Episode Two: 2 weeks of hell

Search for Adam Walsh grips South Florida, then the nation

Missing person flyers offering a $5,000 reward for information that could help police find Adam Walsh were distributed throughout South Florida.

The Hollywood Police Department is right across the street from where the Sears store in the Hollywood Mall used to be on Hollywood Boulevard, a main thoroughfare in Hollywood, Florida. Now it's a sprawling Target store. 

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The Sears closed in 1992 when Sears Roebuck and Company wanted a bigger store and moved nine miles west to Pembroke Pines. 

Although the Sears is gone, what happened there on the afternoon of July 27, 1981, forever changed one family's lives and made parents and police everywhere wake up to the reality of "stranger danger."

Have You Seen My Son?

On a summer afternoon in July, 6-year-old Adam Walsh is playing in the Sears toy department. There when his mother Revé goes a few steps away to check out lamps and lampshades. Then gone, in what it seems like a flash, the next.

She returns, only a few minutes from being in another part of the store nearby, to tell Adam it's time to go.

Now, the Atari game is silent. The "Star Wars" or Pong game -- Revé doesn't remember which one it was -- that was on the screen is dark. The four boys that were there when she left Adam aren't there either. 
A mother's instinct tells her something is terribly wrong.

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.

Maybe he's walked off to look for her, she thinks. But her boy is shy and not the type to wander off. Plus, she told Adam to stay right there at the game. Not to go anywhere. She had pointed toward the lamp department, telling him, "I'll be right back."

She goes up and down the stores aisles calling his nickname. "Cooter. Cooter."

The minutes begin to feel like hours. 

She remembers she has a photograph in her wallet. It's Adam's first-grade class picture. Coincidentally, that morning, she had dressed him in the same shirt he's wearing in the picture -- a short-sleeved Izod with red-and-white stripes. She shows store employees and shoppers. "Did they see him? Did anyone see him?"

After 30 minutes of searching, she picks up a phone hanging on the wall of the store that connects her to Sears switchboard employee Jenny Rayner. 

"I was supposed to meet my son Adam in the toy department. He's not here," Revé tells her. 

Rayner says they can make an announcement over the store's intercom system.

"Adam Walsh, please meet your mother in the toy department." Rayner repeats the announcement again. "Adam Walsh, please meet your mother in the toy department."

Revé's mother-in-law Jean Walsh is shopping in the Sears at the same time, and she sees Jean in the garden department. 

"Is Adam with you? I can't find him," Revé asks frantically. 

"Well, let's start looking," Jean says.

They both search the mall. 

It's been an hour-and-a-half and no sign of Adam. Anywhere. It's time to call the police.  

Mark Smith was with the Hollywood Police Department for 30 years, and was on patrol when Adam Walsh disappeared.

"I was on patrol on the midnight shift and I remember we got the flyer the day he went missing," Smith said. "We got the flyer with a picture and I forget what time of day it was, it was in the mid-afternoon. We got the flyer during the midnight shift lineup. And I just happened to be, the next morning, sitting in the parking lot of Sears, when John and Revé pulled up next to me, which was ironic. They pulled up and I showed them the picture from my visor. I said, 'We're looking for him.' They were obviously out all night." 

The reward money being offered to find Adam Walsh ballooned to $120,000 as the search for the 6-year-old boy dragged on.

Things were different then, though. Missing children were considered runaways. There wasn't much thought to stranger abductions. Smith agrees.

"It was true," Smith said. "I'm pretty sure that when the report came through we didn't actually send an officer. We just sent a community service officer to take the report."

Former Local 10 News reporter Steve Bousquet, who is now in Tallahassee as the Tampa Bay Times bureau chief, recalls the days and weeks after Adam's disappearance.

"What I remember is, first of all, it's 1981 and the plight of missing children and children just disappearing was really not the center of anyone's attention in law enforcement or anywhere else," Bousquet said. "So there was a sense of extreme confusion and lack of understanding. How could a kid disappear off the face of the Earth?"

The Search

The Walshes keep their gray car, the painted Checker cab in the Sears store parking lot, where Revé had left it, in hopes that Adam will show up there. They leave a sign in the window, a note attached that reads: "Adam, stay in the car. Mommy and Daddy are looking for you. Stay in the car. Love, Mommy." 

Revé Walsh left this note on the windshield of her car in the parking lot of the Hollywood Mall after Adam Walsh disappeared.

Two days into the search, Miami Beach psychic Mickey Dahne arrives to walk through the Sears store, and especially the toy department. Revé isn't far behind. 

"Did he go that way?" Dahne asks a Sears employee. "I didn't see which way he went," the employee says. "'Cuz I keep feeling like he went that way," Dahne says as she points to one of the store's exits. The psychic tells the Walshes she has hope that Adam is alive somewhere.

Revé climbs to the roof of the mall and calls Adam's name down ventilator shafts. She rides her bike up and down neighborhood streets looking for her son.

Connie Hicks was a Local 10 News anchor and reporter at the time. She remembers how the search for Adam gripped the community.

"That story was on every single day," Hicks said. "In addition, the Walshes were very good about getting the poster and the picture out. There wasn't a place you could go in South Florida without seeing that all-American kid, with the gapped tooth and the baseball bat and the baseball cap on, smiling. He was the all-American little kid. It was on every toll plaza you went through. It was in grocery stores. It was posted on signs and street lights. You couldn't forget it."

After three days, there is very little to report, and the Walshes second home has become the Hollywood police station. By now, the Walshes begin to think that the boy has been abducted.

"A sense of desperation set in very quickly," Bousquet recalled.

Five days after Adam's disappearance, John Walsh stands on a car in the parking lot of the Sears store, volunteers surrounding him, as he implores people to not give up hope in finding his son. A $5,000 reward is being offered, and 150,000 posters are printed with a picture of Adam and the announcement of the reward.

"We've searched and searched for Adam and we haven't found a body," Walsh says. "Everybody thinks he's alive. We do too. We feel that since you people have searched so hard, the best thing we can do now is get these flyers in everybody's hands. The police are so frustrated. No one's come forth and the clues that we have, well, we haven't come up with anything substantial."

It was becoming evident that this was a case that was bigger than anything Hollywood police had ever had to deal with before.

"The Hollywood Police Department at the time, well, most police departments were not as sophisticated as they are now," Hicks said. "In my recollection, they hadn't tackled a story like this. Because John Walsh had a casino in the Bahamas, there was suspicion of organized crime being involved. And Revé was suspected of having an affair. As a matter of fact, some story floated out that she had left Adam in the store to go have a liaison. So clouding the issue in all of this are these stories . . . that it was organized crime, or that she was a negligent mother because she was having an affair. But how convenient and easier that must've been for the Hollywood police to get their heads around, rather than a boy that is grabbed in broad daylight, driven away and not to be seen or heard from."

Volunteers look in dumpsters, between garages, under cars and in abandoned buildings. Florida wildlife officers comb wooded areas in a helicopter.

Time ticks on. Still, the disappearance hasn't made national news.

Revé speaks on television and says the new strategy is to expand the search beyond Hollywood. 

"The most important thing is to get the flyers out of the area. They have to use their own sense to think of their own ideas," she says about the volunteers. "I don't want them to wait for someone to tell them what to do."

Media Appearances Keep Story In the News

In 1981, there wasn't any 24-hour news cycle, CNN, or news traveling across the country and the world in a moment's time.

Bousquet interviewed the Walshes on numerous occasions during the search, even accompanying them in their car as they searched areas that surrounded the Sears store.

"The Walshes were a very telegenic couple who were very aggressive in holding press conferences, and going on the air and begging the public for anyone or anything that could provide a clue about what happened to their son Adam," Bousquet said.

During the two weeks that Adam Walsh was missing in the summer of 1981, John Walsh kept the news of his son's disappearance alive with daily updates and reminders.

Hicks said John Walsh wanted to do whatever he could to make sure that people knew Adam was still missing.

"One of the things that John Walsh did very well, which at the time was unprecedented -- now it's not so much -- but he really publicized it. He kept the story in the news every single day," Hicks said. "That seems like a no-brainer now, but back then nobody really had that sort of the skill set or the idea of, 'How do we keep this story going?' (The Walshes) were very good, although it must've been painful, about doing news conferences, talking to the media whenever they could. It was in the news every day because it was an appalling story, and it still is."

Two weeks have gone by since Adam's mother last saw her son in the Sears toy department. The couple are at the forefront of the search, with posters being distributed throughout the city. What began at $5,000 has grown to $120,000 in reward money being offered.

"I would offer a substantial reward for information resulting in the safe return of Adam," John Walsh says in an on-camera interview with former Local 10 News reporter Mel Taylor. "I would negotiate with the abductors."

Revé joins in, supporting her husband's offer. 

"We would donate any money they needed to help themselves, or to help their problem," she says. "Adam needs to be home, and Adam would never have a grudge against anyone who was kind to him."

The couple travels to Orlando, Tampa and New York. There, they make a national appearance on ABC's "Good Morning America."

"They have found the remains of a young person in Florida that at this time they are trying to identify whether it is Adam or not," John Walsh tells David Hartman on national television. "At this point they feel that it is a good possibility that it is not Adam. Therefore, they felt that we should come on and carry the word of Adam to the public, because there is a good likelihood that he is still with his abductors."

Bousquet remembers that day, too. 

"It was two weeks after the day of the disappearance," Bousquet said. "That morning, John and Mrs. Walsh were on 'Good Morning America' in which John Walsh made another incredibly anguished and emotional appeal for anyone to come forward with news about his missing son. And it was later reported that they had been told by law enforcement prior to going on the air on ABC that the police thought that they had established that those were Adam's remains that they found in Indian River County."

Grim Discovery

Hope that Adam is alive comes crashing down when police say the boy's severed head was found floating in a canal near Vero Beach, nearly 130 miles from the place where he disappeared. The shocking news on Aug. 10, 1981, confirms everyone's worst fears.

Two fisherman made the grim discovery under a bridge just along Florida's Turnpike, one mile north of the Indian RiverCounty-St. Lucie County line.

According to a summary from Local 10 archives from Broward County's medical examiner, the head was taken to associate medical examiner Dr. Franklin H. Cox in Indian River County for examination.

"At approximately 11 a.m. on Aug. 11, 1981, Lieutenant R. Hynds of the Hollywood detective division brings me the results of the dental records of Adam Walsh," Cox wrote in his summary report. "The dentist is Marshall Berger, D.D.S., of Hollywood, Florida."

He compares the dental records of the deceased with those of the head and makes a positive identification. Family friend John Monahan identifies the head as Adam Walsh, according to the report written by Cox.

"The identification and dental records confirm that the decapitated head is Adam Walsh, a 6-year-old missing child from Hollywood, Florida," Cox wrote.

The missing person's case is now a homicide investigation.

"For any parent of a missing child, the not knowing is the hardest," Adam Walsh's brother, Callahan, said. "The two weeks between Adam's abduction and the recovery of his remains were the hardest two weeks of my parents' lives -- the not knowing, the wondering, the worrying. That was the hardest."

After the "Good Morning America" appearance, John and Revé Walsh head back to Florida from New York. When they arrive, a makeshift press conference room is set up at the Fort Lauderdale airport. In front of a Delta Airlines logo, they make a tearful statement to the press.

"I don't know who would do this to a 6-year-old child. It's just beyond the realm of reality," John Walsh says, breaking down in tears.

"Adam was too good for this world and he didn't deserve to live in this world," Revé says. "He's too good, and you know that only the good die young. Thank you."

Then she gets up from the table, along with John, and leaves the room before any questions can begin.

Yes, who would do such a thing? And where was the rest of Adam's body. Now it was national news. The long road to finding Adam's killer was just beginning. And it would drag on and on for the Walshes for 27 years.


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.