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Toole's 1983 mugshot
|Born||Ottis Elwood Toole
March 5, 1947
Jacksonville, Florida, U.S.
|Died||September 15, 1996
Raiford, Florida, U.S.
Cause of death
|Florida State Prison Cemetery|
|Arson, First-degree murder|
|Death commuted to life in prison|
Span of killings
|State(s)||Florida and Texas|
|Imprisoned at||Florida State Prison|
Ottis Elwood Toole (March 5, 1947 – September 15, 1996) was an American drifter 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 cirrhosis.
Ottis Elwood Toole (sometimes misspelled "Otis") was born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida. Toole's mother was abusive; Toole claimed she would dress him in girls' clothing and call 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".
On January 4, 1982, Toole barricaded 64-year-old George Sonnenberg in a boarding house where he was living in Jacksonville and set the house alight. Sonnenberg died a week later of injuries he sustained in the fire. In April 1983, Toole was arrested for an unrelated arson incident in Jacksonville. For that crime, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. While in custody, Toole confessed to killing George Sonneberg. Toole signed a confession stating that he and Sonnenberg had begun a sexual relationship and, after the two had an argument, Toole lit Sonnenberg's home on fire.
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. Lucas later recanted his confessions, saying he made such statements only to improve his living conditions in jail.
During Toole's trial for murdering George Sonnenberg, Toole claimed that he did not light the home on fire and only signed the confession so he would be extradited back to Jacksonville. On April 28, 1984, a jury found Toole guilty of first degree murder and sentenced him to death. Later that year, Toole was found guilty of the February 1983 strangulation murder of a 19 year-old Tallahassee, Florida woman, and received a second death sentence; on appeal, however, both sentences were commuted to life in prison.
After his incarceration, Toole pleaded guilty to four more Jacksonville murders in 1991 and received four more life sentences.
On October 21, 1983, while imprisoned for two unrelated murders, Toole 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.
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.
Murder of Adam Walsh
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.
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.
In popular culture
- Ramsland, Katherine. "Henry Lee Lucas, prolific serial killer or prolific liar?". Crime Library. Retrieved December 17, 2008.
- "The Twisted Life of Serial Killer Ottis Elwood Toole". Fox News. December 16, 2008. Retrieved December 17, 2008. "Toole met Lucas in 1978, and the two "joined forces as a homosexual crime team, criss-crossing the country from 1978-1983," according to America's Most Wanted, started by Adam Walsh's father John Walsh."
- "Ottis Toole sentenced to death following rooming-house arson". Gainesville Sun. May 19, 1984. p. 8A. Retrieved May 30, 2014.
- "Drifter convicted of arson-murder". The Courier. April 27, 1984. p. 18. Retrieved May 30, 2014.
- "Sentence For Toole Overturned". The Palm Beach Post. November 26, 1985. p. B3. Retrieved May 30, 2014.
- "Police Say Toole Continues To Insist Adam Walsh Was Among His Victims". Sarasota Herald-Tribune. November 24, 1983. pp. 1–E. Retrieved May 31, 2014.
- Did Dahmer Kill "Most Wanted" Host's Son? CBS News.com. February 8, 2007.
- Almanzar, Yolanne (December 16, 2008). "Police Expected to Close Adam Walsh Case". New York Times. Retrieved December 16, 2008. "In October 1983, Mr. Toole told the police that he had abducted Adam from the mall. Adam soon wanted to leave and began crying. Toole claimed he punched him in the face. Adam started crying more and according to Toole he then started "walloping" Adam. He drove for about an hour to an isolated dirt road where he decapitated Adam. Investigators lifted bloodstained carpet from Mr. Toole’s white Cadillac. But DNA testing then was not as advanced as it is now, and investigators could not tell if the blood was Adam’s."
- Police: '81 murder of Adam Walsh solved MSNBC.com, December 16, 2008.
- "Toole admits to 2 Panhandle killings." Playground Daily News, Fort Walton Beach, Florida, November 11, 1984, p. 1A.
- "Florida Supreme Court" (PDF). Retrieved December 5, 2013.
- Holland, John (December 17, 2008). "Adam Walsh case is closed after 27 years". Los Angeles Times. "Police simply took another look at 27 years of evidence, psychic revelations, often-botched police work and Toole's chilling admissions and Hollywood Police Chief Chad Wagner said Ottis Toole had been the prime suspect all along."
- "Adam Walsh Murder Case Closed". America's Most Wanted. December 17, 2008. Retrieved September 29, 2009.
- "Partner claims Toole admitted killing boy". Sarasota Herald-Tribune. September 26, 1996. p. 5B. Retrieved May 30, 2014.