The former employer of a man whose wife was found dead on a hiking trail in Jamul shared details exclusively with NBC 7 about her former staffer and the strange, “painful” case.
On Jan. 7, hikers stumbled upon the body of Melissa Whitby, 49, on the Skyline Truck Trail in Jamul. The San Diego County Medical Examiner’s office would later come to determine that Melissa’s cause of death was trauma to her upper body. Her death was ruled a homicide. Other details of her case were sealed; more than three weeks later, no new information has been released by investigators.
On Dec. 31, 2016, a week before Melissa’s body was found, her husband, Winnie Perry Whitby, had reported Melissa missing to the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department (SDSO).
At the time, Perry worked at the Children’s Nature Retreat, a new refuge for animals located in Alpine.
The owner of the retreat, Agnes Barrelet, spoke with NBC 7 about Perry, saying she had hired him in September 2016 after he responded to an employment ad she placed online.
Barrelet said Perry mostly worked as a barn keeper, taking care of the animals. He also did some work on the grounds.
The Children's Nature Retreat sits on 20 acres of land, and workers are building new enclosures, fixtures, and landscapes.
"He helped to build some walls, a little bit of fences," said Barrelet.
The day after Melissa’s body was found, Perry was scheduled to work at the animal habitat. He was hours late for work that day, and Barrelet said she called Perry several times.
Barrelet soon found out Perry was with investigators.
“He didn’t come to work because he was at the police station, and the police called me to let me know what was going on,” she recalled.
The following day, Jan. 9, Perry returned to work.
"In the midst of the investigation, I had to let him go, and I put him on paid leave until we know more what's going on,” said Barrelet. “So he just left the premises. He didn't get upset.”
Barrelet said a background check on Perry didn’t reveal anything criminal about his past. She was shocked to hear about his wife’s death.
Barrelet said another revelation that came as a surprise to her and her employees is that Perry was tried and acquitted of a double-murder charge in Maryland in the 1990s.
SDSO detectives have not yet made an arrest in Melissa’s homicide. They have not identified Perry as a suspect or person of interest in the case.
NBC 7 did speak briefly to Perry a few days after hikers found his wife's body.
He said a few words through the screen door of his home in Jamul, including that he last saw his wife on Dec. 29, 2016. Perry said he had been in contact with Melissa a few times before reporting her missing to the SDSO on Dec. 31, 2016.
He also said he had been fully cooperative with police, but declined an interview, adding, “[I’ve] been through this before and [I] know how this all works.”
Barrelet said she never had any problems with Perry during the four months that he worked at her animal refuge. She said he pretty much kept to himself and his duties didn’t require interaction with visitors to the refuge.
Three weeks later, Barrelet is still in disbelief over the mysterious case.
"I think it was such terrible news, I'm still trying to process it," she told NBC 7. "It's just a painful story. You cannot really grasp how difficult it can be."
Melissa was a nurse who worked at a rehabilitation center in Golden Hill and at a health care center El Cajon. NBC 7 spoke with some of Melissa's friends, who described her as a happy and kind-hearted woman.