Episode One: A trip to Sears changes everything

How it all began

Adam Walsh disappeared from the Hollywood Mall on July 27, 1981. His severed head was later found in a drainage canal near Florida's Turnpike in Indian River County.

On July 27, 1981, a mother and her 6-year-old son make a trip to their neighborhood mall. It's less than two miles from their house. She wants to look at lamps at the Sears department store. He spots boys playing a brand new Atari game at a display set up in the toy department.

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It's summer vacation. The trip to the Hollywood Mall is an almost daily routine for Revé Walsh and her son, Adam. And local kids spend their days back and forth between the mall and the park next door.

You may remember some of the details of the disappearance of Adam Walsh, the child abduction that happened right here in South Florida. How it scared the daylights out of parents everywhere. How it changed the way police handled kidnapping cases. How an innocent 6-year-old child was snatched by a stranger, and apparently decapitated by that same stranger, never to be reunited with his parents again. 

But there are things you may not recall: Lost evidence, a botched police investigation, the murder pinned on a dead man, or, what some say was the work of a notorious serial killer. 

Almost 40 years after he vanished out of thin air, questions remain about what really happened to little Adam Walsh.

Trip to the Store

"Back in 1981, it was a different time," Callahan Walsh said. 

Callahan was born six years after his brother Adam disappeared. His sister, Meghan, was born a year after Adam's disappearance. His brother, Hayden, was born 13 years after his brother's disappearance. As you can imagine, he's heard the story of what happened that day at the Sears store countless times.

Adam Walsh disappeared while the 6-year-old boy was with his mother at the Sears department store in the Hollywood Mall.

"My mother went to the Sears department store with Adam to buy a lamp, lampshade as a matter of fact, and video games were brand new at the time. It was one of those big arcade cabinets and Adam stopped and was watching, and he asked my mother if he could stay and watch the four teenage boys who were currently playing the game," said Walsh, who now is an executive at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the nonprofit his mother and father and other child advocates incorporated in January 1984, to help find missing children and prevent child victimization. "(There were) two teenage white boys and two African-American boys playing, and she said, 'Yes, just wait right here. Don't go anywhere. I will be one aisle over and I will be right back.' When she returned, Adam was nowhere to be found."

Walsh said that the family eventually learned more about what may have played a role in security guard Kathy Shaffer's actions. 

"It wasn't until years later that we learned that it was an untrained security guard -- a female security guard -- who had an abortion the day before and was forced to come to work that had sent Adam out of the store," he said. "That the two white boys and the two African-American boys had gotten into an argument over the video game. She came over to break up the fight and assumed Adam was with the white boys and sent all of them out one door and the two black boys out another door and all into the parking lot."

Connie Hicks, a reporter and anchor for Local 10 News at the time, remembers the story of the disappearance unfolding. 

"I will say that in this day and age it seems odd to suggest that she should not have left her son in the toy section of the Sears department store alone, but at the time that was not considered an appalling lack of judgment," Hicks said.

Steve Bousquet, now the Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee bureau chief, was a reporter for Local 10 when the story broke.

"The whole situation was surreal," Bousquet said. "As I recall, it was a Monday afternoon and a call came over the two-way radio to go to the Hollywood Mall immediately because a little boy had disappeared."

Storybook Life

Sunday, July 26, 1981. John Walsh does what he does every night when he isn't traveling for his job. He tells his 6-year-old son bedtime stories.

John isn't the type to read a story from a book. After all, at one time he had ambitions to be a writer. 
John Walsh grew up in Auburn, New York, a sleepy town of only 8.4 square miles. The biggest nearby city is Syracuse, a 40-minute drive northwest via New York State Route 5. Winding past open fields, rows and rows of maple, beech and birch trees. Through little towns and hamlets. 

Auburn is known for its history -- as a safehaven for black slave and abolitionist and black slave Harriet Tubman, and for a notorious jail. Auburn Correctional Facility is the first place to ever do an execution by electrocution. They kill William Kemmler, who killed his girlfriend in cold blood with an ax, in 1890.

When it was time for college, John Walsh didn't go to nearby Syracuse University. Instead, he went two hours east to Buffalo, choosing its university and majoring in English because famous novelists taught there.  

But the days of Buffalo are behind Walsh. He is working as a hotel developer in Florida, so he channels his creativity into stories to tell his son at bedtime. Stories about a courageous boy named Bobby and his sidekick -- his dog, Sparky. The superhero tales aren't scary or dangerous. They are about helping others, facing challenges and being courageous. Bobby and Sparky always did the right thing and things always turned out OK.

Little did John Walsh know that only 24 hours later, when his wife and son would make an afternoon stop at a local mall, his storybook life would turn upside down. And the days, months and years that would follow will be something John and Revé Walsh could never imagine.

The Day Adam Disappeared

When John and Revé's son, Adam, was four months old, he would make a sort of crowing sound. Adam was named after John's father, Adam John Walsh. "Pop" had nicknames for everyone. He nicknames the boy "Rooster McCooster." Then, somewhere along the line, it gets shortened to "Cooter." 

Cooter is still asleep when John Walsh wakes up at 7 a.m., reads his newspaper, then leaves for work at 9 a.m. He has no idea that by afternoon, the course of his life will change forever. His life as a father.  Eventually, it would change his career, too.

Walsh is working as a hotel developer out of an office in Bal Harbour on the Intracoastal Waterway for a group of investors on a $26 million project in Paradise Island in the Bahamas.

The Timeline

8 a.m. Adam's mother wakes up. 

8:30 a.m. Adam gets up, sits in front of the TV where "Sesame Street" is playing. His mom gives him an Orange popsicle. 

It's 9 o'clock. Maybe 9:30. James Campbell, a family friend and Adam's godfather, comes to the Walshes to have breakfast with Revé. He has only recently moved out after living with the Walshes in their spare room. 

He and John met at The Diplomat Hotel when Campbell was working as a lifeguard. Years later, when the Walshes have space in their three-bedroom home at 2801 McKinley St. in the north-central neighborhood of Hollywood, Florida, James moves in. 

John has him make a promise. In exchange for the living arrangement, he would get a college education. He enrolls in community college, but quickly drops out. John kicks him out, but the couple remain friends. 

After breakfast, James leaves at 10 a.m.

By 11 a.m., Revé packs Adam in the car she drives -- a Checker cab painted gray.  

They leave the house. Revé has to drop off a check for Adam's tuition at St. Mark's Lutheran School at 502 N. 28th Ave. in Hollywood. It's 1.1 miles away from the house, about a four-minute drive. Then it's off to the Hollywood Mall, just five minutes away -- 1.4 miles down Hollywood Boulevard.

Revé Walsh kept her car parked in the same place where she and Adam had left it when they arrived at the Hollywood Mall on July 27, 1981.

Revé arrives at the Hollywood Mall at approximately 12:30 p.m. on that fateful Monday afternoon in July. She finds a parking space on the north side near the Sears receiving dock.

She holds Adam's hand as they walk in the north door, like she always does. They pass the catalog desk on the left. That puts them right in the middle of the toy department. There are boys huddled around a new Atari game. 

Adam begs her to let him stay with the other kids to play. 

Children play an Atari video game on display at the Sears department store inside the Hollywood Mall. This is the last place Adam Walsh's mother saw her son alive.

"I'm going to be right over there in the lamp department, Adam," she said.

The last thing she would ever hear Adam say was, "OK, mommy. I know where that is."


Video vault and audio archive for The Florida Files from WPLG-TV, Local 10 News archives, Miami Dade College's Wolfson Archives and ABC News.