Tim Gilmore’s Stalking Ottis Toole: A Southern Gothic is the only biography of the supposed serial killer Ottis Toole. Stalking Ottis Toole: A Southern Gothic is the only full-length exploration of the contradictions of Jacksonville’s Ottis Toole and the story that supposedly led to one of America’s worst serial killers.
Finally, the book was published.
Hollywood police detectives believed Jacksonville detective Buddy Terry was leaking information to Ottis. That way, Ottis could claim murders as his own, particularly Adam Walsh’s, positioning Terry for a book deal the proceeds of which he promised to share with Ottis. People who knew Ottis thought so too.
Terry was removed from Ottis’s case, but he wasn’t the only person promising Ottis a book deal. John Reaves, Jr., Ottis’s former employer, also hoped for a book deal and had threatened to sue Terry if he published his book instead. And Gerard Schaefer, the man who forged Ottis’s letters to John Walsh, the Sears Corporation, and several Florida newspapers, had promised Ottis a book deal if he’d cooperate. For several years, Sondra London, so-called “Queen of Serial Killer Groupies,” had let Ottis think she was writing his book.
And since his death, though Ottis couldn’t read or write, French sociologists, British anthropologists, and American conspiracy theorists have written about him in terms and concepts he could never have understood.
Reaves and Terry and Schaefer and London never got to write their books, but in 2011, the Florida writer Les Standiford and Miami-area detective Joe Matthews, who had worked for America’s Most Wanted and was a friend of John Walsh, finally wrote the book on Ottis. Bringing Adam Home: The Abduction that Changed America told the story of Adam Walsh and the person Standiford and Matthews believed murdered him.
On the back inner dust jacket, Standiford looks like an ordinary guy, but Matthews’s specially styled goatee, blazing eyes, and dark sports coat ooze a kind of macho smugness. Matthews has a special insight and not only do pieces of shit like Ottis Toole not stand a chance against his analytical skills, but neither do the long failures of the Hollywood Police Department in solving Adam’s case.
To be fair, perhaps the HPD deserved some dirty looks for the ways it botched the investigation. Almost nobody thinks otherwise. Hollywood police detectives filed away evidence for years after hardly looking at it. They “lost,” in the words of John Walsh, Ottis’s car. “How do you lose a car?” asked Walsh with indignation, accusing the department of “laziness, stupidity and arrogance.” One of the lead investigators, Jack Hoffman, seems to have been flippant with evidence, to have insulted Ottis repeatedly, calling him names like “retard,” and finally to have written Ottis off entirely as a fake and a moron, which, in many people’s eyes, was prejudicial and may have foreclosed finding out the truth.
Matthews speaks of himself in third-person in tones that match his stare on the dust jacket. Matthews describes himself as a “cop’s cop,” and says it’s important “to understand what makes Matthews tick.” He takes offense when people call him “Mr. Matthews,” instead of “Detective Sergeant Matthews,” and he writes of “por[ing] through voluminous files” to find all the things no one else was smart enough to piece together. Matthews, Matthews says, was most concerned with solving cases, and while a natural in front of a camera, “laying a story out on paper, he soon discovered, was another matter altogether.”
So Reaves didn’t write his Ottis book and Terry didn’t write his Ottis book. Matthews wouldn’t have written his Ottis book either, if it weren’t for Standiford’s professional help.
But the main problem with the book, Will thinks, is that it depicts Reve Walsh, whose suffering Will cannot begin to imagine, coming to Matthews and saying, “We think we know who did it, but we want you to prove it.” John and Reve have suffered like no one should suffer, and they’ve so long believed Ottis was guilty. If someone hurt one of his sons, Will thinks, his anger would make him murderous. He wishes he were Gandhi, but doesn’t believe he’d be able to forgive. Rotting in Hell would be insufficient for such a monster. But, and Will apologizes to the Walshes in his head, wanting the killer to burn in Hell doesn’t make Ottis the killer.
Will doesn’t think Ottis was not the killer, but he also doesn’t think Ottis was the killer. He, who never knew Ottis personally, unlike James Redwine, can imagine the Ottis he’s come to know picking Adam up to bring him home to be his friend or son, then punching Adam when the boy becomes hysterical, then realizing he’s killed him, then becoming increasingly unglued, then driving around with him until he comes to an isolated spot, then, brainwashed by the insecure machismo of Henry Lee, thinking he’s a big manly killer, and since he’s already accidentally killed him anyway, laying the boy down lovingly and gently—that’s how he once described it to detectives—and cutting off the boy’s head in the woods. Will can imagine it. But Will’s not convinced it happened. He’s also not convinced it didn’t.
But if you start a mystery with the conclusion, where else can you end up? Deciding the end before you begin is understandable for the Walshes in their suffering, but for a veteran police detective? A fait accompli is the easiest logical fallacy to make. It’s especially true if you consider as proof every point that validates what you already think. So Matthews writes that a testimony made by a Toole relative who (conveniently?) died soon afterward was “a score for Matthews” (again in third person). And Will can’t help but think, even if Ottis really did kill Adam, that Matthews shouldn’t be counting scores. Furthermore, Will thinks, if Matthews really wants to find Adam’s killer, he shouldn’t congratulate himself too much on corroborating his own presuppositions. And in the same way Matthews takes “the original investigators” to task for being “intent on proving Ottis Toole’s innocence,” Will thinks Matthews is equally intent on proving Ottis’s guilt, and both beginning premises are bound to jeopardize the truth.
The truth. Will sits back in his armchair and lets the book fall into his lap. He stares into somewhere-else. If Ottis never seemed to know the truth about what he did and what he didn’t do, and police could never prove anything one way or another, Will thinks it ironic that if Ottis never killed anyone but George Sonnenberg, truth is his only other casualty.
Then he realizes that this idea, in different words, is exactly what James Redwine had told him. Not a notorious killer, a notorious liar.
So if the book begins with its conclusion, that Ottis, conveniently dead for more than a decade, notoriously unreliable when he was alive, murdered Adam, you know how the book’s going to end. And you know what Matthews’s investigation was predetermined to conclude.
So the book uses as epigraphs to its chapters quotes from Ottis that have long since been discredited. No one with any credibility any longer thinks that Ottis was one of the two most prolific mass murderers of all time. No one any longer thinks Ottis and Henry were part of some international uber-cryptic Devil Worship cult. No one any longer thinks Ottis was a cannibal. But that doesn’t stop Matthews from using discredited testimony as circumstantial proof that Ottis was a monster. So. Epigraph to chapter six, interview with the Texas Rangers, during the period when Ottis and Henry were playing their Texas-to-Florida game of one-upsmanship, going from 100 murders to 300 to 600, and throwing in cannibalism and necrophilia and international Devil Worship conspiracies:
Q: So you admit that you’re a cannibal?
A: I have eaten some parts of them. And the skin.
Q: Did you eat them raw?
A: Oh no. You can’t eat that without cooking it. Are you crazy?
And here, Will stands up, walks back and forth in front of his bookshelves, taking another sip of red wine, and he cannot shake the feeling that Matthews is being wholly disingenuous by using discredited testimony from a psychologically unstable and untrustworthy man to mislead his audience.
Matthews makes a point of being a macho proof-man, and almost inevitably, since real men are men of action and not words (Hemingway excluded from this stereotype), a poor writer in need of Standiford, but so many of his proofs are fallacious, misleading, circumstantial, unreliable. So what is his proof?
Matthews ignores the otherwise inexplicable act of an illiterate man writing letters to John Walsh, the Sears Corporation, newspaper editorial offices and others, by saying that “Gerald Schaffer” “helped” him write the letters. He even gets Gerard Schaefer’s name wrong—both the first and the last name, just as elsewhere he calls The Florida Times-Union the Jacksonville Times-Union.
Though he calls Ottis “a brain-damaged and troubled man,” Matthews ignores the fact that Schaefer had a decades-long history of forgeries that reached from applying to police departments to prison-run pornographic letter-writing services. Matthews does, however, show that Schaefer wanted to collect on any outlying rewards for turning Ottis in.
Over and over, investigators, after their initial high when offering Henry and Ottis the claim for hundreds of cold case murders in Texas and Florida, stated that Ottis had confessed for “publicity reasons,” that Ottis “had been furnished confidential case file information” that would, in the words of an unkind later blogger, turn this Forrest Gump into Florida’s own Jack the Ripper.
Matthews discusses the blood found in Ottis’ old Cadillac, though the blood was never found to match Adam’s. DNA testing was unavailable at the time. Years after the initial investigation, Hollywood P.D.’s files were reopened, and a pair of green shorts and a flip flop filed away years ago were rediscovered. The shorts and the shoe had been found in the back yard of Ottis’s mother’s house on Day Avenue, the house Ottis had burnt down. They bore similarity to what Adam was wearing the day he disappeared, but proof of a match beyond similarity doesn’t exist.
Nevertheless, and Will finds he doesn’t appreciate this deception, Matthews presents this similarity as though it’s conclusive. The book doesn’t say it’s a match, but it leaves the reader assuming it is. The treatment of these items seems to Will similar to their chapter epigraphs of discredited testimony of cannibalism. Matthews also doesn’t mention the fact that John and Reve Walsh were shown this pair of shorts in the early 1980s, when they had said the shorts had not belonged to their son.
Ottis had played a lot of roles in different stories, and Matthews uses pieces of the ones that serve his purpose. Over the years, Ottis had been repeatedly called a retard, a “two-bit arsonist,” a wily liaison for international organizations, a Satanist and cannibal, and a CIA recruit. John Walsh angrily rejected Ottis’s come-from-behind underdog braggadocio, as if he were a bigger and badder killer than Vlad Tepes of the 1400s, prince of Wallachia, House of Drăculești, also known as Vlad the Impaler, and as Dracula. Instead, Ottis was poor-white-trash of the 20th century American South, “local nut” or “retard” (depending on who’s talking), House of Toole, also known as the secondary lover of the child daughter of Drusilla.
The end of Bringing Adam Home largely argues that Matthews is smart and good and that Ottis was stupid and evil. Throw six year-old Adam into the story. The conclusion is obvious.
There’s the “evidence” of the similarity of the pair of shorts and shoe dug up at 708 Day Avenue, which Adam’s parents had long ago said were not Adam’s. Tests against the blood in the Cadillac were always inconclusive. The fact there was blood in the car should disconcert us. Maybe. Yes, Ottis owned a machete and / or a bayonet. But even likelihoods aren’t proof. And maybe these aren’t likelihoods.
Then there were confessions and recantations. Matthews emphasizes the repeated confessions. In the time period they were made, a confession was the Holy Grail in a murder case. If you had the confession, there were no other questions. No other consideration was made for people with other complexes of mental problems who might make false confessions for any number of different reasons. Why would anyone confess to something he didn’t do? A person deranged enough to confess was a person deranged enough to do the crime to which he confessed.
Yes, Ottis was dumb. Yes, Ottis was creepy. Yes, Ottis was poor. Yes, Ottis was imaginative enough to embellish stories suggested to him. A person could be imaginative but have terrible reasoning skills. Maybe Ottis was a storyteller who could not write. For Matthews, assembling evidence was a masculine skill, while writing was beneath his machismo. But for Ottis, assembling evidence was a male skill of fakery used against him, while telling stories that confounded the “wise” cops at least momentarily elevated this poor and dumb white trash.
But maybe Ottis was still capable of kidnapping a child with whom he thought he connected, a child he thought could be his friend and brother and son, whereas upon Adam’s panic, he could only, himself, panic. Or maybe Ottis was talked up enough by Henry’s lies and braggadocio that he thought he could do the real thing. This one time. Repeatedly Matthews points out that when Ottis confessed to long lists of heinous cold-case murder upon murder, he confessed with glee, smirking, but he broke down crying when he talked about murdering Adam Walsh.
This discrepancy in behavior convinces Matthews that Ottis murdered Adam. In other interviews, Ottis says he never killed children. In still other interviews, Ottis brags about skewering children on baseball bats and eating them with barbecue sauce. But James Redwine recalls that anytime an altercation occurred at Betty’s rooming houses, Ottis would run and hide. He would cry and go to pieces. And once, when Betty, whom he called Mom, fired him for taking pills with Henry, he sat stupidly and sadly facing the house for two days before begging Betty to let him work for free, and Betty—who claimed that “Bullshit Walked When Her .38 Talked”—took Ottis back under her wing.
But the story of Matthews piecing together the evidence comes down in the end to three new considerations. The first is the resolution Matthews thinks he’s found to Buddy Terry’s book deal controversy. Then there’s a story Ottis is said to have told his family. Finally, there’s a story about Luminol and cigars.
Matthews sides with Terry and against the incompetency of the Hollywood police throughout the book. It’s hard for Will not to think that Matthews sides with Terry for his own interests in arguing that Ottis was Adam’s killer. So if Terry was removed from the case after charges he’d leaked information to Ottis with a book deal promise, Matthews finds a way to nullify the charge. In talking to Reaves, Matthews finds out, apparently for the first time, of Reaves’s hope for a book deal. Instead of understanding Terry and Reaves as having competing interests, Matthews concludes that it wasn’t Terry who wanted the book deal after all, that it was Reaves. As though only one person could have wanted a book. As though Reaves himself hadn’t threatened to sue Terry if he went through with his book. For Matthews, this glib conclusion exonerates Terry.
Then Matthews happens to track down a couple of Toole’s former relatives through marriage, who, he says, tell him a horrible story. Supposedly one day Ottis was drinking beer when he “announced” that he had murdered Adam Walsh, raped him and dismembered him, offering sickening details. The story made his then-sister-in-law throw up in the bushes, which in turn made Ottis laugh and ask, “You pregnant or something?”
Everybody in the Toole family supposedly knew about Ottis’s killings, but, Matthews says, they never told the police because no one ever asked. When Will later contacts one of these former family members, she tells him she had never met Ottis. She says she had no idea their names were used in Matthews’s book and that she and her family are “pissed” about it.
The biggest, most shocking new piece of “evidence” in Matthews’s book is a photo he discovered stashed in Hollywood police files. It’s a photograph of a piece of carpeting from Ottis’s Cadillac after being treated with Luminol to highlight the possible presence of blood. When you first look at it, you might not see anything, but next to the photograph in the book is a diagram showing you where in the image you should look to see the eyes, the nose, and the mouth. And when you’re shown what to see and where to see it, you can definitely see it. The photo was said to show Adam Walsh’s face “etched in his own blood.” When Will sees it, it upsets him. If it is what it’s supposed to be, it’s one of the saddest images he’s ever seen.
But the chances of the “if” are not clear. The face is about as convincing as the image in the Shroud of Turin or the “Face on Mars.” The face is maybe as convincing as songs Southern Baptists play backward to hear Satanic messages. The face is maybe as convincing as the Beatles’ “Revolution 9” played backward to hear “Turn me on, dead man,” which supposedly means that Paul McCartney died in 1966 and the Paul after that time was an imposter. Nor did John Lennon say, “I buried Paul,” at the end of “Strawberry Fields.” He said, “Cranberry sauce.”
But once again, Will’s cynicism has run away with him, and cynicism can deter you from the truth as much as foregone conclusions can. It’s possible, maybe, that the picture is what it’s purported to be. Two or three eyewitnesses did, many years after the abduction, finally come forward to say they saw Ottis Toole at the shopping center that day.
Eyewitnesses also claim to have seen the serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer in the area that day. Dahmer lived in the Miami area at the time and is now well known to have decapitated many of his victims. Several skulls, some with flesh still attached, were found in Dahmer’s apartment in Milwaukee. Arthur Jay Harris, author of Jeffrey Dahmer’s Dirty Secret, a book that argues that Dahmer killed Adam Walsh, points out that other substances than blood can taint Luminol images, including metals in proximity.
Other people said, looking at the image from another angle, that what they saw was a large boot print.
When Matthews first sees the Luminol floorboard image, he feels “chilled […] but there was more to the feeling than that. From this image there emanated reassurance, and a strange kind of peace, and the blessed feeling that twenty-six years of effort [not all his own, of course] had not gone in vain.” Of course, if you’re looking for assurance that an effort wasn’t made in vain, Will thinks, you’ll find it.
So Matthews called a detective friend and invited him to a Miami cigar bar. When they met and Matthews showed him the picture, his friend “might have smiled, except for the horror of what they’d been looking at.”
And Matthews said to his friend, “The hell of it is, I have to show the Walshes. But right now, let’s have us a cigar.”
In 2008, three years before Matthews’s book would be published, the Hollywood Police Department announced that its conclusions now concurred with those of Joe Matthews, that it was closing the Adam Walsh case and “was satisfied” that Ottis Toole was the killer.
Matthews’s book implies the Hollywood Police Department made its decision based on his investigation. But in a response brief to a suit for public disclosure of Matthews’s report prior to the book’s publication, department attorney Joel Cantor wrote, “In reaching this conclusion, Joe Matthews relies on the investigative findings of the Hollywood Police Department rather than the Hollywood Police Department relying on any of the information contained in the manuscript to exceptionally clear the Adam Walsh investigation. There was simply no reliance on the contents of Joe Matthews’s manuscript for anything related to the Police Department’s investigation of the abduction and homicide of Adam Walsh.”
Nevertheless, a book about Ottis had finally appeared, and authorities finally laid the murder of Adam Walsh at Ottis’s feet. Ottis had been dead for 12 years. He’d been mentally unreliable. He was never brought to trial for the case.
Will hadn’t known a dead man could be convicted without a trial—the name for it was “exceptional clearance.”
The Walshes feel they have some kind of closure for their son’s death. Maybe Ottis did do it, Will thinks, and maybe he didn’t. Maybe Ottis himself didn’t know. And Adam can’t tell us anything. And Adam had everything he might have done with his life taken away from him. And he was alone with his killer. And only his head was ever found.
When Ottis died of liver failure in 1996, he was also perhaps suffering from AIDS. Not one friend or family member came to him as he died. No one claimed his body. He was alone at the end. Maybe as he had always been. He was buried without ceremony on prison grounds.
But shortly before Ottis died, his niece, Sarah-Christine, whom he was said to have prostituted from the time she was 10 years old, visited him in prison, when, she later said, he confessed to her that he’d murdered Adam. Henry Lee had murdered Sarah’s half sister Becky, whom both Henry and Ottis had molested. Sarah-Christine was Drusilla’s daughter. She’d been a prostitute for as long as she could remember, back into her earliest childhood. When Ottis died, she came to collect his few belongings. Whatever they may have been. And whatever she did with them.
Only weeks before, Sarah-Christine had a Polaroid snapped of her and Uncle Ottis against the background blocks of a prison wall. In the photograph, she has few teeth. Ottis is both skeletal and swollen-bellied from liver failure. They look decades older than they are. It’s impossible to tell which of them is older.