By Arthur Jay Harris, Special commentary to the Broward Bulldog
Who “solved” the Adam Walsh case?
In front of a nationally televised press conference two years ago, Hollywood Police Chief Chad Wagner announced drifter Ottis Toole killed the 6-year-old after kidnapping the boy on July 27, 1981 from the Hollywood Mall.
An admitted serial killer, cannibal and arsonist, Toole was convicted as an accomplice in several killings. Detectives deeply investigated Toole’s confessions – and recantations – about murdering Adam, but concluded he didn’t do it. He died on death row in 1996.
A dozen years later, with no trial, no cross-examination and no new evidence, Wagner and his investigators formally declared Toole to be the killer of Adam Walsh.
It was a declaration that never should have been made and plagues Chief Wagner to this day.
Wagner was not with the department when Adam was kidnapped. Nevertheless, in December 2008 he classified the case an “exceptional clearance,” a technique commonly used to clear batches of crimes like a string of car thefts or burglaries. It gets cases off the books. In the Walsh matter, police said the killer is dead, we can’t take him to trial, we know he did it – and there.
Wagner told reporters, “If you’re looking for that magic wand or that hidden document that just appeared, it’s not there.”
In doing so, the chief dismissed other theories behind the boy’s death, including one that says serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer committed the crime.
Eyewitnesses claim to have seen Dahmer in the mall about the time of the kidnapping. Dahmer, who like Toole claimed to be a cannibal, lived in South Florida during that period, and was later convicted in Wisconsin for the murder of 15 other boys and men.
The chief doesn’t think Dahmer kidnapped and killed Adam, but he went too far by officially saying Toole did it.
The private eye
The chief appeared to have made his decision to please John Walsh, Adam’s father who in the aftermath of his family’s trauma created a national crime-stopper trend as host of the long running television show America’s Most Wanted.
What the chief apparently did not anticipate was the involvement of retired Miami Beach Detective Joe Matthews. Walsh asked Matthews to privately investigate the death of the boy and the retired cop went so far as to file a report with the chief that pointed to Toole as the killer.
Wagner acknowledged Matthews at the press conference. He noted he’d met him and “agreed with the ultimate conclusion of [his] independent investigation, that Ottis Toole was the perpetrator of this crime.” But John Walsh went further. Matthews, he said, “worked this case tirelessly for 27 years and developed so much of the crucial evidence to close this case.”
A day later on the CBS’s The Early Show, Walsh added that Matthews “took it to Chief Wagner a year ago and said there is no question… Ottis Toole killed Adam.”
Wagner went into the press conference paying deference to Walsh, but left the media spotlight with a private investigator getting credit instead of his police department.
Wagner may have kept quiet initially out of respect for Walsh. But he may have another reason. The ABC television network news magazine Primetime previously had touted Dahmer as Adam’s potential killer, and the way to defang that theory and mitigate damage to his department was to go along with Walsh and blame Toole.
A new book by Matthews, co-authored by Miami novelist Les Standiford, further complicates things for the chief. The book, due out March 1, is titled, Bringing Adam Home: The Abduction That Changed America. It attacks the “failed police work that allowed a killer to remain uncharged, and the determined efforts of one cop who accomplished what an entire system of law enforcement could not.”
One of the Dahmer witnesses, Willis Morgan, sued Wagner and others under Florida’s public records law to force authorities to make public a copy of Matthews’ original report. The chief has said under oath that his department found no value in Matthews’ work.
It was “really nothing more than a regurgitation of the facts and investigative findings” by his department over 27 years, the chief said in a sworn statement last June. Wagner added that he told John Walsh that he’d decided to exceptionally clear Adam’s case about a year before receiving Matthews’ report.
Wagner, who had endorsed Matthews, now testified that Matthews was more of a pest “who insisted on showing me” a report he had no desire to read.
Hollywood police tossed their copy of Matthews’ report, and the chief said he didn’t keep a copy. Prosecutor Chuck Morton returned his copy to Matthews. They did that even though their official review of it should have made it a public record. Should Morgan win, the losing parties – taxpayers – will be on the hook for two-thirds of a hefty legal fee – unnecessarily.
The chief could also get in hot water with the state for not keeping a copy of a public record.
The public records case
A Broward trial judge dismissed Morgan’s public records case in August, but it is now before the Fourth District Court of Appeals with some new evidence – an advance galley copy of Matthews book, which he and Standiford distributed in November at the Miami Book Fair. I have a copy.
Matthews claims new evidence in the yet-to-be released book. The most damning, he writes, is a 1983 Florida Department of Law Enforcement photograph, never previously printed, that he says shows an imprint of Adam’s face in the carpet of Toole’s car that reminded him of the Shroud of Turin. The photograph is not in the advance copy of the book.
The image appears as a result of Luminol, a chemical that investigators use to reveal traces of blood.
But here’s the problem with it:
The FDLE has said “an insufficient amount of blood” was found in Toole’s car to test for DNA. So there’s no proof that the head that Matthews sees is Adam’s. That Luminol-outline could be someone else’s head, given that Toole confessed to more than 100 murders.
Additionally, FDLE separately tested hairs found in Toole’s car and compared them to hair samples taken from the found head declared to be Adam. They did not match.
Matthews also writes that Toole told police “crime scene details only the killer could have known.” But that wasn’t the opinion of the Hollywood detectives who actually interviewed him.
Transcripts of those interviews show that everything Toole “knew” came from what those detectives had told or showed him – in hopes it would prompt him to recall something new or true in the case.
The result? Toole never gave them anything valuable that could be confirmed.
Toole went as far to say that his partner Henry Lee Lucas, also a convicted murder who he travelled with, had actually killed the child – but a quick check proved that Lucas was in jail in Maryland on the day Adam was taken. Toole then “confessed” to the killing.
The Adam Walsh case may be closed, but it’s not over. And it has no chance of ending until Chief Wagner, the man who indicted and convicted Ottis Toole posthumously, explains to us why he thinks Toole is guilty.
Arthur Jay Harris is a Fort Lauderdale author and journalist who has written about Adam’s case for The Miami Herald and other publications. His 2009 book, Jeffrey Dahmer’s Dirty Secret: The Unsolved Murder of Adam Walsh, argues that Adam Walsh was abducted by Dahmer, another notorious serial killer.