On July 27, 1981, six-year old Adam Walsh vanished from a Hollywood, Florida shopping mall. His mother, Reve Walsh, left him unattended for several minutes, and when she returned, he was gone. Two weeks later, Adam’s severed head was found in a canal, and to this day, the rest of his body has never been recovered.
John Walsh, Adam’s father, went on to champion unsolved crimes in his America’s Most Wanted television program, using his son’s loss as the impetus for his campaign. In 2008, Ottis Toole, a serial killer who died in 1996, was recognized as the man behind the grisly murder.
This is the story we know well, but, everything may not be what it seems. True-crime author Arthur Jay Harris has been following the Adam Walsh case almost since its inception, and he first challenged police’s official statements when he posited that Jeffrey Dahmer, and not Toole, was the likely culprit for the crime. Harris’ evidence included seven witnesses that saw Dahmer at the mall around the time of the disappearance, along with a police report that stated that the infamous killer was living and working a mere 20 minutes away from the Hollywood mall where Adam was abducted from.
Indeed, if you follow Harris’ work with ABC and The Miami Herald, you too may come to the conclusion that police fingered the wrong man. But, that’s not where Harris’ story and investigation ends. As Harris posits in The Unsolved Murder of Adam Walsh, which has turned into a two-book series, Adam Walsh may not have been murdered after all.
What was your conclusion after years of research into the Adam Walsh murder?
After shaking out what police and the medical examiners, and yes, the Walsh family, and the news media have put out about this case, there is only one takeaway that remains true: Adam Walsh disappeared. Everything else you think you know about this case is either absolutely untrue or is so unlikely that it’s essentially untrue.
In short, the evidence against Ottis Toole, who police blamed for Adam’s murder, is between poor and none. Another police suspect, who they dismissed with little inquiry — no less than Jeffrey Dahmer, who at the time was documented living no more than 20 minutes by vehicle from the mall, is a far more likely suspect. Dahmer: 11 severed heads. Adam: severed head. That and seven police witnesses who said they saw Dahmer at the mall at the time with or near Adam, plus Dahmer’s access to the same type and color of van reported by mall witnesses as the getaway vehicle, and a comparison including Dahmer’s mugshot to a police composite drawing from a stunningly similar attempted kidnapping of a child at a nearby location of the same chain store exactly two weeks earlier.
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But I made most of that case years ago, and my evidence was widely reported. What’s new in the case, and no less outrageous, is this: The dead child they said was Adam is overwhelmingly likely not him. And the only reason we could possibly know this is because when police closed the case investigation in 2008, 27 years after the murder, all the official agency case files finally became available, for the asking. Conclusive certainties in homicide cases are startlingly few and I don’t leap to them. But this is certain: In the now nearly 35 years since the homicide, there never could have been a trial, and never will be a trial, against any defendant for the murder of Adam Walsh. That’s not for lack of suspects; it’s because the identification of the found child as Adam can never be proven in court.
Does the lack of a provable ID suggest that Adam wasn’t murdered? Why wasn’t the murdered child verified as Adam?
The medical examiner who made the ID announced it quickly after the child was found, as if it wasn’t much of a disputed issue. It was based on a comparison of Adam’s dental chart, showing a molar with a filling on the cheek side, to the mouth of the found child. That and a visual ID at the morgue by a family friend of the Walshes. Remember, there was no torso so there were no fingerprints, and in 1981 forensic DNA matching wasn’t available. Here’s what should be in the medical examiner’s files: A copy of Adam’s dental chart; Adam’s dental X-rays and X-rays of the mouth of the found child; a forensic dental consultation report, affirming the ID; and a completed, signed autopsy report narrative, since an autopsy was performed. Here’s what’s in the Adam Walsh case medical examiner’s office files: None of that.
Nor is any of it in any other agency’s investigative files. I confirmed that by getting all the files through public records requests, interviews with or questions to heads of all the appropriate agencies, and then a written report of an investigation I requested from the Florida Medical Examiners Commission, a division of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Adam’s dentist didn’t keep any of Adam’s records, either.
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As it turns out, the X-rays, for comparison, are the most significant pieces of evidence missing. I found all the forensic dentists who were working in South Florida in 1981 and were available to do a consultation, or were already under contract with regional M.E.’s offices. All told me they hadn’t been asked, and until I spoke to them had no idea there might have been an issue with the Walsh ID. Both the found child and Adam had a filling in a lower left molar on the buccal, or cheek, side. But it turns out that’s one of the most common places for children to get cavities. Think of how a kid chews gum, or eats candy, and for a moment keeps from swallowing it by putting it between his teeth and cheek. Medical examiners I spoke to said that match was good enough for only a “presumptive ID,” not a “positive ID.” Dental chart matches more often work for adults, who generally have had lots of dental work. Adam only had that one filling, according to what the M.E. who made the ID wrote.
Rather, dental X-rays would have been definitive. A comparison would look at the size, shape, and placement of the filling. But there is no note in the files that Adam’s dental X-rays were even requested. When I asked pediatric dentists whether a 6-year-old, especially who had a filling, would have had X-rays in his file, they said most likely yes.
What about the autopsy report? Why isn’t that there?
State law requires one to be written within 90 days of the autopsy, unless the M.E. is waiting for something like an outside lab report. A cover sheet in the Walsh file shows that an autopsy was done, by whom, when, and where. But, what’s not in the file are the narrative findings — the guts of the report, including a signature. Did maybe that M.E., Dr. Wright, keep his own copy? It was only the biggest murder case in the county’s history. When I reached him, as soon as I said why I was calling, he hung up on me, nor did he pick up when I called him back or emailed him. Later, when I was working on the story with a reporter from The Miami Herald, I had him call. Here’s the quote we got: “Hmmmm.” That’s it.
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But, I later figured out how to get him on the record. I made another public records request to the Broward M.E. Since the autopsy report had become a public record and they hadn’t been able to supply it to me, I quoted a state statute saying that upon request and if they could find it, they were obliged to restore the document to their file and then provide me a copy. Maybe Dr. Wright would respond to them? The then-current Chief Broward M.E. wasn’t thrilled at this idea, but after he checked with the County Attorney, he emailed Dr. Wright, who did respond to him. This is what I got after another public records request to the Broward M.E.:
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The remains were found 125 miles north of Hollywood, and were brought to the nearest morgue, in Vero Beach. Vero Beach was still a small town in 1981: The morgue didn’t have a forensic pathologist, trained in autopsies, just a clinical pathologist trained in examining tissue. So when they needed to, the office had an arrangement to send cases to Fort Lauderdale, where Dr. Wright was a big city, well-experienced forensic pathologist. But while the Vero Beach M.E. still had the remains, he did an external examination and wrote about it in a document he titled “Preliminary Autopsy Examination.”
State law is clear on this: an autopsy is defined as a dissection. The Vero Beach M.E. did not cut the body; Dr. Wright did that. That is called an internal examination, and Wright reviewed his findings from that, verbally at least, with the lead detective in the Walsh case, whose notes of their conversation were in the police case file. In addition, the press reported that Dr. Wright performed the autopsy. The state Medical Examiners Commission published guidelines say that the pathologist who dissects the body is responsible for writing the autopsy report. When the MEC investigator agreed with me that there was no report in this case, he said it was too late to consider disciplining Dr. Wright because he was no longer a medical examiner’s office employee.
How did they lose the dental chart?
Adam’s dentist’s office gave it to a Hollywood Police lieutenant who brought it to the Vero Beach Medical Examiner (M.E.), who made and announced the ID. That M.E. told me he filed the document and sent a copy to the Broward M.E. But, the dental chart is missing from all three files. How accidental is that?
This is an outline of what I think may have happened: the Vero Beach M.E., a small-town pathologist not equipped to deal with a situation like this, who admitted to me he wasn’t a dental expert, was under tremendous pressure to make the ID. The found child was of similar age to Adam. All the police present who had seen the remains the evening before and overnight were saying they were something like 99 percent sure it was Adam. Of course, none of them had ever met Adam.
Adam had been missing two weeks, and the search for him had consumed the Hollywood Police Department, whose detectives had been working on it up to 90 hours a week. Plus the Walshes, desperately and effectively, had kept the story at the top of the news for all that time. The collateral damage was that the city got crazy over this, not improperly. So I categorize the Vero Beach M.E.’s positive identification as merely a royal screw-up. If there’s a cover-up, to include the loss of or non-gathering of all those usual identification documents and evidence, I think it came after, when somebody must have realized the positive ID was made too hastily. They might have publicly walked it back, but nobody did that.
The other part is, in my mind, at some early point, the full official records in this case were never intended to see the light of day. That would have been easy enough to maintain; under Florida public records law, all police records are public — unless a case is under “active investigation.” In 1994, a terrific reporter named Jay Grelen challenged Hollywood that the Walsh case, then 13 years without an arrest, wasn’t being actively investigated. (John Walsh did not express the same opinion of Grelen.) In 1996, a Broward County judge agreed with Grelen, by then as co-plaintiff with local news media, and ordered police to make public their case files to that point. But afterward, police continued to insist they were actively investigating the case and continually refused, to me at least, to make public their newer files in the case.
After the 1996 file dump, John Walsh went on a campaign to insist that Adam’s killer was Ottis Toole. He was all over TV and print.
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By 2002, I realized the more-likely connection to Dahmer. After years of reporting, I broke the Dahmer-Adam story at the end of 2006, and in the summer of 2007, ABC Primetime worked with me further on the story.
By the way, not only has John Walsh never spoken to me about my findings, he’s never spoken to anyone I’ve worked with on the story. After in 1997, I got a very loud cold shoulder from him for a magazine story I wrote, I’ve let my editors, producers, or co-reporters solicit comments from him, rather than me do it. In that way I’ve tried to keep a light footprint. Nor had he ever spoken to Jay Grelen, so I don’t think Walsh’s refusal was personal to me.
(ED. NOTE: Uproxx reached out to John Walsh for comment, but we didn’t receive a response.)
Isn’t it possible that the whole story of Adam is so awful that he and his family have simply tried to put it behind them?
I refer to the opening of each new episode of John Walsh’s latest show, The Hunt, in which he introduces himself as the parent of a murdered child. On its website is a promotional video in which a card reads, “In 1981, John Walsh’s 6-year-old son, Adam, was kidnapped and murdered.” I also refer to a story you wrote about him in December 2014 in which he said in public, first reported by The Hollywood Reporter, “People don’t know this, but [police] kept Adam’s severed head in the morgue for 27 years, saying you can’t bury your child because it’s an open capital murder.” By the way, that’s not exactly true. According to notes in the Broward M.E. file, the family apparently got the remains in 2007, a full year before Hollywood Police announced that they closed the case.
I say “apparently” because this is another problem in the Broward M.E. file. It’s morgue procedure to log out remains; usually if not always, the funeral home handling the body signs the log. But in the Adam Walsh case, there is no sign-out signature in either its case file or the office’s general sign-in/sign-out logbook. The current chief medical examiner himself checked that for me. And the remains are now gone, he said. I tried, through state offices in Florida and New York, and the two funeral homes cited in the case file notes, to find out what happened to the remains after they left the Broward M.E. I was not able to get any information. I don’t know where they are buried, (and) I don’t know if they were cremated.
Although the transference of the remains, long by then just a skull, had been in the works for a while, it happened around when a new chief of Hollywood Police took office, which was also just after the ABC Primetime story airing. The new chief reached out to Walsh soon after, according to a letter he wrote that I got in a public records request, and then about a year later came the press conference that officially closed the case on Toole, who was dead and couldn’t therefore be prosecuted. I was at that press conference, but decided just to watch it. In my mind the exercise was in part to dispel the Dahmer theory and to embarrass me, as well as do something that John Walsh would appreciate. But it was actually a huge unexpected favor to me because at last all of the case files were now completely available. Immediately I found there were not just two police witnesses who said they’d seen Dahmer in the mall with or near Adam, but six, and then later, a seventh.
But you also went to the Medical Examiner’s office file.
Until then it hadn’t been a public record, either. And as it turned out, the nucleus of the story was there, not in the police file. When I first got there, I realized the absence of the autopsy report narrative, Adam’s dental chart, and a forensic dental report. I later came to realize the importance of the X-rays. Also on later, close analysis and with the help of other documents, I came to doubt whether Adam’s tooth with the filling was exactly the same molar as in the found child, for whom I was able to get tooth photos of. But the most striking problem was that the found child had what I call a buck tooth.
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You’ll remember that Adam, in his famous and last photo, was especially endearing because he had neither of his top front teeth. At 6, that’s age-appropriate. But I had to determine when that picture had been taken compared to when he disappeared. In his book Tears of Rage, published in 1997, John Walsh wrote:
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First, the kid had two little missing teeth.
From the archive of the newspaper in Hollywood where I had worked long ago, I got a scan of the original photo of Adam that the Walshes had given them on the day he disappeared. The photo is also on the Internet, but the pixel quality from the original is much higher, so I could get a close up that looked this good:
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Researching it further, I came to doubt that the photo had been taken the week before: it was taken by a studio and maybe the Walshes had gotten their prints a week before. I think it might have been taken a month before. But I found the man who, when he was 9, had been best friends with Adam before he disappeared, and he told me that he’d last seen him a week or two before the disappearance, and he’d especially noticed that Adam still had neither top front tooth.
The best last-seen-alive description of Adam is in a teletype Hollywood police sent to another police agency. It reads that Adam’s top left front tooth is “partially grown in.”
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A week, or not much more, before he disappeared, Adam had no top front teeth. Sometime after that, his top left front tooth apparently erupted. Two weeks after his disappearance, the found child, who had been dead for at least some time (the Broward M.E. told the press that it was possibly all two weeks) had a top left front tooth that was in “almost all the way,” in the judgment of a University of Florida forensic anthropologist I spoke to who had taken his own photos of the head as a skull for Hollywood Police years later.
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Could that work? Could a 6-year-old grow in a top front tooth nearly all the way in a week or not much more than that? I wanted to be definitive. I asked pediatric and forensic dentists and parents of kids who had passed that age. All of them said, most bluntly by one forensic dentist in Hollywood, “There’s no way in hell.”
Didn’t the Walshes ever identify the found child?
In Tears of Rage, Walsh wrote that he had never seen the remains:
“My wife, Reve, and I did not make all of these sacrifices ourselves. There were others who helped carry the burden. We did not respond, for example, to the particular request that I am about to relate. We were spared little over the whole course of events. But we were saved from this, at least. The request was for someone close to us, a friend. A family member would have been ideal, but was judged, ultimately, to be unwise. And so a friend, one who knew us well, went instead.”
The Walshes certainly weren’t at the Vero Beach morgue when the ID was made. They were in New York, where they had just appeared on Good Morning America to ask a national audience for help in looking for their missing son.
It was in the overnight hours when police first called them, at their hotel, and said that a dead child had been found the evening before. They didn’t know it was Adam, but at least to themselves, they felt pretty sure. I spoke to the show producer who told me she immediately offered to return the couple to Florida on the first flight out, but John turned it down. I also spoke to the show host, David Hartman, who told me he’d later offered the same thing. Instead, they went on the show that morning; Mrs. Walsh looked catatonic and said nothing. On air, John said this:
“Well, amongst many sightings and reported possible clues on Adam they have found the remains of a young person in Florida that at this time they are trying to identify whether it is Adam or not. At this point they feel there is a good possibility it is not Adam. Therefore they felt we should come on and carry the word of Adam to the public because there is a good likelihood that he is still out there with his abductors.”