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The Bardstown Conspiracy

Over the course of my writing in recent years, the rampant corruption to be found in the Bardstown, Kentucky police department is a thread I feel obliged to return to time and again. The town is getting a bit of media attention right now, over the city council voting unanimously to prematurely remove Mayor John Royalty from office over his own rampant corruption.

Being a former cop who was fired from both the Lexington and Bardstown police departments prior to becoming Mayor, Royalty is unrepentant slime, abusing his authority and spying on co-workers, making thousands of dollars disappear while fighting to discontinue the local 911 dispatch over lack of funds, etc. One of his biggest projects in office has been a complete restructuring of the local police department, forcing virtually every senior officer to take an early retirement while promoting caricatures of honor-bound peacekeepers into positions of power. The thing is though, that Royalty is by no means a singularity when it comes to the local corruption, and while many voices in the community remain faithful to past leaders of Bardstown’s law enforcement, it has required every single police officer and several of the judges and city council-members themselves in this community of the last 2 or 3 decades to grow the cesspool so deeply. Just like anywhere else in America.

My family tree has had strong roots in the area going back to the 1950s, and surrounding counties some decades earlier. While from my own first-hand experiences I have also written at length on the depressing controversies of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth organization, as well as the unsung issues of local homelessness, stories entirely ignored by regional media, the concern regarding law enforcement is obviously a thing that deeply affects even more of the population. I have lived all over the country myself, returning to Bardstown every so often to inadvertently contrast this world I see with popular consensus. I find much history suppressed.

The phrase “Cornbread Mafia” sounds like some quaint colloquialism, a jest by city-folk for mocking even the notion of organized crime in small town, USA. Unfortunately, the Cornbread Mafia is a very real thing. Originating directly from Bardstown in Nelson County, it grew rapidly over the course of the 1970s and 1980s into what federal prosecutors eventually described as the “largest domestic marijuana producing organization in the nation“, involving at least 29 farms branching out across a total of 10 different states. Cornbread was their code for marijuana, although the network incorporated a broad range of activities. There were elements that were merely small circles of cousins who would take turns growing marijuana for each other, for the fun and challenge of it, sharing the workload for the sake of participants never left with any need to buy from strangers. And at the other end of the spectrum were bikers and truckers and self-styled outlaws transporting drugs and weapons across state lines, everything for profit and with no qualms against dealing even the heaviest narcotics to otherwise peaceful communities.

In the late 1980s and especially the early 1990s, law enforcement finally cracked down, to the extent of FBI involvement leading helicopter raids with dozens of tons of marijuana confiscated at a time. Huge fields of crops were burned and land was re-appropriated, with the more violent outlaws from the network either getting killed or shipped off to prison. While the Cornbread Mafia was never fully eradicated, it was certainly crippled, and as far as outsiders are concerned what remained would eventually fade away to inconsequentiality. By no means however does the story end there.

Something that has never been publicly acknowledged was the eventual crossover well before the raids between the Cornbread Mafia and two distinct local groups. One was called Cornucopia, a mostly harmless New Age sect masquerading as a hippy commune whose membership came to the area in the early 1980s from all over the country. The other was called F-SPAN. Based in neighboring Marion County where the largest drug busts would later occur, F-SPAN could trace its foundations back to a UFO cult in the 1960s that formed with the purchase of a massive tract of densely-forested land, which had previously been owned by a single family through more than a century of generations prior. The Cornucopia group petered out before the major Cornbread Mafia arrests, but in its time brought to the table numerous out of state contacts for buyers and sellers. Once the Cornbread Mafia was seemingly destroyed, the more passive members of the network, the kindly old hippies who just wanted to grow their own for their family and friends, largely settled into the F-SPAN area with the property quietly evolving into a federally-recognized wildlife preserve.

In the later half of the 1990s, shortly after the dust had supposedly settled, Kentucky’s state government began to hike up taxes on tobacco. Many life-long farmers began covertly growing marijuana on the side to complement the escalating financial burdens on their end, because higher excise taxation meant higher pricing for farmers to pay upfront. Or at least, this was the rumor at the time to conceal the actual narrative. In spite of the Cornbread Mafia for the most part having ceased to exist roughly 25 years ago, crime rates throughout Nelson and surrounding counties in general and in Bardstown especially have skyrocketed, with the drug problems today particularly dwarfing bygone eras.

As with everything else in Kentucky, all of these things are related. I actually maintain a theory, that based on the state’s unnatural fascination for horses, its renown for being the bourbon capitol of the known world, and its nasty leanings towards sexual deviancy, one day in future times to come descendants of Kentuckians will all be centaurs.

Being a setting so rich in history, Bardstown is filled with historians, and along with that comes the tendency to idealize the past. There are those in the community greatly troubled by any suggestion of the town being less than ideal, much less the full breadth of corruption I am here charging. Yet there are many more among the local population who know these points of mine to be painfully self-evident, living alongside the consequences as they do. The Cornbread Mafia never ended.

When the last of the big drug busts was made and official charges filed, regional law enforcement consisting of the Bardstown Police Department and officers from the Nelson County Sheriff’s Office and the Kentucky State Police saw a good thing. They inserted themselves atop the food chain, and in the two-plus decades since have served and protected as the inner circle responsible for the bulk of the drug-trafficking in the area. The local street ruffians calling themselves the Big Money Gang, or BMG, love to insinuate their own roles in the scheme are larger than truth permits, but in reality they are small town junkies who have watched entirely too much television. The BMG are nothing more than bottom-feeders, heavily exploited by the police as foot soldiers and where convenient, as scapegoats.

In more recent years, denizens have suffered the effects of a civil war among the law enforcement community itself, with those who profited the most in their long careers nearing retirement despite an unwillingness to part from the profitable drug trade, while a generally younger, more abruptly thuggish crop which includes John Royalty pushes for a bigger piece of the pie.

The death of hero cop Jason Ellis was the first of several high-profile murders that remain unsolved, with so much evidence pointing to his fellow brothers in blue that even the state police dropped their official investigation a year later, with no explanation provided to the public. At the time Ellis was the only K9 officer in Bardstown, but almost four years later the department now employs four K9 units, signifying that either Ellis was a better cop than he is sometimes given credit for, or the drug-related crimes have surged embarrassingly beyond the normal resources of a small town police department’s capabilities. The accepted logic is that Ellis, who had joined the Bardstown police only a few years prior, was unwilling to play dirty.

Mother and daughter Kathy and Samantha Netherland were found viciously murdered in their own home, their deaths still a mystery unresolved. The standing theory is that either the popular teacher or her preteen child was witness to something atrocious, which followed them home for silencing. Some locals suggest their landlord at the time was a braggadocios landowner named Brooks Houck, although the house has changed hands multiple times since the double homicide.

A former candidate for sheriff and notorious philanderer, Houck later made national headlines for his own girlfriend Crystal Rogers vanishing from off the face of the Earth. Detectives easily found cause to confiscate the patrol car of patrolman Nicholas Houck, younger brother of Brooks. There was enough evidence to remove him from the Bardstown police department, but neither brother has been charged with anything. The Houck family farm was not even searched by authorities until over a year after Crystal’s disappearance, with no rational explanation provided for that either. The people of Bardstown know why though, just as I know for a fact that 5 of the laborers hired by Brooks for maintenance of his rental properties in the last couple of years by total happenstance hold records for both possession and selling of narcotics. Yet more recyclable pawns.

Since these tragic, infuriating events the yards of Bardstown had been decorated with signs reading PRAYERS FOR CRYSTAL’S SAFE RETURN, and the more blunt SOLVE THESE MURDERS, until late last year when Mayor Royalty tastelessly ordered for one and all to be taken down. Because they were hurting the feelings of a police force either too laughably inadequate to perform their hired functions or completely complicit in the murders themselves. And alongside this travesty, the father of Crystal Rogers was himself shot and killed in a “hunting” accident, naturally with no suspect arrested. The fact of his becoming a fierce advocate for police accountability since the loss of his daughter was one heck of a coincidence.

I see all of this as a growing trend however. Not necessarily good old boys like Brooks Houck getting assistance from the local police to avoid the embarrassment of incarceration, but the ineffectiveness of police in general. I do not believe that crime rates are irregularly increasing nationwide, but rather police are choosing to hold back from performing the full extent of their hired functions as public servants. Then, when communities are presented with such occurrences as even lil Bardstown has faced and is facing, occurrences such as domestic abuse, bank robberies, meth labs, unsolved murders and missing persons, then those in such communities may prove all the more eager to accept prospects of a police department possessing flamethrowers and grenade launchers. Willfully lazy policemen enabling crime statistics to air, as excuse for further militarization and expanded powers. I sincerely believe this is precisely what is happening all around the country right now.

There are justifications to believe that law enforcement at both the state and federal levels are fully aware of what law enforcement in Bardstown have done and will continue to do, covering for one another the way that any other gang would. What are the concerned peoples in and around town to do when the highest authorities either deny that such corruption exists, or are playing active parts in the corruption themselves, or both? When virtually every encounter with these public servants regardless of circumstance ends in harassment, robbery, assault, rape and/or murder? Or having a flash grenade thrown into your living-room after the police already have their suspect in custody, an action which did not prevent officer McKenzie Mattingly from later being promoted to interim police chief. More than a decade earlier, he made the national news for shooting an unarmed black teen to death, which resulted merely in a reassignment to a new precinct. More recently, Mattingly helped himself to a tax-payer’s trailer, while serving as acting police chief of Bardstown, a crime which Mayor Royalty chuckled at. It is just absolutely impossible to discern whether Mattingly has dirt on Royalty, or Royalty has dirt on Mattingly.

Mattingly’s recent stint on loan to neighboring Hardin county to help develop their drug task force was nothing greater than an effort to spread the franchise, teaching his simian brothers in blue how they too can be the kingpins of their local drug scene. To this day his alibi for the night of the Ellis murder cannot be corroborated by anybody that he doesn’t snort pills with, such as the infamous local crackhead Bruce Lawrence.

Of the countless many who have experienced pleasantries committed by the bullies with badges, who watches the watchmen? We all do, boys. And not nearly enough of us are intimidated by you.