"I killed a lot of people... but of all I did, I wished I hadn't killed that little kid." These are the words of serial killer, crossdresser, arsonist, pedophile, prostitute and cannibal Ottis Toole, a man of limited intelligence and such limited morality that this statement stands out as one of the few redeeming thoughts in his ugly, brutal life. Yet it was not enough to prosecute him. Nothing, it seemed, was enough to prosecute Toole for the savage kidnapping and murder of "that little kid," Adam Walsh.
Most Americans are aware of the legacy of Adam Walsh, even if they don't know of him by name. They may have seen the milk carton campaigns to find missing children that began as a result of Adam's death, or watched "America's Most Wanted," hosted by his father, John Walsh. Perhaps they have heard about the child advocacy work of his mother, Revé. But few can imagine the long, sorrowful, agonizing saga that John and Revé have lived, the gruesome and haunting story that began on an ordinary day in 1981 when Revé took her six-year-old son to the mall in Hollywood, Florida, left him briefly in a safe place at the arcade, and came back to find him gone. Forever. A scant two weeks later, Adam's severed head was dredged out of a canal. With BRINGING ADAM HOME, mystery writer Les Standiford, in collaboration with Detective Sgt. Joe Matthews, has written a riveting and page-turning account of this heart-wrenching story.
Matthews had eagerly taken on Adam's cold case in 2006, 27 years after his disappearance and death, at the request of the Walshes. By then, Hollywood law enforcement had admitted that the trail was not just obscured, it was completely covered over by time and neglect. John still suspected Ottis Toole; he knew about the many and varied confessions Toole had made about his part in Adam's last terrifying hours on earth, so many confessions that ultimately none was believed. Toole wanted a book deal, police learned, and loved to confess to heinous crimes. And there was no hard evidence linking him to Adam's barbaric murder, even if he was able to describe details so chilling that one could hardly imagine anybody making them up (burning and dismembering the corpse, lunching on some of the boy's ribs, and keeping the head around for a while in case he wanted to use it for sex). The police at the time had another suspect in mind, a friend of the Walsh family, and when that one didn't pan out, they let Toole and his multi-layered confessions and evil letters to John slip away.
Painstakingly following the old clues, Matthews delved into every aspect of the case, but concentrated especially on Toole to confirm or put to rest John's suspicions. There were a few who tapped Jeffrey Dahmer as Adam's killer, citing a link when Dahmer was in Florida and could have committed the crime. But no suspect ever loomed as large as Toole, despite the lack, to this day, of physical traces connecting him to Adam. Police bungling had played a role, along with police politics.
Matthews, a cop for 30 years and founder of the child tracking program DNA Lifeprint, Inc, had no official fetters and no bias. He simply wanted to help the Walshes find the comfort of closure. He dug up witnesses who years later finally admitted they had seen Toole near the crime scene and observed him taking an innocent boy away in his van. And Toole, who by then had died in prison while serving a life sentence for a casual arson/murder, made a deathbed confession. Of all the evil he had done, only the killing of Adam bothered his conscience.
The world was a different place after Adam's abduction. Parents no longer felt safe leaving their children alone in public, suddenly forced to recognize that there are monsters wandering the streets and cruising the roads. Many laws regarding child protection sprouted after Adam's death, and the Walshes have devoted their lives to trying to bring other children home. Possibly for them, each child saved is an Adam.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on March 28, 2011