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Episode 15: Bardstown Down: Bardstown Part 1

The Mountain Mysteries

Episode 15

Bardstown Down

The Mountain Mystery of Jason Ellis

So quiet you could hear a butterfly’s wings quiver. Store’s downtown was closed. Seems everywhere you looked that day there was blue balloons and star-spangled banners that waved in the wind. And also, pictures of Jason Ellis that smiled from closed store windows. They were shut down from a solemn reason. It’s now been over eight years, and this is one of several obscurities The Mountain Mysteries will look into over the next several weeks in a quiet little place only all too close to Louisville Kentucky, just a bit south as the fact of the matter stands.

It’s known for its whiskey and the annual bourbon festival held in September and was also once named one of the most beautiful small towns in America by Rand-McNally and USA Today. Oh yes, that kind of place. Where people know each other. Seems the word friend is used often, and hugs are as welcome as handshakes to those who know each other in this small Nelson County community if around 11,000 according to the 2010 census. Hard to imagine anything out of sorts here. Anything treacherous or even, dare I say it? Sinister? But like virtually any small town in America, secrets do exist, and despite the best efforts of those who would shine a light in the darkest of places, well, sometimes, those pesky things…those secrets, simply aren’t ready to come out of hiding…yet.

These are The Mountain Mysteries, and this is episode 15, The Mountain Mystery of Jason Ellis…

He was a minor-league baseball player from Ohio, and the kind of guy everyone wanted to be around. Jason Ellis had given up the game he loved so much for something he loved better. His family and his second dream: a career in law enforcement. He was a fun-loving man with a silly streak, someone who planned barbecues and once dressed as an elf for the city’s fancy Christmas party, when no others were in costume.

On May 30, 2013, the Kentucky town fell silent and was somberly adorned for its fallen hero.

He was a commander's cop; and did his job with hardly any grumbles. His wife, Amy, joined him on ride-alongs and watched him laugh and talk with whomever he’d just pulled over. She’d often ask if Jason knew them, but he didn’t. He was good to everyone, colleagues and relatives say. He was fair. He was by the book.

Hundreds of people lined the streets to say goodbye to Jason, a police officer who’d been murdered five days before. They’d left work and brought their kids, waiting hours to salute a sea of cop cars in the miles-long procession from Parkway Baptist Church to the rural cemetery in Chaplin that would be his final resting place.

“He was proud of what he did. The drugs he took off the street. The criminals that he arrested. The Jason we knew was always the first one in and usually the last one out,” former police chief Rick McCubbin told mourners at his funeral, as he stood at a glass podium overlooking Jason’s American flag-draped coffin.

Jason would end his conversations with a grin and thumbs up, McCubbin recalled. “You’re my chief, you’re my chief,” Jason would say.

“And I am your chief, Jason, but you are now our hero,” McCubbin said. “And you must know that your chief will not stand down.”

No seat was empty at the service. Hundreds of cops from the commonwealth and beyond came to support the Bardstown department, which was now down to 25 officers.

But some Kentuckians couldn’t be there; they were out chasing leads in the K-9 officer’s killing. Jason, a married father of two boys, was shot down in an ambush on his way home from work on May 25, 2013. He was only 33 years old.

His funeral was on a day that otherwise would have marked his seventh year with the Bardstown force. He was the first in department history to be slain in the line of duty—a death that sent shockwaves through Bardstown, about 40 miles southeast of Louisville and named “Most Beautiful Small Town in America” the year before.

Someone had carefully plotted Jason Ellis’ demise, setting tree branches on a narrow exit ramp of the Bluegrass Parkway and waiting in the bluffs above. The trap came after Jason, who worked second shift, clocked out at 2 a.m. The killer fatally blasted him with a shotgun after he got out of his cruiser to clear the debris from the road.

Five years later, no one has been arrested or charged in Jason Ellis’ murder.

Kris Phillips, Jason’s mother-in-law, can’t come to terms with it. Without any hint of closure, the mystery haunts her. “We’re in a place where, every day, you think maybe this will be the day,” Phillips told The Daily Beast. “And every day goes by, and it’s not a very good place to be.”

“There is nothing we know,” she added. “It was the perfect crime.”

Even as Bardstown reeled from Jason Ellis’ assassination, four other murders would rock the charming tourist town over the next few years. None have been solved.

Elementary-school teacher Kathy Netherland and her teenage daughter, Samantha, were slaughtered in their home in April of 2014, days before Samantha’s prom.

Crystal Rogers, a 35-year-old mother of five, vanished over Fourth of July weekend in 2015. Cops identified Brooks Houck, the father of her youngest son, as a suspect but haven’t charged him in her disappearance.

And in November 2016, Crystal’s father, Tommy Ballard, was fatally shot on his hunting land. As The Daily Beast reported, Ballard’s family believes he was targeted because of his dogged pursuit of justice for his daughter.

Kentucky State Police are investigating all but the Rogers case, which is helmed by the Nelson County Sheriff’s Office. Few details are known about each probe. For the Ellis and Netherland families, a lack of arrests, let alone any named suspects or motives, has left them feeling helpless and tortured by doubt.

“It keeps me up at night. I think about it every day. All the time. I feel like I’ve let him down,” Phillips said of Jason Ellis’ death.

“If this had happened to me or my son or my daughter, Jason would have went to the ends of the earth. That’s the kind of person he was. He would never have let this go. Never.”

Jason grew up in Batavia, Ohio, but was perfect for Bardstown. His boss, then-police chief McCubbin, once remarked that no one could tell Jason was an out-of-towner. He loved his community. Loved living in a small town.

Before moving to Kentucky, he played minor league baseball for two affiliates of the Cincinnati Reds: the Billings Mustangs in Montana and the Arizona League Reds.

He was a standout athlete at the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, Kentucky, where he still holds multiple records, including best career batting average. In 2011, he was inducted into the Cumberlands Patriots hall of fame.

The private Baptist college is also where he met his wife, Amy, at a party on Valentine’s Day in 2001. They became inseparable. “It was truly, truly love at first sight,” the grieving widow said days after his death. “He was my best friend.”

Her mother joined their first date. Phillips was passing through town and called her daughter to see if she wanted to have dinner. As the story goes, Amy already had plans with Jason, but he welcomed Phillips to tag along and brought two bouquets—one for mom, one for daughter. That’s when Amy knew Jason was the one.

They married three years later. “I thought often how lucky I was to have this wonderful man,” Amy told a church newspaper. “I felt as if I had everything.”

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Amy said she and Jason were growing up together. “From college graduations to our wedding, honeymoon, having kids, building our house together, all those normal life events,” Amy said. “We had fun together, and he was always the one making sure everyone was having fun.”

Jason, a catcher, was drafted out of college. He left baseball when Amy became pregnant with their son, Hunter, who was born with Down syndrome and had health complications that required open-heart surgery. Jason told Amy he had lots of dreams: to be her husband, a father, and a police officer.

“He quit baseball and gave up on that dream to come home and be there for me,” Amy said. “That memory is a perfect example of the kind of man he was.”

In May of 2006, Jason took his oath as a Bardstown police officer. He didn’t talk about work, because he didn’t want Amy to worry. But he was proud to make the city safer with the help of his canine partner—Figo, a German Shepherd and the agency’s only drug-sniffing dog—and decorated his bathroom with articles on his arrests.

Figo made national headlines after Jason’s funeral. The dog rested his paw on Jason’s casket, a moment captured by a freelance photographer. Figo passed away last year, days before the fourth anniversary of Jason’s death.

“He always made me feel like he was Superman,” Amy told reporters of her husband. “That nothing would ever happen to him.”

Jason Ellis cuffed more than 350 people, including a few alleged members of the Bardstown Money Gang, a violent group that became known for beatings around town and that posted its own anthems to YouTube, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal.

One supposed member—Brant Sheckles, a nephew of Bardstown’s former mayor—threatened cops while being arrested for menacing and referenced Jason’s murder. (In 2013, state police said Sheckles wasn’t a viable suspect. McCubbin told the Kentucky Standard he doubted other BMG stalwarts’ claims of killing Jason. “They’re trying to be badasses,” he said. “They didn’t do shit.”)

Deandre Labrice Douglas, whom Jason arrested for assault and who police say was a BMG leader, told the Courier-Journal in a jailhouse interview that none of his associates were involved with Jason’s death, and he didn’t order a hit.

“Who do you think I am, John Gotti?” Douglas asked.

Meanwhile, most of Jason’s arrests in Nelson County involved traffic violations, but some became felony indictments, including for manufacturing meth.

His personnel file was flawless, showing no complaints for excessive force or bad behavior. Rather, he and other officers earned commendations—including one for their response to a house fire in 2007, and another for handling a knife-wielding suicidal man in 2008. In April of that year, Jason was named “Officer of the Quarter.”

Even defense lawyers had nice things to say about him. “He would walk out of court and shake your hand,” one attorney, whose client was busted by Jason for drug trafficking, told the Courier-Journal.

According to Phillips, a mourner at Jason’s funeral mentioned how the officer cuffed him on a minor drug charge, then spotted him the next day. The man brought his son to Tee-ball practice but waited in the car to avoid Jason, who was a little league coach. “Today, I am not a police officer, I am a parent,” Jason told the man. “Come and throw ball with your son.”

In the hours before he died, Jason coached his son’s team in his police uniform—until he was called to a domestic disturbance. Amy remembers that he ran off the field without saying goodbye. She watched him from the bleachers.

Still, the work day was hardly eventful. Jason drove in a spare Bardstown cruiser while his usual Ford Explorer, equipped for his K-9, was in the shop. He visited the FiveStar convenience store, one of the only spots open late and where night-shift officers grabbed drinks and snacks.

Jason phoned Amy around 11 p.m. to say hello. She and the children—Hunter, 7, and Parker, 6—had fallen asleep watching TV. She remembers their last call was brief. “I love you,” Jason told her. “I love you, too,” she replied, before they hung up.

The night continued with a dispatch about a one-armed man, who was drunk and disorderly and lying in the road with a head wound. Jason arrived on scene, and not long after, drove to the hospital where EMS had transported the man. The suspect allegedly grew belligerent and attacked emergency staff, a WCPO investigation found.

Around 1:46 a.m., Jason booked the man into Nelson County jail. He wrote up a citation, then embarked on the 17-mile drive home, where Amy was drifting off on the couch, waiting for him. His kids were sound asleep in their beds.

The knock came around 3 a.m. Amy got up and walked over, figuring her husband had lost his house keys.

But when she reached her doorstep, she saw a chaplain and police officer in tears.

The full moon was so big and bright, it lit up the sky that night. Jason Ellis had taken his usual route home, driving onto the Bluegrass Parkway and taking Exit 34. His house in Bloomfield was 20 or so minutes from the police station.

As he steered down the ramp, Jason noticed tree limbs blocking the roadway. He clicked on his blue emergency lights and parked his squad car in the middle of the road to stop oncoming traffic, so he could clear the path.

He never radioed dispatch or drew his weapon. His bullet-proof vest was on when he took his final steps to that pile of brush. All the while, Jason was unaware of the gunman waiting in the hills above, surveying the off-ramp flanked by steep rock walls.

As soon as Jason reached down to collect the branches, blasts from a 12-gauge shotgun pierced the darkness. The officer collapsed to the pavement.

Around 2:30 a.m., a driver came upon Jason Ellis’ police cruiser, which concealed his lifeless body in the road, and waited for movement. Then a second motorist arrived, and they exited their cars and approached the cruiser. They saw the blood in the road.

“Hello! Hello! Officer down! Officer down!” a panicked woman from the first car yelled into the radio of Jason’s cruiser.

The dispatcher later asked, “Ma’am, can you advise the status of the officer? Is he conscious?”

“I believe he’s dead,” she replied.

The second driver found the radio on Jason’s belt and gave dispatchers their location.

Bardstown police sergeants Michael Medley and Andrew Riley, two of Jason’s close friends and colleagues, were first to the scene.

Medley remembers hearing the woman’s screeching into the police scanner. At first he thought a child of a county cop had gotten their hands on a police radio. But then he heard the harrowing warning: Officer down, officer down.

“Dispatch came on and asked for them to identify themselves, and the only thing they would say was Bloomfield Road,” Medley said of the first driver. The cop sped off in that direction until the second driver clarified they were at Exit 34.

Medley had no idea he’d encounter Jason Ellis, the officer he’d spoken to hours before and the friend with whom he’d shared cookouts and family vacations.

Riley checked for a pulse and removed Jason’s shirt, while Medley undid his ballistics vest. He wasn’t breathing and his temperature was cold. Yet they didn’t know he’d been shot until EMS workers arrived. State police were called in.

“You don’t want to believe it. And even when I seen him, I didn’t recognize him,” Medley recalled of seeing his colleague’s body in the road. “I don’t know if my mind was trying to tell me not to believe it, but it didn’t look like anybody that I knew.”

They stayed on scene till 8 or 9 that morning. “The moon was bright that night, probably the brightest I can ever remember,” Medley said. “Once it was daylight, we helped state police look for where the shooter may have been, whatever evidence we could find.”

In the afternoon, state police held a press conference, saying Jason Ellis’ murder was premeditated. “However, we are not certain whether Officer Ellis was the target, or another police officer or even a citizen was the target of this,” trooper Norman Chaffins said, before asking the public for tips. Maybe someone saw something days or a week prior to the ambush. A car parked along the exit ramp. People walking the Bluegrass Parkway.

One motorist contacted authorities and said she’d driven around the debris before Jason was shot. Chaffins didn’t confirm when she exited the ramp.

Medley doesn’t have a theory about the murder. Asked if he believed Jason was targeted, he said, “I don’t know. But they knew that he was a police officer.”

“Somebody out there knows something,” Medley said. “That’s the only thing I can think of. They’re just too scared to say it, because they’re afraid of what might happen to them.”

Weeks later, the Bardstown Police Department received death threats on social media and in letters and phone calls. “One down, 25 to go,” one message read, referring to Jason’s killing.

Medley said he and fellow officers were on edge. At the time, he was living alone. “Every night and morning I would come in and check each room,” Medley said, “and I still couldn’t sleep.”

Someone is walking around five years later, Medley added, believing they’ve gotten away with murdering a cop.

Kris Phillips thought justice would have been served by now. “I feel the people involved are still right here,” she said of her son-in-law’s killers. “They’re living, breathing right here” in Bardstown.

The reward for information in Jason Ellis’ case is over $200,000, but Phillips wants to raise money to make it $1 million. “If nobody calls a tip in on a million dollars, to me, that says a lot,” Phillips said. “You are family. You are all in it together. If you tattle, you tattle on yourself.”

Whoever picked the exit ramp had to be local, Phillips says. They had to be familiar with the narrow rock walls bordering the roadway, knowing they’d provide cover.

She worries that a pair of retired Kentucky State Police detectives, hired last year to work the slew of unsolved Bardstown murders, are too late. Phillips once sent a certified letter to the FBI seeking help. “I did not get a physical reply,” she said. “I got a phone call and the phone call was not a very pleasant one.”

The feds declined to help, saying they had confidence in KSP investigators. Phillips, whose son is also a Bardstown cop, said state law enforcement is shorthanded and lacks resources. Funding is so poor she’s been involved in a fundraiser to purchase tourniquets for troopers. “It’s very frustrating,” she said. “It’s like a perfect storm of events. You have law enforcement that’s defunct. The federal level, that’s a crazy mess. It’s like there’s nobody that you can count on when it comes to something like this.”

“There’s nobody I can go to and say, ‘Please help us.’”

She believes Jason’s death couldn’t have been pulled off without multiple people.

Someone was sitting on the overpasses, tailing Jason, and sending word to the shooter in the hillside. Someone dragged tree limbs out moments before Jason came down that ramp. Phillips’ neighbor drove the path not long before Jason, she says, and saw no branches.

Jason was driving a loaner car and without his beloved Figo. “He was in it when he made certain arrests that week,” Phillips said. “But it wasn’t his normal cruiser.”

Then she considers the motive. Who would take so much time to plot the death of one small-town police officer? Perhaps the killer worried about Jason Ellis’ future court testimony, or sought vengeance for their kin. “He arrested or charged someone in your family, and maybe you lost your job and your wife left you and you lost custody of your kids, and you are out to get him,” Phillips said, mulling the possibilities. “That’s the theory, and that makes sense.”

She thinks of the Cornbread Mafia, a Kentucky marijuana ring led by John Robert “Johnny” Boone, a septuagenarian who was on the lam for eight years, until his arrest in 2016. “They knew where this guy was hiding and they wouldn’t rat him out. That’s where we live. That’s the mentality,” Phillips said.

She believes Jason’s rubout was drug-related. At his funeral, officers told her a man came to the police station, angry over his relative’s heroin arrest, days before Jason died. “Who is that person? Where is that person?” Phillips wonders.

KSP trooper Scotty Sharp said investigators combed through Jason’s entire case history, but they’ve declined to share more details on the pending investigation.

This year marked the fifth anniversary without Jason Ellis. In May, as part of an annual memorial, a caravan drove from police headquarters to the Exit 34 ramp, following Jason’s final ride home. They stopped at Highview Cemetery, where dozens of people said a prayer.

That month, Amy Ellis sat down for an interview with a Louisville TV station. “The case has been so deeply investigated, and it just doesn’t make any sense,” Amy told WDRB.

Amy believes a dearth of evidence has stymied the case. Her boys, now 11 and 12, still cope with losing their dad. The widow, who has recently remarried, said Jason “would not want us to just lay down and die and just give up.”

Amy told The Daily Beast her youngest son has begun to understand what happened to his dad. She lets the boys decide how to celebrate Jason, and how they grieve. They keep photos of him around the house and his baseball memorabilia in the boys’ room. They want to remember Jason not in big annual events, but “during the more trivial parts of our lives,” Amy says.

Her husband, Penn Brown, was an Air Force pilot based in Texas when Jason died. The newly-married couple was set up by mutual friends after Amy moved to Louisville, and Brown came home to Kentucky in 2016. “I’m confident that Penn and Jason would’ve been great friends had they known each other,” Amy said, adding that Jason’s family immediately loved and welcomed him.

When they married last month, Penn’s vows included a promise to Jason’s boys: he’d always honor Jason in the way he treats them.

“Penn wants Jason to look down and say, ‘He’s doing a darn good job!’” Amy said. “And I don’t think there’s a better way for him to keep his memory alive than that.”

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