Adam Walsh murder revisited: The case against Jeffrey Dahmer
A Miami Herald investigation into the murder of Adam Walsh has found that in naming Ottis Toole as Adam's killer, authorities overlooked evidence and witnesses pointing toward Jeffrey Dahmer.
Investigating one of the nation's most prominent unsolved murders, a Hollywood detective pitched softball questions and homemade muffins to a serial killer.
He asked: Did you kidnap freckled 6-year-old Adam Walsh from a Sears in 1981?
``Nothing to do with it,'' Jeffrey Dahmer answered, taking another muffin.
The word of Dahmer, a sociopath who stashed severed heads in his refrigerator, was instrumental in Hollywood police deciding he was not Adam's killer despite contradictory statements from two witnesses.
In December 2008, Chief Chadwick Wagner called a press conference to say deceased drifter Ottis Toole -- long suspected but never prosecuted -- killed Adam. Adam's parents believed it and Broward prosecutors said Toole was the only valid suspect. Case closed.
But had authorities fully explored Dahmer's time in South Florida, they would have found more evidence implicating him than Toole, The Miami Herald found.
The evidence includes two additional witnesses who said they saw him at the mall with Adam that day, another who placed Dahmer at the scene of an eerily similar abduction attempt two weeks earlier, and people who said he had access to a van fitting an early description of the getaway vehicle.
The 29-year-old murder remains among the most vexing unsolved crimes in America, and no one can say with certainty that Dahmer -- or any of the other myriad suspects to drift through the case -- snatched the child.
Yet by focusing so heavily on Toole despite layers of contradictions in his long twisted tale, Hollywood police may well have missed leads pointing to Dahmer, according to fresh interviews and a review of thousands of documents.
A DISHEVELED STRANGER
``Once I saw that picture of Dahmer, I said, `That's him,' '' Janice Santamassino remembered. ``That's who I saw.''
July 27, 1981 was the first day of Santamassino's vacation, and she drove her daughter and son to the Hollywood Mall on Hollywood Boulevard across from police headquarters. After nearly slamming into the back of a blue van parked illegally outside the west entrance of Sears, she parked, and went inside.
Santamassino wanted sandals for her daughter Lori, 4, but first the girl asked to play an arcade game. Lori approached a game next to a boy wearing an oversized hat, shorts and a striped shirt and played for 10 minutes, the mother said.
On their way out of the toy department, Santamassino looked down an aisle and saw a disheveled man. She said their eyes met. She grabbed her daughter's hand and walked away. ``He just gave me a bad, uncomfortable feeling. It was spooky,'' she said.
She later heard an intercom call for Adam Walsh. A distraught woman and man were at the customer service desk, but the boy at the video games was gone. So was the creepy guy in the toy aisle.
A massive search ensued. Hundreds of volunteers scoured Hollywood's streets, and helicopters and boats filled the skies and waterways. Posters of Adam, clad in a little league uniform and flashing a gap-toothed grin, were plastered everywhere.
Watching the news that afternoon, Santamassino realized she had seen Adam. She called police and then again the next day but said she never received a return call. Not in 1981 nor in 1996, when she called America's Most Wanted after the show, hosted by Adam's father John Walsh, ran a piece on Adam. The show forwarded the tip to Hollywood police.
Contacted by a writer in 2009 and shown a picture of Dahmer, she said he was the man she saw.
Others say they contacted police in the days after Adam's abduction without reply.
They include Jennie Warren, interviewed by state attorney's investigator Phil Mundy in 1996 after a media lawsuit prompted the release of the case file. She was dismissed after she said she didn't see Toole, she said.
Warren told The Miami Herald she saw Adam with his mother Reve that day. She also noticed a man at the video games wearing beige khakis ``like army fatigues.'' He stood next to Adam and stared at the screen.
Warren says she could have picked out the man in fatigues had the investigator placed his picture in the lineup with Toole. ``I wish my mind could take a picture, because it would be him: Dahmer.''
Interviewed recently, Mundy had little recollection of the Warren interview. He did recall broader discussions among authorities about the problems Dahmer witnesses would have posed should Toole be prosecuted.
In 1991, Dahmer emerged as one of the nation's most infamous killers after his arrest on charges involving decapitation, necrophilia and cannibalism. He had 11 severed heads in his Milwaukee apartment.
For some of those present in Sears the day of Adam's disappearance, the photo of Dahmer reignited a 10-year-old memory. They recognized him as the man they saw in the store that day Adam vanished.
Among them was then-Miami Herald pressman Willis Morgan. He had told police he was in the Radio Shack in the Hollywood Mall that day and felt threatened when a stranger aggressively approached him.
He followed the man into the Sears toy department before turning away.
That man was Dahmer, Morgan now told police.
Bill Bowen, an Alabama TV producer, reached the same conclusion independently. He had reported seeing a man lift a struggling, protesting child and sling him into the back of a blue van -- illegally parked outside Sears.
Now, after seeing the news coverage out of Wisconsin, he too was convinced Dahmer was the man he saw.
On a suggestion from FBI agent Neil Purtell, who interviewed Dahmer after his Wisconsin convictions and thought he had tacitly admitted killing Adam through his overly fervent denials, father John Walsh urged detectives to visit Dahmer.
Dahmer told Detective Jack Hoffman he came to Miami in March of 1981 after his early discharge from the Army due to alcoholism while in Germany. He said he had no vehicle, never went to Hollywood, and worked long hours at a Collins Avenue sub shop. He said he never killed children but didn't want to rot in prison and would admit to Adam's murder if it meant a death sentence.
``If Jeffrey Dahmer had committed the Adam Walsh homicide, he would have confessed to this crime,'' Hoffman wrote.
Dahmer was killed in prison in 1994.
THE BLUE VAN
Had Hoffman followed up on Dahmer's statements, he would have found that Dahmer lied about his hours and was often sent home due to drinking, according to his boss, Ken Haupert Sr. As an employee of Sunshine Subs, Dahmer had access to a blue delivery van, according to eight people.
For months after Adam's abduction, police stopped blue vans across the state based on the sketchy statements of 10-year-old Timothy Pottenburgh, who said he'd seen Adam pulled into a blue van outside Sears. Hoffman eventually threw out the blue van theory, citing time discrepancies in Pottenburgh's story.
But Santamassino said she saw a blue van parked illegally outside Sears' west entrance, as did Bowen. Another dismissed witness, Phillip Lohr, said he saw a blue van parked illegally outside the toy department around the time of Adam's abduction. Lohr remembered seeing a man carrying a struggling, freckled child out Sears' toy department exit, though he didn't call police until 1997. He said he was unsure of what he'd seen that day and later felt guilty about doing nothing.
Adam's body was never recovered. A severed head identified as Adam's was found Aug. 10, 1981 in a canal on the northbound side of the Florida Turnpike near mile marker 130.
Two Publix truck drivers called the next day, Aug. 11, to report seeing a blue van parked off the Turnpike near mile marker 131 just after midnight on Aug. 7.
Denis Bubb saw a man with a flashlight down near a canal and radioed Clifford Ramey, following behind. Ramey looked to see if the driver had mechanical problems and saw the man leaning through an open sliding side door and fumbling around with a bucket, he said. He didn't notice a flat tire and the hood wasn't up. Both say they talked to Hollywood police and were told the incident had nothing to do with the Adam Walsh murder.
Ramey's glance was brief, but he thought the van had no front passenger seat, he told The Herald. The shop's blue van, former store co-owner Darlene Hill told the Broward State Attorney's Office in 2007, had ``a milk crate for a passenger seat.''
Another Dahmer connection may be found in the report of a near-abduction in a North Palm Beach Sears exactly two weeks before Adam's disappearance. At the time, investigators believed it was strikingly similar to the Adam Walsh abduction and had two witnesses create a composite sketch.
Investigators dismissed the link after speaking with a Sears security guard who said he'd chased a shoplifting boy around that time and believed the sketch looked like himself.
Hoffman wrote that Jane and Matthew Houvouras, the witnesses, agreed that the security guard was the man they'd seen, as did Terry Keaton, the child who was nearly kidnapped, and his mother.
Reached in 2010, Jane Houvouras said she told Hoffman that neither she nor her son believed it was a security guard. He wasn't in uniform.
Keaton, 10 in 1981, and his mother, Ginger Pantel, also told The Herald the man in Sears was not a security guard. It was Dahmer, Keaton said. ``In my heart, I truly believe that was the guy who tried to get me that day.''
Hoffman did not respond to an interview request.
Charles Morton Jr., chief assistant state attorney in Broward County, noted in a letter to The Herald that the new witness accounts ``add intrigue and mystery to Adam Walsh's tragic death'' -- but are problematic.
``The delayed Dahmer identifications would raise serious legal and moral questions in a potential prosecution of Dahmer,'' he wrote.
But all four Dahmer witnesses say they contacted police in 1981, though police -- who admitted to shoddy record keeping in the initial weeks of the investigation -- have no record of their tips. Also, Warren wasn't shown Dahmer's picture in a lineup in 1996 and Santamassino was never contacted by authorities.
And though police and the Walsh family say authorities thoroughly investigated Dahmer even after that interview over muffins, documents suggest otherwise.
A report obtained by The Herald shows police did investigate Dahmer's time in South Florida -- for two weeks. The investigation began after a writer contacted them in 2002 with the names of people who remembered Dahmer and said he had access to a blue van.
Detective John Kerns spoke to Sunshine Subs' 1981 night manager Ken Haupert Jr. and Michel Pelletier, the owner of parent shop Mr. Pizza. Pelletier said he didn't remember Dahmer and only had trucks. Haupert Jr. remembered Dahmer but no blue van, he said.
After a few dead-end records checks, Kerns concluded that ``this investigation has not established any link.''
He didn't contact other potential witnesses. Darlene Hill says Pelletier did own a blue van, which she used herself to move furniture.
She said it belonged to Mr. Pizza. ``You could walk in at any time and pick up the keys,'' Hill said. ``It was absolutely chaos and people would take the van. Sometimes, maybe they'd bring it back that day and maybe they wouldn't.''
Sunshine Subs manager Haupert Sr., who gave Dahmer a job, also remembered a blue delivery van used for Mr. Pizza. And, he recalled the day Dahmer showed him the body of a dead man behind the store. Dahmer's name is on a police report of the incident 20 days before Adam disappeared. The medical examiner's office ruled the death was by natural causes.
``If the police called I would talk to them,'' Haupert said.
Kerns, now retired, had ``no comment.''
The state attorney's office also conducted a brief investigation in 2007, interviewing Hill and Pelletier. Prosecutor Morton interviewed Morgan, but nothing came of it.
Then in 2008, Morton and the state attorney's office learned that Hollywood police wanted to close the case.
Their man: Ottis Toole.
TOOLE'S SHIFTING STORIES
Toole, a pyromaniac, story-telling drifter, surfaced as a suspect Oct. 10, 1983, the same day a TV movie aired about Adam. Sitting in a Duval County jail cell he told a Brevard County detective he had gotten into mischief in Fort Lauderdale. The detective mentioned it to Jacksonville Detective J.W. Buddy Terry.
That was a day before investigators around the country flocked to Louisiana to learn if Toole and one-eyed lover Henry Lee Lucas had killed in their jurisdiction. Together the duo had admitted to hundreds of murders, though today nearly all the confessions are considered inconclusive or outright lies.
Less than two weeks later, Hollywood police called a Friday night press conference to announce Toole as Adam's killer. The Toole and Lucas murders ``make Charles Manson look like Huckleberry Finn,'' said Assistant Chief Leroy Hessler.
Police said Toole knew details only the killer could and led them to the site where Adam's head was found. They planned to charge Toole on Monday, Hessler said.
But when police met with Broward State Attorney Michael Satz, no charges followed. Toole's statements show why prosecutors would be uncomfortable. He said he did it and then said he didn't. Then he did. Then he didn't. Then he did.
He couldn't initially identify Adam, said he took the boy around Jan. 1 and said Lucas chopped off Adam's head. But Lucas was jailed in Maryland when Adam was kidnapped.
Also, detectives showed him pictures of Adam's severed head and the canal scene where it was found, including the Florida Turnpike mile marker -- before asking him to lead them to the crime scene.
After Toole's first recantation that night, Detective Terry spent 12 minutes alone with him and Toole again confessed. Toole later signed an informal story rights deal with Terry. Terry insisted it was a joke, but was demoted when his superiors found out.
Investigators never found Adam's body in the myriad places Toole said he disposed of the remains, and had trouble vouching for his whereabouts in late July 1981.
``My opinion, as is most everyone else from the city of Hollywood, is that he did not do this killing,'' then-Lt. J.B. Smith concluded in 1984. ``We can't confirm one thing he has said.''
Today, Ron Hickman, one of two original lead case detectives, agrees. ``Bogus,'' he said.
`BOGUS' NO LONGER
But when Wagner closed the case in 2008, he told the media ``investigators past and present'' believed Toole was guilty and said police had a ``vast'' amount of circumstantial evidence to prosecute Toole before his death in 1996. He declined an interview.
Walsh, who did not respond to interview requests, has said in the past he's long believed in Toole's guilt.
Evidence against Toole includes the testimony of William Mistler, who told investigators beginning in 1991 that he was at the mall the day of Adam's abduction and saw Toole with Adam. He also saw Toole's black over white Cadillac and accurately described a dent on the car's back bumper.
However, state attorney cold case investigator Mundy told The Miami Herald that Mistler's story changed and he wasn't a valid witness.
Mundy, who believes Toole killed Adam, put more weight in the statements of a former cellmate, Bobby Lee Jones. Jones said Toole told him in 1982 at a construction site that he'd taken a child from Hollywood, and said Toole remembered landmarks from Hollywood.
A 12-year-old girl reported that Toole tried to push her in a shopping cart at a local K-Mart a few days before the abduction, but police believed Toole was on a Greyhound bus to Jacksonville that day.
After America's Most Wanted ran an episode on Adam's abduction in 1996 focusing on Toole, Mary Hagan reported seeing Toole inside Sears with Adam. Her 1996 description of Toole's mannerisms, including his cockheaded smile, and of Adam's beach sandals, led Mundy to believe there could be a prosecutable case.
Toole died in prison shortly after Mundy's interview with Hagan. On his deathbed, Toole confessed again but wouldn't say where he'd put Adam's body, Toole's niece told Mundy. But Toole denied killing Adam when Hollywood cold case Detective Mark Smith visited him shortly before his death, and Smith wrote that psychological counselors found Toole incoherent.
``We're not there yet, we're not at the point to say, `He's the one who did it,' '' Smith told The Herald after Toole's death.
However, during the 2008 press conference, Smith said he agreed the evidence was sufficient to have arrested Toole.
Now retired, Smith did not return messages left at his home and workplace.
After Toole's death, no new evidence surfaced, Wagner said in 2008.
But when Wagner contacted prosecutor Morton earlier that year to discuss clearing the case, Morton -- despite noting problems due to ``investigative errors'' -- agreed in writing that there was probable cause to arrest him. But prosecution would be difficult, he wrote.
``Keep in mind that having legally sufficient `probable cause' to believe that someone has committed a crime does not mean that an arrest should or must be made,'' Morton wrote to The Herald last week.
Morton, who declined reporters' request to review the new evidence in person, added that ``exceptionally clearing'' a case without charges is a police decision. He was merely stating that the state attorney's office understood the decision, he wrote.
Morton also said new Dahmer witnesses do not change his opinion that Toole was the only suspect for which ``probable cause'' existed for an arrest.
But the case file released in 2008 shows that Smith and Mundy pursued Toole almost exclusively.
If a witness hadn't seen Toole, he or she was dismissed, like Vernon Jones, who told Mundy in 1996 that he had played Intellivision Baseball with Adam that July day in Sears.
Jones, then 9, remembered that Adam was batting with the bases loaded when a man behind them beckoned. Jones said he glanced back, taking his eyes off the game. Adam smacked a grand slam.
Miffed, Jones moved to another game. When he looked up, he said, he briefly saw Adam and the man leaving, possibly hand in hand.
In 1996, Mundy showed him a picture of Toole, but that wasn't the man. Mundy wrote that Jones couldn't say for sure what day he was there or if the boy really was Adam.
Jones, a karate master from Cutler Bay and former youth crime prevention speaker, told The Herald it was Adam. ``I've never doubted it was him.''
Shown a picture of Dahmer, Jones said it could be the man he saw. He wasn't positive.
Jones said the experience in Sears changed his life. He used the anecdote in numerous crime prevention speeches.
``At least 100 to 200 chiefs of police around the country have heard my story, but Hollywood never called me. What does that tell you?''