Adam Walsh, son of John and Revé Walsh, was abducted on July 27, 1981, when he was six years old. What was so terrifying about this story was that it could have happened to anyone, in a department store, when Revé had been absent for only a moment. After searching the area, no one could locate the missing child. Adam was murdered; his severed head was found two weeks later, but his body was never recovered.
Although a Florida man named Ottis Toole confessed to the murder in 1983, he later recanted and was never officially charged. Toole died in prison in 1996 while serving for other murders he had committed. However, in 2008 it was confirmed that he had been the killer and the case was announced closed.
The reason that the case went unsolved for so long was due to procedural mistakes made early on in 1981. The investigators lost several major pieces of evidence and were misled by Toole’s recanted confession. Even so, the police eventually realized that the circumstantial evidence had been more than enough to convict Toole. Adam’s case is therefore generally seen as a failure of the justice system which then spurred widespread new calls for higher quality policework.
In his grief, John Walsh started the television show America’s Most Wanted in 1988, trying to help parents who went through what he went through, as well as founding the Adam Walsh Child Resource Center and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The case also inspired the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006, which established a more thorough and accessible nationwide database of convicted sex offenders, increased penalties for crimes against children, and created the National Child Abuse Registry. The Adam Walsh Reauthorization Act of 2016 continued funding for these efforts, and on October 7, 2016, was enacted with several similar bills through the larger Survivors’ Bill of Rights Act of 2016.
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