From the very start, Pittsburgh police were skeptical of Melody Thomas' story that someone abducted her 3-year-old daughter from a grocery cart inside a Giant Eagle on the South Side on March 11, 1982.
On its face, police felt, the story didn't make sense. No one remembered seeing the child, Nicole Lynn Bryner, in the store at 23rd and Jane streets or anywhere on the well-populated South Side.
Four or five days later, police suspicions were bolstered by a letter found in Ms. Thomas' South Side home, ostensibly from the child's unknown abductor who wrote that "Nikky" was dead and buried. A state police handwriting expert concluded it was "highly probable" Ms. Thomas had written the letter, apparently to deflect attention from her.
Ms. Thomas was given a polygraph test but the results were inconclusive, recalled retired Pittsburgh police Assistant Chief Therese Rocco, who at the time was the captain in charge of the missing persons squad.
"I always suspected her. I didn't trust her," she said.
Despite the misgivings, then-Capt. Rocco proceeded with the abduction investigation. She said she never revealed her suspicions, hoping that if she was nice, Ms. Thomas would eventually confess to her.
Once, she came close.
"She described a dream she had in which she picked the baby off the bed and took her to the hospital. To me, that was her confessing but you can't go on that."
The case went cold for four years and two months. In May 1986, a phone call to then-Lt. William Mullen in the Pittsburgh homicide squad provided a break.
The caller said detectives needed to talk to prison inmate Timothy Widman, 31, who at the time of the disappearance lived with Ms. Thomas at 2028 Sarah St., South Side.
The tipster said Mr. Widman killed Nicole by striking her, recalled Mr. Mullen, who retired as Pittsburgh deputy police chief and is now the Allegheny County chief deputy sheriff.
He dispatched homicide detectives Robert McCabe and James Diskin to the State Correctional Institution at Pittsburgh to bring Mr. Widman in for a talk.
A few hours later, Mr. Widman said his conscience was burdened.
And then he detailed how he fatally struck Nicole, how he and Ms. Thomas buried the child the next day and how Ms. Thomas concocted the plan to report the abduction the day after that.
"I think he felt better that he got it off his chest. He came forward pretty quickly," said Mr. Diskin, who has since retired from the force. Detective McCabe has since passed away.
Mr. Widman said that his former girlfriend, who by then had married, moved to Texas and was using her married name Melody Thomas Childs, would confirm his story. Furthermore, Mr. Widman agreed to show investigators where they buried the body.
And then the case began to fall apart.
Despite repeated searches and digging in areas in Brookline pointed out by Mr. Widman, no remains could be found.
The landscape had changed with the growth of brush and trees and there had been major excavation and construction of sewer lines.
And despite Mr. Widman's contention that his former lover would confirm his confession, she did no such thing after being extradited from Texas on charges of hindering apprehension and filing false reports. She continued to adamantly contend her daughter was abducted, and when her case went to a preliminary hearing, Mr. Widman refused to testify against her.
Attorney W. Christopher Conrad, who then was the Allegheny County deputy district attorney, recalled yesterday that the turn of events presented formidable obstacles for taking Mr. Widman to trial.
While suspects can be prosecuted in killings without a body, there needs to be some corroboration that such a crime has been committed.
Mrs. Childs wouldn't provide that necessary facet, Mr. Conrad said.
And it was entirely possible she would have become a defense witness, repeating on the stand her claim Nicole had been abducted.
Given all of that, Mr. Conrad said there was nothing to do but withdraw the charges, even though "I thought we had the right people."
With Tuesday's arrest, all of those involved with the case two decades ago are pleased that justice may be served -- at least as far as Mr. Widman is concerned. Mrs. Childs died in 2001.
Staff writer Jim McKinnon contributed. Michael A. Fuoco can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1968.