William Luton almost got away with murder. But justice caught up with him after more than a decade, and he was sent to prison for life in 1996 for killing a 3-year-old boy from Wilkes-Barre.
That life sentence ended last week.
Luton, 60, died of natural causes Thursday at State Correctional Institution — Houtzdale in Clearfield County, a prison spokeswoman confirmed.
According to Times Leader archives, Luton had been imprisoned for the Sept. 19, 1981, death of Ben Culbertson. Police had said Luton threw the boy headfirst into a wall.
Luton had been dating Culbertson’s mother and became enraged at Culbertson after the child made a mess of pots, pans and cereal, police had said.
The boy’s mother, Roberta, initially told detectives that her son had fallen off his bed and struck his head on a dresser drawer at the Sherman Hills apartment she shared with Luton.
Authorities listed the cause of death as undetermined.
It remained that way for almost 14 years.
In May 1995, Luzerne County Children and Youth Services requested a doctor re-examine Culbertson’s medical records. About a month later, Luton was jailed for having contact with a child he previously assaulted, and Roberta gave investigators a new account of how her son died.
Luton became annoyed with Ben Culbertson after the boy made a mess in the kitchen and the living room, police had said.
Luton dragged Ben Culbertson by the arm up to the boy’s bedroom and threw him into a wall, Roberta Culbertson had told police.
Ben Culbertson endured other abuses from Luton, according to court records:
If Ben Culbertson didn’t finish a meal, Luton wouldn’t let him eat the rest of the day. Luton made him sit in a corner for hours with his face to the wall. He regularly tied the boy to his bed and once to a tree during a picnic.
Until he was arrested in connection with the assault charge in March 1995, Luton used similar techniques to abuse the three other children living with him and Culbertson. He beat them with a paddle and pulled them off the ground by their hair, police had said.
Roberta Culbertson remained silent about her son’s death for 14 years because she was afraid of Luton, police said.
“She indicated that she feared for her life,” Detective Gary Sworen of the district attorney’s office had told The Times Leader.
Roberta Culbertson had told police Luton also beat her, leaving her with bruises and black eyes. Once Luton held her over a banister and threatened to drop her, police had said.
In July 1995, then Luzerne County District Attorney Peter Paul Olszewski ordered Culbertson’s body exhumed from St. Mary’s Cemetery in Hanover Township. Then Coroner Dr. George Hudock reclassified the manner of death to homicide.
Luton was charged with first-degree murder in 1995 and convicted in 1996.
He filed several appeals over the years, but they were all dismissed.