PLANT CITY — Orthneil Kelley doesn't remember much about his mother. And for many years, he knew just as little about how she died.
In the snippets of memory he did have, he was 4 years old and alone in their house on Ninth Street in Plant City. He could hear his infant brother crying.
That was in 1979. The relatives who raised him sheltered him from the details. It wasn't until 2006, when Kelley began researching his family history, that he learned his mother's death was Plant City's oldest unsolved homicide.
On Tuesday morning, nearly 35 years after the mystery began, police called Kelley. They had made an arrest.
New DNA evidence and interviews with witnesses were enough for authorities to charge Nathaniel Bigbee with first-degree murder in the death of Charolette Kelley, Plant City police Chief Ed Duncan said.
U.S. marshals arrested the 63-year-old Tampa man Monday night in Columbus, Miss., where he was visiting family.
For Kelley, 39, the arrest means justice for a mother he never knew, but whose absence he still feels.
"She made it happen," he said at a Tuesday news conference announcing the arrest. "Now she can get closure. Now she can rest."
On the evening of Sept. 17, 1979, neighbors were concerned when they heard her two children crying inside the Kelley home. They entered and found Orthneil, 4, and his 7-month-old brother alone.
Police did a brief search of the neighborhood, but the 25-year-old mother remained missing until a group of children came upon her body two days later in an overgrown canal behind her home. She had been strangled, police said.
Detectives interviewed a number of her acquaintances, including Bigbee. They considered him a suspect early in the investigation, Duncan said. But at the time, detectives didn't have enough evidence to support a criminal charge.
In 1980, the case turned cold. It remained largely untouched for much of the next 30 years.
Bigbee, meanwhile, piled up 11 arrests in Hillsborough and Alachua counties, state records show. He also did two prison stints: about 18 months in prison for burglary and larceny in the mid 1980s and 5 1/2 years beginning in 1988 for sexual battery.
In recent years, Bigbee lived in a small house on N 19th Street in the Belmont/Jackson Heights area, about two blocks west of Middleton High School.
Neighbors Fred and Whitney Mitchell remember Bigbee as a reserved man with a soft voice who would pass the time sitting on his back patio with a white dog. He told them he knew how to work on engines and had been married, but said his wife died of cancer about four years ago. He talked to Fred Mitchell about buying his truck so he could start a lawn service and volunteered to cut their grass, coming over early in the morning to do the job.
"It doesn't seem like him," Mitchell said of the murder charge. "It's kind of hard to believe."
Kelley, a civilian security specialist at MacDill Air Force Base, got a call from detectives in 2012. They told him they had a suspect, but shared few details. He kept waiting.
They kept in touch periodically, but he had no idea the case was going to be solved until he got the call Tuesday morning.
The case was sealed after forensic investigators were able to obtain DNA from bedsheets in the Kelley home, police said. They compared the DNA with a voluntary sample that Bigbee provided. It came back a match.
The DNA, coupled with interviews with witnesses who put Bigbee and Charolette Kelley together near the time of her disappearance, was enough for detectives to file the charge.
"I think I have seen him before," Kelley said after seeing Bigbee's mug shot. "But I don't necessarily recall being in his presence.
"He took something from me that other people have that I never got to enjoy," he said. "It has been a long time coming."
Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report. Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.