"Florida cops solve Adam Walsh Murder," declares one of the many headlines announcing today's breaking news out of Hollywood, Florida. John Walsh, wife Reve and their children by his side, gave an emotional press conference in which John thanked Chief Chad Wagner and retired detective Joe Matthews for bringing closure to his family. "Not knowing was torture."
I feel for John and Reve. Years of working with victims has given me a ringside seat to the the pain they have suffered being left in limbo, the cases of their murdered loved ones going unsolved for years and years. I see the tears slip out of John's eyes and run down his cheek, his voice trembling as all his feelings of twenty-seven years rushed out, and I empathize with his relief that the years of questions and no answers has come to an end.
Unfortunately, when I separate myself from the tendency of us humans to accept what is the "nicest" answer, I feel uncomfortable with the conclusion of Walsh and the Hollywood police. I have worked on cases that have been administratively closed for a number of reasons - overwhelming circumstantial evidence exists but is linked to a dead suspect, limited circumstantial evidence that is linked to a dead suspect, and absolutely no circumstantial evidence but a dead suspect that is useful to pin the crime on.
The Adam Walsh case falls into the middle ground. Serial killer Ottis Toole was looked into as a possible suspect two years after Adam's murder, not because he came into their investigation through evidence or witness reports, but because they had convicted him on another homicide and pressured him to confess to other murders "he had committed". It is not unheard of for police detectives to offer attractive benefits for confessing to homicides regardless of guilt - better prison arrangements, notoriety, and trips out of jail complete with camaraderie and McDonald's treats. Often the police drop inside information about a crime and the convicted felon parrots back the details which "proves" he had knowledge of the murder "only the suspect would know".
So, Ottis Toole confessed a couple of times and recanted a couple of times. Interestingly, the one thing the police didn't know - where Adam's body was dumped - was something apparently Toole didn't know either. The location he told police was the final resting place of Adam's body was searched and no remains were found.
Jeffrey Dahmer was another possible suspect in Adam's murder. At least he was proven to be in the area at the time, drove a van that matched witnesses' descriptions of a vehicle they had seen at the mall when Adam disappeared. A man of his description was seen pulling a resisting boy into the van like the one he drove for his place of employment. Furthermore, a witness has claimed he saw Dahmer in Sears that day. While none of this proves Jeffrey Dahmer killed Adam Walsh, he certainly seems to have more possible connections to the Walsh murder than Toole. But, he makes less of a useful suspect post-death because he didn't "confess" to killing the boy.
"If Ottis Toole was alive today, he would be arrested for the abduction and murder of Adam Walsh on July 27, 1981," claimed Hollywood Police Chief Wagner at the new conference. He added that there was no "magic" piece of evidence that caused Ottis Toole to now be labeled the one-and-only possible suspect. Worse, Chief Wagner offers so little evidence linking Toole to Adam's murder that no prosecutor in his right mind would have been willing to risk his reputation by taking such a pitiful case to court.
But, Toole is dead, the Hollywood police department would like to close this unfortunate blemish on the history of the department's investigative prowess. John Walsh would like to feel justice (perhaps by believing the man who killed his son is dead) has been served. The American citizens are happy because John is happy.
Closing this heinous case based on a "could of been him" conclusion, is not only egregious but dangerous. Cases should never been considered solved when there is nothing more than wishful thinking and political expediency. Worse, nailing Ottis Toole with Adam's murder without solid evidence proving he was involved, may leave a child killer on the loose. How will everyone feel if next year an aging pedophile named John Smith is arrested for the kidnapping and abduction of a small boy and when the police search his house they find pictures of him with a little boy named Adam Walsh in a basement safe?
As many times as I have heard the opposite on television news in the last few hours, justice has not been served and the killer of Adam Walsh has not been conclusively identified or linked to the crime. The investigation has no more evidence today than it did twenty-seven years ago and the only reason the case has been closed is because Chief Wagner wants it closed. Ending an investigation without a shred of proof is a travesty, not justice.