MEBANE, N.C. (WNCN) – It’s a mystery that has lasted nearly two decades, but also a mystery that is getting renewed attention.
On September 25, 1998, a child’s body was found near Interstate-85 in Orange County.
There were no suspects, no cause of death and not even an identity for the young boy.
But for those trying to solve it, it’s a case that is far from forgotten.
Tim Horne, a captain with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, remembers the day the boy’s remains were recovered.
“I was a relatively new investigator,” he recalled. “I was doing a crime scene.”
He hopes putting the story out there again in the public eye might lead to that clue that would help investigators crack the case.
“Someone out there has information on this boy and can help solve this case,” said Horne. “But it’s got to be the right word going into the right ear.”
On that fall day in 1998, a worker mowing the grass around a billboard off I-85 near Buckhorn Road in Mebane made a startling discovery. That is when the worker found the bones of the child right by the edge of the woods.
“The younger the victim is, it strikes at your heart a little closer,” said Horne.
But besides knowing the victim was a child, there has been little else determined.
“In a homicide investigation, almost exclusively you know who your victim is and then you can spiral outwards, you know, family, friends, associates,” said Horne.
In the medical examiner’s report, the cause of death is listed as “pending.”
It also documents that it is unknown when the boy was last known to be alive.
“We knew pretty quickly that this was going to be a marathon, not a sprint,” said Horne.
Investigators estimated the boy was between 9 and 12 years old.
With little to go on, Horne worked the case.
“For years, I kept the box under my desk and I didn’t have much room and, of course, it got in the way and I had to hit my leg on it every day,” he said. “But it was just a reminder of what happened to this boy.”
Authorities got help from volunteers, people like Daphne Owings who volunteers for the CUE Center for Missing Persons.
“I can’t imagine that there’s not somebody, somebody somewhere who isn’t missing him,” said Owings, trying to hold back tears.
Scientists pitched in, too.
Dr. Ann Ross is a forensic anthropologist at N.C. State University.
In 2010, more than a decade after the boy was found, she determined there was a strong chance he was Hispanic, likely Mexican or Guatemalan.
“You can assess ancestry or place of origin of an individual based on craniofacial shape variation,” said Ross.
Even with that clue, the case remained unsolved.
Fast forward to 2017, the University of South Florida has narrowed down where the boy may have been from.
Researchers believe he spent the last five to eight years of his life in one of seven states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina or Texas.
Notice what is missing?
“The child did not spend any significant time in North Carolina. That was the main thing,” said Horne.
The location where the boy’s remains were found is close by the merger of two interstates, I-85 and I-40, and investigators tell CBS North Carolina it would not take long to get back on to the highway.
“The child was left and then they could hurriedly get back on the interstate,” said Horne.
CBS North Carolina went with Horne back to the scene where the memories are still strong.
“It’s sad,” he said. “It was sad then. It’s still sad now.”
Owings made and placed a memorial there for the boy about 10 years ago.
It is still in place now.
“I just think it’s important to recognize that this happened here,” she said.
Now, in about six months, Horne will retire from the sheriff’s office.
He will leave the box of evidence with someone else and he will do it with a message.
“I don’t want it to be forgotten,” said Horne. “It’s more than just a file in a box somewhere.”
In October, the CUE Center visited all the states where the young boy may have lived, trying to see if anyone knew anything about the case.
If you have any information, you are asked to give the Orange County Sheriff’s Office a call.