BUTLER, Ky. -- A Northern Kentucky family says an unknown environmental pollutant has poisoned and killed two dozen of their animals and sickened children and adults who spend time on their farm. But private scientists and county and state experts can't find any cause for whatever may be happening at the Butler homestead.
The couple who lived on what they called their dream property walked away from the home and bankrupted themselves rather than selling it. They say they couldn't in good conscience subject anyone else to what they experienced.
A visit to the house on Hissem Road in Campbell County starts with an intoxicating drive up a rolling hill blazing with wild flowers. Then you pass the barbed wire and the "Private Property" sign to find a house that's seen better days. Photos from just two years ago show a lovely farmhouse, with a stately barn and a stand of trees the five children who lived here called their park. They had horses, goats, dogs and cats.
"It had everything that we needed," said Bill Johnson, a police officer who bought the property with his wife Angie, a therapist. "A country setting, plenty of land… It was definitely our final place to go to."
The Mystery Unfolds
But Johnson says it became the last place they wanted to live after two-and-a-half years of continuing, unexplained medical maladies. Angie says puppies born on the farm had strangely tilting heads. Animals developed neurological disorders, seizures, respiratory problems and digestive issues that left them skinny despite what she says was plenty of feed.
A heartbreaking home video captured on a cell phone shows one animal, Ellie, their oldest son Dylan's puppy, convulsing in pain as a family member calls her name. Other photos show various dogs foaming at the mouth, lying contorted, some extremely thin. Angie says, "They would start getting wobbly. They would fall over, and they would go into respiratory distress and then they would foam at the mouth."
The horses fared no better. Angie produced documentation to show the thousands of dollars she spent trying to save her "black beauty", a horse she acquired as a young pony. Darcie died despite extreme measures by veterinarians in Lexington to save her. Angie cries as she flips through an album of the pets she loved, pointing to one after another, "Dead. Dead. Dead." In all, she says the family lost 28 domestic and farm animals.
But the worst was yet to come.
The Johnsons have six children. Dylan was the oldest, followed by Kaylie, Aidan, Allysa and Jagger. Their last child, Gabe, was born after they left the farm. Angie says, "We didn't realize there was a problem until multiple animals kept going down, and then my kid collapsed."
She's talking about 5-year-old Aidan, a quiet boy who never said a word as he sat coloring at the kitchen table of their new home. Angie says he has selective mutism and an anxiety disorder, all developed after that day when, "He was playing and he just went down. He couldn't hold his head up."
She says she rushed him to Children's Hospital. Medical records she provided the I-Team show doctors ran a gamut of tests trying to find the cause.
"They tested for drugs, botulism, anything over-the-counter," Johnson said. "Four days later he was able to walk and regain his coordination and (the doctors') diagnosis? ‘Unknown.'"
Angie says all the kids have various disorders, from ADHD to lymphatic masses, to muscular problems to cognitive and behavioral issues. All, she says, except for Gabe, now 10 months old. He never lived on the property.
Bill Johnson's mother, Julie Horan, babysat at the farm three or more days a week.
"The kids, I noticed a difference in their behavior, always sick." She says it ran beyond the typical childhood colds and sniffles, and that the children weren't the only ones to become ill. "I would be in their house maybe five, six hours watching the children, I would have headaches," Horan said.
Angie also supplied extensive medical records showing she was tested for various conditions. All her tests, like Aidan's, came back inconclusive.
Beyond the family, the I-Team also talked to two contractors who spent three months on the farm building heated and air conditioned dog kennels for the breeding business the Johnsons had hoped to run out of the farm. Ottis Gibson and Ed Mesman say they got a first-hand look at the family and how they treated their animals during their months on the job. Gibson says the dogs, "seemed ok and then just started dying."
Then Gibson got sick too, catching a staph infection he believes came from the soil, that led to medical complications and six weeks when he became temporarily blind. Gibson chokes up when he talks about his continuing medical problems ever since. Mesman says he's been working with Gibson 30 years.
"He's never really been sick, always been healthy and worked 12 hours a day, and right now, he's kind of limited," Mesman said.
Mesman says he also started feeling weaker and weaker as they worked on
the farm. One day, he left his tools and walked off the job.
"I think there's something out there," Gibson said.
Angie is clear about her suspicions. "There is poison on this property," she said, as she surveyed her former home.
Neighbors' Suspicions; Experts Confounded
She came back to give the I-Team a tour but what we found was not what she had left. Thieves had come in, punched holes in the walls and stolen the copper pipes and air conditioning unit. As we walked through, Angie lifted a cistern lid and showed us results of a water test she and Bill had paid a scientist to draw on the family's drinking supply. The results: no contaminants found in the water. The Johnsons produced records of dozens of tests they hired various experts to conduct on the water, the soil, the air, mold and moss that grew outside. Angie says they spent more than $10,000 to try to find the cause of the medical problems but that scientists told them that without knowing what to test for, it was a little like finding a needle in a hay stack.
Beyond private scientists, the Johnsons also contacted the county and the state for help. Experts for the Northern Kentucky Health Department did a site visit and conducted an environmental assessment inside and outside the home. Their epidemiologists interviewed family members. State veterinarians looked at the animals.
"Nothing came back as abnormal," said Steve Divine, the health department's director of environmental health and safety. "All the information we have is that there doesn't seem to be an environmental exposure."
Divine says his department checked for nearby industry, any runoff or contaminants, but found nothing environmental. "We've spent hundreds of hours looking into this particular case, and just have not got, there's not a red flag that says here's a particular issue out there."
Ever so gently, he suggests another tack the agency advised the Johnsons, "making sure the best practices of animal husbandry are being taken care of."
That's a point several neighbors made too, only in stronger terms. They told us privately they blame the Johnsons' inexperience with farming and animal care for the problems that developed.
Angie strongly denies that, saying she spent thousands of dollars not only on accommodations for the animals but food and vet care.
"They keep saying I don't take care of my animals but yet I de-wormed them and gave them their shots." As for accusations she starved the animals, she said, "Absolutely not. I had 200 bales of hay and my animals still went down." She says something on the property was stopping the absorption of nutrients for the animals and people.
Contractors Gibson and Mesman say they don't think the problems were the fault of the homeowners.
"They put a lot of money out to make the dogs comfortable," Gibson said.
Angie says she suspects neighbors called county police, animal control and child services, all of whom showed up unannounced. She says they never found any reason to fault the Johnsons. We found no records of any citations. But the visits took their toll.
"I've lost my credibility, the self respect, and the aspect of the way everyone was treating my family," Angie said.
And so the Johnsons turned their backs on their perfect home. They packed up the kids one night, left, and never lived there again. But they had a big decision to make. What to do with this land on which they owed more than $100,000?
"There was no way we could turn around and put it up for sale, knowing what was there," Bill said.
So they walked away from the property and their bank loan, knowing the bank would now have to disclose the reason the previous owners left. The Johnsons declared bankruptcy, making it impossible to buy another home for now. They're letting nature reclaim their abandoned dream. But the mystery still haunts them.
Angie says she just wishes she had answers for her kids as to why they are sick. "I'm an open book. If somebody were to ask me to see any of this (testing she's had conducted), I would be more than happy. Please solve this for me. That's all I want. I don't care about the money. I don't care about what I've lost. I just need to help my kids."
Copyright Copyright 2011 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
38-time Emmy winner Brendan Keefe was named Best Reporter by the Ohio Associated Press in 2011, and Best Photographer in 2012 and 2013. He serves as Anchor and Chief Investigator for 9 On Your Side.
Jason Law joined 9 On Your Side in January 2013 as a investigative reporter with the I-Team.