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Tommy and Sherry Ballard watched as a chopper whirred overhead and, in the distance, investigators plodded through murky water. They stood near the Kentucky farm where their daughter might have spent her final moments.
For more than a year, they had begged police for this search, and now, on Aug. 30, 2016, it was unfolding before their eyes. They peered through binoculars across the rocky green landscape dotted with police officers and cadaver dogs. And they wore T-shirts proclaiming what had been in their hearts for the past 14 months: Prayers for Crystal.
It was the third time deputies had scoured the 300-acre property in pursuit of Crystal Rogers, who vanished in early July 2015 and has been presumed dead. Her boyfriend, Brooks Houck, a real-estate agent who once ran for sheriff, was the last person to see her alive. It was Houck’s land that the police were exploring on that August morning.
While the police combed over the Houck family farm, Tommy and Sherry Ballard and a knot of relatives waited nearby for a sign. Anything. “Maybe this could be it,” Sherry thought during the two-day hunt. She believed her daughter, a 35-year-old mother of five, was on that farm, or was before she died.
In the year since Crystal Rogers disappeared, sheriff’s deputies didn’t appear to be making a break in the case. Brooks was their only named suspect and walked free. Frustrated that law enforcement wasn’t making any headway, Crystal’s relatives mounted their own campaign.
They put up posters all over Bardstown: Prayers for Crystal’s Safe Return in pink letters. Black placards bearing bold white type carried the demand to Solve These Murders, alluding to other unresolved cases in the city of 13,000 where the Ballards raised their family and where for the last couple years, Crystal and her kids lived with Brooks. Near his farm, someone posted a custom sign with Crystal’s face and a single question: Brooks Houck where is Crystal Rogers?
After the search in August 2016, Nelson County Sheriff’s detective Jon Snow announced he was certain the case would reach trial. “I think we are moving in the right direction,” he said, without elaborating on any leads. “It’s been a long road and it may be even longer but I think we’re getting close.”
Tommy Ballard was determined to reach the end of that road. In his own search for his daughter, he’d hiked forests and waded into rivers, flouted tornado warnings and faced off with rattlesnakes.
“So the people that done this you might as well tell us where Crystal’s at because we're not going away,” Tommy declared in a July 1, 2016, Facebook post.
“I love my kids and grandkids more than anything and I will give everything I have in me till Crystal is brought home,” Tommy wrote.
But barely three months after cops descended on Houck’s farm, Tommy’s hopes of locating his daughter were snuffed out. He was shot dead by an unknown assailant while he stood on his own hunting land with his grandson, just a few days before Thanksgiving.
Crystal Rogers’ disappearance was the next domino to fall in a town that had weathered three heinous, unsolved murders in two years.
To some, it seemed like a curse had fallen upon Bardstown, Kentucky’s second oldest city, which bills itself the Bourbon Capital of the World. (Before Prohibition, the area had no fewer than 26 distilleries; today, Bardstown has five). In 2012, Bardstown had delighted in being named the 'Most Beautiful Small Town in America' by USA Today and atlas company Rand McNally.
But then, not a year later, Bardstown police officer Jason Ellis was assassinated on his way home from work. The 33-year-old father was exiting the Bluegrass Parkway around 2 a.m. when he encountered a heap of branches on the ramp. When he pulled over to clear the roadway, someone blasted him with a shotgun.
In 2014, special-education teacher Kathy Netherland and her teenage daughter, Samantha, were found brutally slain in their home. Kathy, 48, was shot to death and 16-year-old Samantha violently beaten. Their throats were slashed.
Kentucky State Police, the agency investigating the deaths of Ellis, the Netherlands, and Tommy Ballard, have been quiet about possible motives, suspects, or evidence in all three cases. Last year, they hired two retired detectives to work the cases. “As long as we continue to get leads, they’re actively being investigated,” said trooper Scotty Sharp. “None of these are cold cases.”
But a dearth of information inevitably ignites the rumor mill. Did Kathy teach Jason Ellis’ son? Did Samantha babysit for Crystal Rogers’ children? Was the Bardstown Police Department covering up for Brooks Houck’s brother, Nick, one of its rank-and-file?
Stacey Hibbard, Kathy Netherland’s sister, doesn’t think the Netherlands’ slaying and other cases are linked. “If I could buy a billboard that said, ‘Kathy didn’t teach Jason Ellis’s child. Samantha never babysat for Crystal,’” Hibbard said. “As far as I knew, they knew nothing of either family.”
Ask Sherry Ballard, however, and she’ll say two of the cases might be connected. “I think both Jason and my daughter found out something they shouldn’t have about Brooks Houck,” Sherry told The Daily Beast, a sentiment she’s shared before.
Sherry believes Tommy was close to finding their daughter.
“My husband was so good at what he was doing,” Sherry said. “He kept notes about everything. He knew everybody in town.” People often shared tips with the family, she claims, because they were too scared to talk to police.
Now Sherry is fighting to keep their names alive in a new Oxygen docu-series and an appearance on Investigation Discovery’s On the Case with Paula Zahn. “I will not let this rest until I find justice for my daughter and my husband,” she said. “If you think she’s gonna be a pile of paper on a desk, that’s not happening.”
Brooks Houck, who hasn’t been charged, has professed he’s innocent. In June of this year, Brooks told WRDB, “I have been advised, you know, to ride the wave and keep on keeping on. And that’s what I’ve done and it’s worked out great this far.”
When asked if he’d like to comment for this story, Brooks Houck said, “I don’t, but thank you so much for asking ma’am,” before hanging up.
Authorities would nab Brooks for another alleged crime last month: stealing 225 bundles of roofing shingles from a Lowe’s store. He has pleaded not guilty.
“I know it has nothing to do with my daughter, but … I’m happy that’s getting out there,” Sherry told The Daily Beast. “People are starting to see the person that I already knew.”
“If I woke up on a Saturday morning and my wife wasn’t with me in bed… probably the first thing I would do would be to call her and find out where she was,” Nelson County detective Jon Snow told Brooks Houck four days after Crystal Rogers disappeared.
The men talked in a small room at sheriff’s headquarters. Brooks, stocky and clean-shaven in a blue polo shirt, rested his arm on a desk. A video recording of the July 8, 2015 interview reveals they were alone, and Brooks said he didn’t want or need an attorney. It was his third sit-down with police.
Brooks rambled as he explained why Crystal may have been gone when he woke on Saturday, July 4. “But what you’re missing is, a lot of times that her and Brooke, her sister, or Sabrina, a lot of these girls, they go out and do stuff,” Brooks replied.
Brooks was with Crystal on Friday. He claimed they left their house, with little Eli in tow, and stopped by his farm to feed cattle. As Brooks tells it, they returned home after midnight. Brooks went to bed, and Crystal stayed up playing games on her phone.
When he woke the next morning, Crystal was gone but Eli was in bed next to him. Her other kids had spent the night at their dad’s or grandparents’ houses. “I wasn’t even alarmed,” Brooks told Detective Snow. He figured his girlfriend was with her cousin Sabrina or her sister Brooke. (He told Nancy Grace that he and Crystal “had a stressed relationship at times,” and that Crystal would stay at Sabrina’s to cope.)
Brooks called Crystal a few times but ultimately attended his uncle’s Fourth of July celebration without her. “I know sometimes in the past, if I’ve called her and blown her phone up, it made it worse,” Brooks told Snow.
On Sunday, Sherry Ballard ran into Brooks at a gas station and asked if he’d seen Crystal and whether they’d had a fight. Brooks said no. “I’m going to the police department to report her missing,” Sherry told Brooks.
“That’s what you should do,” Brooks allegedly replied.
Crystal’s maroon Chevy Impala was discovered Sunday on the Bluegrass Parkway, near mile marker 14—about 12 miles west of Brooks’ Bardstown home. The car had a flat tire and was unlocked, with her phone, purse, and keys inside.
The Ballards immediately suspected Brooks was involved, but cops allegedly told them Crystal probably ran off. “We don’t have a reason to suspect him any more than anybody else,” Sheriff Ed Mattingly told reporters at the time. “The family thinks he did it, but we don’t have any proof.” He said there was a good chance Crystal was still alive.
Video footage shows, however, that Detective Snow warned Brooks he was the main person of interest. He asked about a 13-second call Brooks received around midnight, supposedly while he was driving home with Crystal.
Brooks put the caller, one of his employees, on speaker-phone in the room. “The other night you called me really, really late,” Brooks told the man. “Can you remember what you asked me or what you were after?”
“Yes, sir, I can. I called and asked you for them numbers for a house,” the employee replied, referring to one of Brooks’ rental properties.
Forgetting Crystal’s name, the man continued, “You told me that you would call, what’s her name, Katie or whatever, she handles all that.”
Snow, contemplative, pressed his fingers to his chin. “That begs the question ... If she’s in the truck next to you when he called, why would you need to call her about getting numbers for rental properties?” Brooks said Crystal wouldn’t want to work so late at night.
Bloodhounds never detected Crystal’s scent near her deserted vehicle, Snow added. “If it’s her car and she leaves in it somewhere Friday night,” the detective mused, “why does it appear to the dogs that she’s not even there?”
Brooks’ phone rang during the police interview. It was his brother, Nick, whose words weren’t audible but can be inferred from Brooks’ end of the conversation: “I know you told me innocent people got jammed up. But if you’re telling me to leave, I’ll get up and leave,” Brooks said.
Brooks debated his brother, hung up and turned to Snow.
“He thinks y’all are gonna fuck us, is what he thinks.”
Crystal Rogers was the oldest of three children. Shy and sheltered as a child, she was outgoing and well-liked when she grew up. “She was just a normal everyday girl that wore her heart on her sleeve,” Sherry Ballard said.
The mother of five worked at a mini-mart before dating Brooks. “She was easy to get along with,” Sherry said. “She didn’t treat anybody different that walked in that store.”
Above all, Crystal focused on her children. “Crystal’s kids were like our kids,” Sherry said. “We were a close family. They were here all the time.”
Crystal met Brooks after renting one of his properties sometime around 2011, then she started working for him. He seemed like a clean-cut, decent guy, Sherry recalls. And he attended the Ballards’ holidays and get-togethers—until things soured.
Tommy and Sherry Ballard changed their minds about Brooks in October 2014, after he disciplined one of Crystal’s daughters. Crystal told the teenager to put her phone away, and Brooks twisted the device out of her hand and sprained her wrist, Sherry claimed. Sherry didn’t witness the incident, but took the girl to the hospital.
Sherry claims the bad behavior continued, with Brooks allegedly cutting the water off at their house before grabbing Eli and leaving. Brooks was angry that the teenage daughter had come to visit her mom, Sherry said.
Detective Snow broached the phone incident with Brooks. Through tears, Brooks said the girl wasn’t injured. “I followed a direct order from her mother,” Brooks said. “I took her cellphone from her and it’s just been hell ever since.”
Sherry also claims that before she died Crystal had planned to dump Brooks.
When Detective Snow mentioned Crystal’s alleged plans, Brooks replied, “That’s news to me. I don’t know anything about that.”
Still, on the Friday she disappeared, Crystal told friends she had a “date night” with Brooks.
Snow pointed to text messages between Crystal and a friend, who invited her to a Friday playdate. Crystal declined, saying she hired a babysitter for some alone time with Brooks. “Why would [Crystal] lie to her about that?” Snow asked. Brooks couldn’t answer.
Mandy Greenwell, a cousin of Crystal, saw her at Walmart that afternoon. “She did say she had a date night planned with Brooks,” Greenwell recalled. “She didn’t get out very much. Eli was very attached to her.”
Crystal received two calls at Walmart: one from Brooks, and one from someone about a rental property showing at 5:30 p.m., a meeting Sherry believes was canceled. “She didn’t give me any intuition that something was wrong,” Greenwell said.
A Walmart receipt revealed that Crystal checked out around 4:36 p.m. She bought food, a T-ball plate, a BB gun, and boys’ T-shirts.
Greenwell sent Crystal a message at 9:19 p.m., asking her to make embroidered T-shirts for her kids. The timestamp indicated the message was never read. She dwells on this unread text. “If [Crystal] was really playing on her phone, why would she not open the message?” she said.
“Why did he never help search?” Greenwell added of Brooks. “Even if there was differences between him and Sherry and Tommy, their number one goal was to find Crystal. Sometimes you just have to let bygones be bygones.”
Three months after Crystal vanished, cops named Brooks Houck as the sole suspect, and his brother was fired from the police department.
City officials said Nick Houck was terminated for calling Brooks at the sheriff’s office and warning him detectives might “trip him up.”
Nick also failed an FBI polygraph test, an exam he’d tried to dodge twice. (Brooks Houck’s lie-detector results were inconclusive.)
In one interrogation video, an FBI expert informed Nick he didn’t pass his first polygraph. “It’s pretty clear to me that you haven’t told me the complete truth today,” he said. “And the questions that you’re having a problem with are questions about Crystal.”
He said Nick lied in response to the questions, “Do you know where Crystal is right now?” and “Are you hiding any information about what happened to Crystal?”
Nick grew combative. “I don’t give a goddamn what your fucking computer said, OK,” he fumed. “I’m telling ya that I have been 100 percent honest with you.”
He was also questioned by two Kentucky State Police detectives. “We don’t hang out much anymore,” Nick said of his brother. “We’re just busy guys.”
The detectives floated a theory: that Brooks confronted Crystal about an affair and “went just a little bit too far” and killed her. Then he called Nick to help hide the body. “We all have times where something just happens. He probably found out that some other police officer or some other person in the town was cracking Crystal,” detective Jon Vaughn said.
Bodily fluids were discovered on a blanket in Nick’s police cruiser and in the trunk, the cops added. Vaughn asked why the trunk looked like a Smurf after the crime lab sprayed it with luminol. “It lit up like Chernobyl,” detective Ryan Johnson claimed of the vehicle, which was seized by the sheriff’s office. (Nick said he used the blanket to move furniture.)
The detectives asked why, after Brooks’ July 8 police interview, the brothers drove to the family farm in separate cars. They left around 11:22 p.m.
“What we need to know is why y’all both went down to the farm,” Vaughn said.
“I can’t remember,” Nick replied, adding they visited the farm separately and didn’t converse.
“If my brother was under the microscope right now,” Vaughn said, “I would remember everything that he did, everything that we talked about, everything that we did together.”
Nick wasn’t Brooks’ only relation eyed by authorities.
In June 2016, prosecutors tried to call his grandmother, Anna Whitesides, before a grand jury to ask about her white Buick, which they suspected was used in Crystal Rogers’ disappearance.
Cops learned of the Buick after witnesses told the Ballards they saw the vehicle in a strange spot on the farm. But when deputies went to seize the car, the 82-year-old Whitesides said she sold it to a Louisville dealership. An attorney for Whitesides, who wasn’t a suspect, advised her to plead the Fifth Amendment if called for testimony.
In July 2017, police executed a warrant on Whitesides’ home—the fifth time they searched the grandmother’s house—in search of bullets, guns, and reloading equipment.
That month, supporters of Tommy and Sherry Ballard’s crusade drove through town with signs demanding justice for Crystal. They passed Brooks’ home, then Whitesides’ residence.
Brooks’ new girlfriend and now-fiancée, Crystal Maupin, was arrested soon after for stealing Standing with the Ballards signs. In her court-ordered apology, Maupin explained she was upset about the caravan of Crystal Rogers supporters honking outside her home.
When Tommy Ballard wasn’t searching for his daughter, he was probing the internet for clues. “My kids couldn’t ask for a better dad; I couldn’t ask for a better husband,” Sherry says of Tommy, who was her high-school sweetheart.
“There wasn’t nobody that met my husband who didn’t like him,” Sherry said of the licensed contractor. Tommy was humble and quiet. When builders associations asked him to do public speaking, he’d always decline.
But when his daughter vanished, Tommy was front and center. “We just want justice for Crystal, and we want all these other murders solved. All these people have rights, too,” Tommy told the Kentucky Standard in December 2015.
This wasn’t the only tragedy in Tommy’s family. In 1979, his 19-year-old sister Freda Sharene “Sherry” Ballard vanished when she was seven months pregnant. Her remains were discovered three years later, not far from where Crystal’s car was abandoned, and her estranged husband was convicted of her murder.
“It’s unbelievable is what it is,” Sherry said of the Ballard family’s losses. “Who would think somebody would go through that? One time is unbelievable, but 3 times…”
In his last days, Tommy plotted a massive survey outside Nelson County, at a location where Crystal had previously traveled with Brooks Houck.
Tommy Ballard’s final moments were spent with his grandson.
The morning he died, in November 2016, Tommy embarked on a hunting trip on his family’s private land off the Bluegrass Parkway.
Sherry woke him up around 6 a.m. Then she roused her 12-year-old grandson, who collected snacks for the day. She watched them hop into Tommy’s truck.
But her grandson frantically called her 20 minutes later. She could hardly understand him. “I heard him say that Papaw’s been shot,” Sherry said.
According to Sherry, Tommy and the boy arrived at 6:30 a.m. and headed toward their deer stand in the woods.
Then a single shot rang out, and Tommy dropped to the ground.
“Whoever shot my husband knew the lay of the land. They knew what time he was going to be hunting that morning,” Sherry said, her voice breaking. “Whoever did this was sitting there, waiting when he got out of that truck.”
Tommy died of a gunshot to the chest. Kentucky State Police are calling Tommy’s slaying a “death investigation,” a term that vexes Sherry. Trooper Scotty Sharp said, “It doesn’t matter what it’s titled as, we’re working it like a murder.”
Police are seeking tips from anyone who was driving along the Bluegrass Parkway, between mile markers 21 and 25 that morning.
“You got Crystal Rogers missing, then her father ends up dead,” Sharp told The Daily Beast, adding, “We definitely are looking at it like it could possibly be connected. I think common sense will tell you that.”
Sherry says one day she’ll have proof of what happened.
“My husband is dead,” she said, “because he looked for my daughter.”
We know you’re hooked. As a Beast Inside member, you can read the next installment here, on the unsolved assassination of Bardstown police officer Jason Ellis. Why are killers stalking this small town?