PLANT CITY — Orthneil Kelley said he never gave up hope that his mother’s killer one day would be brought to justice.
The retired Navy veteran said he didn’t consider Charolette Kelley’s 1979 killing a cold case. He always felt that investigators would make an arrest.
On Tuesday, he was at a Plant City police detective’s side as authorities announced 63-year-old Nathaniel Bigbee had been taken into custody. The Tampa resident was charged with first-degree murder during an attempted rape of Kelley.
“God is good,” her 39-year-old son said. “I’m glad her day has finally come.”
Bigbee was a suspect since early in the investigation into the killing of Kelley, whose body was found floating in a canal two days after neighbors found her sons, Orthneil and Antwan, alone and crying in her Ninth Street home. But the case went cold in 1980.
Bigbee ultimately was tied to the crime through DNA found on bedding in Kelley’s home, police said.
Plant City police and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced Bigbee’s arrest at a Tuesday news conference. They said the case was reopened in 2012 by Plant City police Detective Robert McLellan, when he was assigned to look at cold cases.
One of the first to catch his eye was also the oldest: the more than 30-year-old killing of Kelley, who was strangled and left in the canal behind her home.
Evidence from the slaying was stored at the police station and McLellan submitted it to an FDLE crime lab for testing. Bigbee voluntarily provided a DNA sample, McLellan said.
Bigbie and Kelley were friends but there was no evidence they had a romantic relationship, McLellan said. Bigbee was interviewed several times during the last two years but never admitted he was involved, the detective said.
Bigbee was arrested Monday evening in Columbus, Miss., where he was visiting relatives. Authorities expect to extradite him to Florida.
Police Chief Ed Duncan said the case wouldn’t have been solved without FDLE’s help. FDLE Assistant Special Agent in Charge Troy Walker said the case shows that law enforcement never closes the books on unsolved homicides.
Walker said families never should give up hope.
“Cold cases are very much on the forefront. Your loved ones are never forgotten,” he said.
Orthneil Kelley, a civilian employee at MacDill Air Force Base who lives in Ocala, said he has only faint memories of that night in September 1979. He was 4, and his brother was 7 months old.
“I remember crying and holding Antwan and telling him that everything would be all right,” Orthneil Kelly said.
He said he is pleased about the arrest but angry at the suspect.
“He took my mother away from me,” he said. “I wish I could have had my mother when I was growing up like all the other kids did. It made growing up tough.”