When he died in prison in 1996, Ottis Toole may have been a serial killer, or he may have been a serial liar. Most likely, he was both. A companion and lover of the ‘confession killer’ , Toole was convicted of three counts of murder. Like Lucas, he confessed to hundreds more. And just like Lucas, authorities now believe the majority of Toole’s confessions were falsified—made under duress, in the hope of gaining favorable prison treatment, or simply dreamed up by someone with severe psychological issues.
Nevertheless, Toole was found guilty of murder. One of those killings was the death of Adam Walsh, the son of John Walsh, who went on to create America’s Most Wanted as a tribute to his dead child. Ironically, Toole’s life of crime indirectly led to a television show that helped seize thousands of predators across the United States.
Born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1947, Toole had an I.Q. of 75 and was known to suffer from acute epilepsy, which left him prone to violent seizures. In his youth he developed a penchant for arson, and reportedly achieved sexual arousal from live flames—a fiery habit he carried into adulthood.
Toole was raised in a troubled household. His alcoholic father abandoned the family, while Toole’s mother doled out abuse in the name of her fervent religious beliefs. The young Toole was reportedly forced to cross-dress, called “Becky” by his mom, and was the subject of sexual abuse by friends and members of his extended family. According to Toole himself, a friend’s father raped him as early as the age of five.
Toole also claimed his grandmother was a member of a Satanic cult and forced his hand in devil worshipping practices like animal sacrifice and grave robbing. And here is the unreliability at the heart of Ottis Toole’s word. For every claim that seems credible, there are two that scan as untrue. Parsing the former from the latter is often impossible.
What does seem correct is that young Ottis Toole suffered abuse, and experienced a severe uptick in that abuse after he revealed his homosexuality to his family. By early adolescence, Toole had engaged in consensual sexual relationships with other young men. By the 9th grade, he had dropped out of school and began frequenting gay bars. It was during this time that Toole claimed to have killed his first victim—a traveling salesman that Toole mowed down with a car when he was just 14 years old. While no proof exists to corroborate this claim, Toole’s official run-in with the law was not far off. In 1964, he was arrested for loitering at the age of 17.
Upon his release, Toole drifted through much of the ‘60s and ‘70s—roaming the country, finding employment as a prostitute when he could, and panhandling when he couldn’t. Although never convicted, he was a prime suspect in two murder cases in 1974: that of 24-year-old Patricia Webb and, a month later, 31-year-old Ellen Holman.
By 1976, Ottis Toole had returned home to Jacksonville, where he met Henry Lee Lucas. The two drifters began a sexual relationship and embarked on a strange life of crime—the details of which remain a mystery to this day. Together, Lucas and Toole claimed to have killed hundreds. Many of these confessions are now believed to be false, initially accepted by police looking to clear unsolved murders from their backlogs. Writing for The Dallas Times Herald, reporter Hugh Aynesworth estimated the pair would have had to log over 350 miles a day in a beat up car to commit all of their supposed murders.
That said, Toole was still a murderer. One homicide positively linked to the killer was the 1982 death of George Sonnenburg, a former lover whom Ottis barricaded inside a house and subsequently set ablaze. Another murder pinned to Toole? The 1981 slaying of Adam Walsh. Toole confessed to kidnapping the six-year-old boy from a Sears department store, luring him into his car. After Adam began crying in the backseat, Toole attacked, eventually beheading the victim with a machete. Fishermen later found the severed head in a Vero Beach canal.
Though Toole confessed to the killing, he later retracted his confession. The case remained officially unsolved for years. In 2008, police from Hollywood, Florida pieced together previously unconnected evidence with Toole’s initial confession and positively ascribed the murder to Ottis Toole. While no new physical evidence was presented to the public, John Walsh has stated that he agrees with these findings.