Twenty-five years after the widely publicized disappearance of a South Side toddler, a 52-year-old man yesterday pleaded guilty to killing the girl.
Timothy Wayne Widman, of Brookline, agreed to plead to involuntary manslaughter rather than face a trial on a homicide charge. The defendant had confessed to police his role in the 3-year-old's death in 1986, but charges could not proceed because investigators could not find her body in the place Mr. Widman said he had buried it.
The Allegheny County district attorney filed a homicide charge last year based on a 1988 Superior Court decision stating a missing person could be presumed dead after seven years.
Before yesterday's sentencing, Mr. Widman apologized to the girl's family. Common Pleas Judge Donald E. Machen sentenced him to two to four years in prison for the misdemeanor with credit for time served.
The prosecution was a long time coming. The child's surviving relatives and a niece and nephew of the defendant appeared somber but relieved the crime had finally been adjudicated. They declined to comment.
Nicole Lynn Bryner became the subject of a national search when her mother reported her little girl had been abducted from a shopping cart at the South Side Giant Eagle on March 11, 1982. Police suspected the mother, Melody Thomas, was lying, especially after a letter turned up at her home from the alleged kidnapper. A handwriting expert determined the letter stating "Nikky" was dead and buried was probably written by Ms. Thomas. But a police polygraph test proved inconclusive.
Retired Assistant Chief Therese Rocco, then a captain in the Pittsburgh police's missing persons unit, recalled yesterday how close she came to getting the mother to confess.
"I felt like I had her. I spent hours talking to her and she trusted me and she called me at all hours of the day and at night. I was on the verge of thinking [the confession] would be soon because she thought the child was dead and had gone to heaven," she said. "I always felt I could have broken her."
Four years later, the real story came to light after a tipster told Sheriff William P. Mullen, then a lieutenant in the city's homicide squad, that he should contact a jail inmate named Timothy Widman on a cold case.
Mr. Widman told homicide detectives he caused the child's death the night of March 9, 1982 and said the girl's mother had helped him conceal his role in the crime.
He said he had been sleeping on a couch at his girlfriend's house and had been on a drug binge for several days when her daughter Nicole woke him by biting his toe. He said he slapped the child's face with the back of his hand. She fell, knocked her head on the floor and lapsed into a state of semi-consciousness.
Mr. Widman told detectives he woke her mother, who took the girl to bed with her. Hours later, the couple realized the child had died. The next evening, the defendant said he placed the body in a green plastic garbage bag and drove to a wooded area in Brookline near Timberland and Abstract avenues. He said he buried Nicole's naked body in about two feet of soil and said a prayer.
He told police it was Ms. Thomas' idea to notify police on March 11 that Nicole had been abducted from the supermarket.
After Mr. Widman's taped confession in 1986, police went with the defendant to the wooded area in Brookline. A cadaver dog indicated that a corpse was there, but none was found. Prosecutor Jennifer DiGiovanni told the judge that excavation for a pipeline complicated the 1986 search.
A second search in October 2006 also proved fruitless. Two cadaver dogs sensed the presence of a body at the same spot, but none was recovered.
Melody Thomas Childs, who remarried illegally and relocated to Texas, was extradited in 1986 on charges of hindering apprehension and filing false reports. Without a body, prosecutors needed the mother's corroboration to go forward with a case against the confessed killer, but she stuck to her story that Nicole was abducted and Mr. Widman refused to testify against her. County court documents indicate that in 1986 she pleaded guilty and received four years probation for filing a false police report and for one count of bigamy.
Mr. Widman, who had a voluminous arrest record beginning in the mid-1970s, spent the intervening years in and out of correctional facilities for convictions on theft, burglary and 19 counts of forgery.
In 2006, Deputy District Attorney Mark V. Tranquilli prevailed in his argument that even without a body, the toddler should be "presumed dead" because she had been missing so long. A district judge held Mr. Widman for trial on a homicide charge.
The girl's mother died of complications from surgery in 2001.
As for Mr. Widman, retired assistant chief Rocco, who'd worked the original missing persons case, said, "I'm thrilled it's coming to an end, but he deserved worse."Post-Gazette archives
Melody Thomas, in a 1982 photograph with a portrait of her daughter, Nicole Bryant. Her claim that her daughter had been kidnapped from a South Side grocery story launched a nation-wide search for the three-year-old.
Click photo for larger image.
Gabrielle Banks can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1370.