The image of a little girl on a grocery shopping trip with her mother—then, suddenly, gone ...
That's what many folks imagined in March of 1982, when Melody Childs Thomas told police that her daughter, Nicole Lynn Bryner, 3, had been abducted from a shopping cart at the Giant Eagle supermarket on the South Side of Pittsburgh. Though there were extensive searches, no trace of Nicole was ever found.
Then, in 1986, Timothy Widman, Childs Thomas' boyfriend at the time, allegedly confessed that he had punched Bryner, accidentally killing her. He told police that he and Childs Thomas buried the body in a wooded area along Timberland Avenue in Pittsburgh's Brookline neighborhood. Police searched unsuccessfully for the body. Without it, prosecutors could not pursue the case.
But, in 1988, a Superior Court of Pennsylvania decision changed a state law to read that someone could be presumed to be dead after being missing for seven years. That meant that Widman could be charged with Nicole's murder even if police could not produce her body.
After an arrest of Widman, police searched the Brookline area using cadaver dogs in the hopes of finding Nicole's remains. In the 24 years since her disappearance, the area's topography has changed several times, including the installation of sewer lines. Searches failed to yield Nicole's body.
In 1986, Childs Thomas was charged with hindering apprehension and lying to police, but those charges were dismissed. She died after back surgery in June 2001 in a Texas hospital.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in 2006 that it was not clear why it took so long for police to apply the aforementioned seven-year law to Widman. The 1988 decision meant that police could have begun Widman's prosecution starting in 1995, when the seven years were up.
Widman, of Brookline, agreed to plead guilty in 2007 to involuntary manslaughter rather than face a trial on a homicide charge, according to the Post-Gazette.
He said that he had been sleeping on a couch at his girlfriend's house and had been on a drug binge for several days when Nicole woke him by biting his toe. He said that he slapped her face with the back of his hand. She fell, knocked her head on the floor and lapsed into a state of semi-consciousness.
The Post-Gazette reported that Widman told detectives that he woke Childs Thomas, who took the girl to bed with her. The couple later realized that the child had died. The next evening, Widman said that 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 that he buried Nicole's naked body in about two feet of soil and said a prayer.
He told police that it was Childs Thomas' idea to notify police on March 11 that Nicole had been abducted from the supermarket.
Anyone with information regarding Nicole's whereabouts is asked to contact the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police at 412-255-2888.
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