Who killed Bardstown Officer Jason Ellis?
BARDSTOWN, Ky. (AP) — Kris Phillips drives past the spot every day. Always, there are flowers, or ribbons or a cross. Sometimes, she pulls onto the shoulder of the narrow exit ramp and walks to the makeshift memorial to Bardstown Police Officer Jason Ellis, her son-in-law.
Occasionally she’ll find trash, maybe a beer can, and her mind wanders. Is this litter blown here by the wind? Or was someone drinking here, toasting their kill?
She worries people have started to forget. Or that the case has become old news. Perhaps people have moved on?
She never thought she’d be here, five years later.
Surely, she had thought, the ambush killing of a police officer would be solved quickly.
Now, she’s not so sure.
Five years after Ellis was killed on a ramp off the Bluegrass Parkway on his way home, Phillips is among the family and friends still dealing with anguish and frustration over the unsolved case.
“Looks like without someone stepping forward, this is gonna go cold,” she said a few days before the anniversary. “I feel like it was cold from day one, now, looking back.”
A procession May 25 retraced Ellis’ final ride past the Bardstown Police Department down the parkway to the Exit 34 ramp.
It’s the path the seven-year veteran of the department traveled the night he died, the route he traveled most days as he headed home to his wife, Amy, and two young sons.
That night, five years ago, seemed like a normal Friday in the small town 40 miles southeast of Louisville, known for its historic buildings and bourbon distilleries.
It was around 2 a.m. on May 25, 2013. Ellis had just finished his shift and was headed home. He veered right, exiting the highway but stopped on the ramp when he saw something blocking the road.
He stepped out of his vehicle to remove the tree debris, which police say was deliberately placed there. Out of the moonlit sky, bullets flew, killing Ellis. He was 33.
Sgt. Michael Medley, one of Ellis’ colleagues and best friends, had spoken with him only hours before. Medley was heading out for the night while Ellis was coming into the station to fill out paperwork. Their words were nothing special. Just one of countless exchanges between close co-workers.
Medley was in his car a few hours later when he heard a garbled voice come across the police radio.
He couldn’t understand the woman at first. “Officer down,” he eventually heard, but the radio was known to pick up messages from other counties. The trouble must be someplace else, Medley thought.
It wasn’t. When dispatch mentioned the location, Medley knew it was close, turned around his vehicle and stepped on the gas.
What followed, what he saw as he drove down the Exit 34 ramp, he will never forget. He was among the first to find Ellis lying on the road.
“It was a hard time there for about a year, year and a half,” he said. “It was really rough.”
Bardstown Police Chief Kim Kraeszig, who in 2013 was on the command staff of the Louisville Metro Police Department, remembers getting a call that night informing her of the killing. She later attended Ellis’ funeral along with more than 1,000 law enforcement and community members.
“It’s something that they don’t get over,” she said. “The image of seeing your best friend, your beat partner ... it never goes away.”
Medley is one of a small handful of officers still at the department who knew and worked alongside Ellis. It has helped to talk about him with them, sharing memories of his sense of humor and love of baseball. He had been a minor leaguer with the Cincinnati Reds before going into law enforcement.
Medley keeps mementos of Ellis with him at work. A patch with Ellis’ badge number, 139, is stuck to his police cruiser visor. A pin from the funeral is still on his uniform. And having just moved desks, Medley is still figuring out a spot to rest framed pictures of Ellis and himself on duty, smiling for the camera.
“It feels like a long time because he hasn’t been here with us,” Medley said. “But it feels like yesterday because you constantly think about that night.”
Medley now waits for answers as Kentucky State Police investigate.
As the lead investigative agency on the case, state police were initially flooded with tips. Investigators pored over Ellis’ past cases, interviewing people he arrested and looking for possible clues or suspects. They tracked down leads from coast to coast.
Within the first few months, the reward money topped $200,000.
Six months after the killing, the state police made a video asking for the public’s help in identifying those responsible. At the two-year mark, the department issued a second video, this time featuring a plea directly from Ellis’ wife, Amy.
“His family, our two sons, his wonderful friends and I cannot heal without knowing who and why he was taken from us by this senseless murder,” she said.
And last year, the state police announced two retired troopers had been hired back to focus full time on the Ellis case and a small handful of other unsolved cases in Nelson County, including the 2014 slaying of Bardstown teacher Kathy Netherland and her teenage daughter Samantha as well as the 2015 disappearance of Crystal Rogers, a mother of five.
The state police continue to receive tips on the Ellis case, spokesman Scotty Sharp said, though he did not have specific numbers.
“Our main focus is Officer Ellis’ family,” Sharp said. “We want to solve this case for them and bring this person to justice and find out why they did this. We want closure.”
Five years after his death, Jason Ellis’ presence is still strongly felt at the Bardstown Police Department. His smile is everywhere.
At its front doors, a laminated photo of Ellis in uniform rests atop a black bourbon barrel streaked with thin blue lines.
Once inside, an entire long corridor wall is dedicated to the fallen K-9 officer. It’s filled with photos, many from Ellis’ funeral.
At the center is a smiling Ellis in his uniform, the same photo printed on the small cards Medley still carries with him in his car and gives out to anyone who may have information.
One of the framed photographs captures Ellis’ drug-sniffing German shepherd, Figo, lifting his paw up to the casket.
The dog lived with Ellis’ family, mostly with mother-in-law Phillips, after the officer’s death.
A year ago, nearly four years to the day his partner was killed, Figo died. His ashes were placed in an urn at the base of Ellis’ gravestone.
“We all felt, me and Amy especially, like he was our last link to Jason,” Phillips said. “He was tired. He was wore out. He was sad.”
Outside, Ellis’ name is carved into the polished black column erected next to the building, alongside the names of other fallen Nelson County law enforcement members.
At the memorial’s dedication this month, Amy Ellis spoke of the lasting pain.
“I have spent the last five years trying to find myself again,” she said, “trying to climb out of the fog of grief and PTSD that comes with having your husband murdered, trying to raise two boys the best that I can.”
Phillips said this time of year is particularly hard on her daughter. What is she supposed to say? What is there to say? How do you mark another year without answers?
Even with the changes a half-decade has brought, the big questions remain.
Definitive answers are elusive. Multiple theories exist, but Phillips has settled on the idea that her son-in-law specifically was targeted and killed in a plot carried out by multiple people.
Whoever killed Ellis seemed to know the route he took home and when he’d travel along it, she said. They knew enough about the area to realize the highway exit ramp provided good cover, nestled between brush-covered rock walls.
As a K-9 officer, Ellis arrested drug users and dealers. He broke up domestic violence situations. Perhaps someone developed a deadly grudge. Though she doesn’t believe it, maybe those responsible were broadly targeting law enforcement.
“I’m just a mother-in-law guessing,” she said, sighing. “Who knows?”
She continues to beat the drum, reminding the public that justice has not yet been served, that police need better pay and more support. It’s her way of fighting the helplessness she knows so many feel about the case.
Until those responsible are caught, she won’t remove the metal band around her wrist with Ellis’ picture. It goes with her in the shower, to church and to work.
She’s had “139” sewed in blue thread onto the uniforms at her company, occasionally catching the eye of a customer who asks and then learns about the case. The more people that know, the better.
Even if someone called in a tip once, she said, they could call it in again. Maybe, with the flood of calls in those early months, it was overlooked.
It’s a tip, she believes, that will crack the case. Someone in the community knows, she’s sure.
“Somebody is going to say something. It might be on their death bed,” she paused. “Let’s hope they die soon, hope they talk. That’s all I can say.”
Information from: Courier Journal, http://www.courier-journal.com