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The child abduction that shook America to its core

It’s a story that is every parent’s worst nightmare. A young mother and her little son depart for a workaday trip to a nearby mall. The mother turns her back for moment, and the unthinkable transpires. The chilling 1981 abduction and murder of 6-year-old Adam Walsh was a case that ended up changing the very nature of American society. The horrific crime that inspired the Adam Walsh Child Prote
/ Source: TODAY books

It’s a story that is every parent’s worst nightmare. A young mother and her little son depart for a workaday trip to a nearby mall. The mother turns her back for moment, and the unthinkable transpires. The chilling 1981 abduction and murder of 6-year-old Adam Walsh was a case that ended up changing the very nature of American society. The horrific crime that inspired the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act would go unsolved for 27 years. In “Bringing Adam Home,” Les Standiford recounts the heartbreaking and suspenseful saga. Here’s an excerpt.

Chapter 1: In the Beginning

Shortly after lunch on what seemed an ordinary summer afternoon, a young South Florida housewife set out on a shopping trip with her six-year-old son in tow. It was the sort of outing that millions of other mothers all across the country might have taken on any given day. Her husband, a sales and marketing manager for a local hotel company, had noticed an ad in that morning’s newspaper and called home to say that the brass barrel lamps they had been looking for had just gone on sale at the local Sears store. Maybe she ought to run over and take a look.

She was happy to do it — they’d been wanting the lamps, and the chance to save a few dollars seemed too good to pass up. She freshened herself up, dressed her son in shorts, a polo shirt, flip-flops, and his favorite way-big boat captain’s hat, and set out for the store.

It was a Monday, typical ninety-degree weather with humidity just as high, but that was July in South Florida for you. Come January, when the rest of the country was in a deep freeze, Floridians would have payback. Besides, traffic in their suburban town of Hollywood was light that early afternoon, and it was less than a two-mile drive to the Sears Mall. As a bonus, the parking space she liked to use — near the receiving dock, on the building’s north side, where the whole family could remember it — was open.

Just inside the doors, at the entrance to the toy department, her son spotted a video display with a demo of the new Asteroids game running, and he begged his mother to let him play.

She hesitated, but home furnishings was just a couple of aisles away, and besides, the world had not yet turned upside down. She pointed out to her son where she was going and told him she’d be back in a few minutes to pick him up. She gave her son a kiss, then, and hurried off to see about those lamps.

She would relive the moment a hundred — perhaps a million — times. Had she just said no to him, “Stay with me”; had she simply returned to the game display a minute sooner; had any one of a thousand things happened differently in the slightest — as it is said that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in the Amazon can form a tsunami in a distant time and place — perhaps what occurred might not have occurred at all.

But there is no changing what did happen that day. The mother found a salesperson in home furnishings easily, but there was a bit of a problem: they searched up and down the bright aisles but could find none of the barrel lamps on display. The clerk was happy to check in the back, of course — it would only take a moment. Which turned into something more.

When the clerk finally returned, her downcast expression said it all. The store had not received any of the advertised lamps, but they would be happy to call the moment they came in. The mother quickly gave her name and number and hurried back to where she’d left her son.

She could hear the clamor of spaceships and cannon fire tearing the air as she hurried down the aisle, and smiled at her son’s passion for such games. But when she rounded the corner, she stopped short. The game was running, but its stations were deserted, the sounds issuing mechanically from the demo loop. She glanced about, puzzled, hoping she would see her son browsing in the nearby toy department, or ambling toward her from where she had been. But she did not.

She fought the surge of panic that every mother feels when she turns and finds her child suddenly lost from sight. The ripples on the surface of the nearby pond are all menace. The sounds of distant traffic suggest catastrophe and grief and guilt.

But she would not panic foolishly, this mother. She would retrace her steps. She would have the store announce her son’s name, and that he should find a clerk and report himself. While store personnel stood ready, she would return to the place she had left her car. He would be waiting there, or he would come to her, or she would find him. She would not panic. She would find her son. Surely, she would find her son.


At a Capitol Hill press conference, a reporter stood to ask a final question of John Walsh, leading proponent for the about-to-be-debated Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act. Walsh, a private citizen, had become perhaps America’s most recognizable crime fighter owing to his work as executive producer and host of the long-running television program "America’s Most Wanted." But also, in the wake of the 1981 kidnapping and murder of his son Adam, he and his wife, Revé, had dedicated much of their lives’ energies to raising awareness of the problem and the plight of missing children in America.

As a result of the Walshes’ work had come the passage of the 1982 Missing Children Act, the establishment of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 1984, and the national AMBER Alert program of 2003. Walsh considered the new bill that was about to go before Congress the capstone of a life’s work removing impediments to the recovery of the nearly 800,000 children who are reported missing in the United States each year.

“Mr. Walsh,” the reporter began. “You’ve done much good work on behalf of children and families everywhere, and you’ve brought any number of heinous criminals to justice with your television show. But I’m wondering if it ever bothers you that you have been unable, in all these years, to find out who killed your own son?”

It was a question asked out of ignorance, the sort of thing that made several in the room wince. Walsh managed to respond without losing his composure, but following the incident, he and Revé contacted longtime associate and "America’s Most Wanted" investigator Joe Matthews to set up a meeting that would prove to be momentous. As a veteran homicide detective for the Miami Beach Police Department, Matthews had supervised and conducted more than 20,000 criminal investigations and over 2,000 death and homicide investigations, and had obtained confessions and convictions in a number of high-profile cases, including Miami’s infamous Baby Lollipops torture-murder, that of Washington State’s spree killer Chad Daniel Roberts, and Canada’s University of Waterloo serial rapist Christopher Meyer.

But more important, Matthews, a widely recognized polygraph expert, had been involved in the investigation of Adam Walsh’s disappearance and murder from the very beginning, twenty-five years before. His skill and tireless efforts to bring mistakes and overlooked evidence to the attention of those in charge of that still-unresolved investigation had earned him the respect and the friendship of the Walshes over the years, and following his retirement from the Miami Beach force, Matthews had gone to work as a lead investigator for "America’s Most Wanted," where he was quickly credited with solving the program’s first cold case investigation, the killing of a former high school wrestling champ by four football players at Lock Haven University, in Pennsylvania.

Matthews was well aware that for all the good work that the Walshes had accomplished over the years, there still existed a great void in their lives. Adam was gone, and though both they and he had expended vast resources and energy trying to do what the authorities had been unable to do, the person responsible had never been brought to justice. And for all the effrontery of the reporter’s question, it was scarcely the first time it had been asked: the Walshes had been asking virtually the same thing of themselves — if only privately — nearly every day for a quarter century.

From “Bringing Adam Home: The Abduction That Changed America” by Les Standiford with Det. Sgt. Joe Matthews. Copyright © 2011. Reprinted by permission of Ecco/HarperCollins.