Judith McConnell and her husband, Michael, had pulled into the rest stop on Interstate 70 about 50 miles outside of Dayton just after 9 p.m. on Jan. 2.
The boy was by himself, staring out a window. Judith McConnell waved at him as they walked in. What he said next was chilling: "A man came into my house without knocking and shot my mommy."
The man then left him alone at the rest stop, the boy said.
The couple, driving home to Maryland after Christmas in Colorado, took the boy into their car to warm up and called police.
"He's been abandoned here by a man with a gun," Michael McConnell told police. "He's quite disturbed."
As they waited for deputies to arrive, the boy recited the information his mother had drilled into him — his address, his parents' names, two phone numbers.
When Montgomery County sheriff's deputies arrived at his family's small white bungalow in Dayton later that night, they found the body of his 29-year-old mother, shot to death.
The woman died after struggling with her attacker, said Sheriff Phil Plummer. The killer also sexually assaulted the boy before taking him to the rest stop and abandoning him, police said.
The Associated Press is not naming the family so as not to identify the victim of an alleged sexual offense.
Police say a man under arrest has confessed to the crimes. Montgomery County Prosecutor Mathias Heck is considering whether to seek the death penalty.
The chilling story began about a week before Christmas, when the 4-year-old's parents' car was stolen while they celebrated their fourth wedding anniversary at a rock concert in Columbus.
Police say the car, and the information inside it, led the killer directly to the family's home, about 75 miles away.
The young couple were struggling to make ends meet in a working-class Dayton neighborhood. She had left her job at a grocery store to stay home with her son. Her husband held down assorted jobs to support the family, working as an exterminator, a grocery store manager and a trainee at a bar-restaurant.
Neighbor Steve Hopkins, 41, described the boy as a precocious kid quick to make friends, even with adults.
"When he met you, he knew you," Hopkins said, saying the boy greeted him on the street with "How you doing, Steve?"
On Dec. 16, 10 days after their fourth anniversary, the couple drove to Columbus to see the band Duran Duran, Hopkins said.
Their Honda was reported stolen from an Ohio State parking garage on Dec. 17. The husband told police the car was unlocked and the keys had been left inside along with his wallet, which contained three credit cards and his Social Security card, according to a police report.
On the night of Jan. 2, he was working at a bar near their home. Police say his wife was home with their son, running a bath before bed.
The McConnells said the boy told them he was playing with his Ninja Turtle toys when a man carrying a shotgun walked up the sidewalk and broke into the house — "without knocking."
The Dayton Daily News, citing investigators, reported that the woman broke free, grabbed a knife, stabbed the intruder in the back and was shot twice in the abdomen during a struggle. She was found lying on a hallway floor.
Two days later, police arrested Charlie Myers, 22, of Columbus, who investigators say confessed to the crime.
FBI agents found that the woman's cell phone was used twice in Columbus after her death, including a call made to Myers' phone, according to a search warrant affidavit filed in Franklin County Municipal Court.
Investigators also found written directions to the woman's home in Myers' apartment, along with a computer, a Playstation 2 video game console and a cell phone, all consistent with items taken from the couple's house.
Police say Myers used information found in the unlocked vehicle to track down the couple.
Myers is charged with aggravated murder, kidnapping and gross sexual imposition involving a child under 13. He is being held in Montgomery County Jail in lieu of $5 million bail. No plea was entered, and Myers said he had no attorney.
Myers made an impromptu statement to reporters as he was being led into jail Wednesday, offering an apology and saying he had made a mistake and only wanted the family's "stuff."
He also gave an odd explanation for why the boy was taken: "I want to make sure the child could stay away from their parent because the parent had passed away."
Myers had it rough from an early age, when his mother died of a drug-related heart attack when he was just 4. He lived in homeless shelters with his father, who beat him with a belt, and struggled with a hearing impairment that wasn't addressed until he was 6 years old. He spent most of his childhood being shuttled between more than 20 foster homes in the Columbus area, according to court documents filed in Union and Franklin counties.
Myers started smoking marijuana at age 7, drank alcohol at age 8, and when he turned 11 he attempted suicide while living in a home for troubled boys, court documents show.
At age 17, living with an aunt in Marysville, Ohio, he broke into the empty house of elderly neighbors, stole valuables and set the house on fire. A juvenile court judge declined to transfer Myers' case to adult court, saying he was emotionally and psychologically damaged because treatment for his disability had been so delayed.
Myers served three years in a juvenile detention center and was released on July 4, 2007, his 21st birthday.
Later that year, he stole a woman's car in Columbus, then showed up at her door a day or so later.
Sky Cunningham, 25, said Myers came to her apartment in December 2007 saying he had information about the missing vehicle. She was gone at the time and a roommate told Myers she wasn't home.
Myers later pleaded guilty to stealing the car, along with another belonging to Cunningham's roommate. She said the memory of the hassle had faded until she heard of the young mother's slaying.
"That could have been me," Cunningham told The Associated Press Thursday. "I got lucky. The timing was good that I was at my other job."
The little boy found in the highway waiting area turned 5 on Saturday and is staying with relatives.
His father returned to the house once last week to put the garbage on the curb, and says he won't ever allow his son back inside.
He told NBC's "Today" that he's grateful that his wife insisted they teach the boy his address and phone numbers. He admires his son for the bravery he showed through the ordeal.
"My focus is on him," he said. "I'm doing everything I can to bring a little bit of home to him."
Associated Press Writer James Hannah contributed to this report.