Episode Four: A mother wants justice

John Walsh gains recognition as police investigation stretches into next decade

By the time the Hollywood Police Department decides to close the Adam Walsh file, saying it is "inactive and nothing is moving forward," the Walshes have left Florida and moved to Washington, D.C. They have a 2-year-old, Meghan, born a little less than a year after Adam was killed.

John Walsh is now known on Capitol Hill as an outspoken advocate for missing children. 

In October of 1982, he had success with the Missing Children Act.

SUBSCRIBE to the Florida Files iTunes | Android

Local 10 News reports: "The Missing Children Act became the personal crusade of John and Revé Walsh, whose 6-year-old son was kidnapped from a South Florida shopping center. They appeared before Congressional committees on behalf of the bill urging Congress and people everywhere to take more responsibility for children. The bill President Ronald Reagan signed allows parents to list their missing children with the FBI central crime computer. If local police are unable to help them, the computer is linked to law enforcement agencies nationwide.

"Because of overlapping jurisdiction and the lack of centralized information, parents of missing children have faced frustration and anger in their attempts to locate their children," Reagan said with the Walshes in attendance.

Callahan Walsh, Adam's younger brother, wasn't born when his parents started turning their attention from anger into action. Now as a child advocate for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, Callahan Walsh said their vigilant commitment is a source of pride for him.

Callahan Walsh's family founded the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children three years after his brother was killed.

"Think about the 24-hour news cycle that we have now and the consumption of media," Callahan Walsh said. "It wasn't the same back then. You had some local news and the one-hour nightly news, and if your case or your story made it to nightly news, that was a big deal. Missing children cases weren't making national attention. Adam's case did. Although Adam's remains were found two weeks after his abduction, my parents were testifying in front of Congress, trying to change legislature for children and, meanwhile, receiving letter after letter from parents of other missing children who weren't getting the attention that Adam's case got, and that's when my parents decided and realized that they needed to create some sort of organization, which would go on to become the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children they created in their garage off a card table and a landline -- an organization that's gone on to recover over 260,000 missing children."

The Making of a Crime Fighter

John Walsh is gaining recognition as the face of parents of missing children everywhere. He starts getting asked to appear on television shows -- in 1984 on a PBS special called "A Parent's Greatest Fear," and in 1987 on an HBO documentary "How to Raise a Street Smart Child." The next year, he makes his debut as host of a show on a new television network and begins carving out a career as a crime fighter.

Callahan Walsh remembers the years growing up with a father in the spotlight.

John Walsh, host of the TV show "America's Most Wanted" and co-founder of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, speaks during a news conference, July 12, 2004, in Washington, D.C.

"My growing up my father was in the spotlight," Callahan Walsh said. "I was just a few years old at the time. 'America's Most Wanted' started back when Fox was only on one night a week. They had programming on Sunday nights and that was it. And it was 'America's Most Wanted' and another show with another actor from South Florida named Johnny Depp. And, in fact, when my father was first approached to do the show, he refused a few times."

John Walsh is traveling the country, profiling criminals on TV, but back in Hollywood, Florida, not much is happening with the case of his murdered son. 

Another Witness

It's 1991. Again a newspaper article leads to a witness. Was it another building block, perhaps, in the case against Ottis Toole? 

This same year, Toole confesses to four other killings in Florida and receives four more life sentences, all unrelated to the killing of Adam Walsh. He is serving time at the Florida State Prison in Raiford, but he isn't on death row anymore. His death sentence was appealed and overturned due to facts presented previously that were deemed unconstitutional in a court in Duval County.

Ottis Toole was identified by Hollywood police as Adam Walsh's killer.

On Aug. 1, 1991, Hollywood resident William Mistler reads a story in the newspaper. The article marks the 10th anniversary of Adam's head being discovered in a Florida canal. 

Connie Hicks was reporting for what was then Newswatch 10.

"A man by the name of William Mistler, who owns (a) Hollywood (pest control) business, came forward to police to say that he saw Toole and Walsh in Toole's car back in 1981," Hicks reports. "Under hypnosis, Mistler described Toole's car, even including a dent that hadn't been made public. Mistler talked about seeing lawn tools in the car. Toole was known to have worked cutting lawns. So far, no one's been charged."

According to a statement from Mistler's wife in 1991, after seeing Toole's photo on television in 1983, he tells her, "I think I have seen this man." He looks familiar. But, she says, he doesn't "connect it at the time." 

His wife urges him to go to the police two years after Adam's disappearance when he does connect the man suspected of Adam Walsh's beheading with the man he saw at the Sears store two years before. 
But Mistler tells his wife there's no need for him to speak up.  He believes police are 100 percent sure it is Toole and there are other witnesses anyway, so he doesn't contact them.

He also remembers the man he saw with a boy was driving a white Cadillac, but he remembers hearing about a blue van. 

"The news reports about the blue van threw me off. If it wasn't for the blue van, I would have come up as soon as I remembered what I saw," he tells detectives. "I just thought I saw a dirty relative riding a clean-cut kid home," he says on a police statement dated July 30, 1991.

Joe Matthews, a Miami Beach police detective hired by Hollywood police to do polygraphs during the investigation, said he found Mistler to be a credible witness and talks about the day he went to interview him a few years later.

"(Mistler said) he was waiting for traffic to move in the parking lot and he sees him double-park his car and get out and take the kid by the hand, open up the car and he didn't think anything of it," Matthews said. "He called him Uncle Buck. Everybody has an Uncle Buck. But he described him in detail -- green teeth, ugly, unkempt. And he looked at the car and got a good description of the car, and I validated every dent on the car that he noticed as happening prior to the abduction. I interviewed him back in 1996 and maybe 2006, and this guy was very anal. When we went to visit him, he had brown pebbles in the front and as we're leaving, you could see him out there raking the track marks. And that was to our advantage because he was so focused. And when we went into his house, it looked like a baseball field or a golf course, where the lines of the vacuum cleaner were just so perfect."

Looking Into the Case, Again

1994. Things are changing at the Hollywood Police Department. A new command staff is assigned to take over the criminal investigation unit and Detective Jack Hoffman, who has been the lead detective on the Walsh case, is transferred out of the unit.

Detective Mark Smith, that former patrolman who saw the Walshes the day after Adam disappeared, has gained a reputation for thorough cold-case investigations. He's assigned to dig back into the Adam Walsh case. 

"It was obviously probably one of Hollywood's most high-profile unsolved crimes," Smith said. "I had been in homicide for five years at the time and did work a couple of other cold cases successfully, and it was decided that we needed to take another look at what we got. As far as evidence-wise, anything-wise, as far as the Adam Walsh case from 1991."

But there were missing pieces, including missing evidence.

Traces of blood were found inside Ottis Toole's Cadillac, but it wound up on a used car lot and was later sold for scrap.

"The very first thing I did when I was assigned to reinvestigate it was to see what evidence we got. Because in 1981 there was no DNA, and so in 1994 I was interested in seeing what was reported as bloody carpet in the white Cadillac, and to find the white Cadillac," Smith said. "And to make a long story short, all were gone. Whether it went to scrap, who knows where the carpet went; there was no record of it, no traceable record of it."

Opening the Records

It's 1996. A high-profile court case is playing out in Broward County. News organizations have begun to press the issue of releasing details of Florida State Attorney investigation No. 96-02-262 and Hollywood Police Department investigation number No. 81-56073, the Adam Walsh abduction and murder files, citing Florida's open records law. 

Connie Hicks reports from outside the courtroom on Feb. 16, 1996. 

"Last fall, after endless arguments, the media convinced Circuit Judge Leroy Moe to open the files," Hicks reports. "It was agreed that the files would be put on microfilm and turned over to the news media no later than noon tomorrow. ... Revé Walsh ... sat waiting for her turn to ask the judge to seal the files. She never got her chance, but she and John Walsh believe police could make an arrest. It is ... convicted murderer and drifter Ottis Toole who is believed by many to have killed the boy. Toole has confessed to the crime and recanted two times. If he is a suspect, police apparently don't feel they have enough evidence for an arrest, and the judge doubted any arrest or grand jury indictment was imminent."

Despite the Walsh's objections, the judge makes his decision. Moe denies the emergency motion. The media gets the files and finds 10,000 pages of stories of missing evidence, intimate details about the Walsh's lives around the time of Adam's abduction, Ottis Toole's confessions, eyewitness accounts and more. 

In an interview with The Florida Files, Hicks talks about getting those files.

"I had asked two Miami-Dade homicide detectives with a great deal of experience, and who were outside of the Hollywood Police Department, to come and go over the case file, and the case file was huge," she said. "There was a lot of information to go through."


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.