Bringing Adam Home: The Abduction That Changed America

by Les Standiford with Det. Sgt. Joe Matthews

Published by Ecco

304 pages, 2011

Buy it online





Over-Hyping Horror

Reviewed by Brendan M. Leonard

Within the first third of Bringing Adam Home: The Abduction That Changed America, Les Standiford’s new account of the quarter-century-long investigation into the 1981 Florida kidnapping and murder of 6-year-old Adam Walsh, the author lays out this case’s bottom line:

Once again, it might seem to any sentient observer that every element was in hand for a swift delivery of justice, or as swift as one is permitted in a system as full of checks and balances as our own. An individual [Ottis Toole, drifter-serial killer, declared to be the murderer of Adam Walsh in 2008 ] with a history of violent behavior has made three unbidden confessions of murder to law officers from three different jurisdictions, providing details obviously known previously only to the medical examiners and the detectives in charge of the case. Surely justice was about to be dispensed. How could it possibly not be?

Are you infuriated yet? Standiford certainly wants you to be. However, he does less in that passage to build up his readers’ frustration than he does to demonstrate what’s wrong with this work of non-fiction: Bringing Adam Home is about an intense, heart-rending subject that’s almost suffocated by Standiford’s sloppy, overblown writing.

That’s too bad, because the story he’s retelling has all the elements of a captivating mystery -- as Standiford, who in the past penned a series of thriller novels featuring Miami builder and troubleshooter John Deal, ought to have understood.

By now, the facts of the Adam Walsh case are so well-known, so embedded in the nightmares of parents and their children’s imaginations, that they have almost become part of American folklore. That doesn't make those facts any less terrifying: One morning in July 1981, Revé Walsh and her son, Adam, went shopping for house lamps at a Sears store near their Hollywood, Florida, home. Entering the store, Revé let Adam out of her sight to play a videogame while she shopped. When she returned minutes later, her son was gone. A local, then national search for Adam followed, ending in tragedy when the boy’s severed head was found. Along with the parents of other missing children such as Etan Patz, Revé and her husband, John Walsh, became advocates for reforming the response to missing-children cases. Their achievements include lobbying Congress to pass the Missing Children Act in 1982, and the establishment of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 1984. John Walsh later became the host of America’s Most Wanted, the long-running TV series that’s reportedly responsible for the capture of more than 1,000 fugitives.

Standiford and his fellow writer, Detective Sergeant Joe Matthews, a 29-year veteran of the Miami Beach Police Department, would’ve been smart to let this true-crime yarn unfold at its own dramatic pace, with minimal interference. Instead, they felt the need to inject their political slants into the narrative and lard it with eye-roll-inducing digressions that pull the reader right out of the story. Here, for instance, they describe America’s Memorial Day:

Over time, Memorial Day has become a somewhat trivialized occasion, its luster dimmed by a series of unpopular wars over the past half century and its date now shifting year by year to coincide with the last Monday in May. Perhaps a weary workforce and school population now welcome a three-day weekend as an unofficial kickoff to the summer season, but surely the holiday achieves little to instill the sense of honor, duty, and sacrifice it was designed for.

That follows a whole paragraph recalling the history of Memorial Day.

Now, I'm pretty sure we can all get behind the idea of child abduction and murder as, you know, bad. But what about investigating sexual harassment? Standiford, or maybe Matthews, seems to put that in the “bad” camp as well. Here’s a passage describing Matthews’ reaction to his discovery of a camera trained on the desk of a harassed female detective:

You couldn’t have someone recording what went on there, willy-nilly, no matter how many times you found your turtle statuettes humping each other.

In my notes next to this paragraph, I wrote, “Oh, come on!” It is not the first time, by the way, that such a note appears in my copy of Bringing Adam Home.

In case you couldn’t tell from the above selections, Standiford likes to pretty up his language and give it that creative non-fiction flourish we all know and love. The worst passages in Bringing Adam Home read like a less-talented Norman Mailer writing an even less-creative book report on In Cold Blood.

Children went off to corner stores, or out in backyards to play, and they simply never came back. Or sometimes were brought back in body bags ...

Her words spoke to the core of his reason for being ...

The bombshells would have to take their places in the long chain of evidence, items both great and small. This wasn’t a movie, this was life ... and death.

It’s clear that Standiford and Matthews want this book to mean something, and there are sections where they go a long way toward accomplishing that. But it’s not through hyping the material. The best portions of Bringing Adam Home tell parts of the Walsh tale that are not already familiar.

For instance, the authors focus on the sad, creepy life of Ottis Toole and the bungled, 1980s investigation by the Hollywood Police Department. In the form of Toole, Standiford creates a bogeyman that’s reminiscent of a dozen urban legends about serial killers, rendered all the more frightening because he is real. Standiford’s account of the original investigation into Toole’s mid-’80s confessions, led by Detective Jack Hoffman of the Hollywood PD, reads like a suburban fusion of The Wire and Zodiac. Here, the mentally handicapped Toole manipulates police by delivering confessions, recanting them, and then leading the cops to bogus locations, while the department blocks valuable progress on the case through of a series of petty grudges, miscommunications and bureaucratic errors. There are even characters who, because of their behavior, get busted back down to a uniform beat (we Wire fans call this “riding the patrol boat”). Standiford and Matthews also hit the right notes of heartbreak and outrage when they describe the numerous witnesses and peripheral characters who might have helped save young Adam’s life ... if only they’d spoken up, and not been too afraid of getting in trouble, or thought that someone else would handle it.

These sections almost make Bringing Adam Home worth recommending -- except, like so much of the book, they too suffer from Standiford’s inability to dial it down. He’s got to make Joe Matthews into some kind of super cop (plenty of unnecessary page space is dedicated to describing just what a badass he is), and he has to turn Ottis Toole into the unholy spawn of Freddy Kruger and Peter Lorre in M:

... [A]s every mile ticked by, Ottis Toole thought of his mother, and of the lover who had betrayed him, and listened to the voices in his head. ...

He didn’t need to buy a single thing, it was true, but there were other attractions at a place like this. ...

There were lots of young ones to talk to, and he knew that, eventually, he would find one who would listen. In these parts, there seemed no end of promising malls. ...

[W]hat Toole had hiding in the wings made those attributes seem the stuff of a Disney hero in comparison. And if he hadn’t finally had a little truly bad luck, the horror-show side of Ottis Toole might have never been shown.

Then there’s the matter of this volume’s subtitle: The Abduction That Changed America. The effects of the Adam Walsh case on a nationwide scale -- most big-box retailers in the United States now have “Code Adam” safety programs, and numerous pieces of associated legislation have been passed -- are touched on throughout the book. We see John and Revé Walsh go on from the tragedy that befell their son (who, had he lived, would now be 37 years old) to become advocates for the thousands of other children who disappear every year, and John continues to catch bad guys every Saturday night on America’s Most Wanted.

Yet Standiford and Matthews fail to fully explore how the panic over “stranger danger” and missing children in the late 1970s and early ’80s truly changed the psychological fabric of the youngsters who grew up in the wake of it all. The idea that John Walsh has “made all kids afraid,” as one psychologist puts it in a quote used here, is a fascinating one, and worthy of more discussion than it inspires in these pages. Furthermore, while Standiford takes every unnecessary potshot he can at the media, he doesn’t bother suggesting, reasonably, that if Adam Walsh had been of a different color, his case might never have received the attention it did, and we might not know Adam’s name today. Instead, he sums up the “change” Adam Walsh’s abduction and murder had this way:

And when that heavy door slammed shut, it seemed to mark the end of America’s innocence. Can there truly be a time when audiences believed in The Brady Bunch? Was there really a time when a parent could bring a forgotten lunch or book bag to school without passing through security gates and showing ID?

That passage neglects the fact that America seems to lose its collective innocence once or twice a generation.

If you have an interest in reading how the police reacted to the snatching and killing of Adam Walsh in 1981, told from the perspective of a (biased) insider; or if you’re interested in looking at the gruesome crime-scene photos Matthews discovered during his 2006 investigation of the case, then I can recommend Bringing Adam Home.

However, if you just want to read a book about Adam Walsh that lets the power and pain of his story come through without sensationalistic editorializing, then turn instead to a book called Tears of Rage (1997). It was written by a guy you may have heard of.

John Walsh. | April 2011

Brendan M. Leonard lives in New York City. He’s a regular contributor to The Rap Sheet. You can also follow him on Twitter or read his personal blog, I Wrote This on Purpose.