What an unsolved double murder in Kentucky reveals about America’s military-industrial complex
In the early 1990s, New Life Fitness & Massage kept its lights on twenty hours a day, closing at five every morning and reopening at nine. Everyone in Oak Grove knew it was a brothel. Fort Campbell, one of the nation’s largest Army posts, sits on top of the Kentucky-Tennessee border, and New Life stood right outside its northern gates next to Interstate 24. Many of its clients were Screaming Eagles: paratroopers from the famous 101st Airborne Division. Most of the others were truckers off the highway and locals of all stripes; some say judges and other dignitaries would come up from Nashville, an hour down the highway, to be ushered in and out covertly.
At twenty-six, the owner, Tammy Papler, was shrewd beyond her years. She had picked the location for the ready-made customer base in Fort Campbell, and for the pool of potential workers: soldiers’ wives, ex-wives, and girlfriends, as well as women who had recently been discharged, most of them far from their families and without safety nets. She wore her hair in a fluffy blond permanent and took the pseudonym Mercedes. Some of her employees feared her temper.
Oak Grove, Kentucky, wasn’t a city in any meaningful sense, but rather just a commercial strip hedged by trailer parks and clapboard housing. Its population was around three thousand, though this number fluctuated depending on deployments. While Fort Campbell’s officers could afford the more elegant digs on the other side of the post in Clarksville, Tennessee, Oak Grove was a haven for young enlistees, and it drew seedy businesses like mosquitos to a bog. The main stretch of highway was lined with liquor stores, pawnshops, and adult businesses: Fantasee Lingerie, Donna’s Den, Mona’s Go-Go, Classic Touch, and Cherry Video, the last of which Papler also owned. The brothel operated in the back of a small brick building that it shared with a Chinese restaurant.
The business cycle at New Life, as with Oak Grove’s small economy, rose and fell with military paydays. During the slow periods, the women would order takeout and watch the O.J. trial. There were moments of levity, and escapades. Once, two strangers came in off the interstate and plied a couple of workers with mounds of cocaine and hundred-dollar bills for an all-night party, but the men made such a mess in the Jacuzzi room that the workers had to spend their tips to have the carpet cleaned before Papler arrived in the morning.
For Ed Carter, a burly twenty-four-year-old police officer, the city was something of a playground. Carter grew up near Hopkinsville, the county seat, on a farm, where his father worked for an influential white family (the Carters were black) and his mother cleaned houses and churches for extra money. After dropping out of community college, Carter was recruited into the Police Explorers, an apprenticeship program for youths who want to work in law enforcement. He graduated into the midnight shift, responding to domestic fights of young military couples and scuffles at Oak Grove’s strip club.
With minimal training, he spent his first months on the job scrambling to learn the local geography and police procedures. But he didn’t need any instruction to push people around. (Once, Carter responded on a call about a fighting couple and he flung the husband out of their trailer.) He began to walk with a swagger. One of the badge’s perks, he found, was that wearing a uniform made it easy to pick up women—especially with so many men away on deployments. In 1992, he married a woman he’d met on the job, but this didn’t get in the way of his tomcatting.
As a bad cop, Carter was largely a product of his environment. The Oak Grove Police Department had only six officers and was known throughout Christian County for its corruption. Buddy Elliott, the police chief, was the older brother of the mayor, Jack, and together the Elliott brothers owned a major share of the local real estate. They used the police force as an arm of their business enterprises and sometimes as a revenue generator. For instance, in 1993, after some of the New Life massage parlor’s workers were charged with prostitution, Buddy Elliott came to Papler and asked whether she’d “get with the program.” She gave him $600 cash, and when the case reached a grand jury, the charges were dropped.
Over the year that followed, the cops got increasingly cozy at New Life, and some even hung out in the lobby when they were off duty. “They felt like they owned the place, they really did,” one of the workers remembers. “You never knew if they were just stopping by to say hi, or if they were wanting something.” Papler says she came up with a special procedure when an officer wanted sex: he didn’t pay, but his name was recorded at the bottom of the client register, so she could compensate the worker later herself. The Oak Grove government didn’t have much tax revenue, so when the patrol cars needed new lights, the cops imposed on Papler to foot the bill.
Carter spent more time at the brothel than any of his colleagues. He began a steady affair with the manager, and since his police salary was so meager, he compelled Papler to put him on the payroll as a “janitor.” She later said in court proceedings that the payments were really for “protection” or “hush money”—not for mopping the floors. And she was afraid that if she stopped, he’d get the place shut down. For all her friendliness with cops, Papler faced regular threats of closure. For backup, she had an emergency dispatcher keeping guard; whenever there was talk of another prostitution raid, the brothel would get a call—“a storm is coming” or “time to get the umbrellas out”—so her workers could get dressed.
Then, in the summer of 1994, Papler says, she cut Carter off. His payments cost her too much and they had a falling-out. She remembers telling him not to come back, but short of changing the locks, she couldn’t keep him out; he had a key. A few weeks later, in the early hours of September 20, two of her workers were alone at New Life. At 3:35 A.M., two colleagues found them in a back room of the brothel, naked, lying in puddles of blood, both shot through the head and stabbed in the neck. The investigators suspected Carter right away, but they didn’t have enough evidence to convict him. To many, it appeared that the Oak Grove Police Department had a hand in covering up the double murder. Within months, the New Life massage parlor shut down. Carter fled town and many of the locals close to the event eventually left, too, including Papler. The sheriff’s office handed over the investigation to the state, but for more than fifteen years no one was arrested. By the time I moved to the area, the case had almost evaporated into a grisly local legend.
In the fall of 2009, I arrived in Christian County. I’d landed a job at the Kentucky New Era in Hopkinsville—a newspaper founded in 1869 by two ex-Confederates—as a police and government reporter. On my first drive down for the job interview (from Michigan, where I’d recently finished college) the landscape surprised me. It was flat, dominated by soybean and tobacco fields; western Kentucky is more like the plains of southern Illinois than the wooded hills of Appalachia. I met the paper’s editor, Jennifer Brown, at the city’s only Starbucks. Forty-seven, with short dark hair, thick-rimmed glasses, and a light drawl, Brown grew up in Hopkinsville, raised two kids there, and had worked at the New Era for twenty-five years, mostly reporting. We talked about our favorite writers, and she gave me a rundown of local industry: it was largely agricultural, but in recent decades some auto-parts manufacturing plants had sprung up, because land was cheap and property taxes were nil.
And she told me about Fort Campbell. Comprising more than one hundred sixty square miles, it is five times the physical size of Hopkinsville, seven times that of Manhattan. Some thirty thousand soldiers were stationed there at the time, most living off-post, and it has its own golf course, bowling alley, and Starbucks franchise. In other words, a small city. The base is home to three major combat units: the 5th Special Forces Group, which was among the first deployed to Vietnam in 1961 and one of the last to leave; the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, known for its involvement in the conflict in Somalia depicted in the movie Black Hawk Down; and the 101st Airborne, famous for its deployments to Europe during World War II and to Arkansas during the Little Rock desegregation crisis of 1957. Oak Grove, Brown told me, was the incorporated city outside the military gates and was permeated by Army culture. The county leadership, like most of Hopkinsville’s long-term residents, tended to hold the smaller city at a distance.
The local demographics surprised me, too. Christian County had a higher percentage of racial minorities than any other county in Kentucky—but it was intensely segregated. Prior to the Civil War, nearly half the population was enslaved, and the resulting social hierarchy remains intact. Nearly all the police officers and local officials were white, and in the inner city, where most African Americans lived, many houses were falling apart due to absentee landlords. In the nineties, Hopkinsville had refused to name a street after Martin Luther King Jr. For both the black and white communities, religion was a defining trait. A reporter from Louisville once described the atmosphere elegantly: “If Christian County were an island, it would sink beneath the weight of its Baptist churches.”
I quickly settled into a rhythm at the New Era. I started every morning with rounds at the police departments and spent many evenings in city council meetings. I covered budgets, housing initiatives, zoning battles, fatal car wrecks, and a fire at a beloved barbecue joint (where the Black Hawk pilots used to eat). My favorite projects were the longer crime narratives that sometimes landed on my desk. After I wrote a front-page feature about a man who strangled his mother to death in their trailer, Brown reassigned me to the courts beat, which lent itself to more of these kinds of stories.
For a long time, I circled the 1994 murders in Oak Grove, going through the newspaper’s archives in my downtime, reading almost every word the New Era had ever published on the unsolved crime. Nothing had happened with the investigation for many years, yet the murders still had an obvious relevance to present-day Oak Grove—it was clear to me by then that the city suffered from a unique pathology. Its police department was a pariah among county law enforcement, its officers seen as unprofessional and often crooked, and some of its public officials had no regard for legislative procedure or transparency laws. The city was always being sued: for police brutality, illegal firings, sexual harassment. Oak Grove was rotten, and it seemed it always had been.
I wasn’t the only one who saw the murders as a symptom of the city’s deeper problems. Fifteen years on, the event still defined the place in the local imagination. Occasionally, when Oak Grove was in the headlines, an attorney in court or an officer at the Hopkinsville police station would say to me quietly, “You know about the time those cops killed the two prostitutes, right?” I heard several versions of how the crime scene was botched.
After several years at the paper, I left Kentucky in 2013 for a magazine job in New York. Shortly before my departure, the state surprised everyone and charged Leslie Duncan, a former Oak Grove police detective, with evidence tampering. He pleaded guilty, which teed up the local prosecutor to finally try the whole case. Two months later, in November of 2013, Ed Carter was brought back to town and indicted on two counts of murder, and Duncan was charged again, this time with complicity. It took almost three years to prepare for the trial. Last September, nearly twenty-two years to the day since the murders, Oak Grove convened to close its darkest chapter and I returned to Christian County to report.
In recent months, through interviews, original documents, photos, news archives, and trial testimony, I’ve been able to reconstruct the events surrounding the murders at the New Life massage parlor and parse most of the fact from the fiction (which now takes many forms: faulty memories, outright lies, and rumors that have metastasized into myth).
By 1994, Oak Grove’s economy had recovered from the devastation wrought by the Desert Storm deployments in 1990 and ’91, but everyone was still on edge. “It’s deja vu for the people who own small businesses on the busy highway across from Fort Campbell,” Brown wrote in one story, after an announcement that two thousand soldiers were being shipped to the Persian Gulf. She quoted a grocer who said his greatest fear was that a new war would break out.
That September, Tammy Papler has said, she and her husband vacationed in New York City for Labor Day. When they returned home (early), they were surprised to find Carter sitting at the desk in New Life’s lobby, with cash and payment slips arrayed in front of him. Papler got angry and insisted he stay away, but there wasn’t much she could do; she had taken him off her payroll, but that had hardly kept him out. He refused to return his key, she says.
It’s unclear how much time Carter spent there over the next two weeks, but everyone agrees that he showed up after midnight on September 20. According to Papler, she and her husband had gone to see a movie that evening, and on the way home they stopped by to check on the workers. She had a headache, so they didn’t stay long. The most thorough description I’ve heard of what happened next comes from Tammy Sneed, one of the women who was on duty. Sneed was twenty-four years old, from Louisiana, and married to a soldier; she had started working at New Life amid her divorce. Of the four colleagues working with Sneed that night, two were brand-new: Gloria Ross, who was eighteen, and Candy Belt, twenty-two. They both had young kids at home. “They were close, and they stayed to themselves,” Sneed recalls. It wasn’t busy, so the women sat on sofas in the lobby, drinking and talking. “It kind of felt like a girls’ night,” another colleague, Millie Burns, remembers. “We were bonding.”
At 2 A.M., Sneed and Burns agree, Officer Carter came in and picked up the lobby phone. He punched in some numbers but didn’t actually make a call. The women thought it was strange, and they knew he wasn’t supposed to be there, but they didn’t say anything—and neither did he. Then he left.
An hour later, with business still slow, Sneed and Burns went to drop off their other colleague, Andrea Fornella, at home, leaving Ross and Belt alone at New Life. When they returned at 3:35, the front door wouldn’t open. They knocked on the window, then went back to the door and pushed harder, realizing as it gave that the heavy rock which usually served as a doorstop had been moved inside to block it shut. In the lobby, an ashtray was knocked over and the phone was off the hook. Ross and Belt were nowhere in sight. “I thought they were cleaning or something,” Sneed recalls. But the place was silent, until she heard a snoring sound and concluded that they were sleeping. She and Burns moved down the hallway, checking all the rooms and finding them empty. When Sneed opened the door at the end of the corridor, the room was dark except for a light over the massage table, where Gloria Ross’s dead body lay. She was stripped nude, with her hands folded across her chest and her mouth and eyes open. Dark blood bubbled from a bullet hole in her head and a stab wound in her neck. On the floor nearby, Candy Belt’s body was draped with a camouflage blanket, the folds of fabric rising with the motion of her chest. She too had been shot in the head, and her eye was bulging from its socket. The snoring sound Sneed had heard was blood gurgling in Belt’s throat as she tried to breathe.
The two women turned and ran outside, not knowing where to go. Then they saw the walls of Fort Campbell across the street and rushed to the gate. The soldier on duty in the glass booth at the entrance said they couldn’t just walk in, but Sneed was hysterical. “No! You need to let us through!” she said, nearly screaming. “There’s somebody that’s dying!” The soldier let them go to the military police station, where someone called the Oak Grove police and the paramedics.
Two Oak Grove cops were on patrol that night. They arrived at New Life around 4 A.M., coming from different directions. Once they’d made a sweep to ensure the killer wasn’t still inside, they checked both women’s pulses and confirmed that Belt was alive. They radioed for Leslie Duncan, the department’s only detective, and helped the paramedics get Belt into an ambulance.
Duncan was exhausted from working a trailer-park murder earlier that day; overwhelmed, he called for backup from the Christian County Sheriff’s Office. Soon it seemed like half the city was on the scene: Papler and her husband, the mayor, city council members, the rest of the Oak Grove PD, and the sometime manager of the strip club, who listened to the police scanner as a hobby. They were all allowed to traipse past the crime-scene tape. The sheriff’s deputies say that by the time they arrived the scene was obviously contaminated and they wanted no part of it. But the state police were unwilling to help, so they were stuck.
By 8 A.M. or so, word traveled back that Belt had died at the hospital in Nashville, where she’d been taken by helicopter. Her autopsy revealed semen in both her vagina and her anal cavity, which likely meant she’d been raped. (Papler was extremely bullish about making workers use condoms, so it seemed implausible that the semen had come from a customer.) Later that day, Papler corralled her workers in the back of her other business, Cherry Video, and instructed them not to talk to any cops without an attorney present.
Processing the crime scene apparently didn’t take long. Bullets and stray hairs were collected, and objects in the lobby were scanned for fingerprints, unsuccessfully. The carpet was soaked with blood and had to be ripped out, and the bare floors needed scrubbing. But within days—with the killer still at large—Papler reopened the massage parlor.
The sheriff’s deputies fingered Carter as the killer almost immediately. All the circumstantial evidence pointed to him. He had a key, and his 2 A.M. visit looked in hindsight like a reconnaissance mission. They learned that Carter’s wife was missing her handgun, which she believed was a .22—the same kind that had been used in the murder. Carter couldn’t prove his whereabouts at the time of the murders; he claims that after he left New Life at two, he had a tryst with an occasional lover. His wife remembers him arriving home at four, when she rolled over in bed and looked at the clock. “The only thing open at this time of night are legs,” she told him. In response, he asked when she was going to get the washing machine fixed. A few minutes after he lay down, the phone rang. It was a call about the homicide.
When Carter arrived at the crime scene, he lingered on the periphery with his police dog on a leash. “I thought it was unusual,” says one of the patrolmen working that night. “Normally when something happened, and Officer Carter would get there, he’d come charging into whatever was going on.” A few weeks later, the sheriff’s department gave Carter a polygraph test, which he flunked.
The deputies didn’t trust Duncan either, and they said he kept running his mouth about the investigation. Over time, they concluded that Duncan had destroyed evidence to help his friend, but, the sheriff’s office claims, John Atkins, the district attorney, said they lacked enough evidence for a conviction. (Atkins, now a judge, doesn’t remember this, and there are no documents proving it happened.)
The newspapers didn’t report that Carter was a suspect, but they did report that he’d worked at New Life, and this alone created enough pressure to force his resignation. The police offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to the killer’s arrest, and Papler put up another $5,000 herself. The investigators received many calls but none that helped close the case. The weeks turned into months, and still no one was arrested.
That November, the Oak Grove police set out to close the brothel for good. They had the sewer pump searched, among other investigative measures, and found it crammed with condoms that had been flushed down the toilets. Papler was charged with promoting prostitution. She pleaded down to misdemeanor charges to avoid prison time, shuttered New Life Fitness & Massage, and concentrated on running her video store. As for Carter, his wife filed a domestic-violence complaint against him and they separated, then divorced. He left town, first taking a job in Nashville for several months, then moving to Louisville, where he found a security gig at the airport.
Whenever New Era reporters asked about the murder investigation, the sheriff’s deputies said they were doing all they could: issuing wanted alerts in other counties, waiting for lab results. “We’re still working on the case round-the-clock,” the sheriff said in one story a month after the murders. He admitted that there wasn’t much public pressure to solve it—presumably because the victims were seen only as a couple of poor prostitutes from out of state, with no local ties. But, he told the reporter, “We want to solve any murder, no matter who the victims are.”
For more than a century, the land Oak Grove now occupies was used for growing corn and dark-fired tobacco, among other crops, according to Christian County Historian William Turner. But after the start of the twentieth century, most of the sharecroppers moved to Hopkinsville for factory jobs, leaving the countryside almost vacant. Then in the early days of World War II, the U.S. Army decided to build a training camp at the county’s southernmost end, on the Kentucky-Tennessee border. A new prefabricated city went up almost overnight. “Everybody within a one-hundred-mile radius who didn’t have a job picked up a hammer and a saw and came down to Camp Campbell to work,” Turner told me.
In an alternate history, the Army’s presence could have spurred rapid economic development in Hopkinsville. The city might have extended its borders down to the state line, annexing all of that empty farmland, and business leaders could have built new neighborhoods, stores, and a movie theater. This is exactly what happened in Clarksville, Tennessee, on the other side of the post. But it was not to be in Christian County, because the people of Hopkinsville considered the soldiers an “inferior social group,” as Turner put it to me. Parents didn’t want the troopers mingling with their daughters, which they did anyway, and fights were always breaking out at bars. In 1952, a federal grand jury determined that soldiers had been “brutally beaten or killed” by Hopkinsville police, and an Army general threatened to declare the whole city temporarily off-limits for military personnel. The space in between remained a no-man’s-land, with development limited to a few stray trailer parks.
In the early 1970s, during the Vietnam War, the size of the Army had swelled due to the draft and Fort Campbell’s barracks couldn’t hold all the soldiers; the demand for local housing ballooned. More trailers appeared and other entrepreneurs swarmed in, setting up liquor stores, strip clubs, and a drive-in pornographic theater along the main highway. Within a few years, a City of Sin had materialized amid the tobacco fields.
A few families owned most of the real estate and were making handsome profits, but the soldiers were rowdy and there was no one to keep them in line outside of the post. In order to create a police force, the entrepreneurs banded together and incorporated their haphazard development as a city. When it gained municipal status in 1974, Oak Grove consisted of just a one-square-mile plot, bounded by trailer parks on three sides. They tried to brand it “The Hometown of Fort Campbell,” post historian John O’Brien told me, but nobody saw it that way.
While I was reporting this story, nearly everyone I interviewed in Christian County maintained that Oak Grove’s early days were characterized by rampant corruption. It is impossible to nail down specifics—most members of that original inner circle are dead—but the facts are clear, and damning. The Elliott family owned several trailer parks, and brothers Jack and Buddy served in their posts as mayor and police chief, respectively, for more than a decade. By some accounts, they abused their offices for personal gain at every turn. For several years in the 1970s, Buddy Elliott was also the city judge, meaning anyone he arrested or ticketed would have had no recourse if feeling cheated. He helped fund the fledgling city government by running a speed trap and racking up traffic fines. Former city employees told me that Buddy sometimes dispatched patrol officers to serve stop-work orders on his competitors’ building projects. The city’s little department gained a reputation at Fort Campbell for being dangerous. In its early days, the police department was sued for brutality toward soldiers on two separate occasions. “Word on base was that if you got a ticket and got sassy with a cop, he would handcuff you and beat you,” said Bobby Mace, a retired soldier who later got involved in local politics. In the second lawsuit, four men who’d been arrested in 1986, all in different incidents, said the cops had beaten and tased them without provocation. Residents from both sides of the state line grew accustomed to avoiding Oak Grove at all costs.
In 1993, the Elliott brothers were indicted in federal court on charges of fraud and conspiracy. An investigation suggested that they’d spotted a cheap piece of property and, knowing that the city needed a sewage treatment plant, had seen a chance to make a quick profit. Together with a third investor they allegedly bought the land for $35,000, and then, as mayor, Jack Elliott convinced the city council to purchase it for $66,500, concealing his personal stake, or so the prosecution said. His and Buddy’s names were not on the paperwork, but their bank-account records make it difficult to reject the prosecutor’s theory.
By the time of the trial, the third investor had died in a car crash, and the Elliotts’ attorney blamed everything on the dead man, claiming his clients weren’t involved in any way. After three days of testimony, the jury acquitted them. Jennifer Brown, my former editor, covered the trial herself, and in one of her stories, she wrote that a juror told her they’d all wanted to “stick it to” the Elliotts but had concluded that “the evidence just wasn’t there.” (Brown also remembers the trial witnesses giving an oral history of Oak Grove’s corruption, going back to the early seventies. Hoping to find a transcript, I paid to have the records dug out of storage in Atlanta and shipped back to the federal courthouse in western Kentucky. When I was in Hopkinsville, I took a day to drive out to the courthouse, but the file contained only a few short documents and almost no record of what was said in the trial.)
When Bobby Mace took over as mayor in 1993, the Army was beginning to rework its image and trying to make its internal culture more family-oriented. This was in the wake of Desert Storm, the first major conflict since the military switched to being all-volunteer, and those deployments had been especially rough on families. Army authorities extended tours of duty, so career soldiers wouldn’t have to move as often; built better on-post laundromats, gas stations, and schools; and created extracurricular clubs for kids. John O’Brien says Fort Campbell in particular became known as a family-friendly destination. Its ranks swelled as more soldiers requested to be stationed there.
Mace, who came from rural West Virginia and had served in Fort Campbell’s military police, tried to remake Oak Grove’s image in the same fashion. He barred the practice of leaning on local businesses for “donations,” as the police had done when Papler paid for their car lights, and he imposed new taxes to replace the revenue. Clapboard housing was built to complement the trailer parks, and the commercial strip densified with fast-food restaurants and hotels; the city even got its own Walmart. Mace set up a code-enforcement board and had the most dilapidated trailers removed. The new tourism commission organized family-friendly festivals like Halloween in the Park, which featured hayrides, a weenie roast, and a fire truck for the kids to climb on.
A twenty-six-year-old woman named Patty Belew, who was elected to the city council in 1996, seems to me a precise image of Oak Grove in those days. She had worked at New Life for a couple of years herself, supporting her two young daughters. Then she’d gotten her real estate license, married into a wealthy local family, and tried to reinvent herself. Though everyone knew about her past, her influential in-laws helped her win the election by recruiting their friends to vote. “It made me feel for the first time that I wasn’t trash,” she later said.
But during her first year, in the summer of 1997, this mood of hope and reform—in Oak Grove broadly, and for Belew in particular—was abruptly unsettled. Under Mace’s guidance, the council that year imposed a $5,000 annual fee on adult businesses. Tammy Papler had been lying low on probation, but she took the ordinance as an unsubtle ploy to shut down her video store, and she was incensed. On July 15, she made a surprise appearance at a city council meeting.
When Mace opened the floor for comments that night, Papler stepped forward. “This town is crooked,” she announced, “and I’ve got the papers to prove it.” She claimed that Ed Carter was responsible for the infamous murders, and she accused Leslie Duncan and the authorities of intentionally covering it up. “They’re just roaming free, and you don’t care,” Belew remembers her saying. Papler demanded an investigation. She brought up Carter’s failed polygraph, his regular payments from the brothel, the sexual favors her workers had doled out as bribes, the police-car lights she’d paid for, and the envelope of cash she’d given the police chief for Christmas bonuses. Eventually Mayor Mace banged his gavel. “Enough!” he yelled. A police officer moved to escort Papler out. Before she left, according to newspaper reports, she added, “If y’all don’t believe me, there’s other people, OK? Ask Patty Belew. She’s one of the most honest people that I know, OK?”
After the meeting, Belew told me, she addressed her fellow council members: “You all know I used to work there. I know some of what she’s saying is true.” She says they ignored her. That night she even went to the city clerk’s house and insisted that Papler’s claims should be taken seriously. The clerk demurred, but later in the week, she says, he came to her workplace and told her that everyone wanted her off the council. She claims he threatened impeachment. (He died in 2012, so it is impossible to compare his memory of the conversation.)
Belew told me all of this in September at her home in Tennessee, between Oak Grove and Nashville. As we talked, she sat beside the fireplace with her legs folded, blowing cigarette smoke up into the chimney. She hardly leaves the house these days and she’s become noticeably thin; it seems she gets most of her calories from Mountain Dew. By the time we met in person, we had already developed a rapport from several long phone conversations. On that afternoon, as during our calls, she narrated with a mix of world-weariness and self-pity, both earned.
The same week as the council meeting, she went to Cherry Video to talk with Papler. A TV reporter from Nashville happened to be there, and Belew confirmed to her that the bribery allegations were true. (Belew maintains that she thought it was off the record and didn’t know she was being filmed.) When the reporter asked how she knew, she blurted out, “Because I used to work there!” No sooner had it hit the airwaves than Oak Grove was overrun with reporters. Belew remembers answering the door to a throng of photographers snapping pictures. A sheriff’s deputy fueled the media interest by confirming that Carter and Duncan had been “suspects all along.”
The news garnered jokes in Jay Leno’s Tonight Show monologue, a mention on Paul Harvey’s show, and a segment on the then-CBS show Unsolved Mysteries. Several national news outlets covered it in detail, competing with one another to publish the yellowest prose. The Los Angeles Times, under the headline BIG SECRETS ERUPT IN A SMALL TOWN, reported that the scandal had “the frenzied air of a backwoods cockfight,” and the Washington Post called Papler “a small-town version of Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss.” Among my favorite passages is the opening of an Associated Press story:
It reads like a dime-store-novel:
Two dead prostitutes.
A madam who alleges that police officers upset that hush money was stopped and fearful they were about to be exposed pulled the trigger.
And an unlikely heroine, a city councilwoman who goes public with her past as a prostitute to help clean up her town.
And it’s all being played out in tiny Oak Grove, population 3,000.
Belew came out looking better than anyone. The papers portrayed her sympathetically, as the only honest person in town. But she didn’t want the attention. “I was about to have a nervous breakdown,” she told me. Her daughters were picked on at school and came home in tears, and she remembers being called a “whore” at a Taco Bell. She resigned from the council, moved to a small town closer to Nashville, and changed her phone number. When reporters found her, she changed it again, and again.
Papler, on the other hand, seemed to thrive on the press coverage. She hired a high-profile Cincinnati attorney, H. Louis Sirkin—who also represented the porn kingpin Larry Flynt—and sued the Oak Grove government to have its adult-business ordinance repealed. She also revealed that a Hopkinsville lawyer, the son of a state representative, had been one of New Life’s clients, and she threatened to release other names, including “quite a few doctors and attorneys.”
By then Ed Carter was working as an airport security guard and part-time police officer in a small suburb of Louisville. Amid all the news coverage, the suburb had a town-hall meeting to discuss Carter’s status. A few residents approached the lectern to express unease—“Why should we have to live in doubt?” one woman asked, adding that she was concerned about her teenage daughter—but according to the Associated Press, most residents and city council members expressed solidarity and said they doubted the accusations. “He is not that kind of person,” the city clerk said. For his part, Carter said he was sick of being mobbed by reporters, but otherwise he seemed to take it in stride. “Life goes on,” he told the AP correspondent. “I’ve been honest straight up from day one.”
Soon, the murders receded again from the headlines. No one was charged.
Bobby Mace’s reform efforts in Oak Grove didn’t get very far; the lawsuits over the police department’s brutality continued mounting. In 2001, a man was waiting in the drunk tank for a relative to come pick him up and asked to use the bathroom. The officer on duty, David Kitchens, reportedly pulled the man out, beat him, and pepper-sprayed him, without the man fighting back. Then Kitchens charged the man with assaulting an officer and fabricated a story in the arrest report to support it—not realizing, the plaintiff’s attorney told me, that the new camera system had caught it all on tape. (The city settled for $35,000.)
Others sued the Oak Grove police for roughing them up during simple traffic stops. One woman said a cop had pulled her out of her car and thrown her to the ground, swearing at her in front of her child, and then hauled her to jail on a trumped-up charge. In another incident, they sicced a police dog on a drunken passenger who had gotten impatient while his friend was going through sobriety tests. The worst was the 2000 case of Milo Rodgers, a sergeant at Fort Campbell, who said he was driving his son to the hospital when the Oak Grove police chief and two officers pulled him over with their guns drawn, stomped on his neck, and dragged him by his handcuffs. He won $2.3 million in a jury trial, nearly bankrupting the city. Eventually the city’s insurer refused to renew its policy.
By the mid-2000s, the department had also developed a habit of getting into reckless car chases. Once, while pursuing a speeding motorcyclist, an officer crashed into a pregnant woman’s car—going 90 mph in a 35-mph zone—and made her car flip four or five times. (Her nose and several ribs were broken; the baby survived.) Another time, police officers hit a driver on their way to a domestic dispute, then tried to make the driver pay for the damage to the police cruiser. One of my colleagues at the New Era reported in 2010 that the Oak Grove police had gotten into twenty-three pursuits during the same time period that Clarksville police had been involved in only five, though Clarksville’s population was thirteen times larger.
Not that the problems were confined to the police department. One mayor, Colleen Ochs, was sued by the city council on accusations that she had run her office like a low-level
autocrat: hiring people and paying bills without consulting the council, refusing to fill seats on city boards, exempting employees from overtime regulations. The next mayor, Ochs’s husband, a retired Army sergeant named Dan Potter, had racked up enough DUIs to lose his driving privileges and earn him the nickname Bike Man.
Countless times while I was living in the area, when Oak Grove came up in conversation, people in Hopkinsville shook their heads. There’s something going on down there was the most common refrain. One of my old sources told me while I was reporting this story, “It just doesn’t seem clean. When my daughter starts driving, I’ll tell her, ‘You just don’t go that way.’ I don’t even like driving through.”
On a Sunday afternoon last September, I flew into Nashville and drove up to Hopkinsville. I hadn’t been there in three and a half years, so it took a little while to regain my bearings, and it felt eerie, approaching familiar intersections but not quite remembering which way to go. I’d never been comfortable living in Hopkinsville; when I wasn’t in my role as a reporter, I felt deeply out of place there, and I made very few friends outside the newsroom. By the time I left, the isolation had become almost unbearable. But as I drove down the main commercial strip that evening, where so many of the storefronts are shuttered and falling apart, I realized how important the place is for me. It is where I figured out how the world works. My reporting there had revealed to me, in a palpable way, human nature writ large: how interlocking personal interests compound to direct economic, sociological trends.
I ended up at Jennifer Brown’s house, where I was staying in the guest room. It’s a two-story brick home in one of the more elegant subdivisions, near the country club. Brown and I have kept in steady contact since I left, and she was covering the trial herself for the New Era. She was leaving the newspaper after thirty years to focus on other writing projects and partly because budget cuts had diminished the number of staffers, increasing her workload to a point where it had become unsustainable. Covering Carter’s trial, after two decades of reporting the investigation’s fits and starts, seemed like the perfect final assignment for her. The evening I arrived, we drank beers on her patio and speculated about why the case was being tried after all these years.
In 2006, the state police had quietly taken over the New Life murder investigation from the county sheriff’s office. Six years later, they arrested Leslie Duncan on charges of tampering with the crime scene, accusing him of throwing away shell casings and wiping fingerprints off a phone to cover up for Ed Carter. Hoping to put the affair behind him, Duncan took a plea bargain, admitting that he’d mishandled the crime scene but denying that he’d destroyed evidence maliciously. “Leslie felt like what he did wrong was be a bad detective,” his attorney later told me.
But the decision backfired; as it turned out, Duncan’s plea was the last element that prosecution needed to try the murder case. In November of 2013, after hearing testimony from a Kentucky State Police detective, a grand jury indicted Carter on a murder charge and Duncan as an accomplice. A third man was also charged with murder, one whose name had never appeared in news reports about the case: Frank Black, an ex-con who lived in Clarksville when the murders occurred. It had taken three years to prepare for the trial, because almost everyone in Christian County’s legal community had been ensnared by the case since the nineties and held conflicts of interest. By 2016, a clean crew was finally in place: a judge, prosecutor, and defense attorney imported from elsewhere in the state. Brown and I imagined that Carter’s conviction was all but settled, and we wondered what new evidence had triggered the indictment: perhaps they’d found a DNA match, or a crucial witness had finally come forward.
The testimony started on a Wednesday morning. “All rise!” the bailiff bellowed. “Christian County Circuit Court is now in session.” I had heard the court’s formal opening a hundred times, but I never got over the comic self-seriousness. “The Honorable Judge Phillip Patton presiding. All ye with pleas to make conduct yourselves becomingly. God save this honorable court and the Commonwealth of Kentucky.”
Judge Patton was a seventy-year-old retiree from the nearby city of Glasgow. When he invited the prosecution to give an opening statement, a pudgy and pale goateed man in a trim black suit approached. “Ladies and gentlemen, good morning,” Tres Miller said. “Twenty-two years ago, seventeen miles south of where you sit now, in Oak Grove, Kentucky, stood a massage parlor called New Life Massage. It was called a massage parlor, but in reality it was a brothel. A bordello. A whorehouse.” He went on to set the scene for the murders, explaining how Carter had been on the payroll, and how Papler had cut him off but then had found him in the building that night after Labor Day in 1994. “The fox,” he said, “was in the whorehouse.”
As the opening statement progressed, the prosecutor’s narrative became more and more confusing. The basic theory was that Carter and Frank Black had killed the women together and Duncan had intentionally covered it up, but there was no explanation of Black’s connection to the others or any suggestion of a possible motive. Miller concluded: “You will be frustrated with every single investigator on this case. You will want to ask them why, why, why.” He implored the jury to treat Duncan as the scapegoat for the other policemen’s errors. “Every subsequent investigator,” he said, “built their house on the shifting sand of Leslie Duncan.”
Some of the witnesses that followed were more illuminating. Almost the whole gang from 1994 had been rounded up, including Tammy Papler, who has changed her name. They had fanned out across the country; Tammy Sneed, who discovered the victims, now lives in Louisiana, and another former worker is in upstate New York. Only Patty Belew, the councilwoman, had somehow dodged a subpoena. (Once I arrived and started sending her updates from the courtroom, she awaited my text messages with jitters.) But throughout the testimony, nothing actually incriminated Carter or his codefendants. Witnesses supplied a vivid picture of what had happened at New Life just before the murders, and after, but the thirty-five-minute stretch in which Gloria Ross and Candy Belt were left alone remained a blank canvas for speculation.
The trial took its first real turn when Duncan’s lawyer, Stephanie Ritchie Mize, began her cross-examination. I’d known Mize a little when I lived in the area; her husband at the time, who was also an attorney, had been one of my best sources. They were both from other parts of the state and had few local ties, so they’d never been afraid to take unpopular cases or go against the local establishment. I’d met them when they were suing a Christian County sheriff’s deputy for brutality. Mize was well-poised to litigate this case, and she quickly emerged as the most dominant presence in the courtroom.
With Billy Gloyd—one of the two sheriff’s deputies who had helped investigate the case from day one and who still worked for the sheriff’s department—on the witness stand, Mize strode back and forth between the lectern and the defendants’ table, in a gray dress and heels, her ginger hair wound in a loose bun. She pressed Gloyd about what had happened to all the evidence between 1994 and 2006, when the state took over the investigation. “Would it be a fair statement,” she asked, “that when this case was transferred to the state police, there were empty envelopes, empty boxes, obvious signs that things were missing?” Gloyd reacted as though he didn’t understand the question, so she continued. “Let me ask you this. If you received a file in 1995, and you noticed there was an empty evidence-collection envelope, what would you have done?”
“Investigated it,” he answered.
“So it’s a fair statement that over the eleven years you all had this case, evidence was lost, evidence was misplaced, and it definitely impacted this investigation?”
This was news to me. As far as I’d known, the only cop who’d seriously screwed up was Duncan. Again, Gloyd tried to evade the question.
“Now,” Mize closed in on him, her usually bright tone rendered flat and even, “considering your statement that there were obvious failures during those eleven years, why do you think that you’re not sitting at this table?”
“I don’t know,” Gloyd stammered. “I just think the documents have been misplaced.”
“That’s all I have,” Mize told the judge.
If I had come in expecting a revelation about the case, here I was getting one—just not the kind I’d expected. The investigation had been shot from the beginning.
A few days after Gloyd’s testimony, his old partner, Malcolm Moore, took the witness stand. The same pattern repeated itself: Moore answered the prosecutor’s questions laconically, sticking to the bare facts of the procedural notes he’d taken in 1994. Then, under cross-examination, Moore admitted that in addition to all the evidence they’d lost, there was a staggering amount that they’d willfully ignored: hairs, fibers, even a knife collected during follow-up interviews. A great deal of it had never been submitted to the lab for DNA testing. Further, Moore admitted that Tammy Papler had called him the day after the murders and said she’d found articles of one of the victims’ clothing in the bathroom. He and Gloyd never even came to get it.
“This case wasn’t a priority for the sheriff’s department,” Mize said, referring to the years it had languished. “Is that a fair statement?”
“It was, unless we had another case going on,” Moore mumbled.
“You were working leads, but not testing people—is that a fair statement?” she asked.
Equally devastating to the prosecution’s case was the DNA the sheriff’s department had submitted for testing—including the semen found in Belt’s body—because none of it matched the DNA of Carter, Duncan, or Black. The prosecutor explained that the semen must have come from a customer, so Belt wasn’t raped by the killer. But, Mize argued, the books showed she hadn’t serviced any customers that night, and doing business off the books was severely forbidden. Even if she had, why wouldn’t she have used a condom? The condom mandate was New Life’s No. 1 rule. Mize led the detectives through these omissions in drawn-out, almost painful detail.
By this point even I felt implicated. It appeared that the investigators’ presumption of Carter’s guilt—a perspective shared by almost everyone for the past twenty years—was self-fulfilling. It hindered them from pursuing other leads to any serious extent, and the lack of substantive evidence was then blamed exclusively on Duncan.
But who else could have known the women would be alone, gotten in through the locked door, and had a motive? As it turned out, there were several candidates. Their identities emerged, in a fragmented way, from the cross-examinations. I had to rewatch trial tapes, interview attorneys, and scrutinize the original investigation notes to form a coherent picture.
Frank Black, the third codefendant, had been working at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville at the time of the murders and living in Clarksville, Tennessee, within a twenty-minute drive of Oak Grove. The night after Gloria Ross and Candy Belt were killed, Black had seized a hotel guest and tried to rape her at knifepoint. He was convicted and spent seven years in prison. He had used a fixed-blade knife, several inches long, which matched the kind used in the murders. There was also some evidence, albeit shaky, that he’d been a customer at New Life and might have even been at the crime scene. (The person who told this to investigators, a friend of Black’s, was developmentally disabled and might have been nudged too hard into giving the answer the police wanted to hear.)
Another candidate was Ryan Ross, Gloria’s husband, who had been a Fort Campbell soldier at the time of the murders. Carter’s attorney, Brandi Jones, teased out his story during cross-examination. The couple had two young children and almost no money, so Ryan reportedly helped Gloria get a job at a strip club, then at New Life. According to investigators’ notes from 1994, Gloria’s coworkers and neighbors at the trailer park where the Rosses lived remembered the couple arguing often. The investigators believed Ryan had twice tried to hire a private investigator to follow Gloria around; he suspected she was having an affair with Candy Belt, they said, and he allegedly told the PI that if his wife turned out to be a lesbian, he might kill her. Days before Gloria was murdered, her mother had called Ryan and said Gloria was about to leave him and come back to her home in Florida, bringing their children, and a friend, along. Finally, a neighbor told investigators in 1994 that he remembered Ryan leaving his trailer at almost exactly the time when the two women were killed.
Also, the other workers told investigators, Ryan Ross always held on to Gloria’s key to the New Life massage parlor.
When Ross was questioned in the initial investigation, he too failed a polygraph and claimed he didn’t even know the PI whom he’d allegedly tried to hire. One detective noted that Ross said he was upset about losing the income Gloria had brought home. But the investigators didn’t ask him for a DNA sample or ever follow up with him again. (When I tracked down Ross after the trial, he sounded flabbergasted to hear what had been said about him. “I didn’t kill my wife,” he told me. “I’ll take it to my grave.”)
The third suspect to emerge at trial is the most compelling. James Stephen Henson worked at an appliance distributor in Hopkinsville in 1994. After the murders, his sometime girlfriend, Theresa Abbott (now deceased), called the sheriff’s department and said she believed Henson was the killer. The detectives never interviewed Abbott in person, but in their files was a typed list of twenty reasons she believed Henson was guilty. She had found receipts showing that he’d bought a membership at New Life in January of 1994. “I asked if he had gone there. He admitted that he had gone there, and it was not what I think,” the statement reads. She hadn’t seen him between 10 P.M. on the night of the murders and 9:30 the following night, and she said he’d been carrying a Nike bag containing a knife, a gun, and a pair of gym shorts. The statement continues: “After I asked him, he admitted that he had killed them, with no reaction—a non-caring attitude. Later, it was that he had killed them with a gun and a knife, chuckling at me.” Henson had always cleaned his car by hand, she said, but that weekend he’d taken it to a carwash business.
During their testimonies, Tammy Sneed and Millie Burns each remembered a man they didn’t know sitting in the New Life lobby on the night of the murders. He declined sexual services, and from the way he had stared into the distance, Burns thought he must have been “on something.” They described his appearance: dark hair, mustache, wearing a t-shirt and an Alabama hat. One thought he might have been Mexican. Mize later showed me a photo of Henson, and that description squares with his appearance.
Mize drilled Detective Moore on why he hadn’t investigated Henson more thoroughly. “Miss Burns testified that there had been a very unusual character in the parlor that evening,” she said, “that appeared to be wearing some sort of disguise. Do you recall that?”
“No, ma’am. Not right off the top of my head, I don’t.”
“So I’m guessing you didn’t do anything to follow up.”
“If she said that, I’m sure we did.”
“Well, would it be reflected in the file?”
“It should be.”
“So if it’s not, then it probably means nothing happened, is that correct?”
“Yes, ma’am. I would assume so.”
“She testified that no one ever asked her about it again. Do you recall asking her about it again?”
“Now if someone told you that this unusual person was in the parlor, four or five hours before the murder, wearing some sort of a disguise, what would you normally do?”
“Probably try to locate that individual, if there was any way possible.”
“I know you can put out a be-on-the-lookout for cars. Is there the same thing for a person?”
“Basically, yes, ma’am.”
“I don’t see that anything like that occurred, looking for this gentleman. Do you recall anything like that?”
The sum total was more than enough to demonstrate reasonable doubt about Carter’s guilt. On the sixth day of the trial, after the prosecution had presented all its evidence, Mize convinced the judge to throw out her client Duncan’s charges himself—a rarity, to say the least, for double-homicide cases. When the jury went out to deliberate on the others, it was gone less than two hours. It acquitted Ed Carter and Frank Black on every count.
In the weeks after the trial, most people I talked to around town—at bars and restaurants, in the neighborhoods of Oak Grove, even in my old newsroom—didn’t care about why the case had been resurrected after all this time. To them, it was a shame that the crooked cops had gotten off. But for me, the question of why it had been tried still seemed paramount. I pressed attorneys on both sides for intel, and I consistently heard that a detective from the state police named Jason Newby was responsible. When I questioned Newby, he confirmed it without hesitation. He had grown up in Hopkinsville and graduated from high school in 1994, just a few months before the murders. He later joined the Marine Corps, and when he returned home, he worked his way up from the state police’s highway patrol to his post as an investigator. He’s now retired from the agency. Just like me, he said, he’d always seen the New Life mystery as Christian County’s ultimate cold case. When he took a close look himself, he concluded that Frank Black—who had never been seriously investigated in the 1990s—was the lynchpin. “I didn’t have any more information than what the investigators had back in 1994, ’95,” he told me. “I basically just picked up where they left off.”
Newby still believes he had the guilty suspects. “There’s not a doubt in my mind that those were the right three men,” he said. He thinks Carter and Black colluded because they wanted to take over the massage parlor and were trying to “send a message” to Papler. And Newby has reasons to believe Ryan Ross and James Stephen Henson aren’t the culprits—but he couldn’t tell me what they were, since the case is technically still open. I’m not convinced they are innocent, because they haven’t even been subjected to DNA tests. Based on what I saw at the trial, it’s hard to believe they were thoroughly investigated. In my judgment, it was grossly irresponsible to charge Carter, Duncan, and Black after all these years. I’ve seen Newby’s grand jury testimony, and it’s full of holes and speculation. (“I don’t envy you,” he told the prosecutor during his conclusion. “But that’s what I’ve got.”) Of course, the blame for this lies more with the local district attorney than it does with Newby.
If the trial had value, though, it was in revealing the underlying dynamics that make Oak Grove the way it is. Brown called attention to this in an editorial after the acquittal, in language that reflected the conversations we’d been having at her house. “We may never know who killed Gloria Ross and Candace Belt,” she wrote. But “what we do know about the murders is that public corruption made them possible.” She went on to criticize “old attitudes” around the county: “We hope Christian County as a whole sees Oak Grove as part of the larger community, a place that shouldn’t have to operate as separate and unworthy of association and support. It would be unethical and dangerous to accept anything less.” The investigators who testified showed an attitude that the crime had been Oak Grove’s problem alone, because the town had brought the situation upon itself.
For now, though, the dynamics remain unchanged. In fact, during my three weeks in Christian County I witnessed two scandals that made it feel eerily like we’d been transported back to the Elliott days.
At least one cop has a stake in local real estate, as the property manager of the Grace Mobile Home Community, a forty-lot trailer park near Fort Campbell’s gates. I visited on a gloomy Wednesday afternoon. In some of the trailers, built in the 1950s, the floors were rotting through, ceilings falling in, water heaters busted. One woman showed me a hole where stray cats sneak into her home during the winter. The landlord lives several hours away, so Officer Scott Raup, the property manager, is the only liaison. But one resident told me she’s afraid that if she raises complaints she’ll be arrested on false charges. It’s hard to blame her, given the police department’s history. (In fairness, Raup had only taken over in September. When I talked with him in January, he said the shabbiest trailers had by then been removed, improvements had been made on other units, and tenant complaints had ceased. Raup said he takes care to keep his work at the trailer park separate from his role as a cop.)
Two weeks after Carter’s acquittal, Ben Walden, a patrol supervisor for the Oak Grove PD, was arrested by his chief on charges of running a prostitution ring. The state police accused Walden and two other people of holding several women at an Oak Grove motel against their will and pimping them out. They also said Walden had beaten one of the women, raped her with a beer bottle, and threatened to murder her family if she talked to the police. (As of this writing he has not been indicted.)
Some acquaintances told me that the current mayor, Bea Burt, a seventy-eight-year-old retiree, doesn’t seem to know what she’s doing, and that the city clerk runs the show. This aligns with my observations: I called city hall repeatedly for two weeks in hopes of getting an interview with the mayor, and I left messages with the clerk. The mayor didn’t return my calls. During my last few days in Kentucky, I was prepared to camp out at city hall and wait, but it turned out the mayor was out of town. The clerk became increasingly testy with me and ultimately said I’d have to talk with the city attorney instead.
Meanwhile, after Walden’s arrest, Jennifer Brown took direct aim at Oak Grove’s leadership in an editorial. “Although many officers have served the city competently and honestly in spite of unruly colleagues and poor management at various times,” she wrote, “the history of corruption and abuse cannot be denied.” She argued that the city council should ask for an independent analysis of the police department. “In the event that systemic weaknesses have prevented the police department from fully recovering from past transgressions, now is the time to address those problems.”
Talking in her kitchen that week, we agreed that this intervention would almost have to come from the federal government, perhaps the Department of Justice—much like what the DOJ recently did in Ferguson, Missouri. The New Life case proved several times over that the county and the state are not up to this task. However, even this approach now strikes me as insufficient. A change of personnel could only do so much. After all, the city leadership has been a revolving door since the nineties; whatever it is that plagues Oak Grove must be structural, not limited to a few—or many—bad actors.
In December, I called Catherine Lutz, an anthropologist who teaches at Brown University. Her 2001 book Homefront examines the ways Fayetteville, North Carolina, has changed since Fort Bragg was built there during World War I. In some parts it reads like a mirror chronicle of Oak Grove. Lutz was thrilled that someone else had noticed the same phenomenon she’d documented, though not surprised. “There are so many of these towns,” she said.
In Homefront, Lutz observed that the military population’s transience gives Fayetteville’s local government too much license. “At both the state and local levels,” she wrote, “residents’ concerns can be treated lightly and democracy becomes a slighter thing.” In Oak Grove, it’s hardly a thing at all. Since most of the population consists of short-term tenants who aren’t registered to vote in Kentucky, the city’s government—police department included—operates in a vacuum of accountability. In a 2014 election, the current mayor won a six-way race with only 86 votes, and one councilman won a seat with 227 votes—though the city’s population now exceeds seven thousand.
The Christian County government is culpable for keeping Oak Grove in a vacuum, too, offering little support for public works projects, economic development, or infrastructure—something I didn’t fully appreciate until the New Life trial. Economic development, especially, is an area in which Oak Grove faces inherent challenges. Consumer demand is for fast-food restaurants and seedy establishments, not for higher-end stores. Luring, say, a factory would be almost impossible, because there’s hardly any long-term labor force, and because the city’s sleazy reputation itself makes it unattractive. In fact, it’s so desperate for development that it’s become an easy target for con artists. For six years, including the period when I lived nearby, some opportunists from California strung the city along with promises to build a huge “European-style” outdoor shopping mall, which the mayor at the time believed would transform the city. Each time doubts spread about whether the mall would ever be built, the investors came back to town and put on another “groundbreaking” ceremony, and further inflated their claims about the amenities it would include and the jobs it would create. In 2014, when the investors asked for a $7 million loan, the city got wise and refused. Jennifer Brown told me another would-be developer has come along lately with talk of building a Hard Rock Cafe.
Again, Lutz noticed the same challenge in Fayetteville: “As the county’s industrial recruiter tries to lure potential businesses to town, he rues how many places he has to avoid while giving them the area tour,” she writes. “One of the sights he would surely like to avoid is the Carolina Square shopping center near the base. On a shared theme of body parts for sale, there is Alpha Plasma, alongside strip joints such as Foxy Lady, Mickey’s Lounge, or Boogies.”
Throughout Fayetteville’s history, as in Oak Grove, real-estate developers have wielded outsize influence on public policy, particularly in areas like zoning and the placement of roads and other infrastructure. Trailer parks dominate the landscape, and many of them are in poor shape—the result of “corruption and weak public regulation,” in Lutz’s assessment. Prostitution has historically flourished there as well.
For both places, the systemic municipal challenges are tied to the city’s proximity to a large military base. In Oak Grove, veterans have made up much of the city’s leadership since the nineties, with especially heavy representation in the police department. In 2002, six years before it dropped the city’s policy, Oak Grove’s insurance carrier stressed this problematic reality. “Currently all but one of your officers is ex-military,” the report read. “This ‘military mindset’ strongly affects the manner in which these officers deal with the public.” The insurer warned Oak Grove to change its hiring practices, but instead the city doubled down.
In addition to violence and authoritarianism, the “military mindset” has an element of repressive assumptions based on gender. It’s in her treatment of this subject that Lutz’s observations in Fayetteville synch up most precisely with what I saw in Oak Grove:
Finally, this is a town with a still very male labor force. It results from hiring quotas, sexual harassment, and the continuing belief that war is a male job because men are stronger and more aggressive and women are life givers rather than takers. While women make up 14 percent of the Army, machismo norms mix with this man-heavy sex ratio to install a plethora of tattoo parlors, car lots, gun sales, and a flourishing sex industry. Strip clubs and prostitution spill into the daily lives of people in the poorer neighborhoods in town. Sex workers are frequently the victims of crime, with prostitutes and erotic dancers murdered with regularity and seeming impunity (although a campaign was announced in 2000 to investigate seven unsolved killings of prostitutes).
As far as I can determine, nothing ever came of those seven investigations.
“In the state of North Carolina we’re looked at as the worst city, the most crime ridden city, dangerous city,” the rapper J. Cole said in a 2015 interview. “To go outside of the city and tell someone you’re from Fayetteville, it’s like ‘Oh shit, uh oh.’ That’s the reputation.” Cole’s music is marked by his pride for and intimacy with his hometown—he was raised near Fort Bragg in a military family, and one album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, is titled after a childhood address—and he refers to the city constantly in his lyrics. At the beginning of the song “Visionz of Home,” Cole plants a flag in the ground: “2-6, Fayettenam, Carolina, Southeast shit.” Fayetteville’s nicknames disclose its reliance on the military; 2-6 is a reference to the 26th North Carolina Infantry, the Confederate brigade that suffered the most casualties of any regiment in the Civil War on either side.
I asked Lutz how Fort Bragg’s influence on Fayetteville might have looked different if the city hadn’t had any history of its own before the military came to town. This was the biggest discrepancy between our case studies: Fayetteville dates to the eighteenth century, long before Fort Bragg was built in 1918; without Fort Campbell, Oak Grove likely wouldn’t exist at all. Lutz pointed to a town in the same county as Fayetteville called Spring Lake. Its population is around thirteen thousand, compared to Fayetteville’s two hundred thousand, and it was incorporated in 1951 after the population boom that accompanied World War II. Just like Oak Grove, Spring Lake butts right up against the military post. It mostly consists of trailer parks and other cheap housing, much of which is poorly maintained. “It wasn’t the place where all the bad stuff happened,” Lutz said, but Fayetteville residents were comfortable seeing much of it concentrated there.
Like Oak Grove, Spring Lake is the scourge of the county, forever plagued by scandals. Most notably, in 2007, the local district attorney found that a patrol supervisor had taken $2,900 from a man in a hotel room and then ordered a junior officer to cover his tracks by fabricating a police report—writing that he’d gone to the hotel because he smelled marijuana smoke. The supervisor had apparently pocketed the money. He and a colleague were also indicted for assault and kidnapping, and the department was stripped of its authority. Last summer, the state auditor found that the mayor and other town officials had spent $460,000 on illegal purchases, including travel expenses and gift cards, and had chosen not to collect $90,000 in utility charges from a real-estate management company. “This has been going on in Spring Lake for a long, long, long, long time,” the mayor admitted at a town-hall meeting. He promised, however, that the town would finally be reformed.
Malcolm Muir, a historian at the Virginia Military Institute, drew my attention to another analogue: Phenix City, Alabama, which is across the state line from Fort Benning in Georgia. “It was Oak Grove writ large, in the 1930s and ’40s,” he told me—full of gambling halls and brothels, and a magnet for crimes against soldiers. Local officials took bribes and colluded with predatory merchants. In 1954, an attorney who tried to clean up the town was gunned down in the street. Eventually the corruption was rooted out, but it took extreme measures: the National Guard instituted martial law, destroying the gambling halls and prosecuting hundreds of people.
Some of these trends stem from the inherent nature of the military; soldiers have been soliciting prostitutes for millennia (reportedly, bands of prostitutes would follow the Roman army on expeditions). In the twentieth century, commercial strips of liquor stores, topless bars, and cash-advance shops became staples of military towns (just as they’ve materialized in places like Williston, North Dakota, amid the recent oil boom there).
If there’s a systemic, long-term solution, it’s simply to not have a military-industrial complex. We’d have to close some of the bases and spend the money on services like health and education instead. But as long as we have Fort Campbells and Fort Bennings and Fort Braggs, cities like Oak Grove are here to stay.
I’ve tried to keep track of everyone since September. Since Brown left the newspaper, she’s been traveling around the country: hiking, visiting family, teaching workshops, freelancing. She now rents an office in downtown Hopkinsville so she doesn’t have to do all her writing at Starbucks. Her career change was obviously a smart move, but I worry about Christian County now that she isn’t leading the charge for accountability. The New Era has long been a training ground for young reporters who, like me, depended on Brown’s guidance.
Patty Belew was recently laid off from a factory and now helps with her sister’s small business. She’s still scarred by her experience at New Life; she says it gave her such sordid glimpses of men’s inner lives that she can scarcely trust anyone now. In every relationship since then, she’s had fits of paranoia, worrying that her partner was having affairs. When new acquaintances find out about her past, she says, they stop treating her with respect. She dreams about opening a shelter to help other women escape lives of prostitution. “It demeans you,” she told me, “and you never feel like a whole person again.”
I never managed to interview Tammy Papler myself or find out what’s become of her. During the trial, there was testimony that cast Papler herself as a threatening presence. Workers have reported that she routinely threatened physical violence if they crossed her. “Tammy told us not to fuck with her,” one woman told investigators in 1994, “or she would beat us up or put us in jail.” And Belew told me she remembers Papler threatening to kill her employees. Carter’s attorney questions whether Papler really even cut off Carter’s payments right before the murders happened; she could have invented the story to make him look more suspicious. She had also extended New Life’s hours—to close at five in the morning rather than three—shortly before the murders. Duncan’s attorney suggested to me that Papler had commissioned someone to rough up Ross or Belt, and somehow it spun out of control. This would also explain why she reopened New Life while the killer was still at large.
Gloria Ross’s daughter, Shanice, did not respond to my request for an interview, but she is suing Carter, Duncan, and the city of Oak Grove for the wrongful death of her mother, on the theory that Carter committed the murder. The burden of proof is easier to meet in a civil lawsuit than in a criminal case. Shortly after the trial, she posted a video on Facebook declaring that she still believed Carter was responsible.
Leslie Duncan has returned to his home in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, forty miles north of Hopkinsville. Mize is trying to get his evidence-tampering conviction set aside, claiming that new evidence has emerged since he pleaded guilty. If it works, she believes, Duncan will be reinstated with the National Guard, his employer for twenty years, and he’ll be able to recover full retirement benefits.
So that leaves Ed Carter.
While the jury was deliberating during his trial, I met a woman named Jessica Doherty Woods, who had worked for Oak Grove as an emergency dispatcher in the early nineties. She had come to the trial to support Ed Carter and offered to connect me with him. During the weeks after his acquittal I couldn’t get her on the phone, but a few days before I was scheduled to leave Kentucky again, she finally replied with a text: “Eds here now if you want to talk to him.”
When I called, Carter answered. I asked how he was feeling, and he told me he was all but sequestered at Woods’s house in Shelbyville, outside of Louisville. After his arrest in 2013, he said, he’d lost his driver’s license, his birth certificate, his Social Security card, and many of his belongings to the state police’s inventory. He was waiting to recover them so he could apply for jobs and get an apartment of his own. Still, he sounded upbeat. I asked if I could drive up the next day and meet him, and he agreed.
It took three hours to get there. Woods lives out in the country, where the white fences and rolling pastures look like postcards from Lexington. Carter met me at the front door, wearing a plain black t-shirt and cargo pants, smiling broadly. Inside, Woods’s two dogs were barking wildly; Carter shooed them out of the living room and brought me a cup of coffee. Right away, I was struck by his charm. For all these years I’d regarded him as a villain, and now he seemed so guileless.
He was quick to open up about his background. The youngest child of seven, he remembered hauling tobacco with his father and working in the potato barn. The farm he grew up on had two hundred pigs, he said, and he sometimes kept watch in the hog pen when his father had to make repairs. After high school, he briefly went to community college, but his mother had terminal diabetes and was on dialysis so Carter quit school to look after her.
He cycled through some low-wage jobs: bagging groceries, delivering truck parts, running errands for an auto dealership. In the late 1980s, he was at the grocery store when Danny Pollard, a young Hopkinsville police officer, approached him about joining the Police Explorer program. Carter agreed, and Pollard helped him secure a slot. Then, in 1990, a permanent position opened at the Oak Grove Police Department, where Pollard himself had recently transferred. Carter went down for an interview with Buddy Elliott. He recalled the conversation:
“Let me ask you something,” Elliott said. “If I hire you, are you going to do what I tell you to do?”
“Yes, sir, I will,” Carter remembered saying.
“I’m going to be honest with you,” Elliott continued. “I’m looking for a black person.” He was afraid that if he didn’t hire one, the NAACP would launch a negative publicity campaign.
Just like that, Carter was hired.
During his early months on the job, Carter still hadn’t attended the police academy, so he was given several binders of maps and materials to study. Between calls, he often parked on the roadside and read them by the dome light. “I’m gonna tell you though, God blessed me from the first day I started that job,” he said. “Because all the deputies working at the sheriff’s department were wonderful people.” They were always happy to drive over and back him up, even on simple calls, and they never expressed impatience. Pollard became a mentor, both on the job and off. For a while they worked the midnight shift together and had long discussions as they looped around the rural back roads. In 1992, Carter had gotten married to a woman named Carol, whom he’d known for only a few months, and it had been rocky from the start. Pollard was having marriage troubles, too, and they both appreciated having someone with whom to commiserate. “Danny was just like a brother to me,” Carter told me. “We laughed, we joked, we cried.”
As we talked, he leaned forward in his seat, elbows on his knees. He was eager to tell his entire story, sometimes to the point of stammering in his haste.
By 1993, Carter was settled into the job and he’d become an important member of the tiny force. On January 4 of that year, a dispatcher sent him to a familiar address. He remembered stepping into Pollard’s home and calling his friend’s name, with no response. Carter walked down the hallway and found Pollard on the floor, covered in blood. He’d been stabbed so many times in the stomach, his intestines were hanging out. “And I knew that he was gone,” Carter told me. “It was like having your heart pulled out.”
It turned out Danny Pollard had been murdered by his brother-in-law, who had conspired with Pollard’s wife—the killer’s sister. They’d had an incestuous relationship, and Pollard’s wife had borne her brother’s child. The lore is that Pollard had struggled toward the bedroom door as he was being attacked, trying to reach his gun belt, only to realize it was missing—because his wife had taken it that morning. Both brother and sister pleaded guilty the following year. (Pollard’s wife wrote a version of her life story in prison, saying that Pollard had raped and abused her, and that she was afraid for her life. Her sentence was later commuted.)
Carter and his colleagues were shaken so hard, he said, that everyone lost their bearings for a while. Some started drinking with abandon; one began cheating on his wife. For his part, Carter began to lose his temper more easily and more often. “We were more aggressive,” he said, “and we didn’t put up with telling the person forty times to stop doing something.” This was the period when he threw an abusive husband out of a trailer, and when his philandering increased.
However, Carter defended his role at New Life. He said he’d done it properly by clearing the job with the police chief. The wages were so meager, he said, he had little choice. As for the night of the murders, he maintained that he was with a paramour, a Fort Campbell soldier. He later urged investigators to interview her, he told me, but they apparently never did. (She likely would have been reluctant to talk anyway; she was married, which meant she could have been severely reprimanded. Brandi Jones, Carter’s attorney, told me they hadn’t asked her to testify in the trial because the woman’s account had its own inconsistencies and they were afraid it would backfire.)
I prodded him about whether he’d ever felt angry with the police or prosecutors, but to my surprise, he seemed genuinely free of bitterness. “You know what?” he said. “As far as that goes, I don’t have any anger in me. The people that I pray for are the victims’ families, because they need closure.” The only part that had really irked him, he said, was that after he’d been indicted, he spent three years in jail waiting for the trial.
Jennifer Brown had a similar experience of being taken off guard by his gentleness. “I think I told you earlier about the experience I had with Carter at the end of the first day of jury selection,” she wrote me in an email after I had returned to New York.
The defendants and their lawyers were still at their tables after the jurors left, and I went up to the bench to ask the clerk a question. As I was walking out, I was next to the defense team and Ed Carter spoke to me. He said, ‘Jennifer Brown, right?’ I stopped and he put out his hand. We shook hands and he said he had read that I was leaving the paper.
I covered a number of trials in the ’90s, when that was my beat, and I’d never had an experience like that—touching the hand of a murder defendant.
He was wishing me well. I couldn’t believe it.
She had watched other trials, she added, in which the defendant wasn’t convicted but she felt certain the person was guilty. “This isn’t one of them,” she wrote. “I don’t feel like I ever had enough information to say who did it.” She always saw Carter and Duncan as terrible cops, the kind of people who shouldn’t be allowed to carry guns and badges, but she never saw evidence that Carter had a grudge against anyone but Papler herself.
I’ve come down on the same side. I’m agnostic about the killer’s identity, and I keep regarding Carter through alternating lenses. If he’s innocent, then there was richness in the simple picture of him sitting across from me on his friend’s couch, excited to explain himself. Free at last after being wrongfully accused and jailed. On the other hand, if he was guilty, then I was in danger of being seduced. I wanted to believe him.
Doing so would put me in a small minority. Throughout Christian County, the widespread perception is still that Carter committed the crime. It would have taken more than a few newspaper articles to seriously challenge a twenty-two-year-old legend. One impartial observer who sat through the whole trial maintains that Carter is “guilty as sin,” and Belew feels the same way. “I’m telling you, with everything in me, I know Ed Carter is a killer,” she told me after the trial. “I would stake my life on it.”
Carter seems to have accepted being a pariah. After I wrapped up my questioning that day in early October, I asked him one more, impromptu: whether he could ever see himself in Oak Grove again. He laughed. “I will not go back to Christian County,” he said.
This photo series was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a journalism nonprofit that covers economic inequality in America. View more of Tamara Reynolds’s photos of Oak Grove here.
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