the very same store. I was 9 years old at the time. It was summer vacation, and that was the first summer I was allowed to stay home by myself. I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere except outside to play or the houses of certain friends who lived on the same block.
The few days after Adam’s disappearance, parents naturally pulled their kids closer. Now I was allowed to go to my friends houses—inside their houses—but we couldn’t play outside unless someone’s parent was watching. And after Adam’s head was found a couple of weeks later, summer basically ended. I was to stay in the house all day, all doors locked, with my mother calling in about every hour.
When I started back to school, since I was starting 6th grade, my mother had grudgingly allowed this to be the first year that I was allowed to walk home from school, and that I didn’t have to go straight to the sitter’s house. Looking back, I can’t imagine the fretting she must have done those first few days of the school year. And now I’m sure I know why my mother made me time exactly how long it took me to walk home, and why the phone was already ringing as I unlocked the front door.
In South Florida on July 27, 1981, I daresay that 99% of parents wouldn’t have thought twice about doing exactly what Revé Walsh did—leaving her son at a video game display and walking a couple of aisles away. She was close enough to hear him shout out, after all. But on July 28, 1981 any parent doing so would have been scolded—and was, because I can remember newly hired store security guards lecturing parents on the dangers of leaving kids unattended.
That one disappearance both pulled us together as a community, but also pushed us away from the people in our community that we didn’t know well.
And for the kids my age, the kids who might have played with Adam had we lived closer, the kids who had shopped at the same Sears store, the world instantly became a dangerous place.
Police started showing up at our schools, fingerprinting us, and taking photos for IDs we were never supposed to carry. And though it was never said directly to us, it was often explained in a slightly-too-loud voice to our teachers, that it could help identify our bodies if we ever turned up missing or dead.
When parents and teachers don’t explain things to kids, they develop their own theories about things. We were convinced that kids were targets and that parents didn’t want us to know exactly how much danger we were in.
That Halloween was the first that I carried two bags for candy—one for people we know (which you can keep after I go through it) and one for everyone else (straight in the trash). And the safety hysteria didn’t let up for a few years.
Kids on milk cartons and databases of missing persons were a direct result of Adam Walsh.
Life in South Florida never really went back to the way it was before Adam’s death. The country changed as well, but on a national level I don’t know how much directly followed from Adam’s death and how much from a generally more dangerous world.