It seems like eons ago, but there was a time when parents thought little of permitting their children to wander shopping malls by themselves or to visit playgrounds without adult supervision. That innocence has ended, of course, and its demise can be partially traced to a humid day in August 1981, when authorities discovered the severed head of 6-year-old Adam Walsh in a Florida drainage canal.

The abduction of Adam from a Sears store in Hollywood, Fla. — where his mother had left him at a video game console while she shopped for a lamp — and his gruesome slaying generated national headlines. In “Bringing Adam Home,” novelist Les Standiford and former Miami Beach police detective Joe Matthews combine forces to provide the definitive account of Adam’s death, a crime that they argue so badly shocked the country that it “seemed to mark the end of America’s innocence.”

The killing was certainly a catalyst for reforms in how authorities track missing children, and it inspired Adam’s father, John Walsh, to become the country’s leading private crime fighter; his television show, the recently cancelled “America’s Most Wanted,” has helped authorities solve dozens of unsolved crimes and capture hundreds of fugitives.

At its heart, this well-written and well-told book isn’t so much an account of discovering the truth behind one of the nation’s most notorious slayings as an autopsy of a botched criminal investigation that identified a solid suspect but soon sputtered and took wrong turns for more two decades. The turning point came in 2006, when the Walshes approached Matthews, a retired detective who was also a consultant on “America’s Most Wanted,” and asked him to try to solve their son’s slaying.

Matthews began digging through files and re-interviewing witnesses. The detective was shocked by the sloppy investigative work of the Hollywood Police Department, which handled the case. He learned that as early as October 1983 investigators had developed a solid suspect, Ottis Toole, a troubled drifter who had killed before. Not only that, Toole confessed to having killed Adam to almost anybody who would listen. At one point, the Hollywood Police Department even announced that he was their prime suspect. But the case soon unraveled when he recanted his admissions, leading a Hollywood detective to question the man’s guilt. The result: Over the years, tips were not followed up, documents never made it into the case file, and evidence vanished. (Toole, a convicted serial killer and arsonist, died in prison at the age of 49 in 1996.)

Though much of the evidence pointing to Toole’s guilt resided in case files, it took Matthews’s critical eye to piece it together. The former detective also discovered new witnesses who helped him pin the killing to Toole, and by 2008 his work had paid off — Hollywood authorities announced that Toole was their man and officially closed the case, helping to bring a modicum of closure to the Walshes.

“Bringing Adam Home” has elements of a thriller, but it focuses so extensively on two unsympathetic characters — the lead detective, portrayed as a bumbling brute, and Toole, the crazed killer — that it can be depressing. The narrative of Matthews’s detective work does not really get started until more than two thirds of the way into the book, and the authors also found it necessary to recount — often in great detail — Toole’s various confessions to the killing, making tough reading for any parent.

Readers willing to confront the horrifying nature of this crime will come away, however, with a solid understanding of why it took so long to solve and where the investigation went terribly astray. They will also come to admire the determination of Matthews and the Walshes for refusing to give up — even after so much time had passed and our collective innocence had washed away.

Del Quentin Wilber covers the federal courts for The Washington Post and is the author of “Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan.”


The Abduction That Changed America

By Les Standiford with Detective Sergeant Joe Matthews

Ecco. 291 pp. $24.99