Every law enforcement investigator has one, that one unsolved case that preys on their mind and gnaws at their soul. For Major Tim Horne of the Orange County Sheriff's Office in North Carolina, it is the case that's come to be called "The Boy Under the Billboard."
Twenty years ago, Horne first saw the murdered child, discarded by the side of the road at the intersection of Interstates 85 and 40, near the town of Mebane, North Carolina. The boy was discovered by a man who was mowing the brush under a tall billboard.
On that day, Sept. 25, 1998, about all that was left was a skeleton dressed in dirtied white shorts, new-looking tennis shoes and socks. There was no identification on the boy and little else in the way of evidence, save for a clump of his dark hair. It would be determined that the body had laid there for about three months.
"It looked like someone had carried the child — like when you carry a sleeping child to bed — and laid it there," Major Horne told me on the phone. He sounded as though he could still clearly see the boy in his mind's eye.
Twenty years ago, DNA technology was not what it is today. "We would wait two or three years for results to come back," Horne said. "In that time period, there were much more advanced tests that became available, but they only performed the test you first asked for. We were always one or two steps behind."
Early forensic findings concluded the boy was Caucasian or Latino and most likely about 10 or 11 years old judging from his skeletal structure and molar eruptions. The medical examiner found no signs of bone breaks, bullet wounds or stabbing, no disease or evidence of past physical abuse. In fact, forensic experts found that the young boy's teeth had been treated with a sealant often used then to protect teeth from decay. Someone cared about this boy.
Major Horne and others in his department diligently worked the case. They discovered that low-income dental clinics often applied the teeth sealant. They canvassed schools and churches, asking about missing children. They traced the shoes and found that they were available at Walmart for just a few months before the child likely died. They questioned everyone who worked in the area off the highway. They wondered about the $50 found deep in the boy's pocket.
"In that time frame ... we saw a huge influx of migrant workers come into the area. They kept to themselves, did not interact with law enforcement," Horne said. "With the migrant workers, agricultural workers, it was not unusual to see child labor, not unusual to see children who had money."
As the years passed, others would become interested in discovering the boy's identity. In Philadelphia, Frank Bender, a master forensic sculptor, received the boy's skull and began to work his magic to create a life-like clay bust of the child, including his prominent overbite. Bender's reconstruction is considered to be the best rendition of what the boy looked like at the time of death. Sadly, it would be the cancer-stricken Bender's last case. He died in July 2011.
Karen Mintz, a passionate filmmaker working on a documentary about Bender, became fascinated by the Boy Under the Billboard case as she watched Bender work. Seven years have passed, and Mintz's film remains unfinished. What's kept her involved all these years? "Trying to ID this boy!" she told me.
"If I do everything I can to find this child's identity, I'll be at peace with it," she says. And her documentary will have a proper ending.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children helped locate forensic scientists willing to work pro bono on advanced DNA tests. One prominent expert concluded the boy was of Hispanic descent. Tests on the pollen found on the boy's shorts were conducted to pinpoint where he'd been. And just last year, an isotopic analysis was completed that analyzes chemical elements that are consumed through food and local water and lodged in a person's bone, teeth and hair.
The boy's biochemical profile indicates he was born in the U.S., lived in any one of seven southeastern states: Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. He likely lived in an old house with lead paint inside or lead water pipes. He did not live in the area where his body was found.
"I don't know who killed this child, but I know someone loved him," Major Horne said. "I've always wanted to give his family his remains so he can have a proper burial." Horne retires this December after 29 years on the job, but he says he is determined to find out who the boy is and what happened to him.
Can you help identify this child? If so, call the sheriff's office at 919-245-2900. There is a reward, and you don't have to give your name. Major Horne is waiting for your call.
Photo credit: Karen Mintz
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.