New charges in '82 death of 3-year-old girl

Suspect confessed to killing child in '86, but evidence was insufficient

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Two decades after Allegheny County prosecutors dropped homicide charges against him for lack of corroborating evidence, a Penn Hills man has been charged with the murder of a 3-year-old girl.

Nicole Lynn Bryner before she disappeared at age 3.

Related article

Police always doubted mother's story her child was abducted

Timothy Widman confessed in 1986 to killing his girlfriend's daughter, Nicole Bryner, on March 9, 1982. With the child's mother, the late Melody Childs, he buried the body in a wooded lot in Brookline, he told police. Police searched unsuccessfully for the body, and without it prosecutors could not pursue the case.

Mrs. Childs insisted from the day of Nicole's disappearance that her daughter had been abducted from a South Side supermarket.

Mrs. Childs was charged with hindering apprehension and lying to police in 1986. Her charges also were dismissed. She died in June 2001 following back surgery in a Texas hospital, her family said.

Until the day she died, Mrs. Childs maintained her daughter was abducted from the Giant Eagle, Mrs. Childs' family said.

"I know in my heart my sister could not have hurt her child. If anything happened it was all because of [Mr. Widman]," Elana LaPaglia, 42, of McKees Rocks, a sister of Mrs. Childs, said yesterday.

The new case against Mr. Widman, 51, appears to have been built not on new information, but rather on case law that has changed since Mr. Widman was originally arrested in 1986.

At that time, prosecutors could not charge someone with murder unless a body was found.



Timothy Widman in an undated police photo  

A 1988 Superior Court decision changed the law to say that someone could be presumed to be dead after being missing for seven years.

The law meant police didn't have to produce Nicole's body to prosecute Mr. Widman based on essentially the same information they had 20 years ago.

It was not clear yesterday why it took so long to apply the new law. The 1988 precedent means police could have begun Mr. Widman's prosecution starting in 1995, when the seven years were up.

Mike Manko, spokesman for the Allegheny County district attorney's office, said the question of the gap was "one for the police."

Cmdr. Thomas Stangrecki, head of the major crimes unit, said the delay might be because there was no cold-case unit during the mid-1990s. In addition, the case would have been marked as cleared in police files because there had been an arrest, even though the charges were later withdrawn.

Cmdr. Stangrecki said the case was reopened this year when a new detective in the missing persons unit discussed it with cold-case Detectives Scott Evans and J.R. Smith.

After reviewing the case with the district attorney's office, he said, detectives began tracking down investigators and witnesses from 20 years before. Detectives obtained a warrant for Mr. Widman on Monday and tracked him down at Blinky's Bar on Noblestown Road in Oakwood yesterday.

Cmdr. Stangrecki said Mr. Widman has been cooperative, as he was two decades ago. At the time, police searched for Nicole's body based on the information he provided but couldn't find it. Police are prepared to look again.

"If we get some information," he said, "we will search."

A preliminary hearing for Mr. Widman is set for Oct. 6 in Municipal Court.

According to police affidavits from 1982 and this week, Mr. Widman said he was sleeping on the couch when he was awakened by the little girl biting his foot.

Startled, he said he backhanded the girl on the head, knocking her to the floor. He said he put the child in bed with her mother, went away from the apartment for a few hours, and returned to find Nicole dead.

He said Mrs. Childs concocted the story about the abduction to cover up the killing, according to the affidavits.

The newer information includes statements from witnesses who describe evidence of physical abuse that appeared on the child on numerous occasions.

Mrs. Childs' relatives said they know Mr. Widman abused both mother and daughter regularly. They said she was terrified of Mr. Widman and he took advantage of her fears.

"My sister was abused from the age of 5 [by their father]," Mrs. LaPaglia said.

"She was an adult, but she was always a kid inside. She was always scared."

Mrs. Childs grew up in Pittsburgh's South Side neighborhoods, the eldest of five children.

"She used to protect me from [their father]," Mrs. LaPaglia said. "She was my protector."

At 18, when a Catholic priest refused to celebrate a wedding Mass for Melody and Michael Bryner, the couple went to a Methodist minister to tie the knot.

The fruit of their union was 3-year-old Nicole.

The marriage did not last and Mrs. Childs and Mr. Widman got together. Her mother and sister said that was the beginning of the end for Melody and Nicole.

"Tim threatened Melody from day one. But she was so blind and in love with this guy she didn't see it," said her mother, Harriet Persinger, in a telephone interview yesterday from her home in Florida.

"She was a young innocent who had the most horrible life that a child could have, and then she ended up with Tim Widman. It was just downhill from there for her," Mrs. Persinger added.

After Nicole's disappearance, Melody Bryner remarried and moved to Texas with her new husband, Jeffrey Childs.

Their only son is in his 20s today and living in Texas, Mrs. Persinger said.

While in Texas, Mrs. Childs was arrested for conspiracy and lying to authorities here in connection with Nicole's disappearance. She also was charged with bigamy, having not divorced Mr. Bryner before marrying Mr. Childs.

Mrs. Persinger said investigators in Pittsburgh unfairly targeted her daughter, ignoring what the mother believes was obvious duress caused by her daughter's abusive boyfriend.

When the charges against Mr. Widman were dismissed, Mrs. Childs returned to Texas where, along with raising her son, she cared for her father, who was dying of cancer.

Another sister told relatives that Mrs. Childs suffered a nervous breakdown from the stress.

At one point, Mrs. Childs was seen in her yard talking on the telephone as though her daughter was listening on the other end of the line, Mrs. LaPaglia said. She also was seen in the yard digging up the turf with her hands and calling Nicole's name.

Post-Gazette
Nicole Bryner's mother Melody Childs in 1982.

Jim McKinnon can be reached at jmckinnon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1939. Torsten Ove can be reached at tove@post-gazette.com or 412-231-0132.


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