Exit 34: What happened to Bardstown Police Officer and Cincinnati native Jason Ellis?

Exit 34

The Last Watch of Officer Jason Ellis

*View the complete interactive version of Exit 34 at http://www.wcpo.com/exit34

 

PROLOGUE

Tucked halfway between Louisville and Lexington sits Bardstown - Kentucky’s second oldest city. It’s a town of How y’all doin', friendly handshakes and warm smiles, where American flags line the main street.

This town of 14,000 in the heart of bourbon country—named the Most Beautiful Small Town in America last year by Rand McNally—is a community that knows its residents, listens to its elders and respects its lawmen.

It also holds a secret.

Someone, somewhere knows something about what happened on May 25 as Bardstown Police Officer Jason Ellis, a Batavia native and former Cincinnati Reds minor league player, turned from Bluegrass Parkway onto Exit 34 toward home after signing off for the night.

 

FRIDAY, MAY 24

2:00 AM

Flat, gray, ominous clouds stretch across the night sky, casting a shadow over the moon as Officer Jason Ellis pulls out of the Bardstown Police Station parking lot—wrapping up another second shift.

Before hitting the road for home, he relaxes inside his cruiser—a loaner since his canine-equipped car is getting painted at the shop. He feels a little lost without his German Shepherd partner, Figo.

“139 Adam off duty,” he says into the dash-mounted radio.

“Dispatch, 139 off duty,” the operator confirms.

Just as he has for the past seven years, Ellis calls off his shift for the night.

He drives his normal route: South down Stephen Foster Avenue, passing the city’s Walmart and Cracker Barrel, before pulling onto the moderately lit overpass. He veers into the left turn lane and turns on to the ramp for eastbound Bluegrass Parkway.

Just about 10 minutes down the parkway, he turns onto Exit 34 for Route 55 toward Springfield and Bloomfield, which is home to Lincoln Homestead State Park and Taylorsville Lake State Park. He follows the exit, around a sharp, slow incline, between two steep, rocky cliffs, full of blooming greenery.

It’s late, dark and desolate.

A few more minutes, through winding country roads surrounded by farmland and wooded fields, he arrives to the somewhat secluded town.

Home.

2:30 AM

Jason pulls into his driveway, cuts off the ignition and slides out of the cruiser.

His ever-faithful Figo, is waiting for him outside, while his wife and two boys sleep inside. A quick pat on the dog’s head, and he’s up the steps and through the gate.

The shades are drawn and door locked.

Amy worries while he’s away.

Inside, she’s asleep – curled up on the wrap-around couch. But the sleep is never deep and she’s on her feet when she hears him at the front door, fumbling for his keys.

She unbolts the lock and the two embrace.

The petite redhead kisses him goodnight at the door, where two sets of boots are lined up. One big, one little, both camouflaged. “Goodnight Mama,” he calls after her without discussing his day. It’s how he likes to keep things.

Exhausted but not ready for sleep, he plops down on the still warmed-where-his-wife-slept couch, fluffs up the pillows and turns on the TV.

 

Denny and Pam Ellis were so proud to welcomed their first and only son, Jason, into their small family in September 1979. He would grow to make them proud, first as catcher on the Glen Este High School baseball team, where he wore the No. 5 jersey, and eventually as a minor league player for the Cincinnati Reds organization.

He graduated from the Union Township, Ohio school in 1998, and went on to play baseball at the University of the Cumberlands, a private, liberal-arts school in Williamsburg, Ky. He played 186 games for the Patriots, snagging the school’s all-time record for hits with 246, the all-time career leader in doubles with 60, all-time career leader in home runs with 34 and all-time runs batted in with 183.

“Jason told me early in our relationship that his dreams were to have a family and play baseball, or go into law enforcement,’ said his wife, Amy.

Ellis’ mother remains in the Clermont County area, as do his sisters, Lacey Young and Kelly Eastmann.

Bzzzzzzzzzzz

5:45 AM

The alarm startles Amy awake. Jason is sleeping soundly next to her in the queen-sized bed. She stumbles onto the cold hardwood floor and walks into the other room, where she notices the large brown cowboy boots sitting where Jason took them off days earlier.

That somehow comforts her.

A substitute teacher at the local elementary school, she has to gear up for the annual field day at school. She showers and dresses for the unseasonably cool day – the Friday of Memorial Day weekend.

She shuffles off to the kids’ room. She gazes at Hunter, 8, and Parker, 6, both snuggled in their warm beds. Quickly, though, she’s back in the moment and wrestles them awake and gets them dressed in shorts and Bardstown Tigers –shirts and sweaters. Then it’s off to the kitchen.

Amy snatches a handful of fresh spinach and a few chunks of pineapple from the refrigerator and pushes the door shut with a thud. She throws everything into her blender’s pitcher,

adds a pinch of vanilla protein powder and a splash of almond milk, and whips up a smoothie on pulsate.

Simultaneously, she pours a piping hot, to-go mug of black coffee, while seamlessly moving from counter to counter in the kitchen, packing Hunter’s lunch: peanut butter and jelly and a yogurt, his favorite.

It’s pizza day at school for Parker.

She glances at the child-drawn watercolor picture hanging from the fridge door: A drawing of Badge No. 139 above a blue line and K-9 just under it.

7:00 AM

Amy scurries around grabbing her bag and cell phone, making sure the boys have their backpacks. They sling their book bags over their shoulders and burst out the door for school.

She closes the door behind them, forgetting to kiss her still-sleeping husband goodbye.

The three pull into the elementary school lot 30 minutes later.

The house is quiet as the glistening sun burns off the early-morning dew from the leaves on the large, shielding maple, just outside their front door.

As morning turns into afternoon Jason wakes.

The 33-year-old, 200-pound, nearly 6-foot tall former minor league baseball player, rolls out of bed and showers for the day.

He pulls on his white t-shirt, pulling his arms through each sleeve; the left not quite covering the tattoo of his police badge on his bicep. Sitting on the bed, he reaches down and pulls up a pair of black socks onto each foot.

He stands up to affix his navy blue, Kevlar, bullet-resistant vest to his body. Holding it up, he puts the vest over his head. With the dangling Velcro straps, he wraps each thick band around his upper body, fastening it securely to his chest.

He pulls on his black uniform shirt, buttoning from bottom to top. He tugs on his uniform pants, tucks in the shirt, zips them up and stuffs his leather wallet in the back pocket and drops his pocketknife in the front and slides the brown leather belt through each loop.

Looking into the large mirror over their large wooden dresser, he straightens his white metal nametag: “J. Ellis Law Enforcement since 2006” on the right; and “Officer, Bardstown Police Kentucky” on the left. He straightens his collar and smoothes the uniform.

He grabs the contents of his shirt pocket from the night before: a ballpoint pen, handcuff key and a notebook and put them in the left breast pocket of his shirt.

He wraps his gear belt -- which holds pepper spray, handcuffs, his .40-caliber Glock handgun, a Taser, two ammunition magazines and a Kenwood portable radio -- around his waist.

He fastens his black, plastic watch around his left wrist and he sits on the bed one last time to lace up his black leather uniform boots.

The glint from the sun hitting his wedding band momentarily catches his eye.

 

Amy Phillips met Jason Ellis on Valentine’s Day, 2001 at a get-together at a mutual friend’s home while they were both college students.

He got her number from her best friend and they made a date for a week later. But unknowingly Amy’s mother popped into town to take her to dinner. Instead of canceling the date, Jason brought two bouquets of flowers with him to the door – one for her and one for her mom. The three went on the date.

She said she knew after that date, during which her mom peppered him with questions, that Jason was the one for her.

“Everything I wanted and prayed for, that was Jason … an amazing, amazing person,’’ she said.

They quickly became inseparable.

While celebrating Christmas in 2002, Jason coaxed Amy out to her family’s barn to give her his gift. She was sure he had gotten her what she been begging him for: A puppy.

But instead, when the two got out to the barn, Jason dropped to one knee and pulled out a cathedral-cut diamond solitaire from his pocket.

“It was just magical,’’ she said.

They married in October 2004 at St. John United Church of Christ in Louisville, Ky.

With “Pachelbel's Canon in D Major” playing, she prepared to walk down the aisle, to become his wife.

“When the doors opened,” she said, “I only saw him smiling.”

 

3:30 PM

After grabbing a quick snack through a fast-food drive-thru restaurant, Amy and the boys make their way home from a fun, productive day at school.

As she’s driving the familiar back roads approaching home, she takes a call from Hunter’s nurse. Jason calls and beeps into the phone call several times, but she doesn’t interrupt her conversation by clicking over to accept his incoming call.

Up ahead, she spots Jason driving toward her in his cruiser, traveling away from their house in his uniform headed to work.

As dust from the dirt and gravel road settles, she smiles and leans to put her car in park.

Still on the phone, she rolls her window down, and two tiny voices echo throughout the running vehicle.

“Daddy!”

“Daddy!”

Amy places her hand over the phone, as the nurse patiently waits on the other line.

The couple chats briefly and agrees to meet at the baseball field later where Parker has a T-ball game, which Jason is coaching.

“I’ll just see you at the field,’’ he says. “I love you.”

“I love you too,” she says before hurriedly

reconnecting to her phone call on hold.

They both nod and continue to get on with their day in opposite directions.

3:52 PM

Jason makes his way to the police station, situated next to the Sheriff’s Department and County Courthouse on Plaza Drive, just minutes outside of downtown Bardstown.

“Dispatch 139 Adam,” chimes in Jason just before 4 p.m.

“Go ahead, 139,” the dispatch operator responds.

“139 on duty.”

“Copy. 139 on duty.”

His night begins patrolling his beat, which includes parts of historic downtown Bardstown, founded in 1780 and just 130 miles south of his hometown of Cincinnati.

Bardstown is where folks sit on the sidewalks of North Third Street, sketching vividly scenic watercolors and talking about their busy summers ahead; where re-enactors still dress up in Civil War garb for the Battle at Bardstown; and where others mosey out of Mammy’s Kitchen with bellies full of fried bologna sandwiches and a slice of caramel meringue pie.

This is the land of Kentucky hot browns and bourbon.

It’s a town Jason has come to call home.

 

Jason joined the Bardstown Police Department, a force of 27 sworn officers, in 2006 and just two years later was named the department’s sole canine officer. He received the Governor’s Award for Impaired Driving Enforcement on 2007 and 2008.

He was named Officer of the Year in 2008.

The police department dates back to 1824, with 12 men who volunteered to keep things in order. Prior to that, the town was patrolled by the local sheriff and his deputies.

In the 1850s, a town marshal was appointed to enforce the town’s ordinances. Fifteen years later, a police force of six men was appointed.

According to the Bardstown Police Department, several marshals came and went unsuccessfully due to the high alcohol consumption, which led to regular violence and disorderly conduct—until Marshal George Hunter was sworn in Jan. 14, 1868.

Hunter was given a $600 annual salary and served two terms.

In 1863, four men were enlisted and paid $20 a month to patrol the streets.

Rick McCubbin, who joined the force in 2010, is the current chief of police.
 

5:40 PM

Jason finishes up a quick traffic call and rushes to Dean Watts Park, where his son’s team, the Cardinals, have already started. He coaches the team with fellow officer Andrew Riley.

Amy sits in the crowded stands cheering on their son and notices that her husband arrives 10 minutes late with a serious scowl on his face.

Still in his officer’s uniform, he hustles onto the grass-and-dirt field between shortstop and third base, joining his team, all donning red ball caps and red jerseys tucked into light gray pants. His black outfit soaks up the late afternoon sun, which is reflecting off of his black sunglasses. He stands, hands on his hips, as the next batter steps up to the plate.

The air is thick with popcorn, enthusiasm and sweat.

“Good job!”

“Woooo!”

“Run!” buzzes throughout the stands of eager and tremendously proud parents as the players run around the bases.

 

Jason Ellis played baseball from virtually the time he was old enough to hold a bat. First in T-ball in Batavia, then on Little League teams and finally playing catcher in high school and college.

His dream was to play professional baseball and he nearly achieved it.

In 2002 – and just after passing the exam for the Kentucky State Police – Ellis got a call asking him to sign as a free agent for the Reds. He was signed by the Cincinnati Reds minor league team and played for the Mustangs in Sarasota, Fla., and in Billings, Mont.

Three years later he left the game—just before his first son, Hunter, was born.

Amy Ellis said he left baseball "for many reasons of his own."

But then he turned to his other dream: Being a cop.

 

5:48 PM

Just a few plays into his son’s game, his police radio squawks, and Jason is called to another location. This time on a domestic situation.

“Dispatch to 139 Adam and 133 Adam,” the operator chirps over Jason’s radio.

“139…” he responds.

“I have a report of a domestic—male subject refusing to leave the scene at 101 McGee. Correction, 114 McGee. One-one-four McGee Street.”

“139, 10-4 on that,” Jason confirms.

He leaves the field – hurried; forgetting to say even a quick ‘goodbye’ or kiss Amy, who is sitting in the stands with a handful of fellow T-ball moms.

She continues her conversation with those around her, shrugging it off.

She glances down, noticing a star tattoo on one of the other mother’s feet.

Amy discloses her secret of wanting to get a tattoo herself. She tells the other mom that if she were to ever get a tattoo, it would be of Jason’s badge, matching the tattoo he has on left bicep.

That is, if anything were to ever happen to him, she says.

Just a few miles away, Jason pulls up to the disturbance on McGee Street just outside of the downtown’s main drag.

 

6:15 PM

The dispatcher shares more details, just before he gets out of the cruiser.

“101, I’ve got a residential armed over at 113 Limestone, one-one-three Limestone…”

“… The subject is on the front porch and is refusing to leave. I advised

her to stay away from him until y’all got there,” the dispatch operator relays to Jason.

He gets out of his cruiser and approaches the victim.

She tells Jason that her ex-boyfriend, whom she only dated for a week and who does not live with her, was at her house when she arrived home.

He broke in, she tells Jason, and refuses to leave her front porch.

Jason turns to speak to a few young witnesses, who tell the officer that they saw a man kick in her back door. They identify the man, who is still on the porch.

Jason observes the dented door, as the ex-boyfriend admits to his refusal to leave.

Jason writes a ticket and leaves, telling the man to immediately leave the premises.

6:30 PM

Jason drives back to Dean Watts Park, just as the ballgame is wrapping up. Kids and parents are packing up and heading out.

Amy has an impending ride-along with Jason that weekend, but has an overwhelming urge to go with him tonight as he leaves the game—again without a ‘goodbye.’

She leans in to confide in her friend in the stands.

“I just feel like I want to spend time with him. I miss him.”

She tries to call him twice, seeing if perhaps she can ride with him during the remainder of his shift.

Her calls go unanswered.

As the sky shifts with dark, puffy clouds looming overhead, she and the boys scuttle home for the night.

8:00 PM

Amy and the boys are bushed when they get home. They pile onto the couch and flip on the Disney Channel.

It’s a perfect Friday night.

The only thing missing is daddy.

One by one, their eyes grow heavy and they fall asleep.

Amy found out she was pregnant in November 2004, just a month after they were married. Hunter, now 8, was born July 27, 2005 with Down syndrome—just two week after Jason left baseball.

Parker, 6, arrived two years later.

Many comment that Parker is the spitting image of his dad, but what Jason saw was his son who shared a love of baseball with him.

With matching buzz cuts, both of the energetic boys played baseball with their dad—a dad who was “hands-on”, always playing and horsing around.

“He was always fun, always laughing—he’s just amazing,” Amy said. “We were his life.”

9:00 PM

Andrew Riley, Jason’s best friend, co-T-ball coach and fellow officer, comes on duty for the night.

“Dispatch 126.”

“Go ahead, 126.”

“126 on duty,” chirps Andrew.

“Copy. 126 on duty,” recognizes the operator.

9:30 PM

Jason pulls into the overly crowded FiveStar gas station and convenient store.

He’s making a quick pit stop at his regular watering hole, where his normal nightly grab is a bottle of Mountain Dew and a can of Copenhagen long-cut dip. Dinner usually consists of two slices of white bread, piled high with turkey and cheese, with lettuce and mayo.

Tonight, however, Jason is on a different mission.

With a grin from ear to ear, he approaches the double doors, opening one toward him and walks inside.

The beaming officer places an order at the deli for 11 pieces of American cheese. Tonight, Buck Snellen, officer in charge, brought in homemade sausage to the station and they are grilling out for dinner. The cheese will taste good with the sausage.

As he pushes open the door to exit, he smiles and turns back.

“Be careful,” he quips to Shannon McAlexander.

She smiles, nods and waves him goodbye.

Andrew Riley and Jason Ellis met while on duty for the Bardstown Police—Riley was a veteran by one year as Ellis joined the force in 2006.

They had an instant connection and soon became best friends. Many weekends were spent with each other’s families for BBQs. They had each other’s backs on and off duty, said Riley.

“We were best friends from the get-go,” said Riley. “He was a hell of a guy. Everything he did, he did the best he could.”

10:55 PM

Jason sits idle in his cruiser in the Early Childhood Center parking lot, on Cardinal Drive, working on a crossword puzzle, as Andrew Riley pulls his cruiser up alongside Jason’s driver’s side window to shoot the breeze about everything and nothing, about their lives and their wives, like they do most nights during downtime.

They take a quick break from a seemingly slow Friday night.

11:00 PM

Amy, still asleep in the living room, is roused by her phone. She misses the call, but recognizes the number as her husband’s.

Groggy, she touches the screen of her phone to find his number in the ‘recent call’ log, and presses.

Over in Bardstown, his phone rings.

“What are you doing?” he answers.

“We’re asleep…” she mutters softly with her boys still slumbering next to her on the couch.

Before hanging up, he tells her the same thing he always does before hanging up.

“OK, I love you.”

“I love you too.”

“See you when I get home,” he says.

11:25 PM

Andrew Riley shoots text messages back and forth with his jokester-of-a-friend Jason.

“Man u got to drive by the tavern and look in the window above hurst facing the tavern...” he pushes a text message to his friend, Riley.

Jason’s referring to Hurst Drug Store on the corner in downtown Bardstown, where there is a large cardboard cutout of Jason looming in the window.

“That’s awesome,” Riley quickly

types back.

11:58 PM

Jason is dispatched to E. Daugherty Avenue and Allison Avenue for a disorderly complaint.

 

Saturday, May 25

12:05 AM

The moon is full, lighting up the crisp, clear sky, as Jason reaches the scene on Allison Avenue.

He calls dispatch as he pulls up, not immediately locating the subject.

“139 Adam dispatch.”

“Go ahead 139.”

“What part of the broken story I’m getting here -- apparently the subject is inebriated, so, he had gotten into a vehicle with his wife and has already left.”

“139, … he’s laying down in the roadway… in the middle of the road.”

“Where at dispatch? I’m at Allison and Forest. Are they on the other end of Forest?” Slight frustration in his voice.

Letting his finger off the cruiser radio, it lets out a ‘beep’!

“He doesn’t know where he’s at, he said he’s behind the… close to [the] park,” clarifies the operator.

Jason finally sees a one-armed man in the middle of the road. 

He is bloody and cantankerous.

His name is Joseph William Hamilton. 

Hamilton, with a crazed look in his blue eyes, has blood seeping through his brown buzz-cut hair, from falling in the street.

Jason chimes in to dispatch again.

“Do you have EMS en route to this?”

“139, that is correct. They were paged the same time we gave it to you.”

“10-4. Subject is conscious, uh, talking… he appears 10-4. If they want to continue and check him out and then we’ll go from there.”

12:12 AM

Andrew Riley gets to Allison Avenue just after the ambulance. He turns on his emergency light bar atop his Crown Victoria.

Riley peers over and sees Jason’s cruiser facing the same direction, unoccupied, lights on.

Riley doesn’t see the need to get out of his cruiser, watching Jason walking beside the one-armed man, talking to him as the stretcher wheels him to the ambulance.

The EMTs hoist the profanity-slurring man on the gurney into the emergency vehicle.

Walking back to the car, Jason calls in to dispatch, clearing the scene.

12:15 AM

EMS transports Hamilton to Flaget Memorial Hospital, 4305 New Sheperdsville Road.

Jason sighs heavily into the two-way radio as he gives a head’s up to dispatch about the state of the call.

“We’ll probably end up getting a call on him from Flaget, just advising now.”

“I’m heading down that way. Subject’s uh, pretty intoxicated, belligerent.”

12:31 AM

“Dispatch 139, 122.”

“Go ahead.”

As predicted, Hamilton is causing drama at the ER.

“139, 122, need you to go to Flaget Hospital. Male subject that EMS just brought in has become disorderly.”

"10-4..."

12:32 AM

Riley peers down at his phone as it beeps from a text message from Jason, who is flustered that he has to deal with the drunken man for the second time tonight and missing out on the opportunity to nab a speeding car in his sights.

“Hopefully at least they get a citation.” Jason texts to his buddy.

12:33 AM

Jason guns his cruiser toward the hospital. But before he can get there, Hamilton starts kicking and punching the emergency workers who are trying to help him.

Hospital employees, including security guard Bart Frederick, rush to confine the thrashing patient.

Moments later, Jason is at the hospital.

“139 on scene Flaget,” he radios dispatch.

Jason sluggishly makes his way from the car to the sliding glass doors and proceeds inside the moderately busy ER.

He sees Hamilton restrained, face down on the gurney. He walks over to the still-seemingly intoxicated man, who looks Jason up and down, recognizing the officer towering above him.

“I know you…” utters Hamilton.

“Yea… I’ve dealt with you before.”

Slightly garbled, Hamilton looks up.

“I’m gonna haunt you!”

“OK…” shrugs the tolerant officer.

The strapped-down man relentlessly antagonizes the officer.

“I’m going to find you and **** YOU UP!”

The man fumbles over his words, slurring gibberish at the officer.

“I’ll choke you out!” and “KILL YOU!”

After blowing off the idle threats of a late Friday night drunk, Jason talks to the doctor treating Hamilton and relays to her that if Hamilton is medically cleared for his road rash, then he will take him to the county jail.

He chats briefly with Frederick, the cheerful hospital security guard, wearing black gloves matching his black uniform, for a bit about a mutual interest.

“Hey, did the Reds win?” queries the security guard to Jason.

“Yeah, Votto homered, Brandon Phillips homered,” Jason confirms the high-scoring game, with a bit of newfound enthusiasm.

“You busy tonight?”

“Not really.”

1:20 AM

Once medically cleared, Jason arrests and leads Hamilton out of the hospital and toward his cruiser.

With his hand on the top of Hamilton’s head, he pushes his body down and situates him into the backseat, which has a cage-like barrier between him and Hamilton.

“139 dispatch,” Jason declares.

“139, go ahead,” says the female operator in a chipper tone.

“Clear Flaget,” says Jason, conveying also that he is on his way to the county jail with Hamilton.

1:46 AM

A mile later, Jason pulls into the small one-story brick, non-descript building, the Nelson County Jail.

Sgt. Nancy Sheckels, buzzes Jason inside. Another officer takes the

one-armed drunk from Jason and into a holding cell.

Jason takes his seat at the front desk and starts writing out Hamilton’s one-page citation for the evening’s turbulent events. As he jots down the information, Sheckels chats with him about his day and he makes a quip or two to make her giggle.

His pen reaches the bottom of the booking citation and he quickly scribbles his signature, officially completing the last of his paperwork for the night.

He gets up, shakes the sergeant’s hand and begins his march to the door.

As he departs, Scheckels hollers after him: “Be careful! Good luck!”

Jason turns to her, as he always does: “Be good. Be careful.”

“I’ll see you guys tomorrow,” Jason says.

Jason gets in his cruiser, shuts the door and pulls out of the jail lot.

“139 clear county,” he informs dispatch that he’s leaving the jail.

1:59 AM
Officer Ellis calls off-duty.

With a cool breeze lightly blowing inside the cruiser from the crisp night air, Jason starts driving down Stephen Foster Avenue, beginning his 25-minute journey home to Amy, the boys and Figo.

“139 off duty.”

With his focus on the road ahead, he presses his right foot stiffly against the gas pedal, accelerating toward his night’s end.

2:02 AM

Amy startles awake. She gets up, wobbly on her feet and slowly stands. The boys are still asleep on the couch. She scoops Parker up in her arms and carries him to his room.

She gently lays him on his bed, covers him up with his blanket and leaning down gives him a kiss goodnight.

Making her way back to the living room, she reaches for her phone.

With a quick glance, she checks the time, she contemplates calling her husband one more time, but doesn’t, figuring she will see him soon.

Like hundreds – if not thousands – of nights before, Jason takes a left turn from Route 150 in Bardstown onto Bluegrass Parkway East, en route to Exit 34, just a little more than 13 miles away.

He’s just 15 minutes from the exit, another 10 minutes to home.

The full moon lights his way.

And it also shines on the freshly cut tree branches laid methodically in the roadway – a plan to stop a car.

At least one person waits amid the blooming lavender flowers atop the exit’s embankment; waiting for the car to make the turn onto Exit 34.

2:21 AM

Chad Monroe, a full-time tobacco, dairy, soybean and corn farmer, and part-timer in the town’s oldest cash crop, bourbon, punches his timecard at Heaven Hill Distillery in Bardstown.

It’s quitting time and he’s beat.

The stalky man jumps into his red Dodge Ram 3500 and starts his route from Route 49 to Bluegrass Parkway East, keen on getting home and crawling into bed, before getting up at the crack of dawn to work on the farm.

Barreling down the parkway doing 80 mph, the warm springtime breeze whips through the truck’s cabin with both windows down. Monroe is trying to stay awake.

His radio is set to country radio station 97.5 WAMZ, and is blaring Tim McGraw singing, “The Highway Don’t Care”.

Monroe sings along, both hands on the wheel, his thumbs and left foot tapping in sync to the rhythm of the country ballad.

The highway won't dry your tears

The highway don't need you here

The highway don't care if you're coming home

But I do, I do.

****************

As Jason eases off the gas and taps the brakes on cruiser No. 24, he flicks his right turn signal up, while approaching Exit 34—his regular route home.

He slowly winds his car around the sharp turn, approaching two yellow, caution, reflective signs, one of on each side of the road, indicating that there is a stop sign just ahead.

His headlights light up a pile of debris in the road ahead.

The diligent civil servant turns on the cruiser’s lights, warning other drivers that he’s stopped and to use caution when traveling the ramp.

Turning the steering wheel a sharp right, his tires crackle as tiny pebbles pop from under his car, as he parks diagonally across the ramp, blocking any other exiting traffic.

Focused on the obstruction in front of him, he punches the Crown Victoria into park.

Still in uniform, the officer opens his door. It creeks as he slowly swings it outward. He plops his heavy, black, leather, work boots on the slanted pavement. As the hefty door leaves his fingertips, it slams shut behind him, echoing throughout the quiet, rural exit ramp.

He walks around his car toward the sprawling limbs and branches.

With both hands, he scoops up the freshly cut, leafy limbs.

He hoists the branches up and into his stretched-out arms. As he cradles the branches, he’s startled by a rustling.

A small tree and hedge mask the position of where the sound is originating.

He pauses for a split-second.

He turns toward his right.

BOOM.

A single blast from a 12-gauge shotgun pierces the night silence.

Jason is struck.

His Kevlar vest is pelted.

Over and over.

And over.

Blood rushes from his side as he holds onto the branches just above his waist. Slowly his grip loosens, as he begins to lose footing.

Pellets rip through his skin, just below his armpit, where his protective vest dips down, giving him no defense and

no time to unholster his Glock.

BOOM.

Another shotgun blast—this time a gun fires a different size and type of pellet toward him at a speed of 427 meters per second.

He is sprayed with pellets, penetrating and perforating—hitting his right upper arm, his forearm, and shattering his right elbow.

BOOM.

The quiet of the night is again interrupted.  

The gunfire reverberates from each side of the exit’s excavated high walls, as another shot is fired toward the fallen officer. The shotgun pellets that hit him are those typically used for hunting small animals, target shooting and skeet or trap shooting, also known as clay pigeon shooting.

Not for killing a man.

The pellets hit him in his scalp, forehead and temple. One lodges in his right jaw.

2:30 AM

His body falls to the pavement.

The branches from his hands collapse into a cluster, landing on top of his legs. His hands fall to his sides, never having unlatched his gun holster.

He is alone. His eyes close. His pulse slowly fades.

The thick blood from his wounds trickles down his left forearm down to his fingers, encasing his gold wedding band.

A heavier stream yields from his right arm, trailing the creases in his hand, flowing down the diagonal, uneven roadway, leaving a 4-foot wide stain of red.

2:36 AM

It’s a beautiful, clear night, as Chad Monroe quickly approaches Exit 34, just behind a 4-door dark-colored Toyota Corolla.

The brake lights in front of him cause him to brake in bewilderment.

He sees blue lights dancing along the treetops.

Then he sees the parked cruiser.

The tired distillery worker slowly opens his truck door and hops down from his cab.

He approaches the Corolla and taps on the window. Inside he talks with an intoxicated, barefooted woman in the passenger seat.

Driving is her 19-year-old son. There is a man and a child in the backseat.

“Have y’all seen anybody?” he inquires.

“No. We don’t want to get out, because my mother and her boyfriend have been drinking,” says the nervous teen sitting in the driver’s seat.

His mother, sitting in the front seat next to him, is uncontrollably and hysterically wailing.

“That’s fine, y’all just sit in the car and I’ll go up and help him get this out, and we’ll be on our way home,” Chad assures them.

He walks up the slight incline of the exit ramp. And with his balled-up fist, he knocks on the back of the police cruiser.

“Is anybody out there?”

“Is anybody out there?”

Silence.

He warily makes his way around to the front of the parked, but still-running cruiser. He can see the side of the cruiser’s door—sketched in gray, outlined in blue: POLICE, and just underneath in bold blue: BARDSTOWN.

Peering around to the front of the cruiser, he sees the limbs blocking the roadway in the cruiser’s headlights.

Gingerly, he steps closer.

And then he sees the man in uniform.

A cop.

And blood.

Chad races back to the car and frantically tells the drunk woman that they need help.

“You need to try and radio somebody and I’ll see if I can find any vitals or anything,” he commands.

Then he runs back to the downed officer.

He removes the rubbish and straddles the bloodied body; desperately searching for a pulse -- for any indication of life.

Nothing.

2:40 AM

In the meantime, the drunk woman climbs into Jason’s cruiser, grabs the radio and calls for help.

“Hello! Hello!”

“Officer down! Officer down! Bloomfield Road!” she calls out in a thick southern drawl.

Dispatch clicks over.

“Location?”

“Officer down!”

“You need to give us a location.”

“Ol, Ol Bloo, Old Bloomfield Road by the Y,” she stutters.

“There’s been a tree limb or something… officer down! Officer down! Please! Emergenc…!”

“Dispatch 126, 137, are you up that way?” the dispatcher asks two officers on patrol.

“I’m, I’m on Bloomfield Road, headed towards Old Bloomfield Road,” one responds.

The dispatcher clarifies.

“It’s going to be Highway 55, at the 34 mile marker. Exit 34, mile marker, exit to 55 to Bloomfield Road there.”

The confusion continues as the dispatcher works to clarify the situation. “Ma'am, can you advise the status of the officer? Is he conscious?”

“Uh, I believe he’s dead.”

“Do you know what department this officer’s with?”

A long, silent pause ensues.

“Ma'am what’s the department name on the side of the police car?”

There are sirens in the near distance.

“Oh my God, are they coming!? Are they coming!?”

“Yes ma'am, we do have officers en route …. Can you tell us what the name on the side of the car is? What department he is with?”

”Ma'am can you advise if this is going to be a car accident or if this is just a vehicle versus tree, or what is this going to have?”

Monroe glances over at the cruiser, where the woman is still on the two-way radio. He reaches down, picking up the officer’s uniform radio.

“Yes sir, hey, this is Chad Monroe … we’re on the BG parkway.”

With a shaky voice, he continues with a slight stutter.

“….There was, the police car is sitting in the middle of the road with the lights on. And I… we didn’t know what it was… it’s a tree across the road and I, I didn’t know what it was, … I believe someone’s

hit him!”

“OK, can you tell us if he’s breathing?”

“No sir, he is not breathing... Body temperature is cold,” Chad says, still straddling Officer Ellis as his thumb slips off the radio.

Silence.

 

EPILOGUE-

“I miss him so much and it’s unbearable,” said Amy Ellis.

An intricately detailed tombstone marks the grave of Jason Ellis.

Nearly seven feet tall, the headstone, located at Highview Cemetery in Chaplin, Ky., highlights those things Ellis held close — a handprint from each of his sons, a Reds emblem, an etching of him and his family holding hands, and bookended with an American flag and a Thin Blue Line flag.

This is Officer Jason Ellis’s final resting place.

“I miss him so much and it’s unbearable,” Amy Ellis said. “It’s a nightmare I have to live with for the rest of my life.”

Ellis was buried near the home where his widow and sons still live. His canine partner, Figo, attended the funeral and laid his paw on the top of the flag-draped casket amid more than 1,000 law enforcement officers from across Kentucky and the nation.

The Bardstown Police Department retired Figo. The husky German Shepherd now lives with Ellis’s widow and their two boys. A state representative from Bardstown has filed a bill in the Kentucky General Assembly to rename the 13-mile stretch of the Bluegrass Parkway after Ellis. There have been motorcycle poker runs, and marathons and many other fundraisers.

But still investigators say they are no closer to solving the case.

The Kentucky State Police remains the lead agency investigating the slaying. , which authorities have said was an ambush execution. They have sifted through thousands of leads, reconstructed the crime scene and investigated the cases Ellis worked on.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is also working the case.

Investigators hope the nearly $225,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of a suspect will entice someone to come forward.

But it hasn’t yet.

“ While I am thankful for the assistance of the FBI, it is still troublesome that the amount is so high and no one is talking. It is not what the reward amount is doing; it is what the reward amount is not doing; getting someone to talk. This tells me that this murder is deep,” said Rick McCubbin Bardstown Police Chief.

“Anyone willing to murder a police officer, someone who protects the community, then what are they willing to do to the general public?” said Lt. Jeremy Thompson Detective, Kentucky State Police.

Thompson believes they have the potential to solve the case, but he needs the help of the community.

“I want to avoid this becoming a cold case,” said Thompson.

 

To date investigators have:

Searched:

Sent divers into a pond near Exit 34 in attempt to find the shotgun used in his slaying. They found nothing.

Interviewed:

Interviewed hundreds of people and chased countless leads. McCubbin said that every police officer and deputy in the City of Bardstown and Nelson County have been interviewed.

Investigated:

Investigated a local gang that calls itself the Bardstown Money Gang after a member made statements that led some to think they were involved.

The gang’s leader Deandre Labrice Douglas, who is serving a 10-year sentence on assault and drug-trafficking convictions at Roederer Correctional Complex, told The Associated Press that neither he nor any of his family or friends had anything to do with the officer's death.

"I know none of my peoples done it," said Douglas, whom Ellis arrested earlier in the year on assault charges.

 

Anyone with information is asked to:

  • Email: EllisCaseEtips@ky.gov
  • Call the FBI at (502) 263-6000
  • Call the Kentucky State Police at (270) 766-5078

Investigators say they believe someone in the community knows what happened. That’s what Amy Ellis is banking on, too — not closure, just answers.

“I pray for the power of conviction to lay heavy on somebody, because we need that.”

 

How we did the story-

Reporter Jessica Noll spent over 100 hours interviewing law enforcement authorities, friends and family members of Bardstown Police Officer Jason Ellis. She poured over hundreds of documents, including police reports, the autopsy report and Ellis’ death certificate. She listened to hours of police radio transmissions. She traveled four times to Bardstown, staying for multiple days.

She interviewed Ellis’ widow, Amy Ellis, for more than six hours at the home she shared with her husband.

This story is written in narrative style and is intentionally written to read like a novel. It is deeply and methodically reported. Details as minor as the weather and the moon phase were researched. Noll spent hours with investigators, family members and co-workers in order to journalistically gather details needed to tell the story of Ellis’ last 24 hours; of what happened to him on Exit 34.

Reporter / Jessica Noll

Photography & Video / Jessica Noll

Editor / Chris Graves

Design / Brian Niesz


Funeral Photos /
Louisville Metro Police Department Photographers: Wales Hunter, Mark Lynch

Additional Photos

provided by the Ellis family

*View the complete interactive version of Exit 34 on your computer.

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