Murder that horrified US solved after 27 years

Police name paedophile as only suspect in killing of six-year-old that launched <i>America's Most Wanted</i>
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The Independent US

The family of Adam Walsh, the "little boy in the baseball cap" whose murder inspired the TV show America's Most Wanted, have finally found out who killed their son almost 30 years after he was abducted from a shopping mall.

Police in Florida announced late on Tuesday that they had identified the man responsible for Adam's killing, which turned his grieving mother and father into celebrities and struck fear into the hearts of a generation of parents.

At a crowded press conference, Chadwick Wagner, the police chief in Hollywood, the town near Miami where Adam disappeared, announced that Ottis Toole, a convicted paedophile and murderer who died in 1996, was their "only real suspect" in the investigation and declared the case officially closed. The news came as a relief to Adam's father, John, who became a campaigner for child safety following his son's death and later launched America's Most Wanted, the US version of Crimewatch.

"For 27 years we've been asking who can take a six-year-old boy and murder and decapitate him. We needed to know. We needed to know," he told reporters. "The not knowing has been a torture, but finally that journey's over."

The revelation brings to a close one of the most infamous cases in recent US history, which began when Adam's mother, Reve, left him playing on a video game in a branch of the Sears department store for a few minutes while she shopped for lamps two aisles away. Although Mrs Walsh raised the alarm when she realised her son was missing, the store failed to secure its exits and their belated announcement asking Adam to report to customer services was later deemed woefully inadequate.

Adam had in fact been asked to leave the premises by a 17-year-old security guard. Sixteen days later his severed head was discovered by fishermen in a canal 120 miles away. The rest of his body was never found.

The incident stunned America and turned a photograph of the freckle-faced Adam in his baseball kit into a symbol of lost innocence on a par with Madeleine McCann. For years, parents would invoke his name when instructing their children about the dangers of accepting gifts from strangers.

A nation was outraged at the workings of its police when it emerged that protocol required detectives to wait 72 hours before they could officially declare Adam "missing" and launch a formal search for him.

John and Reve Walsh were further shocked to discover, a week into the search, that 80 per cent of Florida's police departments were unaware of Adam's existence. The experience saw them found the Adam Walsh Child Reform Centre, and their work succeeded in making almost every public institution adopt a procedure known as "Code Adam" for dealing with missing children.

John Walsh has since been a tireless advocate of child safety, appearing on countless TV shows urging parents never to let young children out of their sight. His profile led him to be selected as the host for the pilot of America's Most Wanted, a job he still holds.

In 2006, on the 25th anniversary of Adam's disappearance, George Bush signed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which established a national database of child sex offenders.

Toole, who was found guilty of a slew of unrelated killings, lived near the mall where Adam disappeared. Later, behind bars, he confessed to Adam's murder several times, but Hollywood police refused to believe him as he had a reputation for trying to take credit for murders with which he had no association.

Toole died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1996 following another death-bed confession. This week's decision to formally name him as the killer came after a lengthy review of the case files carried out with help from a private investigator. The one piece of evidence that could have removed any doubt – a bloodstain from his Cadillac – was lost by the police in the early 1990s before DNA analysis became widely practised.

Although news of the case's closure was widely greeted with relief, some have reservations about Adam's legacy. Richard Moran, a prominent criminologist, told reporters yesterday that John Walsh's campaigns had "produced a generation of... afraid kids who view all adults and strangers as a threat and made parents extremely paranoid about the safety of their children".

Mr Walsh denied the charge. "Today is a reaffirmation of the fact that Adam didn't die in vain," he said. "For all the other victims who haven't gotten justice, I say one thing: 'Don't give up hope'."

Most Wanted: How they were caught

John E List

The neighbours of this failed accountant from Westfield, New Jersey, began to worry when no one had entered or left his family's house for weeks. On 7 December 1971, when police went in, they discovered the bodies of List's wife, daughter, two sons and mother. They also found a five-page note from List saying that he had killed his family. Almost two decades later, the case was featured on America's Most Wanted, with an image showing how an older Mr List might look. A woman from Virginia thought it looked like her neighbour, Robert Clark, a married accountant. His fingerprints revealed that he was in fact the fugitive. List, who died earlier this year, was found guilty of murder and sentenced to five life terms.

Elizabeth Smart

In summer 2002, the 14-year-old girl from Salt Lake City was abducted at gunpoint from her home. America's Most Wanted broadcast her case on six separate episodes, naming the possible abductor as Brian D Mitchell and police received two calls reporting a sighting of him with two women dressed in robes and veils. Officers found that one of the women was Elizabeth. Mitchell and the other women, Wanda Barzee, are still awaiting trial.

The 'Texas Seven'

In December 2000, seven men escaped from a maximum-security prison in Texas. The group, known as the Texas Seven and led by George Rivas, who was serving 18 life sentences, attacked 11 prison staff before posing as engineers to escape in a stolen maintenance truck. Once free, they embarked on a series of robberies and murdered a police officer. When a trailer-park owner, Wayne Holder, saw their story on America's Most Wanted, he realised that the fugitives were living on his site. Six were captured; the other committed suicide.

Toby Green