Ottis Elwood Toole (March 5, 1947 – September 15, 1996) was an American who was convicted of six counts of murder and at one time admitted to four more murder charges. However, he recanted and restated a number of confessions during his time in prison. Police believe he was responsible for the murder of Adam Walsh in 1981. Toole received two death sentences but on appeal they were commuted to life in prison. He died in his cell from liver disease.
Toole was born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida. Toole’s mother was a religious fanatic, Toole later claimed that she abused him, including dressing him in girls’ clothing and calling him Susan. His father was an alcoholic who abandoned him. As a young child, Toole was a victim of sexual assault and incest at the hands of many close relatives and acquaintances, including his older sister and next door neighbor. He claimed that his maternal grandmother was a Satanist, who exposed him to various Satanic practices and rituals in his youth, including self-mutilation and graverobbing, and dubbed him “Devil’s Child”. Toole claimed this abuse began when he came out as gay to his family.
He was often designated as suffering from mild mental retardation, with an I.Q. of 75. He also suffered from epilepsy, which resulted in frequent grand mal seizures. Throughout his childhood, he ran away from home often and often slept in abandoned houses. He was a serial arsonist from a young age and was sexually aroused by fire.
In the documentary Death Diploma, Toole claimed he was forced to have sex with a friend of his father’s when he was five years old. He felt he knew he was gay when he was 10, and claimed to have had a sexual relationship with a neighborhood boy when he was 12. Toole dropped out of school in the ninth grade and began visiting gay bars. He also claimed to have been a male prostitute as a teenager, and became obsessed with gay pornography. Toole claimed to have committed his first murder at the age of 14, when after being propositioned for sex by a traveling salesman, Toole ran over the salesman with his own car. Toole was first arrested at the age of 17 in August 1964 for loitering.
Much information on Toole between 1966–73 is unclear, but it is believed that he began drifting around the Southwestern United States and that he supported himself by prostitution and panhandling. While living in Nebraska, Toole was one of the prime suspects in the 1974 murder of 24-year-old Patricia Webb. Shortly after, he left Nebraska and briefly settled in Boulder, Colorado. One month later, he became a prime suspect in the murder of 31-year-old Ellen Holman, who was murdered on October 14, 1974. With many accusations against him, Toole left Boulder and headed back to Jacksonville.
In early 1975, Toole returned to Jacksonville after drifting and hitch-hiking through the American South. On January 14, 1976, he married a woman 25 years his senior. She left him after three days, after discovering his homosexuality. Toole said during an interview his marriage was a tactic meant to conceal his true sexuality.
Murders and imprisonment
In 1976, Toole met Henry Lee Lucas at a Jacksonville soup kitchen, and they soon developed a sexual relationship. Toole later claimed to have accompanied Lucas in 108 murders, sometimes at the behest of a cult called “The Hands of Death”. Lucas later recanted his confessions, saying he made such statements only to improve his living conditions in jail.
In April 1983, Toole was arrested on an arson charge in Jacksonville. Two months later in June his accomplice Henry Lee Lucas was arrested for unlawful possession of a firearm. It was then Lucas began boasting about the murderous rampage orchestrated by the two. At first, Toole had denied involvement but later began backing up Lucas’s confessions.
On October 21, 1983, he confessed to the 1981 murder of 6-year-old Adam Walsh. A few weeks after Toole made the confession, however, police investigating the case announced that they had lost Toole’s impounded car and machete. John Walsh, Adam’s father, continued to maintain that he believed Toole to be guilty. On December 16, 2008, Hollywood, Florida, police announced Toole as the murderer, and the Adam Walsh case was closed. The police did not reveal any new physical evidence and pointed out that they still had no DNA evidence. Toole confessed that on that same day he ambushed and killed 46-year-old Joana Holter in her home while she was attending to groceries with the same machete which he used to decapitate Adam Walsh.
On January 12, 1982, Toole barricaded 64-year-old George Sonnenberg in his own home and set the house alight, killing him. In April 1984, Toole was convicted and sentenced to death in Jacksonville, Florida for Sonnenberg’s murder. Later that year, Toole was found guilty of the February 1983 strangulation murder of 19-year-old Silvia Rogers, a Tallahassee, Florida, resident, and received a second death sentence, on appeal, however, both sentences were commuted to life in prison.
Experts at his trial had testified that Toole suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. While serving his sentence, Toole briefly stayed in the cell adjacent to serial killer Ted Bundy in Florida’s Raiford Prison. After his incarceration, Toole pleaded guilty to four more Jacksonville murders in 1991 and received four more life sentences.
In 1984, Toole confessed to two unsolved northwest Florida slayings, including one of the I-10 murders. During an interview, he admitted to killing 18-year-old David Schallart, a hitchhiker he picked up east of Pensacola. Schallart’s body, bearing five gunshot wounds in the left side of the head, was found on February 6, 1980, approximately 125 feet off I-10’s eastbound lane, five miles east of Chipley. The second confession involved the death of 20-year-old Ada Johnson. Toole confessed that he shot her in the head on a road outside of Fort Walton Beach after kidnapping her at gunpoint at a Tallahassee nightclub. Psychiatrists Dr. Urbina and Dr. Sanches, testified at Toole’s 1984 Florida Supreme Court appeal that he was extremely impulsive and exhibited antisocial behavior as a result of a personality disorder and that he was a pyromaniac. The court found sufficient evidence that Toole was diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder.
On September 15, 1996, at the age of 49, Ottis Toole died in his prison cell from liver failure. He was buried in a prison cemetery, because no one claimed his body.
Murder of Adam Walsh
Twenty-seven years after the 1981 murder of Adam Walsh, authorities officially named Toole as the likely killer.
Toole claimed to have picked Walsh up in a Sears mall parking lot. Toole said he offered him candy and toys and that Walsh came willingly. Walsh soon wanted to go home and began crying. Toole said he then punched him in the face. Walsh started crying more, and, according to Toole, he began to “wallop” Walsh, knocking him out. Toole eventually pulled over in a rural area and decapitated Walsh with a machete. He drove around for several days with Walsh’s head, forgot about it, and, once rediscovering it, tossed it into a nearby canal. Police somehow lost his impounded car and machete, hindering their ability to proceed with the investigation.
Hollywood, Florida Police Chief Chadwick Wagner said Ottis Toole had been the prime suspect all along, but went on to admit that although Toole’s case was weak, he could have been charged during the original investigation. Wagner acknowledged that many mistakes were made by the department and apologized to the Walsh family. Public critics of the indictment argue that lack of new (public) evidence, and the inability of the defendant to defend himself of the allegations, leaves no definitive claim to his guilt. To this Wagner has stated, “If you’re looking for that magic wand, that one piece of evidence, it’s not there.” However, by reexamining previously uncorrelated evidence, police and the Walsh family are satisfied with the new report and existing evidence that points only to Ottis Toole.
In response to the naming of his son’s alleged murderer, John Walsh stated, “We can now move forward knowing positively who killed our beautiful little boy.”
The decision was finally reached once Toole’s niece told John Walsh that her uncle confessed on his deathbed in prison that he had murdered and decapitated Adam Walsh.