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SUNDAY, JULY 15, 2007

No word on missing mom, child as search ends at Alabama site

By Bob Johnson
Associated Press Writer

SECTION — The remote, hilly property of a reclusive Northeast Alabama man was quiet Saturday after a swarm of law officers, cadaver dogs and helicopters ended a search without word on the whereabouts of his wife and her 11-year-old daughter.

But with the man, Barry Whitton, 38, in custody on a federal weapons charge, hopes of finding them alive were low among family members. Their disappearance also renewed edgy questions among townsfolk about the death of his first wife, whose body was found nearly a decade ago buried in the hills of a neighboring town.

Kimberly Whitton, 36, and her daughter, Haleigh Culwell, have not been seen since she left her job at a Scottsboro nursing home June 21.

Her truck was found near the log home she and her husband were building on the rural property, which is down a dirt road about a mile off a Jackson County highway. But there has been no sign of the woman and daughter.

“We feel like something bad has happened. She wouldn’t have just left like this,” said Pat Compton, stepmother of the missing woman.

Barry Whitton’s 11-year-old son, Ethan, by his first wife, was found at the house Thursday when Whitton was arrested. The boy was placed in the custody of the Alabama Department of Human Resources, Compton said.

FBI spokesman Paul Daymond said Saturday the investigation continues, but the search of the property, including draining a pond, was called off Friday night without the woman and her daughter being found.

Daymond wouldn’t comment on any evidence that may have been discovered.

Weapons charge

Federal authorities said Whitton, convicted of receiving stolen property in 1988 and 1991, was arrested on a federal weapons charge. No bail had been set. His attorney, Bruce A Gardner of Huntsville, did not immediately return a phone and e-mail message for comment Saturday.

Barry Whitton’s father, Dennis Whitton, who lives nearby, drove a tractor off his son’s property Saturday but had little to say.

“They’re wasting their time,” Dennis Whitton said of investigators. “I’m not commenting about anything.”

Adding to the mystery over the disappearance of the two in the close-knit Macedonia community is the unsolved killing of the first wife, Michelle Whitton, whose body was found in a shallow grave covered by rocks in January 1998. Her husband told authorities she failed to return home after going to a fast-food restaurant in Scottsboro on the morning of Dec. 7, 1997, according to news reports at the time.

Police never made an arrest or disclosed how she was killed.

Residents of the scattered rural community described Whitton as a quiet man who wore dark overalls, a dark hat and had a long beard. They said he mostly kept to himself.

“He looked Amish,” said 93-year-old Irene Patterson.

Brenda Hargiss, a clerk at Wilkes Grocery, several miles down the road from the Whitton property, said Whitton “has a sawmill on his property and I think he would rather live off the land.”

She said the Whittons often visited the store to buy supplies.

“He was always polite,” she said. But she said people wondered about him.

“It’s in the back of our minds because of the other one,” Hargiss said.

She describe Haleigh as a “sweet little girl” and said Kimberly Whitton was nice but “didn’t have a lot to say.”

Hargiss said many in the community — where posters of the missing pair are everywhere — are hoping that the woman and her daughter have left the area and will call friends and relatives when they see news stories.

Whitton’s stepmother, Compton, said that is also her hope, but said she doesn’t believe that has happened. She said her stepdaughter was proud of her job at the nursing home.

“She wouldn’t have just left her job. She would not have left her truck,” Compton said.

She and her husband Jerry, who is Kimberly Whitton’s father, came to the Macedonia community near Section Saturday morning to check on progress of the investigation. They turned around when they found the narrow dirt road leading to the Whitton house blocked by a fence.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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