Ron Rosenbaum, Writer

December 17, 2008

Did Obsession with "Closure" Let Adam Walsh's Killer Go Free?

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 9:23 am

It’s all over the papers today: the long ago murder of 6 year old Adam Walsh–whose death inspired his father John Walsh to found “America’s Most Wanted”–has been solved. Case closed.

My blood pressure’s been rising all day as I see more and more mainstream media outlets have picked up–entirely without investigating–this transparently contrived story without the slightest bit of sketicism. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised any more, by this sort of thing, but I am.

The family and the Florida cops say they know the killer, who is conveniently dead. They say it was a fellow named Ottis Toole. He’s been named before, he’s even confessed before. The problem is he’s confessed to dozens of murders. He’s also recanted before. According to news reports there’s no new information to cause yesterday’s sudden press conference to announce the case had been closed. There’s only one word that hangs in the air: “closure”.

According to The New York Times the announcement will allow the Walsh family to “finally move on”. But, John Walsh added, “it’s not about closure, it’s about justice.”

I’m not so sure of that. I’ve met Ottis Toole, the loathsome fellow they say was the killer, when he was on death row in Florida’s aptly named Starke maximum security prison. I was in a holding cell with him and a tape recorder. And one thing I’ll never forget is the way he smelled. Not just physically, though that was bad enough; metaphysically too. He smelled of evil. I’ve never sensed, felt, the presence of evil so closely. But I don’t believe a word he says when he confessed to poor little Adam Walsh’s death. I think he only did it for self-aggrandisement, to make himself seem like an important killer. Since he thought he was going to Sparky anyway, he used the oportunity to torment the Walsh family with grisly details of their son’s death. He did it for attention, for publicity, because he had nothing to lose. He confessed because he was a vile creep who wanted to increase the pain for the Walsh family.

In fact when he first confessed to Adam’s murder he actually said he killed and atethe child.(I know: pause for nausea). And then when parts of the body were found, he had to recant that. The problem with accepting Ottis Toole’s word for this (we’re now told there was a “deathbed confession” but Toole’s been dead for nearly a decade and confessing for a decade before that–and then taking it back) or taking his word for anything, is that if the case is closed on the basis of his word alone, it will likely mean that the the real killer will forever go free.

Not that he’d ever likely be caught. But think of the horror of him lying on a bed in a cheap motel somewhere watching tv news clips about the case being closed–and grinning from ear to ear. Home free! on to the next child. The horror, the horror, as Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz said.

Now don’t get me wrong, I admire John Walsh for all he’s done, for all the cases he’s closed with forensic finality through his tv show. And I understand the desire for “closure” after 27 years. But this kind of closure is not justice, it’s therapy.

Let me briefly sketch out how I came face to face with the alleged murderer, Ottis Toole and why I don’t believe he can offer closure or justice. I was researching a story about the phony serial killer Henry Lee Lucas who once conned the legendary Texas rangers into believing his confessions to more than 300 serial killings. All lies except maybe 2 or 3, it was later demonstrated. His confessions–sadly taken at face value for all too long (some “serial killer” experts still cite Henry)–were the basis for the movie Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. (you can read my story “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer Hoax” in my collection The Secret Parts of Fortune).

In any case, at one point in his travels Ottis Toole’s was Henry’s “runnin’ buddy”–they bummed around the country selling their blood for food, committing a few petty crimes. Toole eventually went to prison on a fatal arson rap, but he thought he could “pull a Henry” by confessing to multiple killings, “taking cases” as they put it, to stave off the executioner so that far-off police departments with unsolved cases could up their “solved'” rate by assigning the kill to Henry or Ottis.

It all got more elaborate and baroque as Ottis began claiming he was doing his killings on behalf of a Satanist cult called “The Hands of Death”. He even “co wrote” a book that was used to substantiate the whole satanist, recovered memory witch-hunt. By the time I got to interview him in the steel-cage deathhouse in Starke, Florida, all the lies had become too much, even for Ottis.

He couldn’t keep up the pretense with a straight face.

“Did you ever go to a Satanist assassination training camp in the Everglades?”I asked Ottis.

“That whole fucking book is lies,” he said.

“So what is the truth?” I asked.

“There ain’t no murders,” he said, laughing.

“No murders?”

“I dug up all the information playing them [the investigators]digging all the information out of them.”

It’s sad. If you ask me, even now, long after his death, Ottis is still playing us, playing the Walshes, playing the Florida cops who I can’t believe really think that after all his confessions and recantations, anything he says abou Adam Walsh has any evidentiary value.

As I said I admire john Walsh, but when he says “this is not closure it’s justice” I’m afraid that it’s not either.

Well I’ve met Ottis Toole–on Florida’s death Row



  1. This “closure” nonsense really has to stop. John Walsh is right about this at least, that the proper question to ask is about justice. The cult of closure is closely linked to the cult of cheap forgiveness, which for me is exemplified by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. How can a society trying to become just possibly “reconcile” with racist torturers and murderers who openly admired and aped the Nazis? It’s obscene to ask this of survivors or society as a whole, even in the name of peace.

    Forgiveness of such criminals is a betrayal of the victims and a betrayal of justice. As Hannah Arendt wrote, there are some crimes men can neither punish nor forgive. And the sick fascination with serial killers is too obviously linked to the sick fascination that Nazism and related “movements” still inspire.

    Comment by Martin Berman-Gorvine — December 17, 2008 @ 9:42 am | Reply

  2. I was eight when this occurred and living in Miami. I have vivid memories of my mom’s tremendous fear of letting me out of sight. The anxiety this case caused was, to my mind at the time at least, all consuming.

    Comment by Chris H. — December 17, 2008 @ 12:49 pm | Reply

  3. I remember a crime from decades ago in which a man ,I believe named Howard Unruh , went berserk in a little town in New Jersey. He walked through town killing and shooting everything he encountered. I remember hearing of the crime on radio and seeing the photographs in Life.
    I remember thinking “here is a madman who deserves to be hung in the village to let people know there are serious consequences for cold blooded serial murder.”
    Of course he could not be for the doctors all said he should be protected and the State dutifully put him in an asylum where he lived for decades.
    I wonder if Henry Lee Lucas and Otis Toole would be so eager to confess to mass murder if they had a little fear in their hearts?
    We have virtually institutionalized the concept of automatic mercy for killers who quickly realize that insanity may be their best friend. How many times have you heard of the doctors finding mass murderers sane?
    I think they are in a special category of criminals for whom no mercy should be possible.

    Comment by WR Jonas — December 17, 2008 @ 2:40 pm | Reply

  4. “Forgiveness of such criminals is a betrayal of the victims and a betrayal of justice.”

    I disagree. Forgiveness does not mean withholding punishment. I know my parents forgave me every time I disobeyed as a kid, but they still punished me. Forgiveness does not mean escaping consequences. Families of murder victims find that forgiveness means being able to live their lives, but it doesn’t mean withholding justice. Forgiveness is a personal issue, not a legal issue, and the two are in no way related.

    Comment by Jaci — December 17, 2008 @ 3:41 pm | Reply

  5. I’m troubled by the overwhelming media and public acceptance of this. When did, “He’s always been our top suspect, so we’ll say he’s the killer so we can give the family closure,” become a legitimate method of solving a cold case? Maybe the Walsh family takes comfort in this, but if it were my family member I couldn’t and wouldn’t.

    Toole and Lucas were serial liars. They were able to dupe many –law enforcement, mental health workers, the media — because these people believed they were too intelligent to be fooled by a pair of uneducated drifters who killed a few people. Why wouldn’t they confess to multi-state murders, especially when the police fed them information and took them on road trips away from a prison cell?

    Comment by B.L. — December 17, 2008 @ 5:47 pm | Reply

  6. Sorry: I’ve lost all respect for John Walsh with this episode.

    Comment by Denny, Alaska — December 18, 2008 @ 10:32 am | Reply

  7. The press is as lazy as ever. When and if a press outlet has even tried to explain the so-called “resolution” of the case, there is some vague deal about a sherriff going over the details of the case in his office. Law enforcement has created an institutional desire to wipe open cases off the books by whatever hocus pocus. Anyone who has ever unwittingly crossed the path of a psycho knows that for every exposed one there are a hundred in the shadows.

    Comment by charlie finch — December 18, 2008 @ 12:18 pm | Reply

  8. It’s always fascinating to me, the swift willingness to believe a murderer is innocent of a crime, without feeling the need to explore evidence to the contrary.

    So you met the guy and wrote about him?! Isn’t that grandstanding?

    Comment by Tina Trent — December 18, 2008 @ 2:41 pm | Reply

  9. You do not know of what you speak. No…..Lucas did not kill 360 people or as some of serial killer groupies claim….a 1,000.

    But, he was a serial killer and probably killed 40 or 50 people.

    Ottis Toole participated in a number of these murder with Lucas.

    The fact that you met Toole doesn’t really give you any credibility.

    Comment by egger — December 19, 2008 @ 11:34 am | Reply

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