Father in court 21 years after boy's remains found under Mebane billboard
Posted August 12, 2019 12:44 p.m. EDT
Updated August 12, 2019 4:12 p.m. EDT
Hillsborough, N.C. — A man charged with killing his son and dumping his body under a Mebane billboard appeared in an Orange County courtroom on Monday – more than 20 years after the alleged crime.
John Russell Whitt, 57, was indicted in May on charges of murder and concealing a death.
The boy's remains were found by a grass-cutting crew under a billboard off Interstate 85 in Mebane in September 1998, and his identity remained a mystery until early this year, when the Orange County Sheriff's Office used DNA to identify him as Robert “Bobby” Adam Whitt, who was born Jan. 7, 1988.
The indictment alleges Bobby was killed on or about July 29, 1998.
John Whitt is already in federal prison in Kentucky on robbery charges, so no bond was set for him Monday. He was transferred to the federal prison at Butner and then to the Orange County jail, where he will remain until his trial.
"We are required to keep him until the case is fully resolved before he goes back to the federal prison system," Orange County Assistant District Attorney Anna Orr said.
Investigator Tim Horne worked on Bobby Whitt's case for the Orange County Sheriff's Office from beginning to end. Even though he's now retired, he was in court Monday to follow the proceedings.
"I’ve waited 20-plus years for this moment – to start the ball rolling officially. "That's very rewarding to see it move forward, both for me and the family. I've been in communication with the family as well, and they were very appreciative of the efforts and happy that we're going forward."
Horne said that, as he worked the case all those years, Bobby became like a son to him. He delivered Bobby's ashes to his relatives in Ohio this spring and attended the boy's funeral.
"It was a nice service," he said. "Some of his childhood friends attended from school, and that was nice to talk to them and see pictures and hear about the good times that Bobby did have."
Investigators had earlier reconstructed Bobby's face from his skull and produced sketches of what he probably looked like, but they never got any matches on national databases of missing children.
After seeing information in the National Missing and Unidentified Person System about a woman's body that had been found off I-85 in South Carolina in May 1998, the Orange County Sheriff's Office contacted authorities in Spartanburg County, S.C., last December about a possible connection between the cases.
The woman's body was found naked with binding marks on her wrists. An autopsy performed in 1998 determined that she had been suffocated.
South Carolina investigators were able to identify the woman as Myong Hwa Cho, and a DNA comparison in January confirmed that she was the mother of the boy.
Orange County investigators used leads from DNA results to find close relatives, who said they had always been told that Cho had returned to her native South Korea with her son.
Whitt is also accused of killing Cho, who was his wife. He hasn't yet been charged in that case, but Orr said she expects charges to be filed next month.
Authorities have said they believe Cho and Bobby were both killed in the Concord area and their bodies dumped in different locations. But both murder trials will be held in Orange County, authorities said.
None of Bobby's or Cho's relatives were in court Monday. Horne said he will try to be at as many hearings as possible moving forward.