Decades Later, New Clues in a Cold Case

New revelations in the murder of "America's Most Wanted" creator's son.

ByABC News
December 16, 2008, 8:57 AM

Aug. 13, 2007 — -- The abduction and murder of 6 ½-year-old Adam Walsh, who disappeared in 1981 from a Florida mall, is one of the most famous missing children cases in America.

It was a crime that outraged a nation and propelled Adam's father, John Walsh, to devote his life to fighting crime on the television program "America's Most Wanted."

John Walsh remains convinced the killer of his son was drifter Ottis Toole, now deceased. Walsh's longtime friend and colleague Joe Matthews has been investigating the case for a year and says he has evidence of Toole's guilt -- although the crime remains officially unsolved.

But in those chaotic early days of the investigation, in a time before amber alerts and DNA, what clues may have been missed?

Now a fascinating new theory has surfaced: Could one of the most famous murders of our time have been the work of one of the most famous murderers of all time?

For the past 11 years, a true-crime author named Arthur Jay Harris has been investigating the case on his own, and he has uncovered a shattering revelation. Who was working only minutes from that mall that morning? Jeffrey Dahmer, the serial killer.

Using public records, the 7,000-page police case file and a lot of legwork, Harris discovered that the same day Adam disappeared, two witnesses independently contacted the police to describe a thin, disheveled blond man who had been acting strangely in the mall.

Willis Morgan, a printer working for the Miami Herald, said he was accosted by this man but didn't respond, and the man suddenly stalked off. Morgan said he followed the man to the mall's toy department -- the last place Adam Walsh was ever seen.

Bill Bowen, a television producer, said he was about to enter the mall when he heard a loud altercation taking place next to a blue van. He said he saw a disheveled man holding a boy by the arm up in the air.

Bowen said the boy yelled, "I'm not going. I don't want to go," and the man screamed, "Yes you are," and then threw the boy into the van, jumped in, and sped away. Police don't dispute that these witnesses came forward at the time, although no record of their statements exists.

Ten years later, in 1991, Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested in Wisconsin for murdering 17 people. Six hundred miles apart, both witnesses saw Dahmer's photo in the newspaper and said to themselves: "That's him." Both contacted the Hollywood, Fla., police department to report that the man they had seen 10 years before in that mall was Jeffrey Dahmer.

Off-Camera Voice: What isn't true?

Toole: I didn't do that case.

By 1991, Toole had confessed and recanted yet again. Though several people came forward who claimed to have seen him in the mall the day of Adam's abduction, police couldn't prove Toole had even been in the general area that day.

In 1992, Florida police interviewed Dahmer in a prison in Wisconsin. At the behest of John Walsh, who had heard that Dahmer might be involved, the Broward County district attorney took the death penalty off the table, in order to increase the odds that Dahmer would confess if he were involved.

Detective: And if you did have something to do with it, you would, you would admit to it.

Dahmer: Uhright. Yeah.

That denial didn't ring true to agent Purtell, who asked Dahmer about it later. Purtell said Dahmer told him, "Honest to God, Neil, I didn't do it."

But then Dahmer added the words that still haunt Purtell. "He said, 'You know, Neil, anyone who killed Adam Walsh could not live in any prison, ever,'" Purtell recalled.

Purtell believes this was code for what Dahmer couldn't say directly -- if he admitted to the crime, he'd be killed in prison as a pedophile. Purtell believes this was close to an admission of guilt.

But if Dahmer did murder Adam, where did he get the blue van the witness saw in the parking lot? Harris found eight witnesses who had worked at Sunshine Subs and its sister restaurant, Mr. Pizza. All reported that the restaurants shared several delivery vans which were accessible to employees. One of those vans was blue.

Capt. Smith, of the Hollywood Police Department, now questions the importance of the blue van sightings, telling ABC News he believes a family later came forward to say it was them having the altercation in the parking lot. However, Smith couldn't recall who that family was, nor could he find them in the 7,000 page file. The original lead detective, Jack Hoffman, was unable to recall the existence of this family when ABC contacted him last week.

Nine months ago, Harris published his theory in a small newspaper in Florida, but John Walsh released a statement saying the police had told him the Dahmer connection was totally unsubstantiated. When "Primetime" contacted the Hollywood Police Department and the state attorney's office three months ago, they told us Harris' theory was without merit.

If that was the case, why were they quietly interviewing Harris' witnesses? "Primetime's" cameras caught an investigator from the state attorney's office interviewing Darlene Hill, one of the co-owners of the sub shop, shortly before we did. Hill said the investigator asked her for details about the blue van.

Three months ago, Harris made a key discovery: a police report lost in plain sight for 26 years. In this document, filed only 20 days before the abduction of Adam Walsh, Dahmer reported finding a dead body behind the sub shop, just outside a deserted meter room. A cursory autopsy revealed that the man -- a derelict who had been sleeping in that meter room -- died of natural causes. Smith of the Hollywood Police Department had never seen this report until we showed it to him.