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Cold Cases

A Missing Musician, a Broken Family, and a Bag of Bones: Inside a 40-Year Murder Mystery

Musician Frankie Little Jr. disappeared in 1979. It took decades to find out what happened

T his story begins in 1982 with less than half a man — a pile of bones discovered under a layer of February snow, his broken skull smiling up at an adolescent worker behind his family’s factory. The bones were far from home, discarded in small-town Twinsburg, Ohio, which got its name because it was founded by twins who married sisters, who died the same day and were buried in the same grave.

Broken and nameless, the man became a mystery that would haunt this town for decades, while industries waxed and waned and the teen who found him grew old enough to see his family’s business shut down and become a ruin. For almost 40 years, he was unburied, passed down from detective to detective, a puzzle to solve as new crime-solving technologies came on the scene, promising resolutions to cold cases.

For four decades, this man remained a question mark, until his identity was revealed by a young detective and a cousin whose family started dabbling in genealogy. His bones no longer a challenge for rookie cops, this man — a musician, father, business owner, and brother — was finally returned to his family, which had wondered for decades why he never came home. Now, there is a chance his story can finally be told. 

Frankie Robinson never believed that his father would willingly leave him, even after his dad vanished from his East Cleveland apartment in the late Seventies, when he was five. Frankie Little Jr. loved his namesake too much. “My dad was a good person,” Robinson says of his old man. “He was like any man in the music industry — my mom said that was his downfall — but I know he loved me for sure.” Little, a 36-year-old guitarist and songwriter, was living with his girlfriend, Rochella Womack. He did odd jobs to make ends meet, but his true passion was the guitar. Known to friends by his stage name, Brother Rabbit, Frankie had been a member of the O’Jays when they were just starting out in the early Sixties, and co-wrote a handful of songs with lead singer Eddie Levert, including “Oh, How You Hurt Me” (1964) and “Pretty Words” (1966). These days, he played out around the city with his band Fresh Fire, while filling his son’s life with music. He bought the younger Frankie drums and serenaded him with rounds of “Hush Little Baby,” his Gibson his most constant companion. 

The music ended, though, when Little didn’t come home — and that day haunts Robinson, 48. The way he remembers it, he was at the apartment with Womack when someone knocked on the door. Womack told the boy to hide in the bathroom, he says. “I remember hearing the door open, and I thought it was my dad,” Robinson says. He never found out who that person was; when he emerged, the man was gone. “I’ve never seen my dad since that day.”

For her part, Womack, now 66, doesn’t remember Robinson being there or what day it was specifically. All she recalls is that it was warm out and that Little was in a huff because the neighbor across the street, whom he often worked with, hadn’t paid him for their most recent job. She’s not sure if Little left the apartment to confront the man or if he took a long soak in the bath, which he often did when he was stressed. “I just know at a certain time of night, I was in bed, and I jumped up all of a sudden like something had happened,” she says. “That was the night he disappeared and never came back.”

The rest of Little’s family — scattered across the country, disconnected from Little by that point — was less concerned when they didn’t hear from Frankie, because that’s just kind of what he did. He ghosted; he went off the grid; but he eventually came back. “The connection wasn’t consistent,” his nephew Shawn Little Jones recalls. “We’d have to wait for him to reach out and [get in] touch.”

Jones just assumed his uncle had gone underground, maybe changed his name to something flashier. He fancied he heard Little’s distinctive guitar playing on every record he put on the turntable — that same Curtis Mayfield groove that won him a spot in the O’Jays. Little’s cousin Margaret O’Sullivan thought for decades that he would walk through her front door one day, just show up on her plush red carpet with some story or other. Her living room is crammed with family photos she wishes she could show him — his relatives growing up, having kids, and those kids achieving their dreams.

Sadly, O’Sullivan was wrong. Robinson’s intuition proved to be true. As it turns out, his father was murdered, a bag of his bones found in 1982 in Twinsburg, roughly 25 miles from his home. But it wouldn’t be until December 2021, after the case crossed the desk of Detective Eric Hendershott, that his remains would be identified. From there, friends, family, and authorities began piecing together the fragments of Little’s legacy and how, exactly, the freewheeling musician’s bones ended up abandoned under a drift of snow.

JONATHAN LAWRENCE — the boy who found the bones — hasn’t been to the site of his mother’s old roofing-material factory, Laurent Corp., for 20 years. He hasn’t had any reason to. The factory burned down in 1992; his mother died in 2008; and even though he technically still owns the land, it’s basically just a swamp now, studded with fragrant skunkweed, charred ruins, and bad memories. In the spring of 2022, however, he’s back. His wheels stick in the mud as he maneuvers his SUV through a narrow tunnel of trees to 3047 Cannon Road, which you wouldn’t know was there if not for the weather-beaten sign. “You can see why we could never get a pizza delivered,” Lawrence quips, lowering his Oakleys and squinting into the sun toward where he uncovered a mystery decades ago.

Lawrence doesn’t get out of the car when he reaches his destination, a swath of swampy grass surrounded by trees and hemmed in by a line of tony condos. Instead, he points to a jumble of ruins and recalls what he says was a day back in the late Seventies, when he was around 16. He remembers standing on a platform in the mixing room at the back of the building, stirring up adhesive for roofing materials. He was looking out the window when he saw a car pull in — what cops now believe was a 1957 Ford station wagon — turn around, and back up to the edge of the woods, where a Black man in blue coveralls and a driving hat dumped a bag on the ground.

“I’m standing there going, ‘Damn it, I’m going to have to clean that up. Why didn’t he just put it in the dumpster?’ ” Lawrence says; as the owner’s son, the dirty work often fell to him. He didn’t think much of it, though; people tossed so much trash back there that they left the dumpsters unlocked.

“I remember hearing the door open and I thought it was my dad,” Robinson says. He never found out who that person was. When he emerged, the man was gone. “I’ve never seen my dad since that day.”

This is where his memory fractures. Lawrence recalls going outside that day to deal with whatever the man left behind, but this actually happened later, in February 1982, according to the police report and the local paper. When pressed, he admits that he may have conflated his memories. Lawrence was poking around the trash one February day when the bag split and a skull rolled out. Being young and full of bluster, Lawrence wasn’t rattled. Instead, he scooped the skull onto a shovel and brought it in to scare the new secretary. “See the kind of trash people leave behind?” he joked. “She freaks out. Completely freaks out. And calls the police,” he says. “Then she tells me to take it and put it back where I found it.”

When the police arrived, they discovered the rest of the bones, which they thought might belong to eight-year-old Tiffany Papesh, who disappeared in 1980. Or, perhaps, this was a gangland killing, as Twinsburg Police Chief Don Prange speculated to the Akron Beacon Journal. Lawrence claims bodies had been found back there in the past, before his time, and recalls police meeting informants in the shipping area after hours — his mother, Dorothy, serving them steaming cups of coffee.

Lawrence doesn’t seem too bothered by the memory; he’s had his share of struggles over the years that have far eclipsed that gruesome discovery. But he does shake his head when he points out a white plastic cross, festooned with a drooping fake wreath and an American flag. Frankie Little Jr.’s name is Sharpied across one of the slats, already almost faded away by the elements. “It’s not in the right spot,” he says, pointing to a tangle of woods several feet away where he says he saw the mystery man dump the bag. Blurred memories or not, Lawrence can still remember where Little’s bones lay.

FRANKIE JR. WAS BORN in August 1943 in Cleveland to Frankie Little Sr. and La Verda Stone, who were both entertainers at heart and jacks-of-all-trades for money. His mother died when he and his brother Johnny were young, and they grew up in the projects, living with their father, an aunt named Betty, and a sister, in turn, as the two grew up. Johnny was Frankie’s only full brother, but he had a few half siblings and spent weekends hanging out with his twin cousins, Margaret and Rossie Little. “His father knew that he liked to play music and stuff like that, so his father bought him a guitar,” says his cousin, Margaret O’Sullivan, née Little, recalling how he was rarely without the instrument. “He was never the type to go out and party. He never had a lot of friends. He was just into music.”

While Johnny admits that he himself was a bit of a bad kid, Frankie was studious. “He didn’t care nothing about sports,” Johnny says. “I used to beg him to play cards. He didn’t want to do that. All he wanted to do was play his guitar, write, draw, paint. We lived near a large swimming pool, and he didn’t care about going swimming, basketball. He just wanted to play his guitar.”

Frankie put together his first band, the Fairlanes, in the early Sixties, and even had sweaters made with the band name emblazoned across them. In the mid-Sixties, the young musician got his big break when the O’Jays held auditions for new members, and he scored a spot on guitar; his first songwriting credit with the band was for 1964’s “Oh, How You Hurt Me.” “[Frankie] was a very passionate guy. He loved playing his instrument, and we loved the way that he played because he played a little bit of the Curtis Mayfield style,” says the O’Jays singer Levert. 

Frankie Little Jr. was part of the O’Jays in the 1960s. Though no photographs of him and the band survived, Little co-wrote “Oh, How You Hurt Me” and “Pretty Words.”  Echoes/Redferns/Getty Images

By then, the band had been gigging for more than five years. The group formed under a different name in 1958 and officially became the O’Jays in 1963, as a nod to Cleveland DJ Eddie O’Jay, a radio personality and the band’s onetime manager. By the time Little joined, they’d scored their first hit — 1963’s “Lonely Drifter” — but had yet to hook up with Philly producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who propelled the band up the charts after the group signed to Philadelphia International Records in the early Seventies. The band continues to tour to this day — albeit without all the original members — and was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2005. “They could dance, they looked great, they always wore great stage outfits — they were the whole package,” says Jason Hanley, VP of education and fan engagement at the Hall of Fame, adding that they never forgot their roots. “They were one of the biggest groups to come out of Cleveland. A lot of their music is feel-good music, which I think is why they continue to resonate with people year after year.” Although a fan of the O’Jays, Hanley admits he hadn’t heard of Little until recently.

When it comes to the mid-Sixties, though, things get a little murky for Little’s friends and family. That’s when Little and the O’Jays went to California, where he married a woman named Precious P. Henderson on June 16, 1965, according to the U.S. marriage index. The two apparently had a daughter, but neither Johnny nor the rest of his family ever met Precious or the girl, both of whom have since died. Johnny only knows that eventually Frankie got homesick and returned to Cleveland around 1967. Johnny says the day Frankie got back, two members of the armed service’s military police rounded him up and took him straight to a federal building. From there, he was drafted into the Army, sent to basic training back in California, and shipped straight to Vietnam. “He was hurt because when that happened, my father had passed,” Johnny says. “I think it really did affect him, to not be able to go to my father’s funeral.”

Johnny doesn’t recall exactly when his brother finally got home, but he does remember the horrific stories he brought back: the booby traps the North Vietnamese set for the invading Americans, the heads on spikes they erected to scare off Frankie and his fellow troops. “He was a survivor, though,” Johnny says. “He could take a tree trunk off the street and carve it and shellac it and sell it. He made his own clothes. He was very talented.” 

The brothers opened stores next to each other in the early Seventies under the name Jay’s Deli & Record Shop, not far from an area now known as Cleveland’s Second Downtown. Today, it’s crammed with medical buildings, but in those days, the neighborhood was a hotbed of Black culture. It was largely curated by prominent Black real estate developer Winston E. Willis, who opened venues like Scrumpy Dump Cinema and Winston’s Place Fine Dining. There were also jazz clubs, movie theaters (both adult and child-friendly), and beauty shops. “It was the inner-city Disneyland,” says Willis’ sister, Aundra Willis Carrasco.

Although no longer with the O’Jays, Little had no shortage of creative outlets, and the neighboring shops were a melting pot of music and collaboration. “Frankie had a little sewing room where he’d make dashikis,” his cousin O’Sullivan remembers. “And he’d play his guitar. He was very talented.” Jones recalls Little bringing touring bands through the shop to drum up business; he worked behind the counter at his dad’s shop and flitted between the grocery and the record store when musicians filtered through. Meanwhile, Johnny kept the younger generation hopped up on sugar and candy — and occupied with a menagerie of pinball machines. “All the neighborhood kids came,” he says. “I had the shop painted a loud orange in the front, and I had neon signs in both windows. The whole neighborhood called me ‘Jay.’ It was a blessing to watch the kids grow up.”

All the while, Little was playing music — and falling in love. He took up with an artist named Diana Robinson in the early Seventies and had a son, Frankie Robinson, in 1974. The couple never married, and Little got together with Womack in 1973, Womack recalls. They were a musical couple and performed together often, Womack says, while Little also played with the Fresh Fire. “He was so tough he could get on his knees and play the guitar with his teeth,” she says.

Womack was in her late teens at the time, and lived with Little, 12 years her senior, as he moved between two homes. There was a big house not far from Frankie and Johnny’s store — with beads in the doorways, bright windows, and red and yellow lights, which always smelled like the jasmine incense Little made — and then another, more modest spot in East Cleveland. Little would make her clothes, Womack recalls, and kept her laughing. “He was funny,” she says. “He used to kill me trying to dance, and I used to laugh at him because he’d be getting down. He was a fun dude.”

After five years of working side by side, Frankie and Johnny closed their shops, and the brothers said goodbye for the last time in 1976, before Johnny moved to Florida. The next three years passed without incident, according to Womack, who continued to live with Frankie in East Cleveland as he played music and worked odd jobs. That is, until the day Womack woke up in bed with the premonition that something was wrong.

“I couldn’t understand why he disappeared off the face of the Earth. That was not like him,” Womack says now. She says Frankie left everything behind the day he vanished, even his beloved Gibson. “That hurt me for a long time because I really loved him,” she says. “That’s all I knew. He was my guy, he protected me; I felt safe.”

Womack says she didn’t report Little missing, as she was young and didn’t know what to do. Johnny didn’t have his Social Security number and couldn’t file an official report. “I think about him a lot,” O’Sullivan says, “because we didn’t have no time to grow up. That’s what I’m missing. When the O’Jays used to come to Cleveland to play, Frankie wasn’t with them. We missed all these good times. The O’Jays are still around, but he’s not. And that hurts. I don’t even listen to them anymore.” 

IN THE END, it was O’Sullivan who helped crack the cold case, according to Detective Hendershott — but only after years of arduous work and dead ends. Less than two miles from Laurent Corp., Hendershott sits at a long conference table at the Twinsburg Police Department, decades of files spread out before him. He’s tall, broad, and hirsute, but his voice is young, careful. The fact that he wasn’t alive in 1979 when Little went missing is extremely apparent.

Little’s case is far from the only murder on the town’s books, but it was the only cold case. “It’s been bounced around to new detectives,” Hendershott, 35, explains. “So, back in 2018, I was brand-new to the bureau, and I was given my shot with the case.”

He studies the papers in front of him: an Akron Beacon Journal article, a photo of a 2009 sketch that was supposed to be a replica of the then-John Doe, an image of a clay 2017 model, and the only photo anyone has of Little, an old high school snap that looks nothing like either. In it, Little is handsome, if unsmiling, with close-cropped hair, dark, strong brows, and sleepy eyes.

Local coverage in 1982 after the unidentified remains were sent to the Smithsonian Institution. It would take nearly 40 years — and leaps forward in DNA technology — for Little’s identity to be discovered. Twinsburg Police Department

There’s also a press release from 1982 from the office of the coroner in Akron, Ohio, which tells the macabre tale of how the then-unidentified skull traveled all the way to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., to determine the cause of death. According to Lisa Kohler, the medical examiner for Summit County, since all they had were bones, they needed the expertise of an anthropologist. The anthropologist offered up a host of possibilities of what could have happened to the man, all horrible: He may have suffered blunt trauma, a shotgun blast, dismemberment — the latter almost a certainty given how his body was discovered. According to Hendershott, less than half of the body was found on Cannon Road, and those pieces have stayed, until now, at the Summit County Medical Examiner’s Office in the evidence area. The other half is still lost, carried off, perhaps, by animals.

When Hendershott finally got his turn with the case, there had already been a few efforts to identify the body: In 2009, they extracted DNA from the skull’s teeth and uploaded it to the FBI’s DNA database, CODIS, but no matches were found. In 2017, they partnered with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation to create the clay model, a photo of which was sent out to the public in hopes that someone would recognize the man. “We’d get calls, but nothing seemed to go anywhere,” Hendershott says. “We really didn’t have much to start with.”

Finally, in 2018, Hendershott heard that police were able to ID and arrest the Golden State Killer using forensic genealogy, and a lightbulb went off. In that case, authorities and genealogy experts were able to use DNA evidence from one of the killer’s crime scenes to create a comprehensive DNA profile of the unknown man. They then uploaded that information to an open-source database called GEDMatch, which lets users import raw DNA data and track down family members. When they got a hit on a distant relative, authorities and genealogy experts were able to study the suspect’s family tree, finally ID’ing the serial killer, Joseph James DeAngelo, by obtaining a DNA sample from him and matching it to their profile.

To solve his mystery, Hendershott partnered with the DNA Doe Project, a nonprofit that helps ID the dead. The Doe Project created a DNA profile, which it uploaded to GEDMatch and another database called Family Tree DNA. From there, Hendershott was able to build out a family tree, which included several people named “Little.” After calling a few Littles across the country to no avail, Hendershott finally landed on O’Sullivan, whose son and his wife had used a genealogy site in the past. Hendershott called her in late 2021, and after a brief conversation, discovered that she had a cousin, Frankie, who had been missing for decades. “It’s pretty crazy that all it took was one phone call to his cousin,” Hendershott says. “Margaret is really the one that solved everything.” O’Sullivan introduced the cop to Johnny Little, Frankie’s brother, who was able to provide a saliva sample and positively ID Frankie once and for all.

“It’s pretty crazy that all it took was one phone call to his cousin,” Hendershott says. “Margaret is really the one that solved everything.”

“It was hard to believe at first,” Hendershott says. “There were definitely doubts. I remember making the call to Margaret and coming back to the station and talking to the other detectives and telling them that ‘I think we got an ID.’ And it was like . . . that was it. That half was done, but now, the investigation: We got an ID, now we have to figure out what happened to him.”

While Hendershott was rifling through the branches of Little’s family tree, Little’s nephew Shawn Jones was celebrating the holidays with his relatives in Georgia — the biggest get-together they’d had in years. That all fell apart when they found out, finally, what happened to Frankie. The whole family was confused and upset, especially Johnny.

“That was a total shock. We always wondered where he was, but we had no idea. These detectives, they didn’t sweeten it up. They told us exactly what they had found,” Johnny says, referring to the condition of Frankie’s body.

Sure, the family was relieved, in a way. Frankie hadn’t left them. He hadn’t deliberately lost touch. But what had happened to him was almost too terrible to bear — murdered, dismembered, tossed aside like trash. Even months later, sitting on the couch of her Cleveland home in her church best — a yellow-and-black striped dress and matching hat — O’Sullivan can’t speak about Little without crying.

“Why would someone do him like that?” she asks, her voice getting angry under the tears. “He was a nice guy. He never bothered nobody. You hated Frankie that well, to do something like that? It made me think you don’t have a heart to do somebody like that. To cut up somebody like that. Like a chicken.”

That’s the question that family and authorities are grappling with to this day, because, by all accounts, Little was not the type of man to end up murdered — especially in such a gruesome way. Hendershott says Little had no criminal record to speak of, and he’s still stuck on how the man ended up in Twinsburg. While O’Sullivan says she heard Little was playing shows in the tiny town back in the Seventies, both Hendershott and Bonnie Williams, president of the Twinsburg Historical Society, say there’s never really been a music scene there. That means Little, who was living in East Cleveland at the time of his disappearance, was likely dumped, which adds another question to the list. “If something is drug- or crime-related, usually someone would just kill someone and leave them there,” Hendershott says. “So we’re going through different theories about why someone would go through all these steps to bring him here.” 

Johnny wants the cops to look into a cousin of his who was involved with some shady characters, while Womack told Hendershott about that neighbor — the one Frankie was mad at when he went missing. She says her aunt, who lived down the block, never got a good feeling from the man; Womack can’t recall his surname but says she heard he may have murdered his wife or girlfriend a few years after Frankie vanished. Plus, she told Hendershott, he was a Black man in his fifties who drove a dark-colored station wagon, an eerily similar description to the man Lawrence says he saw back in 1979 dumping the bag containing Frankie’s body.

Now, Hendershott is on the hunt for any proof that such a murder took place — and, in turn, for the man who may have committed the crime. Was this the person who vanished Little more than 40 years ago? Could we be this much closer to finding out why Little’s life ended so violently — and how his body came to be found in pieces in a distant town? Hendershott isn’t sure, but he’s hopeful. After all, a year ago the public didn’t even know Frankie’s name.

FRANKIE ROBINSON HAS an article about his father taped to his cell wall by his bed at Grafton Correctional Institution, where he’s been since 2006 for manslaughter — a bar fight gone wrong that he regrets to this day. There, Little can watch over him and Bret, a double doodle that he trains as part of a prison certification program. He thinks he and his dad look like twins, and he’s not wrong — Robinson has that same strong brow as seen in Little’s school photo.

Talking about his father, Robinson brings up again and again that Little cared for him — that his life would have been different had he not disappeared. “If my dad was here, I wouldn’t be here right now,” he laments. “He loved me that much, that he would have made sure I did the right thing.” 

The father he only knew for a few short years is never far from Robinson’s mind. “I dream about him carrying me around. About ‘Mockingbird,’ ” he says about the song his father would sing to him. “That’s super glue. It’ll never come off my memory. Usually in dreams I see myself smiling at my dad. Just a little baby, looking up at my dad.”