CRIME

Death Stalks The 'Bourbon Capital'

A spate of unsolved homicides has a small Southern town on edge.

11/29/2016 08:02 pm ET
Brent MooreFlickrHuffington Post Illustration
A number of recent crimes in Bardstown, Kentucky, have captured national headlines.

Anger, confusion and sadness ― and, from officials, silence ― have deepened the mystery surrounding a man’s recent death in Bardstown, Kentucky. The shooting death of the man, whose daughter is a missing person, is just the latest in a series of high-profile tragedies to plague this small town.

Crystal Rogers, 35, went missing in July 2015. Her father, 54-year-old Tommy Ballard, was found dead in Bardstown on Nov. 18. Ballard died not far from where his daughter’s car had been found abandoned 18 months earlier.

According to police, Ballard was shot in the chest while hunting and was pronounced dead at the scene. The Kentucky Standard reports that his death is being investigated as a possible homicide.

“I was very lucky to have such a loving husband with a heart of gold,” Ballard’s widow, Sherry, told Louisville’s WAVE 3 News. “I do not feel like this was an accident.”

Brent MooreFlickr
Bardstown is known as the Bourbon Capital of the World.

Bardstown, a town of some 14,000 people located about 60 miles southwest of Lexington, advertises itself as a “great place to visit, live, work, raise a family and retire.” However, the self-described “Bourbon Capital of the World” has, in recent years, became more synonymous with death than whiskey.

“Older residents here [are] wondering, ‘Who’s going to be killed next?’” Bardstown resident Buddy Gulden recently told Lexington’s LEX 18 News.

Many in the community are wondering whether police will ever get to the bottom of what’s going on ― especially since one of the deaths involves a local police officer, and a former cop has been questioned in another case.

The unsolved crimes have prompted some residents to display signs reading “Solve These Murders.”

“Do we really want signs between the sidewalk and the street, for how many years, saying ‘Let’s find Crystal’ or ‘Solve these murders’?” said Ann Rosalie Ballard, a member of the city’s code enforcement board, according to Louisville’s WDRB News. “I mean, that’s not what we really want everybody to see when they come.”

Authorities say Jason Ellis was killed in a 2013 highway ambush.

The first high-profile homicide to occur in recent years was on May 25, 2013, when Bardstown police Officer Jason Ellis, 33, was shot and killed on his way home from work.

Ellis, a seven-year veteran of the department, completed his shift early that morning and was driving home when he stopped to clear a pile of debris near the Bluegrass Parkway. After exiting his vehicle, Ellis was shot multiple times in the torso, arms and face. Authorities later found a number of discarded shotgun shell casings at the scene.

In the wake of Ellis’ death, Police Chief Rick McCubbin released a statement to the media, saying investigators believed the debris Ellis got out to move had been deliberately placed on the highway and the ambush-style slaying was intentional.

Despite the involvement of state and federal authorities, investigators have been unable to determine who killed Ellis.

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Kathy Netherland, left, and her daughter, Samantha.

Roughly 11 months later, on the evening of April 21, 2014, an unknown person or persons entered the home of 48-year-old Kathy Netherland and her 16-year-old daughter, Samantha, and killed them both.

Netherland, a special education teacher at Bardstown Elementary School, was shot multiple times. Her daughter, a sophomore at Bardstown High School, was beaten about the head. Both victims reportedly had cuts to their necks.

Authorities have yet to identify any suspects.

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Authorities believe Crystal Rogers was killed in July 2015.

At the time of his death, Tommy Ballard was leading the charge for information in the disappearance of his daughter, a mother of five.

Crystal Rogers was last seen at her Bardstown home on July 3, 2015, by her live-in boyfriend, Brooks Houck. According to the Nelson County Sheriff’s Office, Houck said Rogers had stayed up late on the night of her disappearance and that she was gone when he woke up the following morning.

Houck waited two days to report Rogers missing, police said.

Rogers’ vehicle, a maroon 2007 Chevy Impala, was found abandoned with a flat tire along Kentucky’s Bluegrass Parkway two days after she disappeared. Rogers’ keys, purse and cell phone were found inside the car.

Authorities conducted multiple searches of the area where the vehicle was discovered, but reportedly failed to find any evidence connected to the case.

Rogers’ family had already once been shaken by a mysterious disappearance. In 1979, Rogers’ aunt, Sherry Ballard Barnes, 19, disappeared from Bardstown. Her vehicle was found submerged in the Ohio River, but investigators initially found no sign of the teen.

“They searched for years,” Rogers’ cousin, Andrew Ballard, told The Kentucky Standard. “She was pregnant.”

Barnes’ remains, along with those of her unborn child, were found buried in a rural area three years after she went missing.

According to The Associated Press, Barnes’ husband, Edsel, was arrested and ultimately convicted in 1984 of hiring a man to kill his estranged wife so he would not have to pay child support. Edsel Barnes was sentenced to life in prison.

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A 1984 news article about Sherry Ballard Barnes.

When Rogers disappeared, family members told police it was out of character for her not to be in touch with them and that it would have been unusual for her to travel in the area where her vehicle was found.

Brooks Houck’s brother Nick found himself in the spotlight in the months following Rogers’ disappearance.

In October 2015, Nick was fired from the Bardstown Police Department after failing a polygraph test about Rogers’ disappearance.

“You did not pass the test,” an FBI polygraph examiner tells Nick Houck in a police interrogation video released by investigators. “It’s pretty clear that you haven’t told me the complete truth, and the questions you are having problems with are questions about Crystal and, in particular, whether or not you know where she is right now.”

Nick Houck denied being dishonest with the examiner and said he doubted the validity of the test.

“I don’t give a goddamn what your fucking computer said,” he tells the examiner in the video. “You’re calling me a fucking liar [and] I don’t like it when people call me a liar.”

At a press conference following Nick Houck’s termination from the police department, the Nelson County Sheriff’s Office named Brooks Houck — who has a 2-year-old son with Rogers — a suspect in her disappearance. Authorities also said they suspect his brother knows what happened to her.

The sheriff’s office then acknowledged, for the first time, that authorities believe Rogers is dead. Despite the suspicions of law enforcement, neither Houck brother has been charged in connection with the case.

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An undated photo of Thomas Marvin Ballard.

Ballard, unwilling to sit idly by, devoted countless hours and dollars to the search for his daughter. He had billboards put up with his daughter’s photo on them, and posted a sign near the Houck family farm that read “Brooks Houck where is Crystal Rogers?”

With Ballard now dead, authorities have yet to say whether they suspect his death is connected to his daughter’s disappearance. They also have yet to comment on a fire that consumed a three-bedroom home owned by Brooks Houck five days after Ballard’s death.

According to WAVE 3 News, police served a search warrant on the burned-out property. It’s unknown if anything of interest was found.

Ballard was buried in Bardstown on Friday. During the funeral procession, people from the community lined the streets. Some held signs that read “Standing with the Ballards.”

“Even if you didn’t know them, you would want to support them,” Nancy Gibson, who attended the procession, told Louisville’s WLKY News. “Just a tremendous loss to this community. The whole family is just wonderful people.”

Many questions remain, and investigations into the town’s spate of unsolved crimes continue. Police have not commented on whether Ellis’ death, the Netherlands’ killings and Ballard’s death and Rogers’ disappearance might be in any way connected.

“There are tons and tons of nervous people around this town right now,” said a family friend, who was so shaken by Ballard’s death that she asked WAVE 3 News not to identify her. “[We] don’t know... if there is a killer on the loose.”

Anyone with information in any of these cases is asked to contact the Nelson County Sheriff’s Office at 502-348-1840 or the Kentucky State Police at 270-766-5078. 

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