MEBANE, N.C. — Breakthroughs in DNA technology have finally uncovered the name of a boy who was found dead under a billboard in Mebane more than 20 years ago.
The Orange County Sheriff's Office announced Tuesday that the boy was Robert "Bobby" Adam Whitt.
Bobby was born on Jan. 7, 1988 in Michigan and grew up in Ohio.
His body was found on Sept. 25, 1998, when he would have been 10-years-old.
A lawn maintenance crew stumbled upon Bobby's body when they were mowing under a billboard on Industrial Drive near Interstate 85. The tractor operator spotted a skull resting at the edge of the wood line.
When deputies arrived, they found the decomposed remains of a young child.
Missing children databases, including cases across the country, shed no new light on the case as they worked to determine the child's identity.
Early in the investigation, Dr. Douglas Ubelaker of the Smithsonian created a rendering of the boy, and later, forensic sculptor Frank Bender made a bust of the child. Even when the new image was disseminated, officials were unable to positively identify him.
“I always kept the case file box under my desk, where it was purposefully in my way," said Major Tim Horne, who worked the case since day one. "Every time I turned, I hit it with my leg. I did this so the little boy couldn’t be forgotten.”
Over 20 years, officials brought new, cutting-edge technology to the case.
Ancestry DNA revealed that the boy was first-generation and biracial Caucasian and Asian.
When Dr. Barbara Rae-Venter, a genetic genealogy consultant, took a closer look at the ancestry DNA, she was able to find a close relative of the child.
Investigators reached out to members of the child's genetic family tree when finally they got a call back.
At 1:44 p.m. on Dec. 26, 2018, a member of Bobby's immediate family was about to offer the child's name.
“This case is an example of dogged determination of investigators who refused to give up. The efforts of Major Tim Horne and the entire investigation division were exemplary," said Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood.
As officials continued to investigate, they determined that it was likely Bobby's mother was also killed during that same time period.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children helped to locate an unidentified woman who was found in Spartanburg County, South Carolina.
DNA analysis concluded the woman was Bobby's mother.
Once jurisdictional issues are addressed, investigators will formally charge a suspect in the case.
OCSO reports the suspect is not a threat to the communities and is already in long-term incarceration at a federal facility on unrelated charges.
“With technology what it is today, crimes that have gone unsolved before are now ripe for resolution," Blackwood said.