MEBANE, N.C. (WNCN) - For 20 years he was known as “The Boy Under The Billboard,” a child whose remains were found near an Orange County interstate. One passionate investigator made it his mission to find the boy’s identity and his killer, and now he says the long journey is coming to an end.
This week, a grand jury indicted the child's father on a first-degree murder charge.
A cross leans crookedly against a fence at the spot near Mebane, where the child’s remains were found. Weeds nearly hide the peeling stickers that read “Boy 1998.” For two decades that was all people really knew about the remains discovered there.
Retired Major Tim Horne of the Orange County Sheriff's Office was one of the first investigators on the scene. "That was my first encounter with him. I just didn’t know his name, but I kept the case file under my desk for all those years and just kind of chipped away," he said.
There were drawings and sketches, leads and dead ends. Despite painfully slow progress, Horne only became more invested in identifying the boy under the billboard and figuring out who killed him. "I was his dad for 20 years. I’m the one that tended to him, cared for him, and tried to further the case," explained Horne.
In December, when he says DNA finally led him to identify the child as Bobby Whitt, part of Horne's work was done, but as he approached retirement, he still hoped to find the killer. He says he connected with John Russell Whitt, Bobby's father, who was in a federal prison in Kentucky for an unrelated crime. Although he'd spoken to Whitt before, Horne says his last day on the job, he spoke with him one more time.
"We ultimately got the confession we needed in this particular case on my very last day in law enforcement. It was a long drive, lot of hours, came home woke up the next morning retired, so I worked it literally until the last minute," recalled Horne.
This week a grand jury indicted Whitt on charges of first-degree murder and concealment of death. Although Horne has retired from the sheriff's office, his responsibility to the boy he never knew, but sees as a son, isn't finished. He will return the child's ashes to Bobby's family in Ohio.
“It’s his final journey home,” said Horne. “I’ve had him for 20 years and now I’m able to return him to his family.”