You've likely seen the larger stickers on the doors and windows of chain businesses around America: Blue backing and white letters, with a star in the middle and the words "CODE ADAM" printed in large block print. Here's how it all came to be:

Origins:

July 27th, 1981. Florida.

It started with lamps and video games, things innocuous enough to anyone. Six-year-old Adam Walsh and his mother were shopping for lamps in a Sears in Hollywood, Florida, when he saw several children playing video games on a large demo monitor and asked his mother if he could stick around. She agreed, and the two separated for five to ten minutes as she searched for a lamp. When she returned, Adam was gone, abducted. His remains were discovered sixteen days later.

Unsurprisingly, the incident gained national media attention and served as a chilling reminder of the reality of child abduction and the swiftness with which it can occur. In 1994, Wal-Mart created and began promotion of Code Adam, an alert program to prevent such incidents in the future.

How It Works:

  1. A child goes missing. The child's parent or legal guardian alerts a store employee, who then takes a description of the child, including name, age, and what clothes they're currently wearing. In some publications, employees are encouraged to take special care to ask what shoes the child is wearing. (See the "Rumors and Speculation" section of this write-up for more on footwear.
  2. The employee announces via the nearest speakerphone that there is a Code Adam, then reads the child's description. Employees nearest to the doors immediately begin monitoring the entrances and exits, while managers post themselves at alternative routes out of the building. The rest of the employees begin searching for the child, including the parking lots.
  3. An associate waits at Customer Service with the guardian. The doors aren't locked, only monitored, so customers aren't disturbed.
  4. If the child is found alone and unharmed, they are returned to their guardian.
  5. If the child is found with someone other than their legal guardian, then the police are called and employees must take steps to keep the child (and potential abductor) from leaving the store. They are forbidden from doing anything that might potentially put the child in harm's way but expected to do "everything within reason" to separate them from the suspected abductor. Employees must also take detailed notes on who was with the child, including the route they left by if they do leave. (As well as license plate numbers, make and model of vehicle, etc.)
  6. If the child is not found at all within 10 minutes, the police are called. One positive aspect of the program is that action has been taken within seconds of the child going missing (in theory), so by the time the police arrive they're able to search adjacent stores, parking lots, and other surrounding areas.

More on the Walsh Case / Rumors and Speculation

In the years following Adam's murder, the facts surrounding the case have been distorted, and it's interesting to note that the implementation of Code Adam reflects those distortions to a degree. The facts of the Adam Walsh case are often entangled with persistent elements in urban legends. Some common (but almost certainly incorrect) themes appear:

  • Adam was inside the store when a stranger approached him and tricked him into accompanying him. (Additionally, the store is often falsely assumed to be Wal-mart.)
  • The abductor changed his clothes inside the store so he wouldn't match any descriptions given by the police. (This is why employees are sometimes instructed to carefully note the child's shoes, as shoes can't be changed as quickly. A shirt can simply be pulled over another shirt, or a jacket tossed on.)
  • The abductor may have cut and/or dyed his hair in the restroom. Again, to fool anyone looking for the child.

Examining the Adam Walsh case in detail is worthy of a node of its own, but for the time being:

Part of the reason that the case captured the attention of so many was the shocking manner in which things unfolded. Kathryn Shaffer-Barrack, then a security guard at Sears, claimed to have interacted with Adam in his last known moments. Supposedly, the boys with whom Adam was playing fought loudly over the video game controller, and when Shaffer-Barrack asked them if their parents were present, they answered "no." Adam remained silent, and assuming he was with the rest, Shaffer-Barrack asked them to leave the building via opposite exits. According to Adam's parents, he was easily intimidated by authority figures, and they believe that he simply did as he was told, wandering outside into the parking lot by himself.

What was found of Adam was, disturbingly, only a severed head. A coroner's report confirmed the cause of death as asphyxiation and the beheading to be post-mortem. The skull still resides at the Medical Examiner's office in Broward County, Florida, as the case has never been closed.

Ottis Elwood Toole, a convicted killer from Jacksonville, Florida confessed to the murder multiple times and recanted just as many. Initially, he claimed that his lover, Henry Lucas, was also involved, and Toole's testimony is consistent with the coroner's report. However, the two confessed to hundreds of murders over a supposed four-year killing spree, and many of those confessions were proven to be false. Henry Lucas was interned at a prison in Virginia during the period of time that Adam was abducted, and some reports place Toole in another part of the country as well. Furthermore, Toole's description of Adam's clothing when he met him was completely inconsistent with reality. Toole later confessed that he performed the murder by himself (and only implicated Lucas to get back at him for murdering his niece), and Lucas claimed to have seen the shallow grave in which the rest of Adam's body was buried. Despite the fact that both men gave locations for Adam's grave, neither was ever able to lead police to it.

In short, the lead suspect introduced more confusion than anything else, and he took the truth about his level of involvement with him to the grave in 1996. Regardless, one aspect of his story is very likely true, which is that Adam wasn't abducted from Sears, but rather abducted after having left the store by himself, likely in the parking lot.

Update: On December 16th, 2008, Florida police officially closed the book on the Adam Walsh case, naming Ottis Toole as the culprit. They apologized for numerous errors in the investigation that had made a conclusion harder to reach, but for the family's part, they are satisfied. Says John Walsh, father of Adam: "I have no doubt. I've never had any doubt."

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