Mystery on the Bourbon Trail

By  Alexandra Sandefur

On a warm late April day in 2018, Sherry Ballard pulls off onto the shoulder of the Bluegrass Parkway in Bardstown, Kentucky. The spot is just past mile marker 13. The strip of land on the other side of the guardrail dips down to a little valley with a small creek and pond.

Behind her, getting out of her own car is Judy McKee, who Sherry sometimes refers to as the “dog lady.” Judy owns and trains cadaver dogs. Sherry says she has become like family since Sherry and her husband, Tommy, asked her to help them search for their daughter.  Crystal Rogers, then 35, went missing three years ago in 2015.

Today, Judy and Sherry are taking Judy’s dutch shepherd, Geena, out to a piece of land beside the parkway. It is just past mile marker 14, where Crystal’s car was found. The cadaver dog had “hit” on the area about six months after Crystal went missing, which means she smelled something that could be a decomposing body.

“I just can’t get that time out of my mind. I want to go check it out while Judy has Geena here.”

Sherry puts on her big muck boots. She wears the same boots whenever they go searching for Crystal.

Judy puts a leash on the dog. She also puts on a red vest that says “Search and Rescue.” This helps the dog know that means she’s ready to work.

The trio make their way down the steep hill toward the pond. Judy and Sherry are careful with their steps down the decline; the dog eagerly pulls ahead.

Cars whiz by on the parkway above, but the sound gets farther away as they make their way down the hill. It is quiet in the valley by the creek. It is easy to forget the parkway is only about 200 feet away.

Then the trio begin their search. They start walking around the creek. The dog is eager to start working. She runs laps around Judy and Sherry, who are more careful where they walk, stepping over fallen tree limbs and trying to avoid mud.

Sherry crosses into the creek to get across to the pond. Judy follows behind her. They are careful to avoid falling into the cold water. The pair talk about the place that the dog hit last time. They want to make sure they cover the whole area around the pond.

Once they cross the creek, the area turns more grassy. High weeds and twisted vines surround the pond. This doesn’t stop them, but slows them down. Judy yells out the occasional command to the dog. In an assertive voice, she tells the dog to “search” or “find it.” What “it” is, they do not know for sure. Just clues that could lead to finding out what happened to Crystal.

Sherry Ballard and Judy McKee take Judy’s dutch shepherd cadaver dog out searching to an area off the Bluegrass Parkway in Bardstown, Kentucky. Alex Sandefur

They walk around the perimeter of the pond. The two humans go slow, also searching the ground for signs they may have missed before. The dog runs free, sometimes stopping to sniff the ground or jump in the water to search there. Sometimes Judy will direct her to a certain area of interest to search. For the most part, the two humans are silent, almost as if they do not want to disturb the peace of the valley.

Climbing rocks, through mud, over and under fallen limbs, up hills, down hills and in the creek. The trio spend about an hour and half searching the entire area surrounding the pond. They find nothing of interest, just some trash and old deer bones.

They make their way back up the hill to where their cars are parked on the side of the road. Not finding anything has Sherry torn.

“It’s like you want to find something, but then you don’t. You know what it means when you find something; you have closure. But the hope is gone.”

***

The small community of Bardstown sits about 40 miles southwest of Louisville. It’s home to a little over 13,000 residents. In 2014, Bardstown was named one of the best small towns in America, according to Fodor Travel’s list.

Visitors to the town can take a trip along the famous Bourbon Trail, visit the Kentucky Railway Museum or just take a walk around its historic downtown area.

But there is a darker side to this quaint, small town.

From 2013-2016 Nelson County, the county surrounding Bardstown, had a total of 23 homicides, according to the Crime in Kentucky report released by the Kentucky State Police. In those years, Nelson County was in the top 30 counties for homicides. In 2013 and 2016, it was in the top 10 counties. There are five unsolved murders or disappearances from 2013-2016.

In May 2013, Bardstown Police Officer Jason Ellis was shot right at the end of his shift in the early morning hours. He was the first officer to be killed while on duty in the Bardstown Police Department.

In April 2014, mother and daughter pair Kathy and Samantha Netherland were killed in their home. Kathy, 48, was shot in the head, and Samantha, 16, was badly beaten and had her throat slit.

Crystal Rogers went missing Fourth of July weekend in 2015. The mother of five’s car was found that Sunday with a flat tire on the Bluegrass Parkway with her purse and cell phone inside.

Then, in 2016, another tragedy struck the Ballard family. Sherry’s husband, Tommy, Crystal’s father, was shot on family property while hunting.

The Kentucky State Police are investigating the four murders. The Nelson County Sheriff’s office is investigating Crystal’s disappearance.

Residents of Bardstown have posted signs around the town. Some simply say “Justice for Crystal” and “Standing with the Ballards.” Some call out the police, saying “Solve these murders.”

There are more direct signs as well. Around the town, signs call out the police and Brooks Houck, Crystal’s boyfriend at the time she went missing. The Nelson County Sheriff’s Office named him as a suspect in October 2015, according to Jonathon Snow, the lead homicide detective for the Nelson County Sheriff’s Office. Brook remains the lead suspect today, Snow said. Yellow signs outside his neighborhood say things like “Detectives say Brooks killed Rogers” and “5 things a murderer would say” with quotes from his interrogation videos.

Brooks Houck declined an interview for this article. On the telephone call, he said he does not have anything further to say about the case.

***

Sherry Ballard was laying in bed on the evening of July 3, 2015 after returning from mass with her husband and oldest granddaughter at St. Thomas Catholic Church. She got a text from her 14-year-old granddaughter asking Sherry if she had heard from her mom, Crystal.

Sherry texted her daughter but was not concerned. She hadn’t heard from Crystal but figured she and her boyfriend were probably out celebrating the holiday.

Later that night, Sherry’s granddaughter texted again. She still had not heard from her mom.  

Sherry called Crystal and left her a voicemail message, but she went to bed without worrying too much about her daughter. When she still hadn’t shown up the next morning, though, Sherry started making calls.

For the holiday, Sherry and her husband, Tommy, had planned a quiet day around the house. Instead Sherry spent most of the morning and afternoon calling people she thought might have heard from Crystal.

She usually talked to Crystal every day. When Crystal still hadn’t contacted her the next afternoon, Sherry went into a panic.

Her son, Casey, and his wife had stopped by Sherry and Tommy’s house on their way back from camping at Green River. Casey and Tommy were trying to calm Sherry down.

Sherry started to cry. She believed something was really wrong with Crystal.

The three of them agreed that Sherry should go and file a police report. Casey and Tommy would search for Crystal around Bardstown.

Sherry left for the Nelson County Sheriff’s Office, taking her oldest granddaughter with her.

On the nine-minute drive from her house to the sheriff’s office, Sherry spotted Brooks Houck, Crystal’s boyfriend, in his big, brown truck with the racks on top.

Sherry had not called him because they had not been getting along.

She told her granddaughter to text him and ask him to pull over and meet her in the Walmart parking lot. There, Sherry said Brooks told her he had not seen Crystal since Friday night. He said they had gotten into a heated discussion about Crystal’s children, but he did not call it a fight.  

Sherry then noticed Crystal and Brooks’ 2-year-old son in the backseat of Brooks’ car. It seemed to confirm her fears; Crystal took Eli everywhere with her.  

Sherry left the parking lot and continued on to the sheriff’s office to file a missing person’s report.

Shortly after Sherry filed the report, Crystal’s maroon Impala was found on the shoulder of the Bluegrass Parkway around mile marker 14, according to a press conference by then-Nelson County Sheriff Ed Mattingly. The car had a flat tire and some of her belongings were inside, including her phone and purse.

During the same press conference, Sheriff Mattingly said Brooks Houck was the last person to see Crystal alive. They were out on the farm owned by Brooks’s mother, according to Sheriff Mattingly. Sherry said the couple would often go to the Houck family farm together.

Officers from the Nelson County Sheriff’s Office interviewed Brooks several times, according to Detective Snow. During one of the interviews, the video of which has been released to the publicBrooks received a call from his brother, Nick, who worked for the Bardstown Police Department. Brooks told Snow after the phone call that Nick had said to be careful talking to the detective.

In October 2015, Nick was fired from the his job on the police force. In a press conference discussing Nick’s firing, Bardstown Police Department’s then-Chief Rick McCubbin mentioned the phone call as one of the reasons that led to Nick losing his job.  

“We as police we have things we don’t do — that being one of them,” he said. “Certainly someone could have called him, and in that case he certainly could have called his brother. But in that case, he doesn’t call his brother while he’s a police officer. That’s unacceptable.”

In the three years since Crystal’s disappearance, no arrests have been made in the case. Snow, the lead detective on the case, said he does not think it is likely that Crystal is still alive.

“We all felt like that after such a long period of time without having heard anything from her and without her having any contact with her children. We had discussed that on numerous occasions,” he said.

***

The first year that Crystal was missing, her family searched every weekend and sometimes during the week as well. In the first few months, there were hundreds of people who helped search. They met at the storage units the Ballard family owns on Wildcat Lane in Bardstown. Then they would divide into groups and walk up and down stretches of the Bluegrass Parkway, looking for clues that might answer what happened to Crystal.

After a few weeks, the group started to dwindle.  They moved to other areas around Bardstown. The Ballards hired a private company that has their own cadaver dogs that help them search. This is how they met Judy McKee and her dutch shepherd. They even started searching surrounding counties. Sherry said they considered going out of state sometimes when they received a tip.

After several months, Sherry and Tommy formed Team Crystal. It is comprised of the Ballard family and the close group of people who still help them search. They have a Facebook page that keeps them updated along with t-shirts, signs and bracelets.

Sherry says that when Tommy wasn’t out searching, he was working on finding clues from home. He would stay up until late in the morning, taking notes from surveillance videos and compiling information that other people had given them.

“He would have moved heaven and Earth to find our daughter. Tommy was very focused. This was his whole life,” Sherry says.

***

On the morning of Nov. 19, Sherry Ballard said goodbye to Tommy and her grandson, Trenton at 6:30. The pair were off to meet to go deer hunting together with some other family members on some of their property on Ed Brent Lane.

It would be the last time Sherry saw Tommy alive.

Sherry decided she would go back to her bedroom and rest for a bit before the rest of her grandchildren woke up and her day officially started. She locked the doors and headed to her bedroom.

As she was laying down again to go back to sleep, she said a prayer to herself.

“Dear Lord please watch over them while they’re in the woods today and keep them safe.”

About 30 minutes later, Sherry was awoken by a call from Trenton. Sherry knew in her gut something was wrong immediately.

Trenton told her that Tommy had been shot. He didn’t know by whom.

Sherry felt a weight in her chest, fearing the worst for her husband.

Sherry told Trenton to call his uncle Casey, who was hunting nearby on the family property with his son. He would call 911 for them.

She jumped in her car without saying anything to her other grandchildren, who were still asleep in the house.

She drove the 11 minutes to the family farm. Her mind was racing the whole time.

Was Tommy OK?  Was this connected to Crystal? It had to be. Why had she let him go out without her?

The EMTs arrived just before she did. The ambulance and emergency vehicles pulled to the top of the hill. Tommy lay at the bottom of the hill.

Sherry rushed to him. All she could think was “Wake up… wake up, Tommy… please wake up.”

She was too late. Tommy was already dead. Sherry held her husband’s head in her lap. Tears streamed down her face.

***

Tommy Ballard was shot in the chest the Saturday before Thanksgiving weekend in 2016. Tommy and Sherry had been married for 37 years. They were high school sweethearts who married after Sherry graduated.

As the lead homicide detective for the Nelson County Sheriff’s Office, Snow was one of the first to the scene of Tommy’s shooting. He said his first priority on the scene was to check to make sure the investigation was going along as it needed to, but then he checked in with Sherry.  He sat with Sherry for awhile in his truck and talked with her about Tommy.

“Well I had spoken with Tommy numerous times about Crystal’s case. Of course, it’s emotional for us as well. Having went through a lot with the Ballard family over that time period, it was hard to see and hard to do,” Snow said.  

The Nelson County Sheriff’s Office handed the case over to the Kentucky State Police after the initial investigation.

“We could have worked it. We decided that it was probably not best that we did, seeing as we were already involved in Crystal’s case that it would probably be better that another agency work that case,” Snow said.

Tommy Ballard’s headstone features a photo of him and Sherry on one side. The couple was married for 37 years when Tommy was killed in November 2016, a year after their daughter went missing. Alex Sandefur

After Tommy’s death, the Team Crystal searches stopped. Sherry said it was difficult to keep up with all of Tommy’s work organizing searches. With her husband gone, Sherry was now taking care of four of Crystal’s five children on a regular basis by herself.

“With my husband, even if he wasn’t out physically searching, he was here doing it. That was his whole life, morning and night. Me, I still had to take care of the kids, make sure they had some sort of stable life,” Sherry says.

In the three years since Crystal went missing, Sherry has grown closer to the people who have continued to help her in her search for answers to what happened to her daughter and husband. In particular, there are a group of four woman who Sherry calls her best friends.

Judy McKee, along with Angie Bowman and Tabitha Pyle, are a big part of her support system and keep her going, Sherry says.

None of these women were close to Sherry before her daughter went missing. Tabitha says she could not help but become close to Sherry.

“You’re spending that much time with each other, you get attached. I would do anything in the world for that woman,” Tabitha says while talking about her relationship with Sherry.

Tabitha said she continued to help the Ballard family search because she thought about her own children.

“I thought to myself, if this was me, if I went missing, would I want someone to bring me home to my kids? You don’t just do it for Sherry. You do it for the kids. There’s five kids who’s missing their mother,” she said.

While sitting at Sherry’s kitchen table, Angie Bowman holds Sherry’s hand while they talk about Tommy and Crystal. Angie echoes Tabitha’s statement about loyalty to Sherry.

“I would do anything for you. You know that. I got your back. I love you.” Angie says to Sherry as she holds her hand. The two wear matching Team Crystal bracelets: pink, blue, green.

“We’ve been through a lot together,” Sherry agrees.

Sherry says her biggest goal is to keep the memory of Tommy and Crystal alive.

“I don’t want my daughter and my husband to be shoved in a corner and forgot about. We are going to talk about them. It may hurt, it may be one of the hardest things we have ever done, but they are still here in spirit with us, and we are not gonna ever forget them.”

Sherry says that even though she has her rough days, she keeps up her search because of a promise she made to herself.

“I am not scared and made peace with everything,” she says. “I am never giving up looking for my daughter or finding justice for my husband. That’s what gets me going everyday.”

***

Sherry Ballard wakes up on the morning of April 4, 2018 at six in the morning. She is going to meet her son,

Casey, out on the side of the road on the Bluegrass Parkway. They are going to put balloons on the sign Sherry and Tommy put up by mile marker 14 where Crystal’s car was found, seeking information about her disappearance.  Sherry does this every year on Crystal’s birthday. Today she would have been 38.

Sherry gets ready, dressing warmly for the cold, windy day. She puts on her hot pink, long-sleeved Team Crystal shirt. This is the only time her son,Casey, could go today, and she doesn’t like him going out in the open on his own. Not since what happened to her husband.

Out on the parkway, Casey and Sherry tie balloons with pictures of butterflies and the phrase “Happy Birthday” on them. Cars whiz by.

Later that day, Sherry sits at the kitchen table waiting for some of her friends. She answers texts and calls, waiting on Tabitha and Judy. Lots of people know what this day means to her and offer their support.

Judy McKee arrives first. She is wearing a black hoodie that says “Prayers for Crystal.”

Then Tabitha Pyle arrives with two of her children and a german chocolate cake — Crystal’s favorite. Tabitha and both her children are also wearing shirts that say “Justice for Crystal” and “Standing with the Ballards.”

Sherry’s middle grandchildren all enter the kitchen. Sixteen-year-old Kyleigh wears two heavy coats, but has a pink butterfly button pinned to her sweatshirt. Fourteen-year-old Tori is wearing a red coat, but has a Team Crystal shirt underneath. Twelve-year-old Trenton wears a hot pink sweatshirt that matches his sister’s shirt.

Everyone piles in their cars. Kyleigh and Tori ride with their grandmother. When Sherry turns the car on, the song “You Should Be Here” comes on the radio.

“Oh, no,” Kyleigh says while changing the station.

“We don’t listen to that song anymore. It was my husband’s song for Crystal,” Sherry says.

The caravan of cars makes the 10-minute drive from Sherry’s house to mile marker 14 on the parkway.

When they get out, Kyleigh helps Sherry grab the pink balloons from the trunk. They have butterflies on them and say “Happy Birthday!”

Kyleigh ties on the first balloon. Then Trenton and Sherry join in. Finally the whole group crowd around the sign to tie the balloons all around the metal frame.

Cars whiz by the group. Some even honk their horn.

“Lots of people know what we’re doing out here and honk in support. I get messages all the time from people saying ‘I saw you guys out by your sign on the BG,” Sherry says referring to the  Bluegrass Parkway.

The wind makes the cool day even colder. After putting the balloons on the sign, the group stand on the shoulder of the parkway. Tabitha’s daughter comes up to hug Sherry. Tori holds Sherry’s hand. Everyone is looking up at the white sign that stands tall over them. Crystal’s picture looks down at them. They stay like this for 15 minutes.

Finally, Sherry tells everyone it’s too cold to be standing on the side of the road. Everyone exchanges hugs one last time. They pile back in their cars.

As Sherry turns around to head back to her house, she passes the sign again. The wind has twisted the balloons together. One balloon separates from the sign. It floats away, high into the sky.

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