The Adam Walsh story you know: After 6-year-old Adam was found murdered, his father, John Walsh, channeled his unbearable grief into becoming an angry crime-fighting TV host.
Yet this is the story you don’t know: For decades, officials had never revealed the file proving the child was Adam. Astonishingly, it showed that the dead child had never been legally ID’d as him. Why? Was it because the evidence was either inconclusive—or showed that the child likely actually wasn’t Adam?
INVESTIGATIVE TRUE CRIME: Never intended to be publicly seen, the key to Adam Walsh’s murder mystery was hidden in an autopsy file 40 years ago. The key wasn’t what was in it; it’s what wasn’t in it. Possibly only one man, maybe two, had seemed to know that—not even the detectives because it meant that decades of their work had not only been wrong and wasted, but couldn’t possibly have been right. On the moment of its discovery by a reporter, the prevailing narrative of the case was about to be shattered.
And that was the least of it.
A famous old crime. No linking physical evidence. For decades, the murder of Adam Walsh, the iconic face of Missing Children, the boy on the milk carton, was an unsolved mystery. Suddenly police declared a solution resurrected on a theory of theirs they’d long discredited. At a live nationally-televised police press conference, the victim’s family was tearful and grateful.
The national media bought it. The local press, however, recognized it as a convenient fiction.
On July 30, 2021, days after the 40th anniversary of Adam’s disappearance, Fred Grimm wrote in the South Florida Sun Sentinel:
“A sensational alternate theory blamed serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who was living in Miami in 1981. But in 2008, despite no new evidence, Hollywood police hung the crime on long-dead Ottis Toole.
“The only mystery left unsolved was how any cop could have possibly believed Ottis Toole.”
While Toole was still alive and in state custody, and could have been charged with Adam’s murder on the same information, John Walsh had belittled the idea:
“A lot of people still think Ottis Elwood Toole did it. But he and [his partner] Henry Lee Lucas confessed to a lot of murders they didn’t do. It’s a great ploy for convicts: They read about a murder and they’re in solitary. They call the police, desperate to clear a murder, and they say, ‘Fly me there and buy me a pizza,’ and they get out of their cells for two days!”
—South Florida magazine, July 1992
Police had statements from six separate witnesses at the mall who said they saw Dahmer when Adam disappeared, but police couldn’t confirm that Dahmer had been in town then. Then reporter Art Harris, working with ABC Primetime, found a Miami police report with Dahmer’s name dated 20 days before Adam was taken. Still they weren’t interested. But by 2008, both Dahmer and Toole were dead, so did it matter? Although the police’s conclusion was eye-rolling, it seemed harmless.
Grimm was wrong only in that police’s belief in Toole was the only mystery left.
Probably without realizing it, by closing the case police unlatched a door locked nearly 30 years before to a guarded secret.
Inside Harris discovered a much larger convenient fiction, but this one not at all harmless. In looking back it explained everything irregular in the investigation that had followed. As long as the secret was kept, the case could never be truly solved. Harris was then working with The Miami Herald, but even when they confronted them, the chief medical examiner who’d hidden it, the police—and most surprisingly, even the Walshes all turned blind eyes.
What was the never-meant-to-be-seen or spoken-of truth in Adam Walsh’s murder?
It starts with, there was an autopsy but no one wrote an autopsy report. That never happens...