HOLLYWOOD, Fla. - A serial killer who died more than a decade ago is the person who decapitated the 6-year-old son of "America's Most Wanted" host John Walsh in 1981, Florida police said Tuesday.
The announcement brought to a close a case that has haunted the Walsh family for more than two decades, launched the television show about the nation's most notorious criminals and inspired changes in how authorities search for missing children.
"Who could take a 6-year-old and murder and decapitate him? Who?" John Walsh said at Tuesday's news conference. "We needed to know. We needed to know. And today we know. The not knowing has been a torture, but that journey's over."
Walsh's wife, Reve, at one point placed a small photo of their son on the podium.
Suspect made deathbed confession
The suspect, Ottis Toole, had twice confessed to killing the child, but later recanted. He claimed responsibility for hundreds of murders, but police determined most of the confessions were lies. Toole's niece told the boy's father, John Walsh, her uncle confessed on his deathbed in prison that he killed Adam.
Police said Toole was long the prime suspect in the case and that they had conclusively linked him to the killing. They declined to be specific about their evidence and noted they had no DNA proof of the crime, but said an extensive review of the case file pointed only to Toole, as John Wash long contended.
"Our agency has devoted an inordinate amount of time seeking leads to other potential perpetrators rather than emphasizing Ottis Toole as our primary suspect," said Hollywood Police Chief Chadwick Wagner. "Ottis Toole has continued to be our only real suspect."
Toole was a partner of notorious serial killer Henry Lee Lucas and confessed to scores of murders. Toole was serving five life sentences for murder when he died of liver failure at the age of 49. He was buried at a state prison when no relative came forward to claim his body.
"We believed for years that Ottis Toole killed Adam," John Walsh said.
Wagner acknowledged numerous missteps in the investigation and apologized to the Walshes.
Investigation long criticized by Walshes
Many names have been mentioned in connection to the case in the years since the killing, including serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, but Toole's has persistently nagged detectives. John Walsh has long said he believed the drifter was responsible, saying investigators found at Toole's home in Jacksonville a pair of green shorts and a sandal similar to what Adam was wearing.
The Walshes long ago derided the investigation as botched. Still, he praised the Hollywood police department for closing the case.
"This is not to look back and point fingers, but it is to let it rest," he said.
Adam disappeared on July 27, 1981. His mother left him playing in the toy department at a Sears store at a Hollywood mall, but didn't find him when she returned. Over the loudspeaker, the plea sounded: "Adam Walsh, please come to customer service."
Two hours after the disappearance, police were called. His mother and grandmother searched the mall in a growing panic and John Walsh tried to work with uniformed officers to find his son.
Two weeks passed before the boy's fate was learned. Fishermen discovered his severed head in a canal 120 miles away near Vero Beach; his body never was found.
Authorities made a series of crucial errors, losing the bloodstained carpeting in Toole's car — preventing DNA testing — and the car itself. It was a week after the boy's disappearance before the FBI got involved.
"So many mistakes were made," John Walsh said in 1997, upon the release of his book "Tears of Rage," which harshly criticized the Hollywood Police Department's work on the case. "It was shocking, inexcusable and heartbreaking."
Major advances in searching for missing children
For all that went wrong in the probe, the case contributed to massive advances in police searches for missing youngsters and a notable shift in the view parents and children hold of the world.
Ottis Toole, 36, shown in this undated photo, confessed to police that he killed 6-year old Adam Walsh in 1981 after kidnapping him from a shopping mall in Hollywood, Fla.
Adam's death, and his father's subsequent activism on his behalf, helped put faces on milk cartons, shopping bags and mailbox fliers, started fingerprinting programs and increased security at schools and stores. It spurred the creation of missing persons units at every large police department.
It also prompted national legislation to create a national center, database and toll-free line devoted to missing children, and led to the start of "America's Most Wanted," which brought those cases into millions of homes.
What it also did, said Mount Holyoke College sociologist and criminologist Richard Moran, is make children and adults alike exponentially more afraid.
"He ended up really producing a generation of cautious and afraid kids who view all adults and strangers as a threat to them and it made parents extremely paranoid about the safety of their children," Moran said.
Jim Larson of Orlando has witnessed first-hand the effects of Walsh's work. His wife Carla was abducted in a grocery store parking lot one afternoon in 1997 and was raped and strangled. He credits "America's Most Wanted" with catching her killer.
"Maybe, eventually, they would have gotten there," Larson said of police. "But it seemed like right after the show aired, calls were coming in and leads were followed and they got him."
The man convicted in the killing, John Huggins, is now on Florida's death row.
In 2006, President George W. Bush signed the Adam Walsh Child Protection Act to establish a national sex offender registry and to make it harder for predators to reach children on the Internet.