Part One: Officer Jason Ellis
In the early morning hours of May 25th, 2013, a Bardstown, Kentucky police officer was returning home. Unbeknownst to him, he would be ambushed on the route he regularly used… becoming the victim of a shocking and mysterious crime.
Bardstown, Kentucky has a deep history, dating back to 1780. European Americans settled the area during their westward expansion, and Bardstown became the second oldest town in Kentucky history.
A quick internet search will enlighten you to the town's many claims to fame, including storied visits from US President Abraham Lincoln, the outlaw Jesse James, and the legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone. More recently, Bardstown has won a handful of awards complimenting the beauty and the grandeur of the small-town. Rand McNally and other destination contemporaries have voted Bardstown as "the most beautiful small town in America" on more than one occasion.
The town has been made infamous for one reason or another since its inception, but in the past few years, a more grimy, unsettling story has begun to write itself in the history book of Bardstown. Unfortunately, the truth isn't quite clear-cut and there isn't anything resembling a conclusion to this story.
But there's no better, or worse, place to start this story than on the fateful day of May 24th, 2013.
Born on September 22nd, 1979, Jason Scott Ellis was the one and only son of Pam and Charles "Denny" Ellis. Growing up in Batavia, Ohio, he had two sisters - Lacey and Kelly - and Jason loved his family so much that he couldn't wait to add numbers to their ranks.
Jason was a star baseball player growing up. He played catcher for his Cincinatti-based high school team, Glen Este High, where he went first team all-city in 1998. That year, he also won player of the year for the Queen City Conference.
Eventually, he went on to play baseball at the University of the Cumberlands, which moved him south to Williamsburg, Kentucky. During his athletic career for this liberal arts school, known as the Patriots, Jason played in 186 games and put up record numbers for hits, doubles, home runs, and RBI’s - records which stand to this day.
It was while Jason attended University of the Cumberlands that he met a young woman named Amy Phillips. The two were both college students, and on Valentine's Day in 2001, they met at a party being thrown by a mutual friend. They immediately hit it off, with Amy recounting later on how she knew Jason was "the one for her" on their very first date.
According to her, on their very first date, they were accompanied by Amy's mother, acting as an accidental chaperone and third wheel when Amy double-booked her evening. But the true spirit of Jason shone through when he picked up both mother and daughter for the date, bringing a bouquet of roses for both. That was just the type of person Jason was.
Jason and Amy would get engaged that next Christmas, in the latter days of 2002, and would marry in October of 2004.
Jason would eventually be signed by the Cincinnati Reds organization, his hometown baseball team, and he played for their minor league system for a period of time between 2002 and 2004.
It was his love of Amy, and his desire to start a family, that led him away from baseball. In 2004, Jason played his last game of professional baseball for the Billings Mustangs, the Pioneer League affiliate for the Cincinnati Reds. Amy was pregnant with their first child, Hunter, who would be born just two weeks after Jason left baseball behind. Hunter was born with Down Syndrome, but that didn't stop Jason and Amy from loving him with all of their hearts.
From that day forward, Jason put his heart and soul into fulfilling another dream he had held since childhood... becoming a police officer and starting a family.
The young lovebirds would eventually settle upon Bardstown, Kentucky, Amy's hometown, which was just forty or so miles away from where the two had gotten married in Louisville. They immediately got to work on building a family of their own, and eventually brought another son into the fold: Parker, born just two years later. As he got older, many would comment that Parker was the spitting image of Jason, and the two shared an extreme love of baseball.
Jason Ellis joined the Bardstown police force in 2006 and he served there until the day he died.
May 24th, 2013 - A day like any other, for this idyllic young family in the heartland of America. It was the Friday right before the Memorial Day weekend, so an extended weekend was right in their sights.
Jason had now served the Bardstown police force for close to seven years, and had become an upstanding member of the community, winning Officer of the Year in 2008. He was a canine officer, in fact, the only one in all of Bardstown. On this chosen day, however, his canine-equipped vehicle was in the shop, so he was using a run-of-the-mill police cruiser, his German Shepherd partner Figo taking a small stay-cation at the family home.
For the time period in which his canine-equipped cruiser would be getting repaired, Jason was driving a run-of-the-mill police cruiser; this one, however, didn't have the dash-cam at the front of the vehicle that he had become accustomed to.
It was approximately two o'clock in the morning, and Jason uses his car radio to inform dispatch that he's off for the night.
"139 Adam off-duty," he says. Dispatch confirms his call, and Jason begins his drive home. He goes south down Stephen Foster avenue, then heads onto the overpass which leads him onto Bluegrass Parkway.
This is the same route Jason uses to drive home every single night. His work schedule keeps him away from his family on most nights, due to him working the evening shift. On the road, there is barely another soul in sight, and the entire area of Bardstown seems almost vacant, everyone squirreled asleep in their houses this early on a Friday morning.
It takes him roughly ten minutes to reach his stop, Exit 34. This is the stop just minutes away from his home, a heavily-shrouded, wooded road that leads to the neighboring towns of Springfield and Bloomfield.
It's not this night that Officer Jason Ellis meets his fate. On this night, at approximately two-thirty in the morning, Jason makes it home. His German Shepherd police companion, Figo, waits for him outside, just like he does every night the two are apart. He's greeted at the door by Amy, who fitfully sleeps on the couch until he arrives home every night.
Amy goes to bed, but Jason stays up for a little bit to watch TV. Eventually he gets tired enough to go to bed, and when Amy is woken up by her alarm clock at 5:45, Jason is deep asleep right next to her.
The day starts off just like any other weekday. Amy wakes up the kids and heads to school - Bardstown Elementary - where she occasionally works as a substitute teacher. In the chaos of the morning, she forgets to kiss her husband goodbye, letting him sleep through the morning.
The day proceeds like any other Friday, with some small exceptions. Amy, along with Hunter and Parker, celebrate the school's Field Day with a flurry of outdoor activities. The family has a brief encounter at home: just as Amy and their sons are getting home from school, Jason is departing for his shift.
Jason starts his work day like any other. "139, on-duty" he says over his car radio, at approximately 3:52 in the afternoon. He begins his beat in downtown Bardstown, making a couple of traffic stops, but nothing drastic.
A little bit after 5:30, Jason arrives at Dean Watts Park, where Amy is watching their son play T-ball. Jason coaches the team along with his fellow officer, Andrew Riley, a police veteran that had become Jason's best friend since joining the police force.
But on this early evening, Jason comes to the field in a pretty grim mood. He is only there for a few minutes before being called away to work. He leaves in a hurry, not even saying saying goodbye to Amy or their sons.
Jason responds to a call that comes over his police radio: a domestic disturbance about an ex-boyfriend harassing a young woman at her house. The call ends with Jason writing a ticket for the ex-boyfriend and leaving the scene peacefully, hoping to make it back to his son's T-ball game.
Half an hour or so, Jason returns to the field, but the game is already over. Families are packing up everything and leaving, and - again - Jason doesn't stay long. Again, he forgets to say goodbye to Amy and the kids, being pulled away for work.
Amy and the kids head home, piling on the couch and eventually falling asleep to the Disney Channel. She tries to call Jason a couple of times, but the calls don't go through, Jason likely busy with his route.
At around 9:00, Jason and a couple of his fellow officers decide to grill up some sausage, so he stops by his regular convenience store to pick up some cheese. A couple of hours later, he meets up with friend and fellow officer, Andrew Riley, in a parking lot. The two regularly do this on slow nights like this, parking alongside each other and just talking about whatever's going on in their lives.
A short while later, after the two separate, Andrew and Jason text each other about a large cardboard cutout of Jason that sits in the window of a local drug store... the two joke about it, Andrew refers to it as "freaky shit" and mentions uploading it to Reddit.
It's around eleven o'clock at night when Jason calls home, barely missing Amy, who has nodded off with the kids. She immediately calls back, and the two have the short conversation that's been eluding them all day.
They end the conversation by telling each other that they love one another, and Jason says that he'll see her when he gets home.
The next couple of hours for Jason are consumed by a single call. Responding to a drunk and disorderly man by the name of Joseph William Hamilton, Jason is visibly surprised and infuriated.
Hamilton only has one arm, but is drunk to the point of being hostile, and suffered a head wound during his drunken ordeal. He is bleeding, and Jason calls for an EMS to assist him after detaining Hamilton.
Jason heads back out on his route, undoubtedly hoping to spend the rest of his shift in peaceful solitude. But just a few minutes later he is warned that Hamilton, still conscious and drunk, is causing trouble for the EMS taking him to the hospital. So he is called to assist the EMS at the hospital and ensure Hamilton is pliant enough to receive care for his head wound, at which point he is to be taken to the county jail (likely headed to the "drunk tank").
When they arrive, they find the security guard trying to restrain a thrashing Hamilton, who immediately recognizes Jason as his arresting officer.
Hamilton immediately launches into a tirade, threatening to kill Jason in very explicit, graphic ways. Jason brushes off the threats as being all drunken bluster, and begins taking Hamilton to the Nelson County Jail.
The process is simple enough, and within minutes, Hamilton has been locked up in county, awaiting bail. He jokes with Sergeant Nancy Sheckels, not knowing that she'll be one of the last people that he'll ever talk to.
He gets back in his cruiser, then heads down Stephen Foster Avenue on his way home. The same route he drives down every night. Amy, Hunter, Parker, and Figo all await him at home, just twenty or so minutes away.
He calls off-duty for the last time.
Officer Jason Ellis takes Exit 34, the road that leads towards Springfield and Bloomfield, but more importantly, home.
As he exits the freeway, slowing down on the gas pedal, he begins to approach... something. Something in the middle of the road, an obstruction of sorts.
What we know about Jason is that he wasn't the sort of man to just let someone else deal with the mess. He stops his police cruiser and gets out, hoping to quickly clear away the obstruction so that he can get home to his family.
The obstruction is a mass of branches and tree limbs, which isn't an odd thing to see in this wooded, shrouded area. But while Jason is beginning to clear away the obstruction of branches and tree parts, a figure waits on a nearby ledge overlooking the road.
This wasn't an accidental obstruction, this was an ambush.
Whoever was waiting for him - whoever had planned this attack - fires down upon him with a shotgun. Jason is hit with at least two different types of ammunition; ammunition usually used for hunting rodents and other small animals.
Officer Jason Ellis is shot three times in all, getting hit multiple times in the chest, abdomen, right arm, and head area. Within minutes, he is dead - executed by someone that had planned this attack well ahead of time.
An undetermined amount of time later - likely just 10 or 15 minutes - a Toyota Corolla pulls up behind Jason's police cruiser. The driver - a teenager - was driving home two drunk family members. One of which (likely his mother) told him to pull up behind the police cruiser and wait.
Chad Monroe - a local man that worked at the nearby Heavin Hill Distillery - had just finished his work shift and was headed home. He made the turn onto Exit 34, and pulled in just behind the Toyota - which was idling behind Officer Ellis' police cruiser.
This was around 2:36 AM - approximately half-an-hour after Jason had last been seen or heard from.
Chad Monroe decides to step out of his vehicle and he approaches the Toyoya, trying to figure out what's going on. The people inside that car seemed to have no idea, having been idling for just a minute or two, so it is Mr. Monroe that steps forward towards the police cruiser, which is stopped near a large mass of tree branches. This is when he makes visual contact with the body of Officer Jason Ellis, lying on the cold pavement in a pool of blood.
Chad Monroe runs back to the Toyota, and tells the people within to call the police. He then begins running back to Jason's body - hoping to administer CPR while searching for a pulse.
At around 2:40 AM, the drunk woman inside the Toyota enters Jason's police cruiser, where she would begin communicating with local dispatchers.
Officer Andrew Riley, Jason's best friend and texting buddy, is one of the first officers to arrive at the scene. He arrives to find Jason's body pierced by what looks like gravel; his first thought was that Jason had been hit by a car and dragged some distance. But on further inspection, he finds that the small piercings and bruises on Jason's skin weren't caused by gravel, but by buckshot.
It wasn't until he had arrived at the scene - and began taking off Jason's shirt and vest - that he made this startling revelation... which indicating that a darker, more ominous crime had unfolded just minutes prior to his arrival.
One can't even imagine the kind of horror that must have overwhelmed everyone - not only those that knew Jason well, like his family or fellow officers - but the community itself. To have a beacon of the community - a father, a decorated police officer, a T-ball coach - executed in cold blood... it's something that nightmares are made of. And to be killed so close to home, by someone that had obviously been lying in wait makes it worse.
Later that day, Police Chief Rick McCubbin held a press conference, and vowed not only justice, but vengeance against the person - or persons - responsible for the death of Officer Jason Ellis.
Jason Ellis was buried just a short distance away from the home where his family lived, in Nelson County's Highview Cemetery. His funeral was a tragic remembrance of Jason's life, culminating in many tears and his German Shepherd partner, Figo, placing a mournful paw upon his casket.
Amy Ellis, along with the couple's two sons and the rest of the community, began to grieve Jason's death. But a dangerous sentiment began to spread throughout Bardstown:
If something like this had happened to a police officer, a paragon of honor throughout the community, how would any of them be safe?
And a much more important question began to be asked: exactly who was responsible?
Unfortunately, the case file began to grow cold before the investigation ever really took off.
The investigation to find Jason's killer - headed by Kentucky State Police - was looking at any, and every, possible avenue for a lead. With no eyewitnesses or murder weapon to go off of, the investigation had to lean on an enticing $200,000 reward for information leading to an arrest, most of which was raised in a fundraising format by citizens of Bardstown. It is, by most standards, the largest reward in Kentucky state history.
Despite having no leads to go off of, the investigators were certain that at least two people had been at the crime scene, based off of information not yet released to the public. State police Master Trooper Norman Chaffins said in the early days of the investigation:
"There are some indicators to us that would lead us to believe that there was more than one person."
During one of his several press conferences about this shocking crime, Bardstown Police Chief told the media that the person (or persons) responsible for this ambush would have required:
"... a degree of tactical precision."
His comment seemed to spark concerns that this might have been a crime committed by someone with military experience - or something similar: a former-soldier, a fellow cop, etc. This led to all kinds of wild gossip about this being a professional hit, but... if so, that would lead to all kinds of further questions.
Who would kill Jason Ellis, who was - by all accounts - a great guy? Investigators looked into his personal life, searching for any straw they could grasp... but they found nothing. No gambling debts, no personal vendettas, nothing. His private life was as squeaky clean as his public persona.
A lead arose in the days after the shooting, when it was announced that a letter had been received by Bardstown Police, threatening violence against other officers. No details of this letter were released to the public, but it was announced that the FBI were contacted to help examine the letter.
Analysts and agents examined the document, and determined that it was likely not written by the actual killer. However, that did little to ease the tensions of fellow officers... and local residents.
The real fear, among Bardstown citizens, was that the gunman was walking among them. Arlene Durbin, the owner of Arlene's Barber Shop in the picturesque downtown Bardstown, stated:
"What scares us, if they will kill a police officer, what's to stop them from killing anybody else? To think there's someone walking the streets that cold-blooded and ruthless."
So what would inspire someone to commit such a cold-blooded murder - an execution, some call - against this well-adored man? Well, if you would have asked Bardstown City Council Member Tommy Read, he'd tell you:
"I believe it was a hit. Ellis was putting a dent into somebody's drug trade, and they finally got tired of it and put a hit out on him. I think he was under surveillance so they would know his routine."
Normally, this would begin to circulate questions about anyone involved in the Bardstown drug trade, and potential ties to Jason Ellis. This leads us to the first solid lead that investigators would have in this case... a group of young men calling themselves the Bardstown Money Gang.
Like most gangs, the self-pronounced Bardstown Money Gang - also known as the "BMG" - pride themselves on their illicit activities and nefarious ties to criminal activities. At least, they did when that rap music video was created and uploaded to the internet in October of 2013.
Jason Ellis, while also being a canine officer, was one of the Bardstown police force's most prolific narcotics officers. But while he mostly dealt with small-time drug dealers, Ellis also had some run-ins with members of the Bardstown Money Gang.
Deandre Douglas, the leader of the Bardstown Money Gang, was nearly arrested by Ellis, who made the lucky traffic stop and arrested one of the assault suspects, Darrian Ellery. Deandre Douglas and the other suspect would be arrested within weeks, by Jason and other Bardstown police officers, but these encounters would just be the tip of the iceberg when it came to the Bardstown police force dealing with the BMG.
In August of 2013, a few months after the execution of Jason Ellis, a party was being held in rural Nelson County. This party, which was full of young adults and teenagers, was interrupted by a contingency of young guys chanting "BMG" and "Big Money Bardstown Gang." These men began to attack the party-goers, including the young women present.
Officers with the Nelson County Sheriff's Department responded to the incident, arresting two suspects but believing that there were many more of the BMG involved. During the arrest, one of the suspects began to taunt the police officers with specific claims that the BMG was responsible for the murder of Jason Ellis.
One of the teenage party-goers, who was assaulted by these members of the Bardstown Money Gang, claimed that she was attacked by one suspect in particular: a young-23 year old man by the name of Brant Sheckles. She claims that Sheckles was just one of the multiple attackers, and that she was personally kicked in the stomach and head by him.
I include this name in particular because Brant Sheckles was the 23-year old nephew of then-Bardstown mayor Bill Sheckles. As you can imagine, this led to quite the outcry over the next several weeks.
The teenage party-goer that alleged being assault by Brant Scheckles also claimed that multiple members of the BMG had been chanting throughout their attack. In particular, they had been chanting that they were cop-killers, and were prepared to do worse to anyone that got in their way.
It seemed to many that - even if the BMG were full of hot air and bluster - they were quickly becoming a menace to the region of Bardstown, Kentucky.
After the assault on the party in August, Sheckles, along with four other members of the Bardstown Money Gang were arrested. This was Sheckles second arrest in two months, and the second time he had publicly claimed credit - on behalf of the BMG - for the murder of Officer Jason Ellis.
Mayor Bill Sheckles, the first black mayor of Bardstown, was already dealing with enough criticism before his familial ties to the BMG became public knowledge. His nephew's criminal endeavors did nothing to help, and it took Mayor Sheckles a few days to come out and make a public statement.
In his statement, Bill Sheckles was unapologetic for his nephew's actions, and seemed rather disinterested in protecting him:
"You can pick your friends but unfortunately you can't always pick your relatives. Anything that he does or anybody else named Sheckles does, they don't get any special treatment. If they're guilty, they're guilty. If they break the law, they break the law. They suffer the punishment just like anyone else."
The Bardstown Money Gang, in addition to this assault on a group of partying teenagers, had also been tied to a series of assaults on elderly Bardstown citizens in the months prior. Bardstown public officials pleaded to the state government to increase the punishment for this type of violent attacks, but they had no such luck.
Eventually, Brant Sheckles and the other members of the Bardstown Money Gang that were arrested in connection to the August attack, accepted a plea deal given to them by the Nelson Country Circuit Court District Attorney's Office. Sheckles pleaded guilty to fourth degree assault, which is only a misdemeanor in the state of Kentucky, and riot in the first degree, which is only a class-D felony.
These charges were a lot lighter than many had anticipated, especially since they were multiple eyewitnesses and statements of guilt given by the perpetrators of the attack.
Sheckles was eventually sentenced to four years in state prison. His two charges - four years for "trying to incite a riot" and then an additional year for assaulting the teenage party-goers - would run concurrently.
In the region, many believed that he had been given a lenient sentence due to his familial connections to the mayor of Bardstown - accusations that former-mayor Bill Sheckles denies wholeheartedly.
The other members of the Bardstown Money Gang charged were given similar sentences, as well as nearly-identical probationary terms: they would not be allowed to gather in large groups for some time after their release, and would be unable to associate themselves with the moniker "Bardstown Money Gang."
Over the years, the investigation into Officer Jason Ellis' death has been handled by the Kentucky State Police. They would receive tips from all across the nation, but - unfortunately - none would lead to any significant suspects or arrests.
In July of 2014 - more than a year after the ambush took place - an inmate at the nearby Louisville Corrections Facility was questioned. This inmate - 33-year old Danny Earley - had apparently threatened a guard by saying:
"You'll be pushing up daisies like Jason Ellis, the Bardstown cop that was killed."
This threat followed Earley's arrest for public intoxication; which had been marked by Earley telling the arresting officer(s) something about Officer Ellis and the "Cornbread Mafia." In case you're unfamiliar with the Cornbread Mafia, it was a nickname given to a local Kentucky-centered drug empire that collapsed in the late 1980's.
This lead, while enticing, was ultimately fruitless. Police don't believe that Danny Earley had any substantive information about Jason Ellis. Most likely, he was just an inmate caught up on local gossip, who wanted to puff his chest a bit when given the opportunity to.
Major Jeremy Thompson of the Kentucky State Police oversaw this investigation up until 2018, when he accepted a new position in the office of U.S. Attorney Russell Coleman. Speaking to the media, Major Thompson stated that the lead investigators had been unable to confirm major aspects of the case: such as Officer Ellis even being the target.
His comment hinted at the possibility of there being major gaps in the investigation: such as a potential motive for the unknown culprit. Because of that, it remains possible - however tragic - that Jason Ellis was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Major Thompson also stated that investigators had received - and investigated - tips from all over the nation. These tips included everything from Officer Ellis preparing to turn in a dirty cop... to him preparing to bust a local burglary ring... to him being prepared to take down a local drug empire (a la the Cornbread Mafia). All of these tips have failed to produce any real evidence - seeming to be fueled more by gossip than anything substantial or real.
Investigators continue to work on Jason's case to this day, but... it unfortunately remains open and unsolved.
Sadly, there was further tragedy on the horizon for the loved ones of Officer Jason Ellis.
Nearly four years to the day of Jason's death - May 23rd, 2017 - his former K9 partner, Figo, passed away at the age of 11.
The German Shepherd had been living with members of Jason and Amy's family in the four years since, and - for months prior to his passing - had been battling illness. Thankfully, he was able to pass away peacefully in his sleep, in the place he now called home.
Figo was cremated, and his ashes were placed in an urn... which sat at the base of Jason's gravestone for some time. Eventually, he would be buried right next to Jason - cementing his legacy as the man's best friend.
Despite investigators being unable to say much of anything regarding the active state of the case, local journalists and reporters continue to report on the case every May - marking the anniversary of Jason's death every May.
Amy, the widow of Jason Ellis, has struggled to recover from his loss over the past half-decade. Following his death, she had to move away from the region - not only for herself, but for her two sons, Parker and Hunter (both of whom have now had to spend roughly half of their lives without their father).
Speaking to a local reporter, Amy talked about this move, and why it was necessary:
"I distanced myself from that so I could try to feel safe and bring my boys up as normal as possible, as I know Jason would want me to. It is very frustrating. I don't like to go back [to Bardstown] because it feels so heavy.
"I think every year I'm in a better place, but it never fails. The weather starts changing. The smell in the air, it brings you back to the day before, and then you just relive it, and it plays over in your head. Parker is playing baseball, and just this past week, being at the field kind of brought back to the smells and the feel. The very last place I saw Jason was at the baseball field."
Despite suffering through grief, depression, PTSD, and all of the anguish that comes from a deceased spouse, Amy has been able to find a sliver of light. In the wake of Jason's death, she tried to promote a positive mentality with their two sons; that even though their father was no longer with them, he can be remembered fondly - and he would want them all to live their best lives moving forward.
Even though it was hard for her to live up to her words, she has attempted to do just that. She has since fallen in love and re-married, more than five years after Jason's death. Her new husband has met with Jason's surviving family members multiple times, and they all approve - saying that if Jason could pick anyone for Amy to spend the rest of her life with, it would be him.
In 2017, Kentucky State Police brought back two retired detectives to focus on Jason's case full-time. However, even though Jason's case was their main incentive - him being a murdered police officer and all - his story wasn't their only objective.
These two retired detectives were also tasked with investigating a handful of other unsolved crimes from Bardstown's Nelson County... one of which was the murder of a mother and daughter, which unfolded roughly one year after the death of Jason Ellis.
Their story, like that of Officer Jason Ellis, remains unresolved.
Written, hosted, and produced by Micheal Whelan
Published on February 9th, 2019 (updated version)
Originally published on January 30th, 2016
Sergey Cheremisinov - "Sleepwalker I"
Lee Rosevere - "Morning Mist"
Scott Holmes - "Old Oak Tree"
how the night came - "III - H3PO4"
Kai Engel - "Silence"
Graham Bole - "Rhubarb (Cover)"
Vitus Von Degen - "Pieta"
Alan Spiljak - "Clouds"
Alan Spiljak - "Something Wonderful"
Graham Bole - "Nae Shaam"
Other music created and composed by Ailsa Traves