Stalking Ottis Toole, chapter 59: Buddy Terry, Coerced Confessions, Retractions

This chapter of Tim Gilmore’s Stalking Ottis Toole: A Southern Gothic is part of 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.

OT 7

What did the boy look like?

And Ottis said, “Ah, he had blond hair and kinda curly, I’d say it could have been curly or wavy or in between. I’d say it wasn’t no straight-bodied hair. And, ah, he had on a pair of dungarees and a blue shirt and I know he had a, he even had a pair of mittens on.”

Somehow between the transcription of the police interview and the police report that followed it two weeks later, “mittens” became “sneakers.”

Adam had been wearing sandals or flip flops, green shorts, a red and white striped shirt. His hair was dark and straight.

In this first confession, Ottis said he and Henry kidnapped Adam, not knowing that Henry was in jail at the time.

“Did he tell you his name?”

“No, he kept telling us all kinda different names. One time he told us his name was Jim, one time he said his name was Tom and Joe and all that shit.”

And later, what did Ottis and Henry do with Adam’s clothes? And what did they do with his body parts, other than his head—the only part of Adam ever found?

While driving, “we throwed [the clothes] out all over the side of the road. We threw different parts of the body all out, out of the window, out of the car all up and down the road.”

Buddy Terry asked Ottis, “It’s been some time ago now. Is this the first child that you and Henry picked up?”

“Oh, we killed some older than that, you know.”

“No, but I mean a six year-old child like this,” Terry said, informing Ottis of Adam’s age.

“First, first one,” Ottis said, but then he seemed to recant accidentally, even in the midst of the confession. “I ain’t never, never got messed up in killing any kid that young.”

Since Ottis’s information about Adam’s looks and clothing were so completely wrong the first time, Terry said, “Now when you described the clothing to myself and Detective Hickman, okay, are you just trying, you know, I know you’re meaning to tell us the truth, but is it possible you’re not sure about the clothing?”

And Ottis said, “No, I’m sure about the clothing.”

Terry pushed on. “Why are you so sure about the clothing? What makes you so sure that you remember the clothing that the child was wearing? Was there something unusual about the clothing that you remember?”

“No,” Ottis said. “There wasn’t nothing unusual about the clothing. He had on a pair of dungarees and a blue shirt, light blue shirt.”

Then Jack Hoffman, the one who was always calling Ottis a retard, showed him a picture of Adam, and Ottis said, “I don’t think so. No, I don’t think that’s the kid, though.”

“You don’t think so? You’da had no problem remembering who this kid was, or do you think you were just too intoxicated to remember at the time? You’re not intoxicated now. We know that.”

“It could have been ’cause I was too fucked up in the head, you know. I ain’t really sure.”

And how many people had Ottis seen Henry Lee Lucas himself kill?

“I’d say a couple hundred.”

“But like you said, you told Detective Terry you only remember one incident of a child being taken from a Sears mall.”

And Ottis asked, “What was this kid tooken from?”

“This was in the Sears mall.”

“He was taken from a Sears mall?” Ottis asked.

By the time of the next confession, after Ottis had been told that Henry couldn’t have been with him when he’d abducted Adam, Ottis was learning to do his best to get the answers right. He didn’t like when he was pressured to get the answers right and he kept getting the answers wrong.

“He did say,” Ottis said, “his momma and daddy was in the store and—”

Hoffman interrupted him. Only Adam’s mother had been in the store. So Hoffman admonished him, “Both his mother and his dad? Think about that now.”

Ottis had apparently given the wrong answer, so he moved away from it. “Well, maybe I didn’t even ask him was his parents in the store, you know.”

And later, “Okay. So the first thing you did was get a ticket to get onto the turnpike. Which way did you go on the turnpike, north or south? Did you go back towards Jacksonville or did you go south of Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood?”

But Ottis said he didn’t really know the difference between north and south or east or west.

“Did you go back from where you came?”

“Yeah.”

“Comin’ back home?”

“Yeah.”

“Or did you go the other way?”

Now Ottis wasn’t really sure what he was supposed to answer. “I ain’t really sure.”

“Look at me,” Terry said. It annoyed him how Ottis was always looking at the ceiling and wagging his head around slowly.

“My mind is gettin’ stuck,” Ottis said.

“Look at me. When you left, where did you plan on going? Did you plan on going back home?”

“Yeah.”

“All right. Did you go in the direction to go back to Jacksonville, or did you go the other way?”

Ottis had forgotten what he was supposed to answer, so he said, “I could’ve went back the other way.”

“Ottis, look at me. What did you do when you left the shopping center? Which way did you tell me you went? Just think. Which way, where did you tell me you were going?”

But Ottis couldn’t remember what he had told Hoffman before, or if what he had told him was wrong or right.

Terry said, “Come on now. Now you know which way you were going. ’Cause you told me and you told Detective Ruiz where you were going. Which way did you tell us you were going? Where did you tell us you were going? Were you going home, or were you going to Miami?”

“I was going back, going back to Jacksonville.”

And when Terry asked if there was an overpass nearby, Ottis said, “I can’t remember. I really can’t.”

Terry, increasingly irritated with Ottis’s failure, demanded, “Look at me! Look at me! No more looking at the ceiling!”

Then Ottis said, “I know what you’re tryin’ to do.”

“I’m not tryin’ to do nothin’,” Terry said.

And Ottis repeated himself. He knew what Terry was trying to do.

Later, when Hoffman showed Ottis the picture of Adam’s decapitated head, he asked him if this was the child he had abducted.

But Ottis didn’t say anything.

“Don’t tell me what you think. I want to hear you tell me what you know to be the truth.”

What was the difference between thinking and knowing?

In the next couple of years, police detectives and even Henry, talking to him from his prison in Texas, would keep telling him to tell the truth. But they would always indicate that if he told the wrong truth, the truth they didn’t want him to tell, his answers would be all wrong. He really wanted to get the answers right. If they wanted him to be a killer, he would be the very best killer they had ever heard of.

Terry said, “If you know in your mind and in your heart, okay, that that’s the child, or it’s not.”

Ottis just sat there, not saying anything.

So Terry pushed him, saying to Hoffman, but really to Ottis, “I think he wants to tell us the truth.”

And Hoffman asked, “Is that the child you abducted from the Sears mall?”

No question that he had abducted a child from that shopping mall, just a question of whether this severed head in this photograph was the head of that child.

So Ottis complied and said, “I’d say, I’d say it was. I’m pretty sure that’s the kid.”

That was close to the right answer, but not quite right enough. So Terry said, “Not pretty sure, Ottis. Either you know it’s the child or you don’t know, okay?”

Hoffman put the picture in front of Ottis’s face again and said, “Is this the boy you took from the mall?”

Again, no question he took a boy. The only question Ottis had to answer was whether this boy was the one.

And Ottis said, “The other pictures, the other pictures look more like him than that one does.” The other pictures were of a living boy.

Hoffman showed Ottis the picture one more time. Maybe this time he’d get the answer right. Hoffman said, “Is this the child?”

And Ottis said, “Yeah, I’d say, yeah, that’s him.”

And Hoffman said into the tape recorder, “All right, for the record, he has identified the photographs of Adam Walsh.”

And later, after Ottis had said he’d stored the murder weapon, a machete, in his mother’s house at 708 Day Avenue, he told Hoffman, “But I got to thinkin’ more. I done burnt my mother’s house down.”

And Hoffman saying, “If your mother’s house was burned down, you couldn’t have hid the murder weapon in your mother’s house, correct?”

“Correct.”

“So now you have to tell me what you did with the murder weapon.”

“Shhh,” Ottis whispered. “That’s why I’m trying to give you all these statements. I’m not really sure that I really did kill Adam Walsh.” Then he said, “Maybe I did, I did hear it on the television.”

Then Terry said, “Look at me!” He told Ottis, “This thing has been eatin’ at you a long time, hasn’t it? But you told people other than me that you did it. Ottis?”

Ottis saying, “I still ain’t sure [Becky is] dead, and that’s the only way I could get [Henry] to bring out the truth on it.”

“Ottis, were you lying today?” Terry demanded. “Are you sure you didn’t kill Adam Walsh? Now come on now, let’s don’t do this way. Look at me! Look at me, Ottis!”

But Ottis kept staring at the ceiling and slowly wagging his head around. Then Ottis started to cry, started to sob loudly, and he said, “My mind ain’t gonna take much more of this shit.”

Terry saying, “Ottis, look at me! We’ve been pretty truthful with each other, ain’t we?”

Again Ottis felt coached toward saying the right truth and not the wrong one. He said, “Yeah.”

Terry challenged him. “Have you ever lied to me?”

“I don’t really know if I have at all, now,” Ottis said.

And Terry moved in on him more. “You’re digging yourself a hole, Ottis, and you’re not gonna get out of it. You know that. You know what you’re doing. You want me to tell you what you’re doing?”

So Terry knew what Ottis was doing, but Ottis wondered what it was. What did Terry know Ottis was doing that Ottis didn’t know? But Terry had offered to tell him what it was, and Ottis said, “What?”

“You’re trying to go to a mental hospital.”

And Ottis panicked. And again Ottis was weeping, rubbing his nose, rubbing snot across mouth, saying, “I don’t believe that shit.”

“You don’t believe me?” Terry said. “Huh?”

And Ottis sobbed hysterically and said, “My fucking life! I…I…I can’t stand it!”

It was almost eleven at night, and the police detectives decided to wrap it up. They told Ottis they’d start again in the morning, but just a few minutes later Ottis said he wanted to talk to them more, tonight, because he hadn’t been telling them the truth.

He told them he had gone to a Sears store, had picked up a little boy.

“Did he tell you his name?” Hoffman asked.

“Yeah, he told me, yeah, he told me his name. He told me his name was, he told me his name was Adam.”

He said he had kidnapped Adam and beat him and killed him and chopped off his head.

Hoffman said, “This final statement…”

“This is the final statement,” Ottis said.

“This is the complete truth.”

“The complete truth, the whole…whole thing.”

“And you’re telling myself and Detective Terry here that you’re the individual responsible for kidnapping and murdering Adam Walsh on July 27, 1981, from the city of Hollywood?”

“Yeah.”

“And nobody else is responsible for that kid’s death.”

“Nobody else.”

And when Public Defender Elton Schwartz stated publicly, “The man, in my opinion, is not psychologically right,” saying Ottis seemed to confess to any crime you brought before him, Ottis told Buddy Terry that Schwartz was “trying to get me to say I ain’t guilty on the Adam Walsh case. I really know myself that I really did kill Adam Walsh, but the lawyer I got from Miami, he’s trying to tell me I didn’t kill Adam Walsh.”

Ottis said he hadn’t “throwed” Adam’s body parts all over the highway after all. Nor had he buried them in different places near where he’d tossed Adam’s head. Instead, he had brought Adam’s body back to Jacksonville. He had brought Adam’s body back to 708 Day Avenue, his mother’s house, which he had burnt down, and burnt the body in a scrap refrigerator in the back yard.

And then Ottis told Hoffman he wanted to talk to him, without Buddy Terry present. Hoffman didn’t want to talk to him anymore. He was sick of talking to Ottis. But he turned on the tape recorder, and Ottis said:

“Ah, I didn’t, ah, I didn’t kill Adam Walsh.”

“You didn’t kill Adam Walsh?”

“No.” Ottis said, “I was trying to hang Henry Lucas at first, but, ah, I found out he was in jail, and, ah, and so I changed it three or four different times, I did.” He said, “I didn’t know if I could change it back or not. That’s why I kept tellin’ different stories about it, ’cause I didn’t know if anybody would believe it or not. I didn’t know how to turn it back around, but I didn’t kill Adam Walsh.”

In fact, after leaving Wilmington, Delaware, where he and Henry had deserted and burnt Ottis’s brother Howell’s pickup truck, someone found Ottis lying on the floor in a church and he was hospitalized in Newport News, Virginia for depression. He had talked about roaming the East Coast and sleeping outside and how his mother had just died and how he imagined he could hear her talking to him.

The next day, the Salvation Army gave Ottis a check to take a Greyhound bus from Newport News to Richmond to Jacksonville, which took somewhere between 14 and 17 hours.

If he did kill Adam, then after his breakdown in the Newport News church, his hospitalization, his 14-to-17-hour Greyhound ride, he arrived in Jacksonville, picked up his Cadillac from the roofing yard where he’d once worked, and drove another five to five and a half hours straight to Hollywood, Florida, or according to another of his confessions, about six hours or more to Miami, where he walked the streets and prostituted himself for a few extra dollars before heading back north to the mall in Hollywood, kidnapped Adam, did what he did with him, and drove five hours or more back to Jacksonville.

And Hoffman said, “Okay, is this your final statement referring to the Adam Walsh case?”

“Yeah.”

“And is this statement the complete truth?”

“The complete truth.”

“And you’re telling me you’re not responsible for the abduction and murder of Adam Walsh?”

“No, I ain’t.”