Earlier this month, an Associated Press probe of FBI figures revealed that, despite technological advances in criminalistics, it’s just easier to get away with murder nowadays. The clearance rate of homicides, or cases solved in a year, stood at 61 percent nationwide in 2007, a steady slip over the decades from the first year of modern record-keeping, 1963, when the clearance rate was 91 percent.
In addition to DNA and other scientific advances that should be helping catch more criminals, not fewer, law enforcement also now has the benefit of reaping tips and captures with the help of modern media. America’s Most Wanted, the longest-running show on the Fox network, boasts 1,049 criminals caught with the program’s help as of this writing — yet for 27 years, host John Walsh has been at the center of one of America’s most infamous unsolved mysteries.
Until Tuesday, that is, when police and Walsh agreed that it was time to finger the killer and abductor of his son, six-year-old Adam Walsh, and close the books on the 1981 case.
“Our agency has devoted an inordinate amount of time seeking leads to other potential perpetrators rather than emphasizing Ottis Toole as our primary suspect,” said Hollywood (Fla.) Police Chief Chadwick Wagner at a news conference with the Walshes. “Ottis Toole has continued to be our only real suspect.” So whether by process of elimination or weighing the current evidence, the guy who claimed at one time or another an unlikely, debunkable total of more than 100 murders — and confessed and recanted to killing Adam Walsh at least twice — will go down in history as the killer who depraved actions sparked a community fight-back response to crime that has lasted as long as the mystery of the boy’s death.
Unfortunately, the evidence against Toole will be played out in a court of law: The serial killer, who was serving multiple life sentences for other murders, died behind bars from cirrhosis in 1996. His lover and frequent partner in crime, Henry Lee Lucas, died in prison in 2001. Lucas likewise offered so many dubious confessions that Wikipedia broadly notes the number of his victims as being between four and 213.
Toole accurately showed police the spot outside the Sears store from where Adam Walsh was likely abducted, and the canal 120 miles away where the boy’s head was discovered. His claims of where Adam’s body would be found, though, didn’t pan out, and the body was never recovered. The gory details of how Adam was decapitated, including the angle of the knife and number of strokes, also correlated with the medical examiner’s report. Toole’s niece claimed to John Walsh that, on his deathbed, Toole claimed that he did kill Adam. Police bungling at the time of Adam’s disappearance and death and evidence that had disappeared by the time DNA testing was available didn’t help matters.
“Although Adam’s killer never served one day in prison for destroying our son’s life and almost ruining ours, nor will he ever because he died in prison serving time for an unrelated murder, we are satisfied that the main suspect in Adam’s murder — Ottis Toole — has now been positively identified and that this chapter in our lives is now closed,” John Walsh said in a statement Tuesday.
What continually amazes me about the Walshes, and about other parents of murdered children I’ve met over the years, is how they’ve taken such horrendous tragedy and invested their energy into helping others avoid similar fates. Besides the Walshes founding the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and the obvious contribution of America’s Most Wanted, the Adam Walsh murder brought a new focus on stranger danger and how the most innocuous moves parents may make could bring about unforeseen consequences as predators roam the land.
The Walsh case also altered the way law enforcement approached missing persons case — though it would take another untimely death, the 1996 murder of nine-year-old Amber Hagerman in Texas, for the AMBER Alert bulletin system to come into use. Still, many states were slow to catch up; it took until 2002 — and the abduction and murder of five-year-old Samantha Runnion — for California to put its alert system in place.
As Toole goes down in the history books as the likely killer of Adam Walsh and the case is branded “solved,” it’s a good time to turn our attention to the rising rate of unsolved homicides.
No one would wish a 27-year wait like the Walshes endured on more grieving families.