Now we have a name. After two agonizing decades, the "Boy Under the Billboard" case I wrote about last year has finally been solved. But in determining the identity of the strangled 10-year-old boy who was abandoned under a highway billboard, the sheriff's detectives also unraveled a dark family mystery.
His name was Robert "Bobby" Adam Whitt, a boy with a thick thatch of dark hair who was described as "a precious little boy" and "so sweet ... so kind," who loved to dance with his cousins, and play video games and air hockey. Whitt's recently located family says he adored his father and was the apple of his grandmother's eye.
The odyssey to figure out the identity of this discarded child involved hundreds of people, from the responding officer and laboratory technicians who worked tirelessly on scant crime scene evidence, to the staff at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, to the famous facial reconstruction artist, Frank Bender, who took the child's skull and recreated a chillingly accurate rendition of what he looked like.
All were urged on by the dogged determination of Detective Major Tim Horne with the Orange County Sheriff's Department in North Carolina. In fact, it was Horne who first responded to the September 1998 call about skeletal remains at the intersection of Interstates 85 and 40 near Mebane, North Carolina. He always kept the case file box under his desk where his legs would bump into it to remind him not to forget the forgotten boy.
After 29 years on the job, Horne was set to retire without solving the mystery. But at his retirement party, no less, he learned that all the hard work was about to pay off. In a phone interview he called it his "holy crap moment."
Barbara Rae-Venter, a genetic genealogist who helped identify the man police say is the culprit in the long-unsolved Golden State Killer case, had been studying the dead boy's DNA. Working with Parabon NanoLabs, it was discovered that one of the child's parents was Caucasian, the other Asian. When Rae-Venter compared the child's results to online DNA ancestry services, she discovered a possible relative living in Hawaii. Further investigation led to close family members in Ohio who revealed the boy's name and said his father had been married to a South Korean woman named Myoung Hwa Cho.
"I'm a big football fan," Major Horne told me. "It felt exactly like in a big game — when they throw the Hail Mary during the last seconds. You're not expecting anyone will catch it. But when they do, there's just euphoria, a wonderful satisfying feeling as the clock ran out on my career."
So where were Whitt's parents?
The family revealed that he and his mom and dad had moved from Ohio to the Charlotte, North Carolina area. In 1998, his father told their family that Cho had taken Whitt and gone back to South Korea. That was a lie.
Major Horne learned that four months before Whitt's remains were found — and 200 miles away, in Spartanburg, South Carolina — the body of an unidentified Asian woman had been dumped along the same stretch of Interstate 85. Cause of death was suffocation. A DNA comparison revealed she was Whitt's mother.
So where was his father?
It turns out John Russell Whitt is currently residing in a federal prison in Kentucky, where he was sent after pleading guilty to six counts of armed bank robbery. Whitt's current release date is November 2037. Authorities say he has confessed to both murders but jurisdictional issues still need to be ironed out between North and South Carolina before a double murder indictment is sought.
"He dumped them on the side of the road like they were trash, and he has shown no remorse," Bobby's Ohio cousin Natalie Mosteller told reporters. "It breaks our hearts." The family had gone to great lengths over the years to find Cho and Whitt, hiring two law firms and a private investigator, and scouring social media sites searching for clues.
Whitt's skeletal remains have been stored on a lonely shelf at the Orange County, North Carolina, medical examiner's office all these years. In South Carolina, DNA was extracted from his mother after her body was found, and she was cremated. Her ashes have long been in storage.
Major Horne tells me Whitt's relatives will pay for his cremation, and that he will personally return the ashes to the family in Ohio. "I just don't want those ashes to be FedEx'd, you know?" he told me. Horne says that when he takes that eight-hour drive to Ohio, he'd be honored to also deliver Cho's crematory urn, if South Carolina officials agree. The plan is to bury the ashes next to their beloved grandmother.
As our phone conversation came to an end, Major Horne wanted me to know one last thing: "This was a team effort, not a Tim effort. It sure felt good for all of us to cross that goal line at the very end."
To find out more about Diane Dimond, visit her website at www.dianedimond.com. Her latest book, "Thinking Outside the Crime and Justice Box," is available on Amazon.com. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.