Tommy Ballard spent every waking moment searching for his daughter.
The 54-year-old waded into Kentucky rivers and scoured field and forest, even during tornado warnings. He converted his red pickup into a missing-persons flier and held vigils praying for her safe return.
Crystal Rogers vanished on July 3, 2015. The 35-year-old mother of five was last seen by her boyfriend, Brooks Houck, whom cops consider a lead suspect in her disappearance but haven’t charged.
A year later, Ballard vowed never to give up. “I still go out all the time when I get a tip,” the Bardstown dad wrote in a July 1 post on his wife Sherry’s Facebook page. “I go look at places all the time that people don’t even know.”
“I love my kids and grandkids more than anything,” he continued, “and I will give everything I have in me till Crystal is brought home to my family and we have closure.”
But on Saturday, tragedy again struck the Ballard clan when Tommy was shot and killed while hunting on his property near the Bluegrass Parkway—not far from where Rogers’s car was mysteriously abandoned with a flat tire one year before.
The Kentucky State Police haven’t disclosed whether they suspect foul play. Yet sources close to the investigation told the Kentucky Standard that detectives are considering Ballard’s shooting a possible homicide and that his weapon was not fired.
Ballard’s relatives and supporters don’t believe his death was a coincidence. “I was very lucky to have such a loving husband with a heart of gold,” Ballard’s widow told WAVE 3 News on Monday. “I do not feel like this was an accident.”
Meanwhile, the Nelson County coroner told WHAS 11 that Ballard was shot once in the chest and the bullet exited his back. An autopsy report is pending.
Till Ballard, Tommy’s father, told WDRB that Tommy was shot in the chest around 8 a.m. while hunting with his 12-year-old grandson. State police have cleared the boy in the shooting but released few further details.
Jason Ellis, a 33-year-old police officer and father of two, was ambushed and shot to death in May 2013 while picking up tree limbs on an exit ramp. Cops suspect the branches were placed there so Ellis would stop.
In April 2014, schoolteacher Kathy Netherland and her 16-year-old daughter, Samantha, were found slaughtered inside their home near Bardstown. The mother was shot and the badly beaten teen’s throat was slashed, WDRB reported.
Then, in July 2015, Rogers vanished. Three months later, Nelson County Sheriff Ed Mattingly announced she was likely dead and called her boyfriend a suspect. “Crystal Rogers was extremely close with her family,” Mattingly said at the time. “She has had no contact with her family… she has vanished from earth.”
Signs reading “Solve these murders” are posted in Bardstown yards and businesses in hopes of spurring a break in the unsolved cases.
The Ballard family has also paid for billboards and road signs emblazoned with “Justice for Crystal” and “Prayers for Crystal’s Safe Return.” Another, posted near Houck’s family farm, says, “Brooks Houck where is Crystal Rogers?”
Still, not everyone wants to draw attention to the city’s crime wave. Earlier this year, a member of the city’s code-enforcement board discussed removing the posters from the areas between the sidewalks and roadways.
“I don’t want to offend the Rogers family. My God, my heart breaks for them,” the official said, according to WDRB. “But do we really want signs between the sidewalk and the street, for how many years, saying ‘Let’s find Crystal’ or ‘Solve these murders’?”
In response, Sherry Ballard fumed: “It’s like she’s worried about what the tourists are going to think about murders in this town. Well, I don’t want people to forget that this stuff has happened.”
On Tuesday, as Ballard prepared funeral arrangements for her husband, residents picked up new signs, this time with the message “Standing with the Ballards.”
“The family has been hit hard, and it weighs heavily on this community’s heart,” Bardstown Mayor John Royalty told The Daily Beast.
“Tommy is an avid hunter, and I just don’t think that this kind of stuff is an accident,” Royalty said, before advising residents to stop floating conspiracy theories on social media and “let the police do their work.”
Tommy Ballard was no stranger to tragedy.
In January 1979, his older sister Freda Sharlene “Sherry” Ballard vanished. She was 19 years old and seven-months pregnant at the time. Her remains were found three years later, and her husband was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for her slaying.
Those memories came flooding back in July 2015, when Rogers—the oldest of Tommy and Sherry’s three children—disappeared after spending the night at her beau’s family farm. The father immediately worked to retrace her steps.
According to reports, Rogers was at a Wal-Mart at 4:36 p.m. on Friday, July 3. A receipt showed she purchased food, a T-ball plate, a junior sniper air rifle, and two boys’ T-shirts that day, and relatives said they saw her there with three of her kids.
Tommy Ballard told the Kentucky Standard that Rogers took her two older children to their father—from whom she was separated—before heading to a property showing at 5 p.m. (Brooks Houck, her live-in boyfriend and the father of her 2-year-old son, managed real estate and also unsuccessfully ran for sheriff in 2014.)
Rogers was last seen at Houck’s family farm with the couple’s son.
In a Nancy Grace interview days after Rogers vanished, Houck said Rogers was up playing games on her cellphone when he went to bed. When he woke the next morning, she was gone. He decided not to call cops because he assumed she was at her cousin’s house.
During a videotaped interview with detective Jon Snow, obtained by the Nelson County Gazette, Houck said he left the family farm just before midnight. He told Snow he left with Rogers and got home around 20 minutes later and that he fell asleep. Houck told Snow that when he woke around 7 a.m., his son was sleeping next to him.
Rogers’s family, unable to reach her on the Fourth of July, reported her missing July 5.
Before doing so, Sherry Ballard saw Houck on the road and asked if he’d seen Rogers. She asked if they’d been “in a fight,” the Standard reported. Houck allegedly said no. “I told him, ‘I’m going to the police department to report her missing,’ and he said, ‘That’s what you should do,’” Sherry Ballard said, according to the newspaper.
“She would not have got up and left and disappeared and not called anybody. That’s not her,” Sherry Ballard told the Standard. “She would not have left her baby at home.”
That night, Rogers’s maroon Chevy Impala was found on the shoulder of the Bluegrass Parkway with the keys in the ignition. Her purse and cellphone were inside the vehicle, along with a diaper bag.
Sheriff Mattingly initially told reporters that Houck wasn’t a suspect. “I want everyone to know he has been completely cooperative with this investigation and has tried to assist us in any way that he can,” he said.
The Ballards claim Houck and his family never helped search for Rogers and that they refused to let police search their farm.
Houck told Nancy Grace their relationship was “stressed” and that Rogers would stay at her cousin’s house at times.
“I was not in the least little bit alarmed in any way, shape, or form,” Houck said, when asked about waking up to discover the mother of his child was gone.
The real-estate investor added, “I’m 100 percent, completely innocent in this.”
But authorities began to suspect that Houck, and his police officer brother, knew more than they let on.
Nick Houck, a cop on the Bardstown force, allegedly refused to be interviewed by a detective from the Nelson County Sheriff’s Office, which was investigating Rogers’s disappearance. “I have nothing to tell you,” Houck told the lead detective, according to a WAVE 3 report.
The brother again allegedly refused to cooperate after his boss, former Police Chief Rick McCubbin, advised him to meet with the detective.
McCubbin fired Nick Houck months later, after he failed an FBI polygraph test and tried to phone his brother to warn him that cops were coming to interview him—a call that came while police were already in the middle of questioning Brooks Houck.
An FBI agent told Chief McCubbin that Nick Houck’s polygraph raised “grave concerns,” according to documents related to his termination.
The paperwork also revealed that Nick Houck testified before a grand jury shortly after Rogers disappeared and that his police cruiser was confiscated as part of the Nelson County sheriff’s probe, WAVE 3 reported.
In October 2015, Sheriff Mattingly announced that he believed Brooks and Nick Houck were connected to Rogers’s disappearance.
Nick Houck “failed a polygraph regarding Mrs. Rogers’s disappearance, he advised his brother to not speak to the police, he refused to speak to our investigator, and he has been uncooperative in grand jury testimony and has selective amnesia,” Mattingly told reporters.
“He’s not worthy of being a police officer,” the sheriff added.
Two months later, an employee of Brooks Houck was indicted on 38 counts of perjury for allegedly lying to a grand jury.
Danny Singleton, described by the Ballards as a close friend of Houck, initially pleaded not guilty. He was the only person charged in Rogers’s case. But this summer, he pleaded guilty to 38 counts of false swearing and was sentenced to time served.
Prosecutors said Singleton’s testimony was at odds with five other witnesses when asked to explain his whereabouts on July 3 and July 4, 2015, when Rogers vanished. According to the Kentucky Standard, Commonwealth Attorney Terry Geoghegan said evidence would show Singleton was with Houck those days.
Singleton, however, testified before a grand jury that he was at a Louisville nightclub the night of July 3, Geoghegan said in court papers.
Authorities have also eyed Houck’s grandmother, Anna Whitesides, over a white Buick she owned when Rogers vanished. Witnesses told investigators the vehicle was parked on the farm the night Rogers went missing.
Whitesides, 83, was subpoenaed to testify before a Nelson County grand jury in June 2016 but took the Fifth. Court papers alleged Whitesides’s car may have been used to dispose of Rogers’s body and that it was cleaned and sold in an attempt to hide evidence.
Her attorney, Jason Floyd, said she sold the car to a dealer sometime in early 2016.
Then, in August, the sheriff’s office executed a search warrant on the 300-acre farm belonging to Houck’s mother, Rosemary. Agents with the FBI and Louisville Metro Police aided the search and brought at least 14 cadaver dogs to the scene, WDRB reported.
Whitesides and Nick Houck were also served with warrants, Geoghegan said.
After Whitesides’s residence was searched, Floyd released a statement saying, “Anna cooperated with the search warrant process in every way that we were able.” The lawyer added that cops were “unreasonably” targeting Whitesides, who “provided a great deal of assistance to authorities in this investigation.”
It’s unclear what, if anything, investigators unearthed during the searches, but lead detective Jon Snow vowed the case would go to trial.
Police assurances that justice would be served did little to deter Tommy Ballard’s constant, sometimes one-man searches.
Angie Bischoff, a family friend, told The Daily Beast she planned on meeting with Ballard the day he was killed to discuss his plans for a large-scale search for Rogers.
Finding his daughter was “on his mind 24/7,” Bischoff said. “There was not one single day he wasn’t doing something. He never stopped.
“He would have spent his last dime, his last breath to find his daughter and to bring her home.”