For decades he didn't give up trying to ID a boy and his killer. The obsession paid off just before this detective retired

CNN/ Newswire | 2/6/2019, 8:35 a.m.
For years Maj. Tim Horne had a box under his desk he'd bump his leg into almost every day.
Maj. Tim Horne, an investigator in North Carolina, had to solve the mysterious killing of an unidentified 10-year-old boy. He worked the case for 20 years until he finally learned the child's name days before he retired. Full credit: Orange County Sheriff's Office/AP

By Steve Almasy, CNN

(CNN) -- For years Maj. Tim Horne had a box under his desk he'd bump his leg into almost every day.

He didn't move the box, because it was in his "damn way" on purpose.

The box was stuffed full of information about a cold case of the worst kind, the killing of a child, and he just had to solve it.

The investigator for the sheriff's department in Orange County, North Carolina, put off his retirement for months, until last week, hoping he could get final answers in the 1998 killing of a 10-year-old boy.

He wanted resolution, he said, not just for the family, but for himself. He had investigated the case since the day the decomposed body was found underneath a billboard near an interstate.

"This has been my child for 20 years," he said by phone. "I needed closure also."

The boy's remains were discovered in September 1998 by a maintenance crew doing yard work. Horne came to the scene and was there for hours as the crime scene team took photos of the skull, collected the remains, and looked for other clues to identify the body and figure out why someone did this.

This week, authorities announced they had identified Robert "Bobby" Adam Whitt, born in Michigan and raised in Ohio. They said a suspect is already in custody.

"This case is an example of dogged determination of investigators who refused to give up. The efforts of Maj. Tim Horne and the entire investigation division were exemplary," Sheriff Charles Blackwood said.

A heart-wrenching mystery

The case drove at his heart from the very beginning, Horne said, because it involved a child, one who had been left out in the elements so long officers didn't immediately know whether it was a boy or a girl. Later, clothing would give them their first gender clue.

There were obstacles from the first days of the investigation, because there were no reports of missing children that matched the child. And Horne didn't know that about 200 miles away there was another body -- an adult woman who 20 years later would be identified as the boy's slain mother.

Horne, 50, said he tried to keep the boy's case in the public eye. Wherever he went he would talk about it. If he went to seminars or classes he would reach out to instructors about the case and how to solve it.

In his office, he intentionally set the box with the case file in his way. It was a reminder.

He already knew everything that was in the file, but he wanted to make sure it was on his mind.

"I didn't think I would forget the case, but I wanted to be sure," he said.

Horne also regularly drove by the billboard where the remains were found. He was hopeful he'd catch the killer coming back to check out the scene, so if there was a vehicle pulled over, Horne would wheel in and have a chat.