SPRINGBORO, Ohio (WDTN) – It’s now been 20 years since the murder that shocked the City of Springboro and ten years since the trial that riveted and the verdict that stunned the Miami Valley and the nation.
Next month, former Springboro police lieutenant Jim Barton will stand before the Ohio Parole Board for the first time. Should Jim Barton go free?
“I think spring brings back the memories. It’s always such a happy time for most people. Winter’s over, all the freshness of spring. It was probably the worst spring of my life.”
In the city with ‘spring’ in its name, there are two it will never forget.
The first, 1995 when Vickie Barton was found shot to death in her rural home just outside of town. And the second, ten years later when her husband, Springboro police lieutenant Jim Barton, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in her death, and was sentenced to 15 to 50 years in prison.
The prevailing theory has always been that Jim hired two men to break in and scare Vickie, so that she’d move off their farm and into the city, so he could become police chief.
But the man who has that job, doesn’t buy it.
“I think he just wanted off that horse farm. He was done with horses and that’s where one of the incriminating statements from her mother came was that the horse thing was always her dream not Jim’s,” said Jeff Kruithoff, Springboro police chief.
Jeff Kruithoff became Springboro police chief in 2003, eight years after Vickie’s still unsolved murder.
As he learned more about the case, and his trusted top lieutenant, he formed a special cold case task force to finally bring closure and clear Jim Barton, but a closed door meeting that fall changed everything.
“It wasn’t until October about six months after the cold case team formed that they shared with me the fact pattern they were following was leading to Jim’s involvement.”
A key piece of that pattern was Jim’s call to 911 after finding Vickie dead.
The initial investigation included a written transcript of the call, but the task force, using cold case principles, listened to the actual recording.
“I gotta call Phelp man!”
That two and a half seconds of audio would turn the case. During questioning about an unrelated crime, a man named Gary Henson told police that his half-brother, Will Phelps, had confessed to killing Vickie Barton, and knew intimate details that had not been made public.
When the task force heard the 911 call, they were convinced that Phelps was one of the two men Jim hired to scare Vickie.
“I gotta call Phelp man!”
“There turned out to be an omission in the transcription or a mistake, not sure how you would describe that, but when you hear the tape and it clearly doesn’t jibe with the transcription and that was a big hinging point in the case. I think he honestly was surprised when he went into the house that day and she was dead, that was not what he intended to have happen. I honestly believe that. but he also knew in his heart of hearts that he had put wheels into motion that resulted in that act.”
Even with Jim Barton behind bars, a great mystery remains.
One of those intimate details is that Vickie had also been sexually assaulted and had a bite mark on her breast that contained the DNA of her assailant.
Phelps later committed suicide, but his body was exhumed and a test was done. He was not a match and neither was Jim nor anyone else in the national DNA database.
Which leads Chief Kruithoff to only two conclusions about the second mystery man who was there that day.
“One is that this person only committed one violent crime in their life and never did it again. The policeman in me says that’s impossible, a crime to this degree of violence was the one and only time or that they’re dead. That person deserves to be in prison a lot more than Jim Barton does because that person if he’s still alive, would continue to pose a threat to the public. I don’t think Jim would pose a threat to the public, but that’s not my decision to make.”
Next month, it is the decision of the Ohio Parole Board. Inside the walls of Lucasville, Jim Barton has been a model prisoner, but on the walls of the Springboro police department is the law enforcement oath of honor, promising to never “betray my badge.”
And Jim Barton went to prison swearing, he had nothing to do with the murder of his wife.
“People who are familiar with the process say that weighs pretty heavily on the parole board if someone comes in and says I made a mistake and this is what I’ve done to improve my life. They tend to sway more toward that person so it’s going to be very interesting to see what the parole board does.”
We did request an interview with Jim Barton, but because he is a former police officer and in protective custody, the Department of Corrections says he is ineligible to do media interviews.
Visit the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction on line if you would like to contact the parole board prior to next month’s hearing. You can also mail your response to:
Ohio Parole Board, Department of Corrections, 770 West Broad Street, Columbus, Ohio, 43222
Either way, you must include the inmate’s full name, Thomas James Barton, and his inmate number, A489414.
We will stay on the story next month when Jim Barton’s parole hearing takes place.