Jackson man charged in 1997 slaying of first wife, suspected in disappearance of second wife, stepdaughter

Barry Van Whitton

A Jackson County, Ala., man suspected in the disappearances of three people has been charged with murder in the 1997 death of his first wife, and he remains a suspect in the 2007 disappearances of his second wife and her daughter.

Former Section, Ala., resident Barry Whitton, 46, is charged in the beating death of 28-year-old Michelle Townson Whitton, whose body was found in neighboring DeKalb County, Ala., near the town of Powell on Jan. 20, 1998, just over a month after she was reported missing on Dec. 7, 1997, according to Jackson County authorities.

Barry Whitton was serving time in a federal prison in West Virginia when he was transferred back to Jackson County custody to face an indictment issued in December in his first wife's death, authorities said.

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange, whose office presented the case to a Jackson County grand jury, announced Tuesday that Barry Whitton had been charged on the indictment with Michelle Whitton's murder, according to a news release from the office in Montgomery.

The indictment charges that Barry Whitton purposely killed the victim "by striking her in the head and causing blunt-force trauma," the release states. If convicted as charged, Barry Whitton faces a sentence of 20 years to life in prison for the class A felony.

He faces an arraignment hearing on the charge Jan. 27.

Michelle Whitton's body was found in a shallow grave under sticks and rocks in Powell near the Jackson-DeKalb county line about 15 miles from the couple's home in Dutton, Ala., according to archives on the Huntsville Times' website al.com.

photo Barry Van Whitton

Barry Whitton is also suspected in the disappearance of his second wife, 36-year-old Kimberly Compton Whitton, and her 11-year-old daughter, Haleigh Brean Culwell, according to the newspaper's accounts. He has not been charged in connection with their disappearances but netted the federal weapons charges while authorities were searching for the mother and daughter on Barry Whitton's 40-acre farm near Section.

During the search, investigators found five weapons, including a loaded rifle and shotgun. Whitton had convictions at the time for receiving stolen property from 1988 and 1991, archives show.

Kim Whitton was last seen June 21, 2007, when she left work at a Scottsboro, Ala., nursing home. It remains unclear when Haleigh Culwell was last seen.

In 2008 testimony before U.S. District Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn by a former cellmate during Barry Whitton's sentencing on federal weapons charges, Mark Anthony Pride wore a concealed recording device while the two talked at the Cullman County Jail. Barry Whitton was housed there after his arrest for possessing guns as a convicted felon, newspaper archives show.

Price said Barry Whitton talked about killing people.

According to that testimony, Barry Whitton said he killed a man during a 1983 drug deal when the man tried to rob him, and he bragged about killing two men named "Chuck" and "Tracy," saying that he suspected "Chuck" of killing his first wife, Michelle.

That testimony also included threats Barry Whitton made against local officials and his mother-in-law.

He said his mother-in-law, Mildred Compton, Kim Whitton's mother, was trying to take his son and land, according to archive accounts of the testimony.

"He said he would tie her to a tree and skin her," Pride testified in 2008.

Whitton also talked about judges, prosecutors and other Jackson County officials meeting together at a masonic lodge in Scottsboro where "he could take them out," Pride said.

As Michelle Whitton's murder case moves forward, authorities are still seeking information on the whereabouts of Kim Whitton and Haleigh Cullwell. Anyone with any information on either of the cases is asked to call the Jackson County Sheriff's Office at 256-574-2610, the Attorney General's Cold Case Unit at 866-419-1236 or [email protected]

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at [email protected] or twitter.com/BenBenton or www.facebook.com/ben.benton1 or 423-757-6569.