Everyone could hear when Kathy Netherland scurried across the hall. The short, bespectacled teacher would zip past Bardstown Elementary School’s classrooms wearing her lanyard, the keys jangling like the bell on a cat collar.
She was known as a whisperer for troubled students, ones with serious behavioral issues. As a special-ed teacher, Kathy never saw them as bad kids. The Kentucky mom had a knack for helping her young charges succeed when their classrooms couldn’t.
In April 2014, Kathy was living with her youngest daughter, Samantha, a star student who loved choir and volunteering at the humane society. The teenager had just been accepted into Gatton Academy, a prestigious school for gifted upperclassmen, who earn college credits while living on campus. She dreamed of becoming a marine biologist. She’d just purchased the perfect prom dress. A boy had asked her to the dance with a bouquet of lollipops. “I’d have to be a 'dumb' 'dumb' to miss prom with u!” the invitation read.
“There’s no one person that you could point to and say: ‘Well, they strongly disliked Kathy or Samantha,’” said Kathy’s sister, Stacey Hibbard. “There just was no one. They weren’t the type of people that caused commotion.”
The mother’s and daughter’s lives were just beginning to flourish again.
Kathy’s husband, Bob, had passed away from colon cancer the summer before. With Samantha moving to the academy, Kathy planned to stay in the family’s century-old house on Springfield Road—the first time she’d be alone in decades. Her other daughter, Holly, was at college two hours away.
“I couldn’t be prouder of [Samantha,]” Kathy told the Kentucky Standard, the local newspaper, which in March 2014 reported on the girl's acceptance into Gatton. “This was her goal and her dream. Despite everything that has happened over the past year with the loss of her father, she was determined and she did this on her own.”
“It just seemed like the whole world was open to them,” Hibbard told The Daily Beast. “They were going to enjoy the fruits of hard work and dedication and taking care of other people.”
But Samantha and Kathy’s bright futures were destroyed on April 21, when someone slipped into their home and brutally murdered them both. The unknown killer—or killers—shot Kathy to death and battered 16-year-old Samantha, then slashed both their throats.
The gruesome attack became one of five unsolved slayings to rattle Bardstown, a picturesque city of about 13,000 people about 40 miles southeast of Louisville.
A year before the Netherland murders, Bardstown police officer Jason Ellis was ambushed on an exit ramp of the Bluegrass Parkway as he drove home to his wife and two boys. Someone had methodically laid tree branches in the roadway and felled Ellis with shotgun blasts when he pulled over.
Crystal Rogers vanished in July 2015. Brooks Houck, her boyfriend and the father of her youngest child, was the last person to see her alive. Houck, who hasn’t been charged in her disappearance, claims he woke one morning and Crystal was gone. She is now presumed dead.
A year later, Crystal’s father, Tommy Ballard—who had never given up on finding his daughter—was shot and killed while hunting with his grandson. Police believe his death is linked to Crystal’s slaying.
Each case is racked with unknowns, fueling the small-town rumor mill and putting residents of tourist-friendly Bardstown on edge.
“We got voted the most beautiful small town in America in spring or summer of 2012. Within a year, Jason Ellis was dead,” said Amy Kellem, a former colleague of Kathy’s who taught third grade. “Within the next year, Kathy [and Samantha were] dead. Within the next year, Crystal was dead.”
Kellem has wondered if there is a curse, a dark cloud hanging over the community. “We’re four years out now,” she added. “It’s absolutely ludicrous that there’s nobody on this planet who can solve this case.”
The only known clue in Kathy and Samantha’s murders is a black car. It was captured in grainy surveillance footage, parked in the family’s driveway just before 8 p.m.
Whoever got into the house didn’t leave a trace behind.
When Kathy Netherland didn’t show up for work one Tuesday morning, her colleague Gladys King thought the teacher had overslept. But that wasn’t like Kathy. Maybe she was visiting Holly at college. No, she would have told somebody or called the office, King decided.
King, a teacher’s assistant, had grown close to Kathy during what would become Kathy’s final year of school. They worked in Kathy’s classroom, dressed up for St. Patrick’s Day together, quietly played Def Leppard and other music, and made plans for grand summer vacations. (“Samantha’s gonna be going to Gatton Academy,” Kathy declared. “You’re not sitting home and neither am I. We’re going to get out.”)
King was one of the last coworkers to speak to Kathy before she died. They discussed Samantha’s prom and Kathy’s vague concerns about Holly being away at college. Kathy was hopeful, King recalled, about starting the next chapter of her life. “She was finally coming to grips with everything. Her husband was gone, and she’d have to live the rest of her life without him. It would be her and her kids,” King said.
The next morning, when Kathy didn’t show up at school for the bell, King asked administrators if Kathy had called for a substitute teacher. Then she found Stephanie Thompson, a stepsister of Kathy’s who taught at the school. They called Bardstown High School and learned Samantha was absent, too. There was no answer from Kathy’s cellphone.
Word began spreading to teachers at 11 a.m. “When they first came to tell us, we didn’t know any details yet,” said Amy Kellem, the former Bardstown teacher who worked with Kathy. “All we knew was that they were both dead.”
Kathy’s father, Norris Hardin, and another stepsister, Gayle, had gone out to the house on Springfield Road sometime after 10 a.m. Kathy’s car was in the driveway. No one answered the door, so Hardin peered through the windows. He saw Kathy on the floor of the dining room. He ran for the back door and saw Samantha inside.
Police were called around 10:40 a.m.
Stacey Hibbard, Kathy’s sister, was at her office 45 minutes away. On the long drive to Kathy’s house, she never considered they’d been murdered. They lived in an old house, Hibbard thought. Was there a gas leak?
Her husband met her 10 miles from the scene and they drove in together. As they came around a curve, they faced a swarm of squad cars, lights flashing. “That’s the first time it hit me. This is something worse than I imagined,” Hibbard said.
She rushed to her father, who said Samantha was beaten so badly that he didn’t recognize her. (There was no indication of sexual assault, according to Hibbard.) He started to describe his granddaughter’s wounds, but Hibbard tuned him out. She couldn’t bear to hear any more. It wasn’t until two months later that she realized Kathy had been shot. “It’s awful to say that you’re grateful to know that your sister died because she was shot and not because she was beaten and stabbed,” Hibbard said.
In the coming days, Kentucky State Police announced they were seeking the public’s help in locating three vehicles captured on surveillance video around the time of the murders. The motorists had passed Springfield Road, also known as U.S. Highway 150, and could be potential witnesses, investigators said.
Detectives narrowed their search down to one car: a 2006-2013 black Chevy Impala that was headed from Botland toward Bardstown around 8 p.m. They checked hundreds of vehicle registrations in the area but came up empty.
“Whoever killed those ladies is in that car, whether they were driving or a passenger,” investigator Jeremy Thompson told the press one month later. “We need to find that car.” Cops released a fuzzy image of the Impala, which didn’t have tinted windows or a spoiler.
The suspects may have borrowed the vehicle, authorities said. “It probably would have had to be cleaned up because of blood and debris,” and might smell like bleach, Thompson added. “Someone can help us in the right direction on that car,” he added. “And if we find out who owns that car, we’ll find out who murdered the Netherlands.”
Few details of the slayings were released to the public. According to Hibbard, Kathy and Samantha stopped at a grocery store before they got home. They may have picked up a pizza on their way; Hibbard seems to remember seeing a pizza box on the kitchen countertop.
The killer arrived as the mother and daughter were winding down for the evening. Samantha had changed into pajamas, and Kathy had swapped her work clothes for a T-shirt and shorts.
Sometime around 7 p.m., Samantha took one of their dogs outside. She’d been texting with her boyfriend that night. They said goodnight shortly before the murderer appeared on the Netherlands’ doorstep.
Surveillance footage from a liquor store across from the house shows a black car entering the driveway around 7:45 p.m. and leaving 15 minutes later, Hibbard said.
A large, shadowy figure appears to enter Kathy’s front door.
This image gave Hibbard pause. Most of Kathy’s loved ones used the side door. “That’s where she parked,” Hibbard said. “That’s the door they used.” Kathy would complain about the heavy wooden front door, which often got stuck.
Yet the phantom appeared to walk in without hesitation.
Kentucky State Police trooper Scotty Sharp told The Daily Beast that investigators bagged several items as evidence, along with DNA, and interviewed scores of people, including Kathy’s coworkers and classmates of Samantha’s.
“It’s one of all those cases where we work on it every day,” Sharp said. “We understand the public’s frustration in wanting it solved. We want it solved. There’s nothing that will weigh on your mind more than if you can’t solve a case.”
The Netherlands’ friends and family can’t shake the feeling that Samantha was the target because of the brutality of her injuries. Nothing appeared to have been stolen from the home; Kathy’s iPad and phone were left behind, and Samantha’s purse was at the foot of her bed. No murder weapons were found. “Whatever tools the killers used, they didn’t appear to be something from Kathy’s house,” Hibbard said.
The case is particularly painful because the violence inflicted on Samantha seems to indicate the killings were no random act.
“Whoever attacked her had to have just an incredible level of rage within them,” Hibbard said. “You look at a girl who was quiet and shy, reserved, calm. And she was just physically attacked so horribly. What would motivate someone to do that?”
Kathy’s friend and colleague Amy Kellem said the Netherlands never sought attention. Other than Samantha’s academic successes, they stayed below the radar. They didn’t have known enemies. Amid the other unsolved Bardstown murders, Kellem said the Netherlands case makes the least sense.
“We have just theorized and theorized until we’re blue in the face,” she said. “You just get to the point where you get so tired that you’re like I guess I’ll just wait until somebody figures this out.”
When Bardstown lost Kathy Netherland, “just beyond the regular grief we dealt with, it was a huge loss professionally for our school,” said Kellem. “Those kids lost that special person that they knew was gonna look out for them.”
Donna Heywood always said Kathy Netherland changed her son Ian’s life.
She was the only teacher who could get through to Ian, who had anger problems and acted out in class. But Kathy never lost her patience. Rather than dumping Ian into a detention room, Kathy was willing to work with him.
“He took it really, really hard when she was killed,” Heywood said. “He can talk about her now without crying, but he still misses her a lot.”
Without Kathy, whom Ian called “Miss Netherland,” her son wouldn’t have made the progress he did, Heywood said. The educator, who worked with Ian from third to fifth grades, even kept in touch when Ian graduated to middle school.
“She had a great personality,” Donna said, adding that she and Kathy bonded over a shared love of Kathy’s favorite band, Def Leppard. “Why would anybody go there and do that to her? I don’t understand it.”
Ian, now 16, has always worn his hair long. He said Kathy sent a photo of his mullet to Joe Elliott, the singer in Def Leppard. (Several people interviewed by The Daily Beast said Kathy was such a superfan she knew Elliott, but Hibbard said the connection may have been exaggerated after her death.)
“[Elliott] said my hair was cool,” Ian recalled. “That was the point where I stopped caring what people thought of my long hair.”
Kathy went the extra mile for Bardstown’s kids. She kept her students company as they waited for their rides home. She bought her own supplies, including fidget toys for kids with ADHD. She’d stay up late working on school projects.
For most of her life, Kathy Hardin Netherland was a caregiver. She often put the needs of her family and her students before herself, friends and family say.
Her mother died when she was 5 years old. She and her younger sister, Stacey Hibbard, went to live in the country with their grandparents. But when they lost their grandmother, the sisters moved back in with their father and step-siblings in Bardstown.
Kathy was fearless when she was little. She’d pack up a book and a snack and read in the woods near her grandparents’ home. “We can’t go that far from the house,” Stacey would warn, to no avail. Kathy didn’t lose her mettle in adulthood.
“I had even made a comment to her after Bob passed away,” Hibbard said. “I was like, ‘You really need to think about getting a gun because it’s just you now.’ As far as I know, she never did. She didn’t keep weapons. She tended to be more trusting of people and wouldn’t assume the worst.”
Kathy attended Western Kentucky University, where she met her future husband, Bob Netherland. They led a normal, happy life, Hibbard says, and relocated to Bob’s hometown of Campbellsville to raise their daughters. Kathy cared for Bob’s ailing grandmother and mother, who had vision problems from a bad car accident.
But in Campbellsville, her career opportunities dwindled—even with two master’s degrees in vocational rehabilitation and family studies. She decided to pursue a master’s in special education and landed a job in Bardstown.
The Netherlands moved to the historic city—which bills itself the bourbon capital of the world—about four years before the murders.
Bob worked at the local Walmart’s meat and dairy department. For years, he had been a social worker for state and private agencies, but the work took a toll on him. “Despite having multiple college degrees, he enjoyed it there [at Walmart],” Hibbard recalled.
The couple was active on Facebook and often tagged each other in loving tributes and more prosaic daily updates.
“Through these years we’ve made it through with love, perseverance & a touch of stubbornness,” Kathy wrote in August 2012, on their 25th wedding anniversary. “Together we’ve raised two beautiful & creative daughters, Holly & Samantha. Thank you, Bob, for being my partner for this wild ride we’ve taken. Can’t wait to see where the next 25 years take us.”
Two months later, Bob was diagnosed with colon cancer and his health deteriorated rapidly. “I am thankful for the most loving, and caring, person in the world, Kathy Hardin Netherland,” Bob wrote on what would be his last Valentine’s Day with his wife.
“I know of no one who would have put up with my faults these past 25 years, and now takes care of me while I am ill,” Bob continued. “I praise God for putting her in my life, for only God could have sent her. Thank you Kathy for being there when I needed you.”
“Love you too, Bob Netherland,” Kathy replied.
Bob died in July 2013, and Kathy confronted life without him. Holly, the couple’s oldest daughter, was off to college, leaving Kathy and Samantha alone in their old house. “They say ‘time heals all wounds,’ but I’m now not so sure this is right,” Kathy wrote on Facebook, on the anniversary of his diagnosis.
In December 2013, she wrote about receiving paperwork on Bob’s estate. “It's kinda funny which items set off and remind me just how much I miss him,” Kathy wrote. “Make no mistake, our marriage was far from perfect. There were many days he would make me so mad I just wanted to scream.” She missed their conversations, watching ball games and listening to Bob’s stories about Walmart.
“All of this just reminds me how precious life is and to not take for granted those who are in our lives,” Kathy added.
Still, as the months rolled by, Kathy’s broken heart began to mend. She devoted herself to her daughters. She coached the elementary school’s academic team and helped Samantha prepare for her Gatton interview. She adopted Prince, a one-year-old Pomeranian-Yorkie mix. She sported a shamrock parasol for St. Patrick's Day, turned up Def Leppard, and eagerly awaited the next season of Sherlock.
After Kathy died, relatives found an unfinished passport application in her house. She’d been planning a trip to Ireland to dig into her ancestry. “Kathy was gonna have a chance to be her own person and do what she wanted to do,” Hibbard said. “It had been so long since she made decisions that were purely in her own self-interest.”
Samantha was beginning to blossom, too. A shy, sweet girl, she didn’t party or get into trouble. Instead, she kept a low profile and focused on her studies. “Only my daughter wants to go to camp to take a math class,” Kathy wrote in a March 2014 Facebook post. “I blame Bob Netherland for that LOL!!!
Samantha gained confidence in Bardstown High’s Tiger Chorale and had just returned from spring break in Disney World with fellow choir kids. And she’d excitedly accepted an invitation to prom with her first boyfriend, a junior who played in band.
Jeff Stone, Bardstown’s former choir teacher, taught Samantha from sixth grade to her final year. She was quiet and studious but unafraid to voice her opinion in class. Stone said he could count on her for voluntary events, such as singing the national anthem at basketball games. Kathy would often come along and talk to Stone after concerts.
Losing Samantha was a watershed in his teaching career. “Two souls have a beautiful story that’s just left unfinished,” said Stone, who grew up in Bardstown and is now a professor in North Dakota. “It’s disheartening that no progress has been made” in their cases.
Stone often shows his college classes pictures of Samantha and shares her story. Many of his students, like Samantha, wouldn’t go on to be music majors but could find sanctuary in choir. “Samantha found a home in choir. She found her friends—what I want to believe were lifelong friends and family,” Stone said.
On April 19, 2014, Kathy and Samantha shopped in Louisville for the big day. “WE DID IT!” Kathy posted on Facebook. “Who says you can't find a prom dress, shoes and jewelry all in ONE day!” She shared photos of Samantha’s sparkling heels and midnight-blue dress—a gown the girl would ultimately be buried in.
“What does your schedule look like for Saturday, April 26? Samantha is going to the prom,” Kathy texted Hibbard. She asked her sister to do Samantha’s hair and makeup, just as she’d done for Holly years before.
Hibbard eagerly agreed and replied, “I’m so excited for her. She’s really having a great year and certainly deserves it.”
“She told me the other night that this has been the best school year she ever had,” Kathy wrote back. It was the last contact the siblings had.
Days later, Kathy and Samantha were gone. “It’s the strangest thing to think that a year before Kathy and Samantha died, they were a family of four,” Hibbard said. “Now they’re a family of one. Holly is an orphan.”
Before she died, Kathy sent a cryptic text message to a friend—one that apparently didn’t generate any leads. Kathy said she had some tough decisions to make and wasn’t looking forward to it. “Kathy had mentioned that but had not given any detail about what the issue was or what the problem was,” Hibbard said.
“My speculation is that it may have had something to do with Holly.”
One year after the murders, Holly Netherland stood in the sunshine outside a Kentucky State Police office and spoke publicly for the first time, tearfully announcing a $50,000 reward for information on the case.
She desperately pleaded for people to come forward. “A year ago, on April 22, I got a call that shattered my life,” Holly said. “My mother and sister were dead. The first thought that ran through my head was, ‘God, you can’t take them. You took my daddy, you can’t have them too.’ But no amount of begging, screaming or crying was going to bring them back.”
“I miss them more than anything in the world,” Holly told reporters.
“I would give anything to hear Samantha sing again,” she added. “I would give anything to tell my mom just how much she influenced me.”
“If you know something, I am begging you to please come forward. Please give us closure.”
At the time, Hibbard told the local paper, the Kentucky Standard, that the family struggled with a lack of motive. Holly was the only one with something to gain from their deaths, by collecting life insurance, but she was ruled out by police, Hibbard told the Standard.
Hibbard told The Daily Beast that the insurance paid for two funerals and their headstone, and also funded reward money and a scholarship in Samantha’s name. Kathy had increased her life insurance coverage after Bob died to make sure her daughters were cared for, but Holly wasn’t aware Kathy revised it, Hibbard said.
Holly didn’t return messages left by The Daily Beast.
This year, on the fourth anniversary of the murders, she grieved over her family on Facebook. “I thought by now we would have answers, I thought by now the person who did this would be rotting in a prison cell for the rest of their lives,” she wrote.
Hibbard said cops initially looked at Holly, who sometimes had a volatile relationship with her mom. Where Samantha was mild-mannered, Holly was strong-willed and erratic. And she seemed to complain about her family online.
“That’s it it’s official my walls r going back up. I survived 6 damn years w/ no friends and no family. I can survive less than 50 days,” Holly tweeted on March 24, 2013.
Two days before, she had posted, “Ur words went way too far this time ull b lucky if I decide to come home.”
Ultimately, Hibbard doesn’t believe Holly, whom police heavily scrutinized, participated in the crime at all. She’s now married and far from Bardstown. Still, “there is a question mark, since this case has gone unresolved for so long,” Hibbard said.
“As an aunt, I love Holly,” Hibbard said. “Out of knowing how my sister would feel, I have a strong desire to protect her and shield her. But as someone who is a lawyer, I understand how you arrive at suspects.”
Asked if Holly had ever been a suspect in the case, police trooper Scotty Sharp said, “We’re not going to say whether there’s any potential suspects or we’ve ruled anybody out. Everybody continues to remain a possible suspect.”
Another seeming dead end involved a different high-school tragedy. On the Monday evening Kathy and Samantha were killed, students attended a funeral for a classmate who’d died the week before. The girl’s cause of death wasn’t released. Hibbard has wondered if the 8 p.m. murder of the Netherlands coincided with a teenager’s curfew. Cops probed who was at the visitation that night, but no potential persons of interest stood out, Hibbard said.
The absence of information has weighed on neighbors and colleagues. Kellem said that she slept with furniture against her door for months, wondering if the killer was targeting teachers.
“Is there some kind of madman on the loose?” one neighbor, William Jones, wondered aloud to the Standard. “Deadbolts weren’t such a big thing. But they’re on now.”
“We're just a nice little community around here,” Jones added. “For that to happen, you just don't know how to take it.”
Hibbard wishes she could bulldoze the Netherlands’ former house, which was sold at auction in November 2014 for a little over $41,000. (Strangely enough, the home seems to have an unhappy history. In May 2008, a previous resident was reported missing and later found dead in a river. It’s unclear what became of his case.)
Hibbard never imagined she’d grow older without her sister. They lost their mother when they were little, then their grandparents as teenagers. Kathy was the constant in Hibbard’s life. Hibbard used to joke with her husband and say, “One of these days we’re going to build a little house on the front of our property, and that’s where Kathy is gonna live.”
“I lived my life with a lot of fear before they passed away,” Hibbard said. Her mind would drift to thinking, “Is there a boogey man out there?”
When she lost Kathy and Samantha, that feeling went away.
Hibbard was a skeptic and struggled with religion, but Kathy had a tremendous faith, one that guided her through tough times.
“Sometimes I try to look at it and think they were good people, who truly tried to make the world a better place when they were here,” Hibbard said. “Maybe they just got to go early.
“They were entitled to something better somewhere else.”