The new approach to solving the most difficult cold cases
More than twenty years ago, a newborn baby was found dead inside a garbage bag on the side of the road near a military base in North Carolina. The officers working to solve his murder called him Baby Michael, named for the patron saint of police. With no leads on who the baby was, or who his mother was, the mystery turned into a cold case – another unsolved murder – but investigators never, ever quit on Baby Michael.
Meet the incredible investigators who made it their mission to identify Baby Michael and find his killer, and learn how they tapped into an innovation in forensic science to crack a 21-year old cold case.
This episode features two cold cases: Baby Michael and Ebonee Spears, a woman who vanished without a trace from Wilmington, North Carolina. One solved and one that still needs a miracle.
If you have any information about Ebonee Spears, please contact the Wilmington (NC) Police Department.
EPISODE 1: FORENSIC SCIENCE SOLVES THE MYSTERY OF BABY MICHAEL
DISCLAIMER: This podcast contains frank descriptions of human remains and physical violence. Listener discretion is advised.
Amanda Lamb: On a cool, cloudy afternoon in 1999, a soldier stationed at Fort Bragg Army base was driving down a busy road in Fayetteville, North Carolina when he made a gruesome discovery.
Lt. Adam Farnham/Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office: March 3rd of 1999 and called 911. Of course, the Sheriff's Office responded out to the scene where they saw, uh, what at first they thought it was a baby doll, but of course they discovered it was in fact, a newborn baby, still had the umbilical cord attached and everything in the trash bag.
Amanda: Lt. Adam Farnham says the baby boy… was dead…. The usually stoic investigators were horrified by the discovery. And even more so when the autopsy revealed that the newborn had died from blunt force trauma. He was still alive when he was thrown from a moving vehicle.
Lt. Adam Farnham: The baby had severe blunt force trauma. And that was what the baby died of.
It was emotional for every officer that has dealt with it for every homicide officer for the road officers, for every detective that has dealt with it.
Amanda: While the detectives were trying to sort out what happened to the boy, they gave him a name… something to help get the public’s attention and, in turn, generate leads. The name symbolized something very important to the officers who were investigating the case.
Lt. Adam Farnham: The Sheriff's office named the baby Baby Michael, because Michael is the patron Saint of law enforcement.
Amanda: Detectives went door-to-door canvassing the neighborhood for leads. They set up roadblocks and handed out fliers with a picture of the dead infant. The flier is pretty disturbing. But it was meant to be disturbing--it was meant to shake things up, to get someone to talk and to capture media attention:
WRAL NEWS ARCHIVE
Gilbert Baez, WRAL Reporter: I remember when they put this flier out too, it had a picture of the dead baby on it, just too gross for me to put on the air. Also at the top here it says “Who Killed Baby Michael?”
Lt. Adam Farnham: We had interviewed and taken voluntary DNA samples from countless people, countless women trying to, and anytime we got any kind of lead. All of the leads had been exhausted.
Amanda: Everything they tried led to a dead end. It officially became a cold case.
WRAL NEWS ARCHIVE
Investigating old murders becomes more difficult with every passing day. The newborn baby boy was found dead last year along the side of this Bays Creek Road. Investigators are hoping new technology will lead to suspects.
Amanda: Every year on the anniversary of the newborn’s death, the sheriff’s office held a memorial service at Baby Michael’s gravesite. Year after year, they laid flowers, wreaths, little stuffed animals:
WRAL NEWS ARCHIVE
Gilbert Baez: A solemn headstone with a simple message, “We Love You,” this cemetery next to Hair’s Chapel Freewill Holiness Church is where Baby Michael was buried 21 years ago.
THEME MUSIC BEGINS[Text Wrapping Break]
Amanda: In the U.S. there are around 100,000 active missing persons cases at any given time, and more than 40,000 sets of remains that have been discovered, but have not been identified – remains like Baby Michael’s.
Think about that for a moment...unidentified people, discarded, forgotten about, people who had lives. And now, what’s left of them, sits in a box somewhere waiting for someone--a scientist, an investigator, a loved one, to make a connection, to identify them and give them back some of their dignity even in death.
As a television reporter, I’ve been covering crime for thirty years. And I’ve shared stories from pieces of lots of these kinds of cases… mostly just the big moments - the discovery of a body, or a big break, occasionally an arrest.
But when I heard this 40,000 number, it was hard to believe there were so many unidentified people. With all of the advancements in technology and science today, how is this even possible?
So I wanted to dig in and understand what it takes to go from a set of unidentified bones to a name. I wanted to learn about the tools and the people who try to reach beyond the grave and find answers. Why do they do it? What drives them? How do they do it? And what happens when others get in their way--when some people intentionally try to hide the truth….
From WRAL Studios, this is What Remains: where we’ll dig into the stories of connecting unidentified human remains to the missing and the murdered... I’m Amanda Lamb.
THEME MUSIC ENDS
Amanda: Would it be fair to say that even though it was a quote unquote cold case, it was always being investigated and always on the minds of the investigators who had touched this case?
Lt. Adam Farnham: Yes. Uh, although it's cold, it's never really cold because we never forgot it.
Amanda: In 2019 Lt. Adam Farnham was the latest investigator to inherit the Baby Michael case.
He’s a tall, burly guy with a friendly face. He looks like he could probably talk his way into just about any suspect’s house. He works in the homicide unit with the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office in North Carolina. He’s one of dozens of investigators over the years who have touched this case and been touched by it.
Lt. Adam Farnham: When I compiled this file together, there were thousands and thousands of pages. Um, just hundreds of interviews that were conducted, not just by myself, but, uh, through all of the investigators over the years. Uh, there've been hundreds of interviews that have been done.
Amanda: In October of 2019, twenty years after that roadside discovery, investigators actually got a little break. A small crack, but the first in more than two decades.
Lt. Adam Farnham: Money, money was the break. And what I mean by that is we received money through our county government in order for us to send samples that were collected, uh, from the original day, uh, we were able to send samples to a private lab.
Amanda: Over the years, investigators zeroed in on several women in the area who had given birth around the time Baby Michael was born. They questioned more than 50 mothers and got voluntary DNA samples from them, but none of these leads panned out. What investigators had never done though, was to see if there was apotential DNA match on these massive online DNA databases that now exist.
While Baby Michael’s remains were buried, samples of his DNA from the placenta and umbilical cord were stored by the state and preserved as evidence because the case remained open. Some of those samples were sent to a lab in Virginia for DNA analysis.Then, scientists then created a genetic profile of the baby that they could try and use to match with potential family members, as distant as they may be.
Lt. Adam Farnham: We were able to do genealogy testing and through that genealogy testing, uh, we were able to do, uh, essentially a family tree of Baby Michael.
Amanda: And that's what's called forensic genealogy.
Amanda: Where you take that sample, you try to connect it to people. And then you keep going until you find somebody who knows something in this family tree.
Adam: Correct. A second cousin or a third cousin down the line.
Amanda: They started getting results in November of 2019, but the names they got back were very distant relatives of Baby Michael – too distant. Still, the lab kept processing the DNA, doing more in-depth testing and running it against any new samples.
Then in February of 2020, they got a result back that showed someone very, very close to Baby Michael on the family tree...it was a big break, and they ran with it.
They interviewed that person and others close to Michael on the family tree. The circle was closing...and they were getting closer and closer to Baby Michael’s mother.
Then on February 20, 2020, 21 years after Baby Michael was found... Lt. Farnham and another detective drove 200 miles west from Fayetteville to a small town in the mountains of North Carolina to the home of a woman they believed would provide the ultimate answers in the case.
Lt. Adam Farnham: We had received information through our interviews, um, that that was the mother. And, uh, I went to interview her with one of my detectives up in, um, Morganton. It's a few hours away up in the mountains.
Amanda: The DNA testing, her age, and where she lived at the time Baby Michael died – about 3 miles from where he was found, Farnham knew all this… and he knew this interview was make or break.
Lt. Farnham revealed that the woman admitted to him that she was Baby Michael’s mother.
Lt. Adam Farnham: Deborah Riddle Jackson O'Conner is her name. It's O'Conner now, it wasn't in 1999.
Amanda: When they told her she was under arrest, she didn’t cry, she just got up and walked out of the house with the detectives, almost like she was expecting this day to come.
When I asked Lt. Farnham what that moment was like...he sits quietly for a few seconds, looks away, and then turns back to me, choosing his words carefully.
Lt. Adam Farnham: It was a, uh...experience.
WRAL NEWS ARCHIVE
You’re looking at the woman investigators say left a newborn baby’s body by the side of the road in Cumberland Count in 1999. WRAL’s Fayetteville reporter Gilbert Baez has been covering developments in this case for two decades.
Gilbert Baez: On many occasions I’ve covered the grave-side ceremonies they’ve had for baby Michael.
WRAL NEWS ARCHIVE
54 year old Deborah O'Conner stood quietly in front of District county Judge Hasting as he read the change against her. First Degree Murder in the death of her one-day-old baby boy.
Amanda: In a Facebook post she made in November of 2019, three months before police showed up at her front door, Deborah foreshadowed the fact that investigators’ would eventually circle the wagons around her, saying: "You can't hide behind a religious mask forever; sooner or later, the mask will slip and your true face will be known."
Deborah grew up in the Fayetteville area, and has two adult sons from a previous marriage and two grandsons. She was in her thirties when Baby Michael was born...who the infant’s father was remains a mystery. She and her current husband Charles had only been together for ten years when she was arrested. He was as surprised as anyone by the accusations against her.
Charles O’Conner told the media he had no idea that his wife had given birth to a baby in 1999 before they met. He spoke to television station WCNC in Charlotte and said he didn’t think his Deborah was capable of murder, that this appeared to be a witch hunt.
WCNC NEWS ARCHIVE
CHARLES O’CONNER: I can not stand that mug shot they got of her. I can’t stand to look at it. Because that’s not the Debbie I know.
Amanda: Investigators tell us Deborah somehow managed to hide the pregnancy from her family and friends… and then kept the secret for 21 years.
Three years after investigators say she killed Baby Michael, North Carolina passed a law that allows a parent to give up a newborn in the first seven days of its life to a responsible person with no legal repercussions – a healthcare worker, a police officer, a social worker, No questions asked.
The goal of the Safe Surrender Law is to prevent infant homicides like this one. Of course no one knows for sure if this law would have protected Baby Michael. There aren't numbers kept about how many babies have been surrendered since it went into effect. But, advocates say it’s crucial for mothers who feel like they have no other options.
Amanda: After Deborah O’Conner’s arrest, the Cumberland County Sheriff Ennis Wright called a press conference to announce this 21-year-old case had been solved.
Ennis Wright, Cumberland County Sheriff: This person had options. She had a choice. We hope that sometimes you make the right choice but in this situation the right choice wasn’t made.
WRAL NEWS ARCHIVE
Gilbert Baez: Now it’s up to District Attorney Billy West to seek justice for Baby Michael.
Billy West, District Attorney: Well first I want to thank the Sheriff’s office for their hard work. I was a young assistant DA when this case was being investigated. I know it was very important to the former sheriff. I know it was very important to my predecessor. As far as the prosecution of the case, We do have an admission in this case and we do have the DNA, so that in and of itself is quite a bit of evidence. It’s a first degree murder case so she ’s facing eligible for life in prison possibly the death penalty if there’s aggravators present, but currently she’s charged with frist degree murder so the two punishments prescribed are life in prison or the death penalty…
Gilbert Baez: The sheriff says even though they believe they solved this case, they plan to continue holding those graveside memorials especially this year since he would have turned 21 years old.
Ennis Wright, Cumberland County Sheriff: It really bothers me. I take it personal when there’s so many avenues we have out there, so many avenues that this young lady could have used during that time.
Amanda: In August of 2021, 22 years after Baby Michael was found discarded on the side of the road, Deborah walked into a Cumberland County courtroom…her face obscured by a mask due to the COVID pandemic. She wore a baggy tan jail uniform and handcuffs around her wrists. Her attorney, Bernard Condlin, pulled out her chair so that she could sit at the defendant’s table.
Deborah pled guilty to the second-degree murder of her infant son. Condlin told the court we would never understand why his client did this. But he did add some context, saying that Deborah had hidden the pregnancy from her family because her mother didn’t approve of her having children out of wedlock with multiple men. He told the judge that on the day in question, she panicked. Condlin later described Deborah driving around looking for a place to leave the infant. She went to the fire department, but her brother was there. Condlin said she went by her church, but people there knew her mother and Deborah ended up making the “poor decision” to leave Baby Michael on the side of the road.
Deborah showed remorse for what she did. Calmly, she told the court "I deeply regret that this has happened. If I could do it over again, it would end up so differently.”
She also asked for mercy, saying "I've asked God for forgiveness, I've asked Michael for forgiveness, I asked my family for forgiveness for the embarrassment and the anguish that this has caused them, but most of all I ask the community for forgiveness. If they could look at my heart and see that I never wanted this to happen—I was in a bad situation, and if I could do it over again, this would not have happened, and we would not be here in these proceedings."
The judge sentenced Deborah to a minimum of twelve years in prison and a maximum of fifteen years and two months minus the eighteen months she had already served in jail awaiting her hearing. Deborah Riddle O’Conner is currently doing her time at the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh. She is scheduled to be released in February of 2032.
Amanda: For Lt. Farnham and all the investigators who came before him, this was personal, solving this case was something they had to do. They never gave up on Baby Michael.
Amanda: But so many, like you said, so many people before you had worked on it, I mean, what was it like to solve it, to get to that point? How did that feel?
Amanda: Lt. Farnham, gets choked up. His eyes fill with tears. Covering crime for decades - I’d never quite seen a seasoned investigator like this before.
He quickly regains his composure and wipes his eyes with the backs of his hands.
He explains that for him “justice” in a case like this doesn’t bring the so-often-touted word “closure” to the loved ones of the victim.
Adam: Resolution is a good word. Cause, um, especially in homicide, uh, what people want is their family member back that I can never give that. Um, however, being able to give someone the answer.
Amanda: I knew about this case from colleagues who’d followed it all these years from the discovery of the unidentified infant to the criminal charges. And this kind of story… in the unidentified person world… it’s a success. But it’s rare.
More often the cases I’ve covered are like that of Ebonee Spears...someone goes missing...there are massive searches...and then the trail goes cold...
Harriet Rivers, Mother of Ebonee Spears: I know a lot of people say she's missing, but to me. I mean, my version of it, it's not only missing. She seems to have vanished.
What happened to Ebonee... after the break.
Amanda: 31-year-old Ebonee Spears disappeared from her home in Wilmington, North Carolina in January of 2016. Since then, her mother, Harriet Rivers, has been filled with questions.
Harriet: I just want to know if Ebonee is alive somewhere and being held captive and can't come home. I would like to know that.
Is she okay, where is she? You know what I'm saying? We always have that in the back of our head.
Amanda: Days turned into weeks, months and then years, no word from Ebonee.
Harriet: Something has happened to her and nobody is speaking out. Ebonee just wouldn't have walked away from home.
Amanda: Ebonee Spears was diagnosed with lupus in 2016.
Harriet: That was really a blow for her when they told her she found out she had lupus.
Amanda: Her mom says Ebonee was overwhelmed emotionally and physically by the diagnosis, so she asked her parents to take care of her 13-year-old daughter, Aniya, for just a few days. They were more than happy to help. They adored Aniya, and their daughter and would do anything to support them.
Another thing getting Ebonee down--she had lost her job as a Certified Nursing Assistant because she took too many sick days. Her mom, Harriet Rivers, was extremely worried about her daughter’s state of mind.
Harriet: That caused some great depression and just turned her, her world, her life upside down, not being able for number one to take care of Aniya, number two, half the time not being able to focus and take care of pretty much herself. It was just like we were running back and forth, making sure she was okay, mentally, physically.
Amanda: When you look at a photograph of Ebonee, it’s like looking straight into the sun. Her smile is big and warm. In some photos she sports a brunette bob with subtle blonde highlights which only add to her glow. But, we all know people can look one way in a photo, and still be hurting inside.
Harriet said Ebonee had her struggles, but that she was smart and kind, and desperately needed her family’s support in that moment.
Harriet: To me she was a good daughter, a loving mother, she loved her family. Ebonee, she was actually a good person.
Amanda: On Tuesday, January 12, 2016, Harriet spent time at her daughter’s apartment, helping her clean out and organize. She felt like this was something tangible she could do to help Ebonee get back on track, to figure out how to resume some semblance of normalcy in her life despite her health issues. Harriet said, at that time, Ebonee seemed fine, but two days later, everything went downhill.
Harriet: It was just like, everything just went rock bottom. Um, because I got a call from her boyfriend at that time. And he was saying the Ebonee was, um, acting erratic, driving…driving over the speed limit. And so that was the day that we, she ended up at the police department, the Wilmington Police Department.
Amanda: Ebonee had gone to the precinct on her own accord looking for some help. She didn’t know where to turn. But she felt like the this was a good place to start. They called EMS because Ebonee was complaining of not feeling well. Her parents met her there and were hoping the police would recommend that Ebonee be admitted to the hospital for a mental health evaluation. But officers who attended to her said she seemed fine, lucid, normal, not a danger to herself or anyone else.
Harriet: She wasn't acting right. And we wanted her to get some help. And, um, so they, you know, like I said, they asked all the questions, cand they say they didn't find nothing wrong with her. She answered the questions correctly, whatever, blah, blah, blah, blah. They can't make her go.
Amanda: Despite her parents’ concerns, they let her go home.
The very next day on Friday, January 15, Ebonee returned to the Wilmington Police Department asking if she could use their phone, saying her phone had lost its charge. Her parents think this was yet another cry for help. According to witnesses, she stayed there in the lobby of the police department for a few minutes acting anxious.
Harriet: At one point, then she went back to the phone and it didn't respond and realized that the phone wasn't working. But they say she got a little agitated and she walked out the door and that was the last time they seen her.
Amanda: In the initial reports of Ebonee’s disappearance, this was listed as the last confirmed sighting of her.
Amanda: Why do you think she went to the police department these two times?
Harriet: I have no clue cause she kept telling us that, she felt like someone was following her.
Amanda: After the police got involved in the days following Ebonee’s disappearance, investigators learned that someone saw her after the scene at the police department. A man says that night he was visiting a friend in the apartment complex where Ebonee lived. He says around 9:45 she stepped out of her apartment and asked him for a cigarette. He said he didn’t have one to give her and she told him she was going to walk to the store and buy some.
Harriet: And then about one o'clock that morning, her boyfriend, actually, he calls her daughter's phone and asked was her mom to my house. So she puts me on the phone and he’s saying, Hey, I've been here since 11:00 and Ebonee is not home. Is she with you?
Amanda: Right away, Harriet is very concerned. The boyfriend says he found the apartment locked with Ebonee’s purse inside, but that she’s nowhere to be found. Why would she leave without her purse, her mother thinks.
Harriet: And that's, to me, my thing it’s not making, it’s not making sense...
Amanda: After Ebonee disappeared, they got connected with an advocacy group that helps families when someone goes missing. You’ll hear much more about the CUE Center for Missing Persons in a later episode.
The CUE Center organized searches, posted fliers everywhere with Ebonee’s picture on them and hosted rallies. The Wilmington Police searched the city on horseback, checking alleys and spots their patrol cars couldn’t go. They used dogs, they even got the FBI involved when investigators thought she might be the target of a man in Georgia that she used to live with and owed money to. There was a reward offered for information about her whereabouts. A local funeral home even donated money to pay for billboards with Ebonee’s picture on them.
The search went on for years. As recently as February of 2022, the CUE Center and the Wilmington Police held another community search for Ebonee. It lasted two days. It involved dozens of volunteers, search dogs, and searchers on horseback. They returned to places Ebonee was last seen like the area around the police department and her apartment.
Still…. Nothing. Not a trace of her.
Amanda: I mean, how do you as a parent just get up and go through every day not knowing?
Harriet: I do it, like I said, the cause of Aniya and then I have two other small kids that rely on me and basically, I think I'm the stone tower of the family. So they, I have to just keep on going. There are days when I wish I didn't have to. I wish they wasn't depending on me, that I could just stay in the bed with my head covered up and just not do nothing. Just not think, but I'm still going.
Amanda: Aniya, Ebonee’s daughter, is in college ...her family wants resolution for themselves...but more importantly, they want resolution for Aniya. She has thrived despite the disappearance of her mom when she was just 13. But Harriet believes her granddaughter deserves to know the truth, needs to know the truth in order to get on with her life in a productive way – and she says that’s what Aniya wants too.
Harriet: She is going into young womanhood without knowing where her mom is, and her mom has been missing practically all her teenage years just about.
Amanda: At this point, the most important thing to Harriet is knowing what happened to Ebonee:
Harriet: I know someone's out there who knows what's happened to her and I feel it. And I just know someone know.
Amanda: And as a mother, I mean, that could mean a lot to be able to have that answer, I would think.
Harriet: Yeah, just, we just want to know. If you, the individual caused it just come forward. And if you are not an individual that caused it and you know what happened to Ebonee, come forward. That's all we are asking.
Amanda: All we’re asking...that’s all most people in Harriet’s situation are asking...after years of waiting and wondering – they just want to know what happened to their loved one. As a parent, it’s an unimaginable situation to be in. I couldn’t picture myself getting out of bed, but somehow, Harriet manages to put one foot in front of another, day after day, hoping for a miracle.
So how do cases go from where Ebonee’s is – a missing person case with no clues to go on to a solved case like the case of Baby Michael. It’s like two sides of the same coin – an unidentified person on one side, missing person on the other. Somehow they need to be connected.
And I’ve gotten sucked in to trying to figure out how those two sides meet. How do you put together a story of who a person is and what happened to them from a single piece of bone? How do you search for someone when there’s no leads to follow? And why are there SO MANY cases yet to be solved?
I’m going to take you along with me as I try to answer some of these questions. In this show, we’ll meet the scientists and investigators using the most cutting edge tools and technology to find answers for families like Ebonee’s.
We’re going to walk through a body farm, take a class in forensic art, track the impact of DNA testing and put bones under a microscope. And we’ll meet the people behind all of this work: advocates for those whose voices have been cut short, and in some cases entirely forgotten.
It’s not an easy journey – but when you think about people like Harriet, a mother who has lost a child, you realize that every step is worth taking.
Amanda: On the next episode of What Remains… pieces of a woman’s body are found in a creek... but how did she die?
Boz Zellinger: The way that they're able to sort of find the body is when the body is placed in some water and starts to decompose the fats sort of float on top of the water. And so, it's just a horrific place for her body to have been left.
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.