Murdered child found under billboard finally has a name; DNA helps detectives solve cold case
SHERIFF'S OFFICE PRESS RELEASE--The latest DNA technology advancements have assisted the Orange County Sheriff’s Office in positively identifying the murdered child-victim located under a billboard in Mebane more than 20 years ago. His name is Robert “Bobby” Adam Whitt, who was born on January 7, 1988, in Michigan and raised in Ohio. On September 25, 1998, a lawn maintenance crew was mowing under a billboard on Industrial Drive near I-85 when the tractor operator noticed a skull at the edge of the wood line, prompting a call to authorities.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Office responded and discovered decomposed human remains, later determined to be that of a young child. No matches were found in computer databases of children reported missing throughout the country, which hampered the investigation. Media attention generated few leads over the two decades since the remains were located.
A multi-discipline forensic approach was employed in this case. Dr. Douglas Ubelaker of the Smithsonian prepared a rendering of the boy early in the investigation. Later, famed forensic sculptor Frank Bender, featured on America’s Most Wanted, also created a bust of the child. Despite wide-spread dissemination of these reconstructions, no one was able to identify the child at that time.
Major Tim Horne worked the case from the day the remains were found, “I always kept the case file box under my desk, where it was purposefully in my way," he said. "Every time I turned, I hit it with my leg. I did this so the little boy couldn’t be forgotten.”
As technology advanced, the remains were reanalyzed, yielding new information and possible leads. The Orange County Sheriff’s Office, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), and the North Carolina Medical Examiner’s Office maintained a close collaborative effort over the last 20 years to bring resolution to this case. As a direct result, additional cutting-edge DNA techniques and analysis have been applied over the past few years. Ancestry DNA provided information that the child was first-generation, biracial Caucasian and Asian. DNA results from Parabon also supplied additional probabilities that assisted with the final facial reconstruction produced by NCMEC.
Dr. Barbara Rae-Venter, genetic genealogy consultant credited with assisting authorities to solve the Golden State Killer case, reviewed the ancestry DNA, leading to the identification of a close relative of the child. Investigators then contacted various members of the child’s genetic family tree. At 1:44 p.m. on December 26, 2018, a member of Bobby’s immediate family responded to a voicemail left by investigators. The close family member provided the child’s name and critical details related to the case.
“This case is an example of dogged determination of investigators who refused to give up," said Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood. "The efforts of Major Tim Horne and the entire investigation division were exemplary.”
Based on information gathered from the family, investigators determined a strong possibility existed that the child’s mother had also been killed during the same time period. With the assistance of NCMEC, an unidentified female matching the search criteria was located in Spartanburg County, S.C. Contact was made with the Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office, and the DNA of the victims were compared. The two were confirmed to be mother and son.
Formal charging of the suspect will begin once jurisdictional issues are addressed. The suspect does not pose any additional threat to the communities. He is in long-term incarceration in a federal facility on unrelated charges.
“With technology what it is today, crimes that have gone unsolved before are now ripe for resolution," said Sheriff Blackwood.