The body of a 10-year-old boy found more than 20 years ago by a mowing crew under a billboard on I-85 in Orange County has been identified.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Office said Tuesday that the latest DNA technology helped authorities identify the child as Robert “Bobby” Adam Whitt.
The case file box has been in Major Tim Horne’s way at work since he began working the case when the skeletal remains were found in September 1998.
“Where it was purposefully in my way,” Horne said in a release. “Every time I turned, I hit it with my leg. I did this so the little boy couldn’t be forgotten.”
Leads and DNA advancements over 20 years had led to little advancement on the case.
That changed when the sheriff’s office received DNA analysis results from Ancestry DNA and Parabon. While Parabon works specifically with law enforcement, companies like Ancestry DNA and 23andMe analyze DNA submitted by individuals to give them a fuller picture of their heritage.
Authorities said when speaking with reporters on Monday that a male in Hawaii had submitted his DNA to one of these companies. Dr. Barbara Rae-Venter, who was profiled by the New York Times after her genetic work helped capture the Golden State Killer, helped with the investigation from there.
Rae-Venter told Horne that she had found a strong family connection to the victim: the man who lives in Hawaii.
Horne called that individual, who then led the sheriff’s office to closer relatives, culminating in a call to Horne on December 26 from an individual who was able to provide more information, including Bobby’s name.
The family, who lives in Ohio, had been told the child and his mother were out of the country.
Through this investigation, the boy’s mother was also identified as a murder victim whose body was found in Spartanburg, South Carolina, roughly three months before the child’s body was found in Orange County.
The two, decades long, seemingly unconnected, unsolved murders were now reaching their conclusions as a mother and child who were both killed. The two were killed in a separate jurisdiction, which authorities would not name on Monday.
The suspect, who authorities did not immediately name, has been in custody on armed robbery charges since late 1998 or early 1999, shortly after these murders were allegedly committed.
While Horne has been working the case for decades, he was coming up on a personal timeline to help reach its conclusion. He was previously scheduled to retire but had pushed that back to February 1 in order to keep working this and another case.
“I couldn’t think of a better way, more satisfying way to go out,” Horne said Monday.
Horne said that the Spartanburg murder would have gone unsolved, if not for the connection to the Orange County case.
“Everything came through Bobby.”
Horne said there were many state and national offices who helped with this investigation, including Rae-Venter, the companion law enforcement agencies, the North Carolina Medical Examiner’s Office and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Over the course of the years, the child’s identity has been an evolving guess. At first the child was thought to be white. Later tests showed the child was likely Hispanic. But the most recent tests showed that the child was “first-generation, biracial Caucasian and Asian.”
Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood said Monday that DNA technology advancements are changing law enforcement strategies.
“It’s changed the way we go into a crime scene; it’s changed the way we examine a crime scene; it’s changed the way that we approach looking for our suspects.”
There have been some privacy concerns over private companies sharing user DNA information with law enforcement agencies, but Horne said authorities would always look to the latest technology to help solve crimes.
“We’re not the first, and we certainly won’t be the last,” Horne said. Orange County Sheriff’s Office chief deputy Jamie Sykes predicted “you’re going to see more and more of these cases across the country.
Horne added that no leads or tips into the sheriff’s office had ever led to advancement on the case. There were other challenges because the child had never been reported missing after the family was told the child and mother left the country.
Horne said he will now be able to take Bobby’s remains, which have been preserved at the state Medical Examiner’s Office, back to the family in Ohio.
“I’m going to be taking Bobby back home.”