Aaron Fraser was just 3 when his mother disappeared in 1993 and he told the authorities that his father had done something to hurt her.
“Daddy shot Mommy,” he said then, according to court documents. “Daddy placed Mommy in time out.”
That account, from the mouth of child, was not enough to solve the case. But as an adult, Mr. Fraser would find the evidence that would.
The discovery came after more than two decades, years in which Mr. Fraser was adopted, won a wrongful death judgment against his biological father and acquired the rights to his childhood home in Jacksonville, Fla. He was doing renovations on the property in 2014 when he struck something in the ground and realized he had stumbled upon his mother’s remains.
His testimony, from 1993 and now, bookended a cold case that went to trial this week, 26 years after Mr. Fraser’s mother, Bonnie Haim, disappeared. On Friday, a jury found Mr. Fraser’s biological father, Michael Haim, 52, guilty of second-degree murder.
“While some sins can be buried away, they are never forgotten,” Alan Mizrahi, a state prosecutor, said during the trial. “The truth was always out there, buried in their own backyard.”
Mr. Fraser was in the courthouse for the verdict on Friday and took the stand shortly afterward to testify about how his mother’s death had changed his life. “I continue to see my therapist from when I was 3½ years old,” he said.
The jury was considering factors for sentencing late Friday afternoon.
Ms. Haim went missing in 1993 after she made plans to leave her husband. She had saved money, looked for a new apartment and made plans to take her son and move out, according to an arrest warrant affidavit.
But on the night of Jan. 6, 1993, she disappeared after the Haims discussed their marriage problems, the authorities said. Mr. Haim maintained that she had simply left the house.
The next day, her purse was found in a dumpster and her car was found in an airport parking lot. A tennis shoe imprint on the driver’s side floorboard was consistent with a pair of shoes belonging to Mr. Haim, according to the affidavit.
In an interview with child protective workers, the couple’s young son gave a variety of accounts that his father had somehow hurt his mother, according to court documents. “My daddy could not wake her up,” he said at the time.
But with Ms. Haim still missing, the case went unsolved, and Mr. Fraser grew up to have no memory of what had happened.
Gail S. Goodman, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis, who studies eyewitness memory in children, said childhood amnesia can make it so that early experiences, even traumatic ones, are lost from memory. But she said young children can still serve as witnesses and should be taken seriously.
“At 3½, he likely did not understand death, but a child can at that age report what was seen in his/her own terms,” Dr. Goodman wrote in an email.
While memory is nuanced and can depend on circumstances, she said, “The more traumatic the event, the better is the child’s memory for it, and the children are less suggestible to false suggestion about it, too.”
In the mid-2000s, a judge in civil court, which has a lower evidence standard than in criminal cases, found Mr. Haim liable for the death of his wife and granted their son a multimillion-dollar judgment.
By 2014, Mr. Fraser was in his 20s and had obtained the title to his childhood home, which he rented out. He was doing construction to remove the swimming pool when he accidentally dug up human remains.
“I saw what I describe as something that looked like coconut,” Mr. Fraser said in court this week, describing how he called his psychologist afterward and left her a message: “I think I might have found my mom.”
DNA testing confirmed the remains were Ms. Haim’s.
Mr. Haim was arrested and charged in her death in 2015.
As the tumultuous and winding case went to trial this week, making national headlines, Mr. Haim’s lawyers argued that it was “riddled with lack of evidence.” They raised questions about the specifics of Mr. Fraser’s testimony as a boy in 1993 and questioned whether the yard was the original burial site, suggesting that someone else may moved the body there after 1993.
Taking the stand to testify, Mr. Haim said: “I love my wife. I would have never hurt my wife.”
But the jury quickly found him guilty Friday, affirming evidence that prosecutors said Mr. Fraser had provided all along.
“As is true with many domestic homicides, this killing was done in the privacy of Bonnie and Michael Haim’s household,” Mr. Mizrahi told the jury.
“But all the privacy in the world could not prevent Aaron, age 3½, from sitting in a child protection team office and disclosing to authorities what his 3½-year-old little eyes saw: that his dad was responsible for hurting his mom.”