Forensic genealogy helps solve a cold case just in the nick of time
Each investigator has that one case that haunts them, the one that just won’t budge. For Detective Tim Horne, the Billboard Boy was that case. He was just a young crime scene tech when the skeletal remains of a little boy were found beneath a billboard in his jurisdiction. With no leads, the unsolved murder turned into a cold case. But Horne kept the case in a box beneath his desk where he would literally bump into it for the next 25 years. It was a daily reminder that he needed to solve it. The unidentified remains couldn’t stay unidentified forever.
When the clock starts ticking down to his retirement, he knows it’s now or never. Horne is determined to make something happen.
That’s when he turns to forensic genealogy, and the research of Barbara Rae-Venter. Famous for her work on the Golden State Killer and Bear Brook cases, Rae-Venter uses DNA profiling to provide a single piece of information that could help Horne solve the case. But can he do it before time runs out?
DISCLAIMER: This podcast contains frank descriptions of human remains and physical violence. Listener discretion is advised.
Amanda: On September 25, 1998, a landscaper was mowing the grass beneath a billboard next to a highway in rural Mebane, North Carolina.
Tim Horne, Detective, Orange County, NC Sheriff’s Department: As he mowed around the edge of the field, around the, the sign, he noticed something white in the edge of the woods and he stopped and looked and it was a skull.
Amanda: At the time, Tim Horne was a young crime scene investigator for the nearby Sheriff’s Office. He was called in to help process the scene: looking for evidence that might help them identify the person. They carefully scoured the area inside the yellow crime scene tape with gloved hands and put potential evidence into sealed bags.
Tim: We assumed it was going to be a child or a very small adult. The skeletal remains looked like someone 10 to 15 years old in stature.
Amanda: Horne and the other officers collected everything they could find hoping that it might help them identify who this child was.
Tim: We collected insects, the clothing, the bones, the hair, uh, any and everything, trash that was on the side of the road at that time.
Amanda: They found a pair of khakis on the remains, and a pair of black sneakers.
Tim: Cause you don't know what's going to be important at the end of the investigation. We just didn't have much to work with.
Amanda: You didn't have a missing person case at that time that connected you to this body?
Tim: No, no. Yeah, we didn't, we didn't have anything.
Amanda: From WRAL Studios, this is What Remains: stories of connecting unidentified human remains to the missing and the murdered. I'm Amanda Lamb.
Today on the show: the Billboard Boy. Who was he and why had no one reported him missing?
Tim: My name is Tim Horne, uh, used to work for the Orange County Sheriff's office. I retired about a year and a half ago.
Amanda: In the early 2000’s, Horne rose up through the ranks of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office and became a detective in the Criminal Investigation Division.
Amanda: Did it always kind of sit there in the back of your mind, like I need to solve this case?
Tim: Absolutely. As a matter of fact, I kept the box of evidence underneath my desk so it was in my way. So I couldn't forget it. Not that I would, but just that constant reminder, every time I turned around, I was banging my leg on the box, you know, and it's just a, a way of reminding myself. To do all that you can to solve it.
Amanda: Eventually, he was the one who took over as the lead investigator on the “Billboard Boy” case.
At that time, DNA testing was still in its infancy, but they were able to confirm the remains were that of an adolescent male. They got tips here and there, people who watched news coverage of the story. They also got a few hits on some national missing person and DNA databases that were all still relatively new.
Tim: And so every time there was new technology that came out and advanced, we would, we would focus that on this case, where can we go? Can we utilize anything, um, to advance this further? But nothing ever really came about. So we're kind of spinning our wheels, I guess you would say, and not making very much forward momentum.
Amanda: Early information from scientists who looked at this case revealed that the adolescent boy was most likely Caucasian or Hispanic--but that’s all they had to go on, and it wasn’t much.
The local media continued to follow the case...trying to help investigators find that forward momentum.
WRAL NEWS ARCHIVE
Cullen Browder, WRAL News Anchor: It’s a 10-year-old case gone cold. A young boy’s body, found off the interstate in Orange County.
Amanda: There was also some reward money to help sweeten the pot.
WRAL NEWS ARCHIVE
Kelcey Carlson, WRAL News Anchor: And tonight there is a new push to find leads to find out who he is and how he died. A national foundation is offering a $5000 reward for more information.
Amanda: The life of a detective doesn’t stop just because a cold case is taking up room under his desk. There were still new cases coming in every single day that needed Detective Horne’s immediate attention. He kept trying to push the Billboard Boy case forward in between everything else. He kept bumping into that file box. But the years passed, 2005, 2010, 2015. No breaks.
On a lark, Horne went to a conference hosted by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 2017. His goal was to see if he could drum up some people to look at the case, people with special scientific expertise who might be able to give him some new direction.
This was his first real chance to re-open that box that had been knocking his knees for nearly 20 years now.
He told some of the organizers there about the Billboard Boy case. Amazingly, leaders with the Center agreed to help him – to give him the resources he needed to get-high level DNA testing done.
Tim: Um, It's unfortunate that they only take, they are only able to take a few cases per year because you know, I had waited all these years, basically 17, 18 years, to get to this point. And from that things started to move much quicker.
Amanda: A company in Virginia was the first to jump into this type of advanced DNA testing that goes in-depth in developing a person’s genetic profile.
Tim: In my career of approximately 30 years, I went from no DNA to the point where they can, you know, get a complete profile off of like 41 skin cells. And from that profile, they can tell with a high probability hair color, eye color, freckles, recessive, uh, chin, prominent brow, all these different facial features.
Amanda: So Horne gets some of the initial tests back from the lab. And the first thing he learns is a huge break in the case. Like we said earlier, based on previous, less-accurate testing, they believed for years that the child was Caucasian, maybe Hispanic. They created composite pictures based on this information asking for the public’s help in identifying the boy. But when the new DNA testing came back, Horne was shocked. They had been wrong all along, very wrong.
Tim: And so after all these years of pumping out flyers of Caucasian, Hispanic looking children, we find out boom, this child is, is Asian descent as well.
Amanda: And that's a pretty big development because at that time in this area, there probably weren't a lot of Asian American children, and certainly not missing Asian-American children. And so that probably was a, was a big, a big turning point?
Tim: It, it was.
Amanda: After a few months, they get the full DNA test back, which includes a genetic roadmap, if you will, that can be compared much more accurately to other DNA samples.
But at this point, it’s December of 2018. After 30 years in law enforcement, Horne was getting ready to retire.
It was now or never for the Billboard Boy case. His official retirement date was the end of January of 2019, but with unused vacation time, he was technically done on New Year’s Eve.
Tim: And so I hear that clock ticking in my mind all the time, you know, I'm running out of time.
Amanda: Now sprinting, Horne has these new DNA results and turns to a rock star in the missing persons field.
Barbara Rae-Venter, Forensic Genealogist: He contacted me and it was towards the end of November. He was really pretty cute and he had this great accent. And so he said that he was going to be retiring at the end of the year. Is there any way I could solve the case by the end of the year?
Amanda: Barbara Rae-Venter is a forensic genealogist who helped solve the Golden State Killer case in 2018. We’re going to talk more about how she stumbled into this work in the next episode.
But, for Horne’s case, she agreed to help out with the boy’s genealogy.
She would help match DNA from the Billboard Boy to people who have submitted their own DNA through online databases. Based on those match-ups, she was able to build a family tree big enough that they identified a distant relative of the Billboard Boy.
Barbara: Then we get the results back. And we've got this huge match.
Amanda: Do you remember how long you worked on this case before you got a solution?
Barbara: 48 hours.
Tim: She had a name and we researched the name and found a man named Tim Shively. And he lived in Hawaii.
Amanda: Like lots of people have done, Tim Shively took an at-home DNA test and sent it off for analysis to see if he could learn more about his ancestry – where his family is from, that kind of thing. He allowed his DNA to be shared to other databases so he could be matched with relatives. That “sharing” was the thing that allowed Barbara Rae-Venter to connect him with the Billboard Boy.
Amanda: December 26, 2018: Everyone is off for the holidays. Horne is five days away from his unofficial retirement date. But he’s determined to run down Shively. Horne and his girlfriend go into the office and start researching...public records, social media…
Tim: And so as we start running Tim Shively's information, we, we start seeing matches of possible cousins and phone numbers that are, that are, you know, linked together. And so we start building a web and everything from Tim Shively, spiraled, back to Ohio.
Amanda: He can’t get a hold of Shively, and decides to concentrate on the relatives he had discovered in Ohio. Horne casts a wide net, contacting every single person from Shively’s family tree that he could find a phone number for.
Tim: And so we just kept pressing and pressing and pressing. And I started making phone calls and knowing, you know, crossed my fingers we weren't going to contact the suspect by accident. But I called 20 people when I was at the office, I left 20 different messages, not a single person answered.
Amanda: But on his way home from the sheriff’s office that day, Horne gets a call back from a woman named Karen Shively.
She tells him she married into the family and doesn’t know of anyone missing from the Shively clan, but she agrees to ask around and get back to him if she finds anything out.
Horne realizes his messages to these people probably sound a little crazy. With the exception of Karen, it’s possible no one believes he’s really a detective.
Tim: So I'm kinda even more deflated, you know, I only get one call back and it sounds kinda crazy when I was leaving these voice messages. I say, look, you Google Orange County Sheriff's office. You get the number you call and confirm my identity. And then you call me back because this is not a joke.
Amanda: He’s exhausted, discouraged, and facing the probable reality that he is about to retire without solving the one case he’s carried with him all these years, literally carried that box from desk to desk as he moved up through the ranks of the sheriff’s office.
Tim: I'm watching TV and I'm almost to the point of falling asleep, you know, the phone rings and I see it's got an Ohio area code and I answer, and it was Karen Shively again. And I recognized her voice though she didn't identify herself. And when I answered, she said, his name was Bobby Whitt.
Natalie Mosteller: My mother had got a phone call from, um, I want to say it was my aunt, Karen telling her that she had received a call from a detective in North Carolina. And he was, um, asking questions about, um, you know, uh, a little boy that might have gone missing in our family.
Amanda: Natalie Mosteller is from a large, loving family in Sardinia, Ohio, a small town just east of Cincinnati.
Natalie: Bob Whitt was my first cousin. His father was my mother's brother.
Amanda: What was the age difference between you?
Natalie: There was 10 years between us. He was born when I was 10 years old in 1988.
Amanda: She says growing up, she saw a lot of her cousin Bobby Whitt, who she called “Bob,” and his parents, her Uncle Russ and Aunt Myoung.
Natalie: They were around us all the time. They, you know, were at our house. We had a pool in our backyard and so they were always there in the summertime.
Amanda: Even though she was much older than Bobby, Natalie was fond of her cousin. She thought of him more like a little brother.
Natalie: He was a good kid. He was never a bratty little kid. He always was really sweet. Um, he was a really happy kid. Um, he, he was spoiled, but he didn't act spoiled, you know? Um, he was always willing to share his toys and his video games and he just liked playing and having fun.
Amanda: In 1996, when Bobby was 8, he and his family moved to Concord, North Carolina for his dad’s job. Russ worked for a company that provided technology for banks. Natalie and her family kept in touch with them, but they didn’t see them much. In 1998, her Uncle Russ called Natalie’s mother with some bad news about Aunt Myong.
Natalie: He told us that she had moved to Hawaii to be with her sister and, and then two months later, he told us that Bob had gone to live with Myoung. And then a few weeks after that, he said that she was taking him to Korea to raise him with her family.
Amanda: And at that time, I mean, nobody in the family had any reason to question that, right?
Natalie: No, no, not at all.
Amanda: To Natalie, something just didn’t feel right to her about the situation.
The family even hired a private investigator to look into whether or not there was any evidence, any records to prove that Myoung and Bobby had left the country like Russ Whitt had told them.
Natalie: There were never any records found. Um, Never any records of name changes or anything like that. They just thought that she, you know, just disappeared with him in Korea and in the nineties, how do you find someone in Korea? You know, But he would never talk about them when he was asked. He always avoided questions about them. And I just, in my gut, I felt like something had happened to them.
Amanda: When the internet became a place where everyone was, Natalie turned there, searching both of their names hoping to find some evidence that they were still alive.
Natalie: As soon as I got a Facebook profile the first person that I searched for was my cousin Bob. And I would search for him regularly.
Amanda: Some of those suspicions deepened in 1999 when Natalie’s Uncle, Russ ended up in federal prison in Kentucky on armed robbery charges
Natalie: Within a couple years of my uncle going to prison, um, I started to think that something could have happened to them.
Amanda: But Natalie says Uncle Russ had always seemed like he had it all together. He was a veteran who had been honorably discharged from the military and he had a good job. He doted on Bobby and only seemed to spiral downward when his wife and son disappeared – a spiral the family attributed to his sadness over them leaving.
Amanda: And you said he seemed like a pretty good father to Bobby.
Natalie: He seemed like an excellent father to Bobby. They were together all the time. Um, Bob was his little sidekick. They did everything together.
Amanda: Despite their questions, the family continued to support Russ Whitt, visiting him in prison, calling him and writing him letters. But one day something snapped in Natalie as she was writing to her uncle, the uncle she had once adored...
Natalie: And I got as far as two sentences on a page and never picked the notebook back up again. There was just something in me that told me, you know, that this situation wasn't good. And I wanted nothing to do with him. Because in my heart, I knew that he had done something to them.
Amanda: And then that call to Natalie’s Aunt Karen from this Detective in North Carolina. They knew right away that Detective Horne was talking about Bobby.
Tim: The phone rings and I see it’s got an Ohio area code, and when I answered, she said, his name was Bobby Whitt. And I had my tablet in front of me, of course I wrote Bobby Whitt on my tablet and I just circled it so many times that it actually cut down in the paper to the pages below. And she gave me information and pointed me in the right direction.
Amanda: ...in the direction of Bobby’s dad, Russ Whitt, sitting in federal prison in Kentucky.
Tim: And I was in Ashland, Kentucky at a federal penitentiary, just 48 hours later interviewing our prime suspect.
Amanda: What Whitt told him – after the break.
Tim: I've interviewed a lot of people, a lot of hardened criminals, and this guy did not fit that, that, that image I had of the killer, he was short, very soft-spoken. Um, did not want to look you in the eyes, um, mild and meek.
Amanda: Tim Horne talks to Russ Whitt for hours at the Federal prison in northeastern Kentucky.
Based on Bobby’s identification and what he’s learned from the family, Horne feels pretty certain that Whitt had something to do with his son’s death.
Tim: Now the first interview with Russ. He wouldn't give up any information and we hit him with the, “Hey, we think we've identified your son.” He wouldn't budge a bit. And so as we stand up to leave and it's been several hours that we've been interviewing him, he asked for my email. And he said, Hey, he said, before I talk with someone, I've got to get to know them a little better and feel comfortable.
Amanda: Horne leaves empty-handed and feeling a little defeated. Until they have physical evidence or a confession, it’s going to be really hard to take a case like this to court. There’s no proof at all suggesting Whitt was involved in Bobby’s death, just circumstance and gut feeling.
In his heart, Horne knew Bobby’s mother was also likely murdered by Whitt. But he has to prove it.
Tim: So we started checking the 1998 time period – unidentified, Asian females. And we came up with two, one was in North Carolina and one was in South Carolina.
Amanda: With another DNA test, they match the DNA from the remains of a woman found in Spartanburg, South Carolina to Bobby. She was his mother.
The remains of Myoung Hwa Cho had been found on May 13, 1998, shortly after she was murdered. She was nude and had been bound at her wrists. But like Bobby’s remains, hers sat at the state medical examiner’s office for more than twenty years as an unidentified Jane Doe.
Tim: But nonetheless, it, it came together and we were able to, uh, identify her.
Amanda: Horne gave Bobby’s aunt, Barbara, the tragic news so that she could share it with his loved ones.
Tim: And so I called Barbara once we positively confirmed it, but she already knew it. She already knew in her mind that this was going to be Bobby.
Amanda: To go from, Oh, they left, they went to Korea. It's sad. We won't get to see them again to “oh my gosh. He's been murdered, and maybe his mother has too,” that had to be a huge shock for your family.
Natalie: It really was, it was terrible. Um, at first, the, a lot of people in my family, um, they didn't want to believe that my uncle would have done that.
Amanda: But as Horne presented Natalie and her family with more evidence, they eventually came to terms with the fact that Russ Whitt had likely murdered his wife and son and then lied about their disappearance to the entire family. It was a tough pill for them to swallow.
Natalie: Knowing the relationship that he always had with, with Bob, they just, they couldn't wrap their heads around it. And then when we were told that they had found Myoung's remains as well, then there was no doubt that it was him.
Amanda: Armed with this new information, Horne visited Whitt in prison on January 7, 2019.
Tim: I felt like I still had the fish on the line just a little bit.
Amanda: The clock was ticking even more loudly. Horne was now working for free, working during his unfinished vacation time. At the end of the month he’d lose his badge, and any official capacity to pursue this case.
Horne and Whitt had been exchanging emails, chatting about life, the weather, sports, anything but the murder. When they met this second time, Whitt opened up a little more, admitting he had been married, that he had a son, that his wife had left with the son. Horne asked Whitt if they could take a DNA sample from him. Whitt refused. Horne then laid it all out for him:
Tim: We have proven the mother and son relationship through DNA. We know that was your wife, and therefore it's going to be your son. And we've proven that on the male lineage, it's going to be Tim Shively’s first cousin, and then talking with your family, and it was a very large family, you were the only one that had a biracial child, uh, that fit that description. And he said, come on back and I'll tell you what you want to know.
Amanda: On January 31, 2019, literally hours before Horne retires for real, he makes the 6 hour drive again back to the federal penitentiary in Kentucky to see Whitt for a third time.
This time Whitt lets the floodgates open, unloading the burden of the terrible crimes he committed and had been carrying around with him all these years.
Even for a veteran like Horne, it’s a lot to take in.
Tim: It was pretty hard to hear. It’s pretty hard to hear. You know, I was a seasoned investigator. I had seen so many homicides, suicides, accidental deaths. You know, I've been around that for 20 plus years, but when he finally told me how he killed Bobby, I let out an audible gasp, it just caught me off-guard for some reason.
Amanda: Whitt told Horne that back in 1996 he moved to North Carolina ahead of his family to start his new job. He gets lonely one night and goes to a local massage parlor. There, he meets a massage therapist named Sunny. Whitt tells Horne that it was love at first sight.
But now he’s got a problem. Myoung and Bobby are moving from Ohio to North Carolina soon.
After his family arrives, he tells Sunny he’s getting a divorce, that his wife is leaving him. But this story, it’s not true.
Tim: So that's a problem. And he's splitting his time between Sunny's place and his own home. And he's just getting caught up in that, that, that type of scenario. So he makes the decision as opposed to divorce his wife. He, he's going to kill her.
Amanda: He tells Horne he asked his wife to engage in bondage play in the bedroom. He tied her up. They had sex, then he suffocated her with a pillow. He put her body in the trunk of his car, drove to South Carolina and dumped her while his young son slept at home.
Bobby was 10 at the time.
Tim: Bobby's asking a lot of questions. Within two or three weeks, he's already moved Sunny into the home. All of his wife's pictures were gone. Her pictures were up. Bobby was very confused and started asking a lot of questions and Sunny did not get along with Bobby.
Amanda: Sunny tells Whitt that the boy… he should go live with his mother.
She had no idea her new boyfriend had murdered Myong.
Whitt told Horne that he didn’t see any way out of the mess he had created. So, in July of 1998, he drove his son to a nearby self-storage place.
Tim: And he drove to the little gravel drive between the storage units and he told Bobby that he was going to play a game and he wanted him to get in the back of the van and lay down and close his eyes. And Bobby's last words were “Okay, Daddy.” And then he gets a towel and gets in the back and uses his body weight to hold Bobby down while he's thrashing. And he suffocates him.
Amanda: Whitt told Horne he then drove north and took Bobby’s body and dumped it in Mebane beneath the billboard.
Whitt went on about his life telling everyone his wife had returned to South Korea with his son. And almost everyone believed him. They didn’t really have any proof to the contrary.
Tim: All deaths are tragic, but being a child, this being my case, working it so long, I mean, you know, so close for these last couple of months, trying to connect these dots – when he finally said it, it just, it just took my breath away.
Amanda: He had figured out who the Billboard Boy was… and how he ended up where he did.
WRAL NEWS ARCHIVE
David Crabtree, WRAL News Anchor: any cold case resolved is notable, this one, however, stands out as remarkable.
Debra Morgan, WRAL News Anchor: one man’s determination kept the case open until advances in technology could not solve one, but two cases
David: The case has been in the news here for years however the child’s family didn’t know the child had died.
Sarah Kruger, WRAL News Reporter: …a scientist who also helped crack the Golden State serial killer case identified Whitt.
Amanda: In January of 2020, 57-year-old John Russell Whitt stood in an Orange County courtroom and pled guilty to two counts of murder and two counts of concealing a death. Whitt was emotional as he stood before the judge and Bobby’s family and admitted to his crimes.
WRAL NEWS ARCHIVE
John Russell Whitt: The terrible things that I did do are in complete contrast to how I feel about little Bobby and dear Myoung Hwa, whom I love and miss, excuse me, beyond words.
David: This husband begged for forgiveness in court today after pleading guilty to murdering his wife and his son.
Laura Leslie, WRAL News Reporter: Whitt told the court he was haunted by their murders. He even tried to commit suicide in 2001 in federal prison. where he's been serving time for armed robbery.
Amanda: Whitt was sentenced to 26-32 years in state prison for each murder. That sentence begins at the expiration of his federal sentence in Kentucky in 2037.
To Horne, it was about more than just solving a case and holding the person who did it responsible. It was about bringing a little boy home to his family. In April of 2019, he personally returned Bobby to his family in Ohio.
Tim: I formed a bond with the family and oftentimes that occurs in my profession. And so I couldn't just let Bobby be shipped, so to speak, back for final burial. And so I coordinated with the family and, and his remains were cremated here locally. And then I drove Bobby back up for the service and he and his mother were buried together.
Amanda: Horne’s compassion has been a gift to Bobby’s family…
Natalie: It’s heartbreaking knowing that they had been so far apart for so long and knowing that they didn't have a name. For 20 years, no one knew who they were. It definitely brings peace knowing that they are finally resting together.
Amanda: Ultimately, knowing the truth became a pathway to peace.
Natalie: I don't want to say closure because I feel like closure is not something that I'm ever going to have because I lack the understanding of why something like this happened, but it definitely helps bring a sense of peace knowing where they are now, not wondering.
Tim: I couldn't always give a family good news. You can't bring their loved ones back, but you can apprehend the person who did it.
Amanda: Like so many people in this world whose work leads to a pretty improbable outcome, Horne is reluctant to take all the credit.
Tim: I got to be the quarterback, but that quarterback does not win a single game by himself. It takes the entire team. We had archeologists, anthropologists, medical examiner, profilers, investigators. You can go on and on and on and on. But I was, I was very happy that I was, I was able to – on my last day in law enforcement to get a confession for a double homicide.
Amanda: Horne says with older cases, the people who initially worked on them eventually retire, and often these unsolved cases just become a file box that the newer investigators have no connection to. He was determined not to let that happen in Bobby’s case.
Tim: I was the last person at the Sheriff's office that was still around. I was the last one, um, in this particular case. And so I was scared. Not that they wouldn't look at it or try, but they're not going to have that, that extra push.
Amanda: And it was that 11th hour push, that solved a mystery that had plagued him… and Bobby’s family for more than 20 years.
Amanda: On the next episode of What Remains… a self-taught genealogist helps crack one of the biggest cases of our lifetime.
Barbara Rae-Venter: Paul Holes who was working on the Golden State Killer had heard about, uh, the fact that I'd been able to identify the victims and asked me if I would help on the Golden State Killer case.... when you start closing in, on, on who you think the person is, there's, it's actually quite a rush.
Amanda: This episode of What Remains was written by me, Amanda Lamb, and produced by Anita Normanly. Our executive producer was Wilson Sayre who also edited the episode with mixing from Marc Maximov. What Remains was directed by Shelly Leslie. Please subscribe to our podcast on whatever app you use. That makes it easier for us to get you the latest episode. Thanks so much for listening.