TWINSBURG, Ohio — Police in Ohio have identified partial human remains found nearly 40 years ago as belonging to one-time O’Jays guitarist Frank “Frankie” Little Jr.
The Twinsburg Police Department announced Tuesday that cold case investigators, with the aid of genealogical research by the DNA Doe Project, had identified Little as the John Doe whose remains were found Feb. 18, 1982, stuffed into a garbage bag and dumped behind a now-defunct business on Cannon Road.
Little was born in Cleveland in 1943, authorities said. He was last known to be alive sometime in the mid-1970s, though not much is known about his disappearance or death.
Little’s death has been ruled a homicide, police officials said.
“I’m very excited we were able to put a name to these remains and to get him back to his family and give his family that piece of closure,” Summit County Medical Examiner Lisa Kohler said in a statement to the Akron Beacon Journal.
According to Rolling Stone, Little joined the famed O’Jays R&B group in the early 1960s, but his time with the band was brief. Nevertheless, he worked with founding member and lead vocalist Eddie Levert on several of the group’s hits from that era.
Those tunes included 1964′s “Do the Jerk,” 1966′s “Pretty Words,” and 1967′s “Oh, How You Hurt Me.” Little was also credited with vocals on 1962′s “Down on the Corner,” the magazine reported.
“Frankie was a guitarist and songwriter in the very early O’Jays,” the band said in a statement obtained by Rolling Stone. “He came with us when we first ventured out of Cleveland and traveled to Los Angeles, but he also was in love with a woman in Cleveland that he missed so much that he soon returned back to Cleveland after a short amount of time.
“That was in the mid-1960s and we had not heard from him after then. Although this sounds like a tragic ending, we wish his family and friends closure to what appears to be a very sad story.”
Listen to “Pretty Words” below.
The Beacon Journal reported that employees of a now-shuttered machine shop on Cannon Road were dumping metal shavings in the woods when they stumbled upon a human skull.
“When they saw the skull, they didn’t believe it was human,” Twinsburg police Detective Eric Hendershott told the newspaper. “They showed it around.”
The workers eventually called police, who searched the property and found a garbage bag containing more remains. A forensic anthropologist determined that the dismembered remains, which had no clothing or identification, had been at the location between two and four years.
Little would have been 39 in 1982, putting him in his mid- to late-30s at the time of his murder.
The DNA Doe Project reported that the bones showed signs of stabbing, blunt force trauma and a postmortem fire. The man, who could be identified only as a Black man between 20 and 35 years old, had signs of kyphosis, or a forward curvature of the spine.
He may have had a noticeable slouch or humped back, the site stated.
Detectives released information about the slain man and received a few leads that were soon ruled out, the Beacon Journal reported. The case went cold for more than two decades.
In 2009, Twinsburg police Sgt. Greg Feketik reopened the case and began looking into using DNA to identify the man, the paper said. John Doe’s DNA profile was fed into the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, but it resulted in no hits.
Meanwhile, a professor at Kent State University made a sketch of the man’s skull and in 2016, a forensic artist with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation created a clay bust of the man.
The man’s identity still eluded authorities.
In 2018, Akron police officials reached out, believing that the remains might belong to a missing person there. It was false hope, the Beacon Journal reported.
It spurred Hendershott to continue his quest, however.
“It occurred to me that time’s ticking,” Hendershott told the newspaper. “Soon enough, people won’t be alive to remember him.”
That year, Hendershott got his chance after authorities in California used a new crimefighting technique — genetic genealogy — to identify the infamous Golden State Killer. Since then, hundreds of identifications of crime victims and suspects have been made using the technology.
The detective reached out to the DNA Doe Project, a group of volunteers who work on their own time to help law enforcement officials identify human remains nationwide. The volunteers put the unidentified man’s profile into two public genealogy databases, GEDmatch and Family Tree DNA, and began building his family tree.
According to the DNA Doe Project, the volunteers constructed more than 70 family trees in the process. Ultimately, they found distant relatives who submitted DNA samples, allowing them to narrow the field down.
Elias Chan, the volunteer who led the DNA Doe Project team on Little’s case, explained part of the process in a statement.
“Right out of the gate, the two top matches had unknown paternity,” Chan said. “Eventually, we were able to tease out important family groups that intersected with Twinsburg John Doe’s. From those, we began to systematically look for people to volunteer to upload to GEDmatch or (Family Tree DNA) with the hope of narrowing the family groups further.”
The team turned their results over to Hendershott, who located a cousin of Little’s living in Cleveland. The cousin, Margaret O’Sullivan, told the detective she had a cousin named Frank Little who disappeared decades before, the Beacon Journal reported.
“We were wondering what happened to him,” O’Sullivan said.
O’Sullivan pointed the detective to Little’s brother, who lives in Georgia. The brother provided a DNA sample, which proved the Twinsburg John Doe was Frank Little.
“It’s amazing,” O’Sullivan said of the identification. “We’re glad that we have closure now. We know he’s deceased.”
Chan told the Beacon Journal it is particularly exciting to solve the long cases. Chan has worked on about two dozen cases, with 10 of them resulting in identification.
“Our tight-knit researching group synergized well, and that sustained us through a long-haul and into pandemic times,” Chan said in his written statement.
For Hendershott, now comes the task of trying to learn more about Little’s final years — including who may have killed him and why.
According to police, the Cleveland native was in the U.S. Army for a couple of years, serving in Vietnam during the war. He was last known to live somewhere in the area of East 105th Street and Superior Avenue in Cleveland.
Little had two children, including a daughter who died in 2012. He also has a son, though his family members are unsure of the son’s full name or location.
Hendershott told the Beacon Journal that many questions remain.
“Part of the mystery is over with, but we have no idea how he got there, how he disappeared or where he lived toward the end of his life,” he said.
Anyone with information on Little’s disappearance and murder is asked to contact Hendershott at 330-405-5679 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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