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Mother cleared of son's murder after 25 years


For 25 years, Elizabeth Watkins has lived under a cloud of suspicion as the sole "person of interest" in a police investigation into the death of her son, Nicholas Loris.

She claimed to have been in her mobile home on the afternoon in February 1987 when the six-year-old boy disappeared. His body was later found, strangled, in a ravine about 150 yards from the residence in the city of Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

But not everyone believed her story. After detectives announced they had questioned Ms Watkins on suspicion of the murder of Nicholas, she became a local pariah.

In the ensuing media circus, her other son, Alex, who was then eight, was taken away to live with his father.

But this week, Ms Watkins was finally exonerated. A new inquiry by the local sheriff's office, in collaboration with the FBI, has concluded that the boy was not murdered. He was killed by a pack of dogs in a freak accident. Forensic experts, who re-opened the case in 2003, say they now believe that Nicholas was attacked by dogs as he walked the family's pet, a collie which happened to be in heat.

The dogs appear to have wrestled the boy to the ground and then pulled on the hooded top he was wearing. The collar on his top tightened around his neck and eventually choked-off his air supply.

Investigators reached the conclusion after using photographic technology to enhance images of the child's corpse. They were then able compare details of the marks around his neck with the fabric of the clothes he was wearing at the time.

After realising that the marks matched the texture of the top, they began trying to work out how it could have been pulled so tight. Then they realised that scratches on his body, once thought to indicate a struggle with a human attacker, were the work of dogs.

David Freeman, a lawyer for Ms Watkins, told reporters that she met detectives on Thursday and learned that the death of Nicholas was finally being treated as a freak accident.

"She's extremely relieved and grateful to be exonerated and cleared of suspicion, but it's still very sad for her to re-live this tragedy and learn the details of how he died," he said.

Mr Freeman said his client hoped that news of her innocence would persuade her elder son, Alex, to see her again. "Nicholas had a brother who has been estranged from Elizabeth for 24 years. She's hopeful the investigation has not only exonerated her but given her her other son back."