Child killer's DNA could help solve 1981 cold case

Published: Sep. 11, 2015 at 9:17 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 11, 2015 at 9:17 PM EDT
70-year-old Fred Howard Coffey Jr (Source: Pender Correctional Facility)

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Cold case detectives in Charlotte are hoping DNA samples taken from a convicted child killer can help solve the case of a girl that went missing 34 years ago, according to a newly released search warrant.

Five-year-old Neely Smith disappeared in February 1981 after she was last seen playing outside her apartment complex on Green Oaks Lane in Charlotte. Two months later, the young girl's remains were found on the 6700 block of Union Road, about 15 miles away from her home.

Neely's death was quickly ruled a homicide.

According to the warrants, Fred Howard Coffey Jr, who is now 70-years-old, lived at the same apartment complex as Neely Smith - just one building over. He told investigators in 1981 that he had seen the girl playing in the courtyard on the day of her disappearance.

Just 19 months before Smith's death, 10-year-old Amanda Ray was also abducted while playing outside her home on Eastcrest Drive, approximately one block away from the apartment complex where Coffey and Smith lived. In 1986, the warrants state, evidence led to Coffey's arrest for Ray's kidnapping and murder.

Coffey was convicted of first degree murder in Ray's death, as well as "numerous charges of indecent liberties with a child" involving juveniles in Caldwell County, in January 1987. He has remained behind bars in the Pender Correctional Facility since.

Neely Smith's death, however, remained unsolved.

Then, in 2004, a witness came forward with new information about the case. According to the warrants, the witness said that while reading newspaper stories about the Smith and Ray murders he recognized a picture of Coffey.

The witness, who was a child at the time of Smith's disappearance, told detectives that he was playing with the girl on the day of her abduction. The warrants state the witness "recalled Fred Coffey pulling up in a white van and telling both that he was sent to pick them up by their parents."

The witness said that Neely got into the van, but that he refused. He said Coffey then tried to grab him but he was able to run to his grandmother's apartment, where he was visiting for the weekend.

Now, 11 years after that witness came forward, investigators are comparing newly-obtained DNA from Coffey and comparing it to evidence collected when Smith's body was found.

There is no word on when the results of the DNA tests are expected.

Copyright 2015 WBTV. All rights reserved.