Barton murder case remains unsolved nearly 19 years later

Published 12:05 am Saturday, April 27, 2013

“When I think of unsolved cases, I think of Nibby Barton,” said retired Covington County District Attorney Investigator Porter Harris.

The shooting death of the beloved Heath grocery store owner is a case that has haunted police officers like Harris long after they’ve laid down their badge. It’s also a case like others in the county – a crime where leads have grown cold, and the perpetrators have gone unpunished. Since the Covington County District Attorney’s Office announced earlier this month that a 15-member cold case task force was conducting an active, yet undisclosed, investigation, The Star-News is giving exposure to some of those unsolved cases.

On Thursday, it will be 19 years since 65-year-old James Quitman “Nibby” Barton was found dead from a single gunshot wound to the chest inside the Heath grocery store that bore his name. Reports indicate that, sometime between 5 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. on May 2, Barton’s wife heard a loud “bang.” By 7 p.m., when Barton had not returned home, she walked over from their home next door to the store, found him dead and called 911.

Star-News archives said law enforcement believed the murder to be robbery-connected as Barton was known to carry a large sum of cash to cash customer’s checks. In the first story detailing the murder, then-sheriff Wilbur Mitchell said, “I’m confident (the investigation) will conclude successfully.”

To date, he is wrong.

In the May 7, 1994, edition, the headline – the last of its kind until now – read, “No new leads in Heath murder.”

But it wasn’t for lack of trying, Harris said.

Harris said, like in all violent crime cases, every department in the county, and state agencies like the Alabama Bureau of Investigation, worked on the investigation.

“I always had a feeling inside that we were real close on the people who (murdered Barton), but we could never break it,” he said. “I always felt bad about that. For a long time, it was all I could think about – making an arrest, I mean. I thought about it day and night. Still do, and I’ve been retired for many years. I still want it solved. I want an arrest made.”

Harris described the store as a “hub for the community.”

“This was the place where people gathered in the afternoon to sit and talk with Mr. Barton and have a cold beer,” Harris said. “It was your typical country store, and everybody loved (Barton). It rocked everybody when he was murdered.”

Harris said police even had hypnotists work with motorists who traveled by the store that afternoon in the hopes they would garner information – but they turned up no viable leads.

“I can tell you, after all this time, this is what I think happened – I believe it was a young individual because of the evidence that was found,” he said. “In my opinion, someone else was there (besides the shooter), maybe in the vehicle outside or maybe more than one person inside.

“I think (they were) local – I’ve always thought that,” he said. “I don’t know how they’ve lived with it all this time – knowing they murdered that man in cold blood.”

Anyone with any information – “no matter how insignificant you might think it is. It could be what breaks it,” Harris said – is asked to contact one’s nearest law enforcement agency.

Barton’s family declined to discuss the case, saying the memories were too painful.