Officer Jason Ellis, 33, a Bardstown, Ky., police officer was killed while on his way home from work, officials said. / Provided to The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal)
BARDSTOWN, Ky. -- Officer Andrew Riley steers his cruiser into a vacant parking lot, to the spot where he sat last year when his radio erupted and the whole world changed.
He stops by here often as he patrols the still streets of late-night Bardstown. Nothing much ever happens, because nothing much is supposed to happen in a town like this.
Until early one morning last May, and the four words that screamed through his radio shattered his life, his department, his town.
"Officer down! Officer down!"
Riley was among the first to reach Jason Ellis, his friend and fellow Bardstown officer,lying dead on a desolate highway ramp.
Riley remembers dropping to his knees and pulling off his friend's shirt and bulletproof vest. He noticed small bruises, perfect circles, on his arms and his chest.
Gravel, Riley thought. He'd been hit by a car, maybe dragged.
Then a sudden, horrifying recognition overwhelmed him - buckshot, not gravel, had left those perfect circles.
Jason Ellis, a decorated K-9 officer - a husband and a father of two little boys, a T-ball coach - had been assassinated.
Later that morning, BardstownPolice Chief Rick McCubbin would stand before a bank of television cameras and make a promise: Whoever it was who skulked in the bushes like a coward, pointed a shotgun and executed a good man would soon feel the full weight of law enforcement; they would be crushed by it, in a jail or in a grave, it didn't matter.
There would be justice for Jason Ellis.
But sometimes justice moves slowly.
A year after the murder, investigators with the Kentucky State Police say little more today than they did the day after Ellis was gunned down: They have no suspects. They are willing to eliminate no one.
"We have a cop killer who's gotten away with it," McCubbin groans.
He and many in his town are tormented by the same aching questions, lamented in the beauty parlor and at lunch counters, at the dry cleaners and countless memorials.
Who did this? Why?
All over town, they've hung signs in their windows so that no one will forget the handsomeyoung man in a police uniform, grinning, as if he'd just delivered one of his trademark jokes in the police departmentbreak room.
"Our Fallen Hero," the signs say, "May 25, 2013."
An ordinary day
It was an ordinary night.
Ellis ushered an ornery drunk to jail and interrupted a domestic squabble. But the radio was otherwise quiet.
The moon was full, Riley recallsnow, and the air smelled like spring in Bardstown: sour mash drifting from the nearby bourbon distilleries. The city of 12,000 residents reveled in its recent designation as the most beautiful small town in America.
Now, every shift for Riley is a series of nagging memories: the hospital where Ellis made his last run. A preschool parking lot where he and Ellis met to fend off boredom with jokes and crossword puzzles. The Nelson County High School parking lot, where Riley was patrolling when the radio erupted with every cop's nightmare.
Ellis clocked out at 2 a.m., police said. He started his 15-mile drive home to two boys and his wife, who worried while he worked and slept on the couch until he got home. He drove a stretch of the Bluegrass Parkway, then turned right onto Exit 34, a narrow ramp bounded on either side by steepstone walls.
Halfway down, a pile of branches lay across the ramp.
Ellis parked, switched on his car's blue lights and climbed out, police said, his pistol still holstered.
Someone watched from the top of the hillside above him.
Ellis bent for the branches, investigators believe.
Then, shotgun blasts shattered the night's calm.
Ellis fell, his gun untouched. His trail of blood would stain the concrete for months.
A half-hour later, around 2:30 a.m., a driver pulled up behind the vacant patrol car and stopped, confused. The cruiser, its emergency lights still on, was parked diagonally across the road, blocking the view of Ellis' body.A second driver, Chad Monroe, a distillery worker on his way home from work, then approached, and got out. He saw the officer, the blood.
Then chaos. A woman from the first car jumped into Ellis' cruiser, switched on his radio and screamed. "Hello. Hello. Officer down! Officer down!"
The woman, whose identity hasn't been released, panicked and misspoke the location. Officers rushed to the wrong roads.
Monroe found the portable radio on Ellis' belt, pushed the button and clarified their location.
There was a tree across the road, he stammered. It looked like a terrible accident.
"Can you tell if he's breathing?" the dispatcher implored.
"No sir, he is not breathing," Monroe replied. "Body temperature is cold."
Family's shattered lives
Ellis grew up in Cincinnati, a baseball star at Glen Este High School and again at the University of the Cumberlands in Willamsburg, Ky. On Valentine's Day 2001, he spotted a pretty redhead from Bardstown at a friend's party. He got her number from a friend and started calling.
Amy Phillips became Amy Ellis three years later. Her husband signed with the Cincinnati Reds' minor league team in Montana, playing three years. Their first child was born with Down syndrome, and Ellis decided to forfeit his major league dreams and go home. He promised her he'd never regret it, she said.
Hunter Ellis is now 8, and his brother, Parker, is 7, a tiny replica of his dad. Amy isn't sure how well they understand what happened to their father. Strangers stop them in public, hug them and weep.
They go to memorials, and wear T-shirts with his badge, No. 139. Sometimes when they get hurt, she said,they cry for their dad.
"We're just trying to put our shattered lives back together," she said. "I lost the love of my life; the boys lost their daddy. We're trying to stay positive, trying to heal, as best we can."
She and her husband never talked of the dangers of his job, she said. She'd read about wild arrests in the newspaper and asked him why he never told her. He didn't want her to worry, he'd say.
"He always made me feel like he was Superman, like nothing would ever happen to him," she says.
17 miles of mourners
Mary Brown, a presser at Kenny's Cleaners in downtown Bardstown, ironed the uniform Ellis was buried wearing.
"It still gives me cold chills," she says, though she had never met him. "I felt proud, because it was something of him."
She walked out to the town square to watch his funeral procession go by, put her hand over her heart and she left it there, for hours, until the last car passed.
The route stretched 17 miles, from the church to the cemetery, dotted every 20 feet with an American flag, 2,973 in total.Thousands lined the route; even the town drunks, who routinely spit at and cursed the officers, McCubbin said, stood still and bowed their heads.
A church bell rang 33 times, once for each year Ellis was alive.
At Arlene's Barber Shop across the street, not a day goes by without a discussion over the Jason Ellis investigation. It's debated more than any other topic, more than politics or the weather, said owner Arlene Durbin.
"What scares us, if they will kill a police officer, what's to stop them from killing anybody else?" Durbin said. "To think there's someone walking the streets that cold blooded and ruthless."
And they speculate: Maybe Ellis was killed by a homegrown gang. Maybe a drug cartel or roving bands of highway killers.
Donna Eaves works at an antique shop in Bloomfield, and says she's caught herself examining faces in a crowdand thinking, "it could be you."
"It's hard to believe anyone you know could do anything like that, and everybody pretty much knows everybody," she said.
Many choose to believe that a hired hitman pulled the trigger, then skipped town. The alternative is unfathomable: that the killer lives among them, eats in their restaurants, shops in their shops.
Rumors run rampant
Another rumoris widely whispered around town: "inside job."
One officer retired months after the killing, and a second resigned over a prescription drug addiction. The rumor mill implicated them both. McCubbin himself is a popular suspect among the rumor-mongers.
The chief excoriates the gossipers, calling them "stupid" and "immature." His department, he said, has enough heartache, without battling the dark corners of human imagination.
But he acknowledges thatEllis' execution was undertaken with tactical precision, fueling the rumors that the shooter was a professional.
Assuming Ellis was targeted, thekiller knew his route home and what time he got off work.
"They planned it, organized it, carried it out, executed him and no one's in jail," McCubbin says. "The final ingredient in the perfect storm is he's dead, and they're not arrested."
McCubbin has two alternative theories. The first involves a single shooter, "the lone nut," McCubbin calls him,who ruminated over a grudge against Ellis.
His second theory - the one most widely circulated among police officers - is that Ellis was the victim of a methodicalplan, likely over his drug-enforcement work. But McCubbin concedes the flaws in that notion. Ellis was a prolific narcotics officer, but he busted small-time dealers, not armed drug cartels.
'One good tip away'
Trooper Jeff Gregory, a spokesman for the state police, said investigators have ruled out nothing.
But if Ellis was targeted, Gregory said, it's doubtful that it was for any reason outside of his work. Investigators dug deep into Ellis' background for anything that might make a person want him dead: gambling debts, drugs, affairs. They found nothing.
"Jason Ellis really was that guy: a devoted family man, an honest policeman, a youth baseball coach, a pillar of the community," Gregory said.
State police still have one detective dedicated solely to solving the murder, with eight others pitching in when they can. The rewardfor Ellis' killer has swelled to nearly $200,000 - thought to be the largest in Kentucky history.
Still, they have nothing.
"To tell you that it's not discouraging and we're just clipping right along would be false," Gregory said, though he believes they are one good tip away from piecing the puzzle together. "We do feel confident that there will be an arrest."
Ellis' colleagues at the Bardstown Police Department say they know no more than anyone else. His friends, in the business of solving crimes, sit paralyzed now,unable to help.
They used to talk about it at the station all the time, but they don't anymore, Riley said. They don't joke much anymore either, now that Ellis isn't there.
Riley said hehates when people ask him if he's heard anything, because he hates what he has to say: "No, absolutely nothing. Hopefully, one day."
Riley, McCubbin and five others from the Bardstown department, along with Ellis' family, drove to Washington, D.C., to see his name inscribed last week on the National Law Enforcement Memorial. It is etched by a statue of a lion protecting its cubs and the words of the Roman philosopher Tacitus: "In valor there is hope."
The memorials, Amy Ellis says, are bittersweet.
"He deserves all the honor that would ever come to him," she said. "But it's kind of like picking at a scab. You start to heal, you're getting to a good place. Then all of a sudden you're bleeding again."
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Read the original story: Officer's ambush slaying still a mystery a year later