Every law enforcement investigator has one. That one unsolved case that preys on their mind and gnaws at their soul. For Major Tim Horne of the Orange County, North Carolina Sheriff’s Department it is the case that’s come to be called The Boy Under the Billboard.
It was 20 years ago that Horne first saw the murdered child, discarded by the side of the road at the intersection of Interstates 85 and 40, near the town of Mebane, North Carolina. The boy was discovered by a mowing crew as they cleared brush under a tall billboard.
On that September 25, 1998 day about all that was left was a skeleton dressed in dirtied white shorts, new looking tennis shoes and socks. There was no identification on the boy and little else in the way of evidence save for a clump of his dark hair. It would be determined the body had laid there for about three months.
“It looked like someone had carried the child – like when you carry a sleeping child to bed – and laid it there,” Major Horne told me on the phone. He sounded as though he could still clearly see the boy in his mind’s eye.
Twenty years ago, DNA technology was not what it is today. “We would wait two or three years for results to come back,” Horne said.“In that time period there were much more advanced tests that became available, but they only performed the test you first asked for. We were always one or two steps behind,” he said.
Early forensic findings concluded the boy was Caucasian or Latino and most likely about 10- or 11-years old judging from his skeletal structure and molar eruptions. The medical examiner found no signs of bone breaks, bullet wounds or stabbing. No disease or evidence of past physical abuse. In fact, forensic experts found the young boy’s teeth had been treated with a sealant often used then to protect teeth from decay. Someone had cared about this boy.
Major Horne and others in his department diligently worked the case. They discovered low income clinics often applied the dental sealant. They canvassed schools and churches asking about missing children, traced the shoes and found they were available at Walmart for just a few months before the child likely died. They questioned everyone who worked in the area off the highway. They wondered about the $50 found deep in the boy’s pocket.
In that time frame … we saw a huge influx of migrant workers come into the area. They kept to themselves, did not interact with law enforcement,” Horne said. “With the migrant workers, agricultural workers, it was not unusual to see child labor. Not unusual to see children who had money.”
As the years passed others would become interested in discovering the boy’s identity. In Philadelphia, Frank Bender, a master forensic sculptor, received the boy’s skull and began to work his magic recreating a life-like clay bust of the child, including his prominent overbite. Bender’s reconstruction is considered to be the best rendition of what the boy looked like at the time of death. Sadly, it would be the cancer-stricken Bender’s last case. He died in July 2011.
And, Karen Mintz, a passionate filmmaker working on a documentary about Bender also became fascinated by the Boy Under the Billboard case as she watched Bender work. Seven years have now passed and Mintz’s film remains unfinished. What’s kept her involved all these years? “Trying to ID this boy!” she told me.
“If I do everything I can to find this child’s identity I’ll be at peace with it.” And her documentary will have a proper ending.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children helped locate forensic scientists willing to work pro bono on advanced DNA tests. One prominent expert concluded the boy was of Hispanic descent. Tests on the pollen found on the boy’s shorts were conducted to pinpoint where he’d been. And just last year, an isotopic analysis was completed. That analyzes chemical elements that are consumed through food and local water and lodge in a person’s bone, teeth and hair.
The boy’s biochemical profile indicates he was born in the U.S., lived in any one of 7 southwestern states: Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. He likely lived in an old house with lead paint inside or lead water pipes. He did not live in the area where his body was found.
“I don’t know who killed this child, but I know someone loved him,” Major
Horne said. “I’ve always wanted to give his family his remains so he can have a proper burial.” Horne retires this December after 29 years on the job but he says he is determined to find out who the boy is and what happened to him.
Can you help identify this child? If so call 919-245-2900. There is a reward and you don’t have to give your name. Major Horne is waiting for your call.