Investigators have identified skeletal remains as The O’Jays songwriter and guitarist Frank “Frankie” Little Jr. nearly 40 years after they were found in Ohio.
Investigators discovered Little’s identity with the help of DNA and genealogy research. The breakthrough followed years of failed attempts that included the state crime lab making a clay model of the man’s skull.
Little, who would be 78 if he were still alive, was born in Cleveland in 1943. He joined the O’Jays in the mid-1960s, writing several songs while working closely with other band members including Eddie Levert, Walter Williams, William Powell, Bill Isles and Bobby Massey. “Do the Jerk” and “Oh, How You Hurt Me” are some of the titles Little helped write for the band, best known for the hit “Love Train.”
The R&B group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005.
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In February 1982, employees of a machine shop found what would later be discovered as Little’s remains after years of DNA and geneology research.
The musician’s family was relieved to finally learn the truth of what happened to Little.
“It’s amazing,” said Margaret O’Sullivan, Little’s cousin. “We’re glad that we have closure now. We know he’s deceased.”
Little served in the U.S. Army for two years, including in the Vietnam War. He was last known to live in Cleveland and it is believed he was alive into at least the mid-1970s. Not much is known about his disappearance.
Remains are found
Employees of a now-closed machine shop in Twinsburg, Ohio, found a skull in February 1982 while dumping shavings in the woods.
“When they saw the skull, they didn’t believe it was human,” Detective Eric Hendershott said. “They showed it around.”
The employees alerted police and a search of the property turned up a garbage bag with more remains, which weren’t a complete set. The remains were determined to be those of a Black male, 20 to 35 years old, about 5-foot, 6-inches tall who may have had adolescent kyphosis, which is a curvature of the spine.
A forensic anthropologist estimated the remains had been there between two and four years. The remains had nothing with them that would help police identify the man.
“There wasn’t even clothing – just bones in a garbage bag,” Hendershott said.
Detectives issued a press release and appealed to the public and other local law enforcement agencies for assistance. They ruled out a few leads and the case went cold for more than 20 years.
Case is reopened to examine DNA, genealogy research tried
Authorities reopened the case in 2009, researching the idea of using DNA to determine the man’s identity.
The DNA was put into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), the FBI’s DNA database, but did not produce any results.
A Kent State professor made a sketch of the skull to show what the man looked like. In 2016, Samantha Molnar, a forensic artist with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI), made a clay model of the skull.
In October 2018, Akron, Ohio, detectives reached out to Detective Hendershott on an unsuccessful tip of who the remains may belong to. The resurfacing of the mystery lit a fire in Hendershott to make another attempt to identify the remains.
Hendershott reached out to nonprofit group the DNA Doe Project in September 2019, which uses genetic genealogy to help identify John Does and Jane Does nationwide, to help with the effort.
Volunteers with the Doe Project compared the DNA profile of the remains with profiles in two public genealogy databases. From there, they began to build family trees to try to find potential family members of the man.
The researchers zeroed in on the name Little and provided several names to Hendershott who called O’Sullivan and found out that she had a cousin, Frank Little, who had disappeared but didn’t know much about him.
She informed Hendershott that Little had a brother who lived in Georgia.
“We were wondering what happened to him,” O’Sullivan said.
Hendershott received a DNA sample from the brother that confirmed Little’s identity after being analyzed.
Little had a daughter who died in 2012 and a son who is thought to still be alive and living in the Cleveland area.
Hendershott is hoping to track down the son to see if he might have more information about what have happened to his father. He said Little’s brother didn’t stay in contact with his nephew or even know his full name.
The detective said Little’s brother recalled the last conversation he had with Little but not much else.
Now that they’ve identified Little, investigators hope to find his killer. Summit County Medical Examiner Lisa Kohler said his death, originally deemed “undetermined,” will be ruled a homicide, based on blunt-force injuries identified by the forensic anthropologist and the attempt to conceal his remains
She said she will finish Little’s death certificate once his family members choose a funeral home and make arrangements.
As for determining who killed Little, Kohler said, that will fall to the detectives. She said her office will be happy to help when called upon.
“Detectives will have to look at what they’ve got and decide if there’s anything more they can pursue,” she said.
Hendershott said many questions remain about Little.
“Part of the mystery is over with, but we have no idea how he got there, how he disappeared or where he lived toward the end of his life,” the detective said.
Anyone with information on Frank “Frankie” Little’s disappearance and murder is asked to contact Twinsburg Det. Eric Hendershott at 330-405-5679 or [email protected]