Inside the Murders of Teacher and Teen in Small Texas Town — and Why They Could Be Connected

Former principal Joe Bryan, sentenced to 99 years in prison in 1986, has long maintained his innocence

In 1985, a pair of brutal murders sent shockwaves through the rustic town of Clifton, Texas.

First, the partially-clothed body of 17-year-old Judy Whitley was discovered in a field on June 20. Then, on Oct. 15, popular fourth-grade teacher Mickey Bryan was killed in her home.

Local authorities would go on to charge Joe Bryan, Mickey's husband and the principal of Clifton High School, with his wife's killing, and he was sentenced to 99 years in prison after a jury convicted him in 1986. Detectives identified onetime Clifton policeman Dennis Dunlap as a suspect in Whitley's murder, but never developed enough evidence to charge him with her killing.

Joe Bryan, now 81, has always maintained his innocence, and for decades, the people of Clifton have wondered whether the two murders could be connected somehow — with some never accepting the once widely-beloved principal could be capable of such a crime.

Judy Whitley and Mickey Bryan
Judy Whitley and Mickey Bryan. Facebook

Could the real killer in both cases be Dunlap, who died by suicide in 1996? ABC News attempts to unravel that mystery tonight, with a new, two-hour 20/20 special, anchored by Amy Robach.

In the episode, airing at 9:01 p.m. ET/8:01 p.m. CT, Robach sits down with Joe Bryan for his first-ever broadcast television interview. (An exclusive clip from the episode is above.)

Bryan, currently free on parole, opens up to Robach about the investigation into his wife's murder, his time behind bars, how it feels to be out of prison, his reunion with his family and his continuing mission to clear his name — including his work with the Innocence Project of Texas.

Joe Bryan
Joe Bryan. Facebook

In addition, Friday's new special features interviews with author John Grisham, whose 2020 novel, The Guardians, was inspired in part by Bryan's case, and Penny Blue, Mickey's sister, who remains convinced of Joe's guilt. (A clip of Blue's interview is shown below.)

"I want him right where he is," Blue told Robach. "I truly believe he is a very dangerous person."

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Elaine Allen, one of Dunlap's ex-wives, and Kenneth Fields, a former Clifton police officer who worked with Dunlap, are also interviewed in the special.

During his interview with Robach, Joe Bryan recalled learning his wife had been killed, and the sorrow that immediately set in.

"Instantly, you know your life is not like it was," Bryan explains. "I was heartbroken."

The two-hour 20/20 airs Friday at 9:01 p.m. ET/8:01 p.m. CT on ABC.

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