Interlude: The Mayors
Many continue to believe that there is corruption running amok throughout Bardstown, and that it starts all the way at the top; in positions like Mayor, where seemingly small changes can have long-term ramifications.
From 2007 to 2010, Richard Heaton served as the mayor of Bardstown. A long-time city councilor, Heaton decided not to run in 2010 because of a battle with cancer. This left the seat vacant, and in came Bardstown native Bill Sheckles.
Sheckles had been serving on the Bardstown City Council for 12 years prior to running, where he worked alongside Mayor Heaton. He had also been a local businessman, operating a car dealership and a restaurant, while making connections and building a name for himself.
The 2010 mayoral election became a neck-and-neck four-way race, with Sheckles surprisingly winning by a margin of less than 200 votes. He would become Bardstown's first - and so far, only - African American mayor.
For the next two-and-a-half years, Bill Sheckles would serve as the mayor of the "Bourbon Capital of the World," as it is known. His tenure went by pretty swimmingly, with Mayor Sheckles increasing the town's budget to provide an increasing amount of services, and expanding upon the infrastructure built by former-Mayor Heaton.
But, despite having no real issues during his term as Mayor, Bill Sheckles had a few very vocal critics. Among them were John Royalty - a local city councilor who disagreed with Sheckles' handle on city politics. However, as an outsider, it seems like there wasn't much public resistance to Mayor Sheckles' tenure... at least, for a while.
In May of 2013, things changed. That was the month that Bardstown Police Officer Jason Ellis was shot and killed just off of the Bluegrass Parkway, and national attention was brought to the region. Mayor Sheckles had to try and weather the storm, which put an emphasis on local law enforcement and his handling of the matter.
To compound matters even more, just a few months later, Sheckles' own nephew was implicated in the murder. Brant Sheckles confessed on multiple occasions, claiming that he was part of a group that was directly involved in the ambush that took Officer Ellis' life. This group, the Bardstown Money Gang, was involved in various assaults and received numerous allegations of drug dealing, ultimately leading to multiple criminal conviction - including a guilty plea by Mayor Sheckles' nephew, Brant.
Despite having no involvement with the Bardstown Money Gang beyond a loose familial connection, Mayor Bill Sheckles began to be scrutinized much more stringently. More people seemed resistant to his policies, and the following Spring - when local educator Kathy Netherland and her 16-year-old daughter, Samantha, were found dead in their homes - public scrutiny landed at the feet of both Mayor Sheckles and the local police department for failing to keep them safe.
Just months later, as election season heated up, Mayor Sheckles faced a challenge in the form of his most vocal critic: City Councilor John Royalty.
John Royalty had served on the Bardstown City Council for five terms - a time period in which he had built connections as a local businessman.
Prior to that, he had been a officer in both Bardstown's and Lexington, Kentucky's police departments. On both occasions, he had been let go following violent incidents. In the early 1990's, he was let go from the Lexington police force after pulling a gun during an off-duty dispute at a fast food restaurant - and again in 1998, when he was fired from the Bardstown P.D. for violating a use-of-force policy.
In the summer of 2014, John Royalty began running his mayoral campaign against Bill Sheckles. This campaign was built around the issues of transparency and frugality, in which Royalty railed against the recent increases in government spending. While on the City Council, Royalty had been one of Mayor Sheckles' fiercest critics, and that continued during the 2014 race for mayor.
In perhaps the most small town political squabble ever, John Royalty even ran against the city council meetings being too short. He described Mayor Sheckles' tenure as "autocratic," and pledged to bring down government spending.
Additionally, John Royalty also railed against Affirmative Action, saying that Bardstown didn't have an issue with racial profiling of any kind. He even stated, on at least one occasion, that he had been the victim of "reverse discrimination" in the past, having lost out on police jobs because he was a white male. Of course, we all know that this is a huge problem for white men in Kentucky - especially back in the 1980's.
That Fall, it was announced that John Royalty defeated Bill Sheckles in the run for Bardstown's Mayor, and he would take office shortly thereafter.
Mayor John Royalty's administration began emphasizing local efficiency, reining in spending whenever possible and looking for departments to find cost-cutting methods. Mayor Royalty was in office when local mother Crystal Rogers went missing, and reporters from throughout the nation stormed into Bardstown to cover the high-profile case.
It wasn't until the following Spring that trouble began to finally brew for Bardstown's mayor.
In April of 2016, John Royalty announced major changes to the structure of the Bardstown Police Department. He announced that he was promoting two officers to senior positions - which, as you can imagine, forced the men they were replacing into the tough task of accepting a demotion or resigning from their posts.
Surprisingly, this had not even been discussed with long-time Bardstown Police Chief Rick McCubbin, who claimed that he had been "completely in the dark" over these changes to his police force. He immediately expressed dissatisfaction with this decision, and announced that he was retiring from the Bardstown P.D. effective May 31st, 2016.
The decision for Mayor Royalty to shake up the local police force was met with a fair amount of blowback. Chief McCubbin had been made into a folk hero following the loss of Officer Jason Ellis, and the decision to go behind his back (quite literally: he was recovering from back surgery) to make a dramatic change was viewed by many to be the opposite of transparent - which, you may recall, was John Royalty's cornerstone in his campaign for mayor.
In addition, it was revealed that one of the officers he was promoting to a senior position - McKenzie Mattingly - was an old personal friend of Royalty's, who had a sketchy past in law enforcement. In 2004, then-Louisville Officer Mattingly had shot-and-killed a man during an undercover drug bust, shooting him three times in the back. Mattingly was let go by the Louisville Police Department - a decision they continue to stand by - and was ultimately acquitted of murder charges.
Within days, public sentiment had begun to build against Mayor Royalty, and there was a petition being signed by Bardstown residents. This petition demanded a full-scale investigation of Mayor Royalty, and hoped to allocate funding through the City Council to do so.
This petition would meet its intended result, but it wasn’t until the following Spring that its ramifications would begin to be felt.
In the final days of March 2017 - following a three-month investigation headed by an outside private investigation firm - a 44-page report was released. This report alleged that Mayor John Royalty had been waging a disinformation campaign against a specific City Councilor that he disliked, and had been illegally acting against her for the better part of a year.
A few days later - in April - the City Council assembled to meet, discuss, and potentially vote on whether to remove Mayor Royalty from office. The Kentucky Standard reported:
"The council found that the mayor had used city resources and personnel to access the private emails of Councilwoman Kecia Copeland, violated Copeland's privacy by disseminating private email(s), and order(ed) a city employee to lie to the council to get access to their iPads... The council found that there was 'substantial evidence' that Royalty broke the law'..."
The Bardstown City Council found that not only had John Royalty acted unethically as mayor of the city, but he had likely broken the law in an effort to discredit one of his more vocal critics on the City Council. And this was made all the more incredulous by the fact that Royalty had run for mayor as the candidate for "total transparency," yet he was willing to bend and potentially break the law in an effort to deter a rival's political career.
John Royalty was removed from the Mayor's office, and replaced by former-mayor Richard Heaton - who, along with former-mayor Bill Sheckles, had run for City Council the prior November.
In the roughly two years since John Royalty was booted out of office, Mayor Richard Heaton has remained in the position.
Heaton had served as mayor from 2007 to 2010, but decided not to run in 2010 because of a cancer diagnosis. When that cleared up, he made a failed attempt at an open Kentucky House of Representatives position, before returning to the Bardstown City Council in 2016.
Mayor Heaton was chosen by his fellow City Councilors to become the interim mayor in April of 2017 - due to his expertise - and he decided to seek another term the next year. In November of 2018, Heaton was reelected to another term, easily beating the competition.
Former-mayor Bill Sheckles, who was defeated by John Royalty in the 2014 election, had been elected to the City Council alongside Heaton in 2016. In fact, when the decision was made to remove Royalty from office, he was one of the Councilors that chose to do so. I'm sure that must have felt like some kind of schadenfreude to him (Sheckles).
Since being removed from the office of mayor for misconduct, John Royalty has remained in local media headlines. In October of 2017, he was indicted on several charges including perjury, false swearing, and two counts of official misconduct. The following month he pleaded not guilty, stating:
"I am not guilty of any of the charges, and I will await vindication when we have a trial."
Unfortunately, there wouldn't be a trial, as Royalty would reach a deal with Kentucky State Attorneys in July of 2018. As a part of this deal, his criminal case would be deferred for five years - meaning that he would not face any jail-time, as long as he abides a set of provisions. These provisions included Royalty not seeking public office for five years, staying out of any legal trouble, and dropping all civil suits against Bardstown and its City Councilors.
If John Royalty breaks any part of this agreement, he would likely be found liable for criminal charges he was accused of. You see, in the process of accepting this deal, Royalty also waived his statute of limitations, meaning that the charges levied against him won't expire.
This interlude is only a taste of the political drama that has been unfolding through Bardstown over the last several years. I feel like I could honestly make an entire series based on what I've learned about the various officials tied into this story in some way, and the gossip being spread around about each.
However, I feel like this story is especially prudent, because it provides such an illuminating backdrop for the stories I've covered in this series. During the time this all unfolded, the numerous unsolved crimes played out: Officer Jason Ellis, the Netherlands, Crystal Rogers, and Tommy Ballard. All the while, this political drama led to an increased dislike and/or distrust in local government.
Many continue to believe that there is corruption running amok throughout Bardstown (if not Nelson County) and that it starts all the way at the top; in positions like Mayor, where seemingly small changes can have long-term ramifications.
Written, hosted, and produced by Micheal Whelan
Published on February 27th, 2019