In the summer, the drive from I-65 into Bardstown, Kentucky is beautiful. Trees crowd both sides of the road, lush green walls that grow denser as you go. A new visitor from the city—Nashville to the south or Louisville to the north—might be forgiven for thinking they’re driving into nowhere. A “Welcome to Bardstown” sign is unnecessary, though. When the sweet smell of bourbon fills the air, you know you’ve arrived. Life slows. At first, it’s as if the wind carrying the scent from the distilleries lining the town perimeter makes you a little high.
That’s how I remember Bardstown. All towns and cities have shadows, but when I lived there from May to September 1990 as a cast member in The Stephen Foster Story, I didn’t see many. There were about 6600 residents then, and even if the county seat for Nelson County sometimes felt for just a moment like the setting for a folksy episode of the Twilight Zone—one where all the good townsfolk are revealed as malevolent robots in the final act, or cultists searching for a sacrifice—there was no real sense of danger.
Bardstown today has more than doubled in population, and the shadows have grown deeper. There has been a string of unsolved murders and an unsolved disappearance in Nelson County. Victims include a Bardstown police officer, an elementary school special education teacher, and her teenage daughter. No one is certain there is a connection aside from location.
Everyone wants to know what the hell is going on.
Bardstown Police Officer Jason Ellis, May 25, 2013
He’d been a baseball star in college, eventually turning pro and playing for a Cincinnati Reds Minor League club for a few years in the early 2000s. By 2013 Jason Ellis had been a police officer for about seven years. He was the Bardstown PD’s K-9 Officer. He’d twice received a Governor’s Award and in 2008 was Officer of the Year.
May 25, 2013 was a Saturday. Officer Ellis was driving home late that night in his cruiser when he stopped on Exit 34 of the Bluegrass Parkway to clear brush from the road.
The brush was a trap—one that was sprung when someone ambushed Ellis, shooting him several times with a shotgun. In a finely-detailed report on Ellis’s murder by Jessica Noll of WCPO-TV, it’s clear that despite aggressive efforts by local law enforcement and the FBI, the officer’s murder remains unsolved.
Kathy and Samantha Netherland, April 21 or 22, 2014Samantha and Kathy Netherland.
Kathy Netherland taught special education at Bardstown Elementary. She was a widow and in photos she looked younger than her reported age of 48. Her daughter Samantha was 16 and a sophomore at Bardstown High, where she was a member of several clubs, including the school chorus, Adventure Club, and the Young Leaders Program. They lived in a white tin-roofed home at 5120 Springfield Road outside Bardstown near the intersection of State Routes 150 and 605. It was as out-of-the-way and quiet a spot as you could imagine.
On the morning of April 22, 2014, Kentucky State Troopers found the mother and daughter dead at their home.The Netherland’s home in Bardstown.
It was a savage double murder—Kathy had been shot several times, Samantha bludgeoned, and their throats slashed.
Investigators seemed stumped from the beginning. One of the only clues released was a blurry gas station surveillance photo of a black Chevrolet Impala. Police suspect the driver of that car may have information about the case. Otherwise, it remains unsolved as of January 2018.
Crystal Rogers, July 3, 2015
Crystal Rogers’s family has already been afflicted with too much tragedy. It didn’t even begin with Crystal’s mysterious disappearance in July 2015. As the Kentucky Standard reported after she vanished, her aunt Sherry Ballard Barnes disappeared in January 1979. That case was never solved.
There is a person of interest in Crystal’s case. As often happens in so many crimes, it’s the man she was living with, Brooks Houck.
Houck was under suspicion immediately. The Kentucky Standard reported in October 2015 that detectives believed he’d killed Crystal during a fight. That same month his brother Nick Houck was fired from the Bardstown P.D. Police believe Nick interfered with their investigation. More telling than that: Investigators reportedly found a blanket with small traces of blood in the trunk of Nick’s police cruiser.
As recently as July 2017 police searched the home of Houck’s grandmother. Her attorney told the Louisville Courier-Journal that “they were looking for bullets and a reloader” and had taken the reloader into evidence.
But the 2017 search wasn’t directly related to Crystal’s disappearance. It was related to the still-unsolved murder of her father.
Tommy Ballard, November 19, 2016
Till the day he died, family said, Tommy Ballard never stopped looking for his daughter Crystal. Then on November 19, while he was out hunting on his rural property very early in the morning, a shot rang out. Ballard was struck in the chest, and died on the spot.
While police initially treated Ballard’s death as a possible hunting accident, it eventually became clear it wasn’t.
He believed he was being followed prior to his death, and even installed a camera in his truck to catch anyone on his tail.
What ties these deaths together?
Though all occurred in Nelson County, that doesn’t mean there is a real connection, save the seemingly obvious one between the disappearance of Crystal Rogers and her father’s death. The Rogers and Ballard cases are even moving forward as of January 2018, as investigators have been searching the farm where they believe Crystal was killed.
It’s a disease of armchair sleuthing to see connections between everything—the same kind of fallacy that produces complex and far-reaching conspiracy theories. People need to see order and connectedness. The random frightens us.
It’s striking to note that there’s been so little progress in the investigation into the death of Officer Ellis. When a law enforcement officer is murdered other cops are galvanized. And the Kentucky State Police have brought two investigators out of retirement to help in the Ellis case. There’s also a $200,000 reward. Still, it seems stalled.
That disgraced Bardstown cop Nick Houck was on the same force as Ellis tickles the back of the brain; if he helped his brother cover up a murder, what else might he be responsible for? Then again, I couldn’t determine whether he was even on the force in 2013.
The utterly brutal murder the Netherlands on a pleasant country road is as strange as Ellis’s murder. A cop on a small-town police force and an elementary school teacher and her teen daughter are among the most unlikely of unlikely victims.
It’s a cliché by now, but the Bardstown where I lived 27 years ago really was the kind of place where people didn’t always lock their doors. It was the sort of town a young man or woman visits and finds themselves wondering what was so great about the big city, anyway. Plus, you could smell bourbon everywhere.
Any nightmares I had in Bardstown were just inside my head, not hovering in the shadows under the trees crowding the highway.
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