The Loss of Innocence: The Abduction Of Adam Walsh Changed Hollywood & The Country Forever
May 24, 2023
On July 27, 2023 it will be 42 years since six-year-old Adam Walsh was kidnapped from inside a Sears department store at the Hollywood Mall, but the impact of his abduction and murder still resonates in South Florida and certainly with myself. I remember as a kid growing up in Hollywood, just like Adam I went to the Sears Department Store and played games on the same exact Atari store display he was at that day. I would shop with my family or ride my bike on the path alongside Orangebrook Golf Course to go play the latest Atari Game Console in the Sears TV Department with friends.
I am a few years older than Adam was at the time, but that could have been me any of my friends or even myself. Going to that mall was a weekly occurrence growing up in Hollywood. Your parents would go to Sears for everything from school clothes, to Craftsman tools, or to get their car repaired at the Sears Auto Center outside the main mall.
This year will be the 42nd Anniversary of his kidnapping, 15,341 days to be exact, but to me it seems like it wasn't so long ago. My parents at the time owned a business in Hollywood, a Carvel Ice Cream on Johnson Street. I can vividly remember the flyers posted around the city with Adam's face and my family posted them on the windows of their store.
As the days turned into weeks, the search for Adam became more and more desperate. The flyers still hung around the city and in my family's ice cream store as a constant reminder that something was different. As a kid you looked at things differently, you would look to your family for how important a situation is, you could see in their faces, this was something that wasn't normal. They were nervous, a bit of innocence and small town trust was lost.
On that fateful day, Adam had been with his mother, Reve, and his grandmother, when they went to the Sears Department Store at the Hollywood Mall to buy some lamps. Adam, who was a curious and adventurous child, wandered off to the toy department while his mother and grandmother were looking at the lamps. When they finished, they realized that Adam was missing, and they began frantically searching for him.
The search continued for several hours, but there was no sign of Adam. The police were called, and an intensive search was launched, involving hundreds of volunteers and law enforcement officials. But despite their efforts, Adam was nowhere to be found.
The Walsh family refused to give up hope, and they continued to do everything in their power to find their son. One of the most effective tools they had at their disposal was the distribution of flyers, which they used to keep Adam's face in the public eye and to enlist the help of the media and as many people as possible in their search.
Two weeks later on August 10, a fisherman found Adam's severed head in a canal along Florida's Turnpike, over 100 miles from the Hollywood Mall. The rest of his body was never found, and his murder went unsolved for decades, leaving the Walsh family devastated and the nation along with Hollywood families in shock. Life for myself and every kid changed that day, parents in Hollywood and around the nation realized, this could have been any child, in any family.
Despite the passage of time, the memory of Adam Walsh and his tragic death still resonates with many South Floridians, myself included. Adam's photo in his baseball uniform and red hat have become a symbol for missing children and a reminder of the evil that can happen to any of us in an instant. Although the Hollywood Mall Sears and most of the mall, where Adam was kidnapped may be long gone, Adam's face pictured with a red baseball cap lives on as a reminder of a different, more innocent time.
Growing up in Hollywood at that time, Adam's abduction was a marker in time when life changed forever and there was no going back. There was always an uneasiness being outdoors without your family or going to a mall, there was no more going off on your own without a family member. As you get older you can see how this tragic event was the point that changed your childhood forever, but it also was the impetus for changes to protect children throughout that nation.
In the aftermath of Adam's abduction and murder, his father John became a victim advocate and crusader for child safety. He lobbied for the creation of the Missing Children Act and founded the Adam Walsh Child Resource Center, which later became the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
John also became the host of the national TV show "America's Most Wanted," which profiled the cases of missing and wanted criminals, including those who had committed crimes against children. The show helped to bring many fugitives to justice and became a powerful force for public safety and awareness.
In addition, the Adam Walsh Child Resource Center, now the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, continues to provide critical services and support to families and law enforcement agencies across the country. The organization's mission is to help find missing children, prevent child exploitation, and provide resources and support to victims and their families.
Since being founded in 1984, The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children Toll-Free Hotline: 1 (800) THE-LOST - 1 (800) 843-5678, has received more than 5 million calls. They’ve circulated billions of photos of missing children. They’ve assisted law enforcement in the recovery of more than 376,000 missing children thanks to constantly increasing and improving public awareness, training, laws, and technology.
Adam's legacy has also inspired other initiatives and organizations aimed at keeping children safe. The Adam Walsh Act, which was signed into law in 2006, created a national sex offender registry and strengthened penalties for those who commit crimes against children.
Over the years, there have been a number of theories about who might have killed the boy. One of them was Ottis Elwood Toole, a drifter and companion of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. According to Toole's confession, he abducted Adam outside the Sears store and drove off with him. Toole, who died in prison in 1996, confessed to Adam’s murder in October 1983. Toole claimed he and Lucas were responsible for hundreds of murders.
In the many years that followed, John always maintained hope that Adam’s killer would be found. Eventually John and wife Reve decided to reach out to former Miami Beach Homicide Detective Joe Matthews, who reopened the cold case. In 2006 Detective Matthews took on the case and re-examined the evidence, discovering previously overlooked or disregarded clues, including 98 photos taken by investigators of Otis Toole's Cadillac. Toole had confessed and then recanted his confession to Adam's murder. However, Hollywood Police detectives had been unable to verify Toole's confessions due to a series of errors made in the investigation, including losing crucial evidence.
Detective Matthews' examination of the photos revealed a bloody image of a young face on the carpet behind the driver's seat of Toole's car, which he identified as Adam's. This evidence was crucial in finally identifying Toole as Adam's killer in 2008, and the Hollywood Police Chief at the time, Chad Wagner, apologized for the past mistakes made in the investigation.
The tragic events of July 27th, 1981, have left an indelible mark on the nation. But the legacy of Adam Walsh has also inspired a powerful movement to protect and advocate for children's safety and well-being.
As John Walsh once said, "I don't think you ever heal from something like this. But we've taken the tragedy and turned it into something positive. We're making a difference, and that's what Adam would have wanted."
If you have any information regarding a missing or exploited child, please call: 1 (800) THE-LOST - 1 (800) 843-5678. Or visit: www.missingkids.org