BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — An Alabama preacher's son and convicted felon who lived in a remote, mountainside cabin was sentenced to life imprisonment Thursday for the 1997 slaying of his first wife, whose death came a decade before his second wife and stepdaughter disappeared, never to be seen again.
Barry Whitton, 46, received the maximum punishment from Jackson County Circuit Judge John Graham in Scottsboro.
Charged earlier this year after an 18-year investigation, Whitton was convicted of murder in September in the death of Michelle Whitton. Evidence showed she was killed by a blow to the head. Her body was found in 1998 under sticks and rocks on a craggy hillside in DeKalb County in northeastern Alabama about 100 miles northeast of Birmingham.
"This is an extraordinary case. It's the oldest cold case our office has handled that has resulted in a conviction," Attorney General Luther Strange said in an interview after sentencing.
Whitton later remarried, and wife Kimberly Whitton and her 11-year-old daughter Haleigh Culwell went missing in 2007. Dozens of officers spent days searching for signs of the two on the property where they lived with Whitton in a rough log home on Sand Mountain.
Investigators at the time said Whitton was a suspect, but no remains were ever found and Whitton wasn't charged in the disappearances.
Whitton was feared in the community, and Strange said authorities hoped someone with knowledge about the whereabouts of the woman and girl would come forward now that he is going to prison for life.
"That investigation is definitely ongoing," Strange said. "Our investigators are certainly energized to solve that case as well."
Investigators in 2007 found five firearms during the search of the Whittons' secluded cabin and acreage where they kept goats, milk cows and a bull. Having served time for receiving stolen property in 1988 and 1991, Whitton was arrested and pleaded guilty to a charge of a felon possessing firearms.
During a hearing where a judge sentenced Whitton to 10 years on the gun charges, authorities depicted the man as a menace: They said he talked in a secret jailhouse recording about ways to skin and mutilate people and their animals; how to remove hands from arms; how to smash a skull and teeth and scatter the bits along the interstate and how to feed body parts to pigs.
Whitton was still serving his federal sentence when he was charged with Michelle Whitton's slaying in December. Evidence during his two-week trial shed no light on the whereabouts of his second wife and stepdaughter.
Whitton still faces charges of witness intimidation and criminal coercion after allegedly contacting potential witnesses in his murder trial. In July, he was charged with promoting prison contraband amid allegations officers found potential escape tools in his jail cell in Jackson County.
Whitton pleaded not guilty to all those charges.