The murder of 6-year-old Adam Walsh, which raised awareness about missing children and led to television shows like “America’s Most Wanted,” has been solved, the authorities said Tuesday.
At a crowded news conference in the police station here, the police said they were convinced that Adam was killed by Ottis E. Toole, a drifter and convicted serial killer who confessed to the slaying and then recanted before dying in prison in 1996.
Adam was abducted from a mall across from the police headquarters here on July 27, 1981. His severed head was found two weeks later in Vero Beach, 120 miles north of the mall. The body was never found.
John Walsh, Adam’s father and the host of “America’s Most Wanted,” was at the news conference with Adam’s mother, Revé, and their three children.
“Today is a reaffirmation of the fact that he didn’t die in vain,” an emotional Mr. Walsh said. “For all the other victims who haven’t gotten justice, I say one thing: ‘Don’t give up hope.’ ”
Mrs. Walsh added, “This is a wonderful day, in spite of why we’re here.”
Chief Chadwick E. Wagner of the Hollywood Police Department said he regretted that the case had not been closed earlier and attributed that failure, in part, to flaws in his department’s investigation.
“This is a day that’s long overdue,” he said. “This case could have been closed years ago.”
Chief Wagner said Tuesday’s announcement was not the result of any new discovery, but rather the accumulation of all the circumstantial evidence over the years. “What was there was everything that was in front of our face for years,” he said.
Chief Wagner said the investigation had always focused on Mr. Toole, and added that the case was strong enough for the police to have charged him before his death.
The photograph of the freckle-faced Adam, holding a baseball bat, became well known to Americans after his disappearance. The police investigated hundreds of leads — the serial killer Jeffrey L. Dahmer was a suspect at one point — but no arrests were made.
As hope for Adam’s return faded, the Walshes began an organization to aid and comfort other families of missing children, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
The Walsh family also helped lobby Congress to pass the Missing Children’s Act in 1982, which created a national computer database of information on missing children at the F.B.I.
In October 1983, Mr. Toole told the police that he had abducted Adam from the mall and drove for about an hour to an isolated dirt road where he decapitated him.
Investigators lifted bloodstained carpet from Mr. Toole’s white Cadillac. But DNA testing then was not as advanced as it now, and investigators could not tell if the blood was Adam’s.
When a detective assigned to the case in 1994 went to order DNA testing on the bloodstained carpeting from Mr. Toole’s car, the carpeting and the car were found to be missing.
Mr. Toole, who confessed to dozens of killings over the years, was a longtime companion of another serial killer, Henry Lee Lucas. Mr. Toole died in prison on Sept. 15, 1996, while serving five life sentences.
In 2006, on the 25th anniversary of Adam’s disappearance, President Bush signed into law the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act. It expanded the National Sex Offender Registry, created a new child abuse registry and strengthened penalties for crimes against children.
Mr. Walsh said at the news conference Tuesday that while his family would never recover from Adam’s death, it could finally move on.
But, he added, “it’s not about closure; it’s about justice.”
* By YOLANNE ALMANZAR (December 17, 2008)