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Murdered child in 20-year-long Orange County cold case has been identified

Evidence Body Found Update
Evidence file photo from the original crime scene. Photo Courtesy of Tim Horne

The Orange County Sheriff's Office, with the help of forensic agencies, has identified the murdered child victim found under a billboard in Mebane over 20 years ago.

The victim, Robert “Bobby” Adam Whitt, was born on Jan. 7, 1988 in Michigan. He was raised in Ohio and then later moved to Concord, North Carolina.

Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood said that in 1998, a mowing crew called the sheriff's office and said they had found a human skull on Industrial Drive, parallel to I-85. Blackwood said nobody noticed the body because the road was desolate. 

At first, the sheriff's office thought the victim was a white, Hispanic child.

“In 1998, we didn’t have DNA at the time, and we depended heavily on missing person reports,” Blackwood said. “So we were trying to find someone of that age range and Hispanic/Latino origin.”

Blackwood said the office also turned to the community to ask for missing residents but did not find a matching result.

Blackwood said the office submitted some materials for DNA testing several years later when it was still a new technology, but did not receive promising results there either.

“As DNA procedures got better, we started to learn about isotope testing,” he said. “Isotope can tell you what region of the United States or the world that you have been living in.”

Blackwood said the office then found some pollen traces on the body's clothing that were not consistent with pollen from local trees. 

Tim Horne, the major of the Criminal Investigation Division for the sheriff's office, said they have been trying to use the newest technologies for the case.

“We kept the case going the best we could, and every time there is a new DNA test or forensic analysis that we thought might help, we try to explore that option," he said.

Early in the investigation, Douglas Ubelaker, senior scientist and curator of biological anthropology at the Smithsonian, prepared a rendering of the boy. Forensic sculptor Frank Bender, who has been featured on America’s Most Wanted, created a bust of the child.

Horne said the officers were able to determine that the victim was white and Asian, instead of Hispanic, with the assistance of the DNA technology company Parabon NanoLabs, Inc.

“Recently, with the assistance of National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, we’ve done the genetic testing with Parabon,” said Horne. “Parabon was able to determine certain genetic probabilities of the child."

NCMEC is a private, nonprofit corporation whose mission is to help find missing children, reduce child sexual exploitation and prevent child victimization. NCMEC’s Facebook page, “Help ID Me,” has information about more than 700 cases of unidentified children that the organization is still trying to solve today.

Carol Schweitzer, the supervisor of NCMEC’s Forensic Services Unit, said the sheriff's office visited NCMEC’s headquarters in Virginia in October 2017 to hold a comprehensive case review with NCMEC’s team, the FBI’s behavioral analysis unit, cold case detectives and forensic anthropologists. 

NCMEC also did a facial reconstruction of Whitt and put the office in contact with Barbara Rae-Venter, a genetic genealogy consultant. Horne said that through Rae-Venter's assistance, the office tracked down a close genetic relative in Hawaii. 

Blackwood said the genealogical evidence was what got everything going. On Dec. 26, 2018, the office heard back from the family, who revealed the child’s name and story.

According to a press release from Orange County Sheriff's Office, the office suspected that Bobby's mother had also been killed. Horne said NCMEC assisted the office in identifying the mother with fingerprinting and DNA.

 The suspect is in long-term incarceration in a federal facility on unrelated charges. Horne said they would have time for the jurisdiction to determine the most appropriate place for this trial. 

“As the sheriff of this county, it’s comforting for me to know we got the ability to solve cases like this, this can happen to anyone,” Blackwood said. “Students at UNC should know they’re in a good place with people caring about them. Even if you were to be victimized, we’re not going to forget about you.”

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Horne said since he was assigned to this case over 20 years ago, solving it has been a team effort.

“This has been a massive team effort, with hundreds of men and women involved,” he said. “I hate the circumstances that led us to this point, but I can seek closure for Bobby and that’s very rewarding.”


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