BARDSTOWN — Arlene Durbin chooses her words carefully.
As she sits in a chair in her North Third Street barber shop, Durbin tries to describe how this city of 12,800 remains affected one year after the unsolved murder of Bardstown Police Officer Jason Ellis.
"It has broken that small hometown feel where things like that don't happen," Durbin said. "I was born and raised here, and that's big-city stuff. ... If somebody would kill an officer, they would kill anybody."
Durbin said the shooting has made her more aware of what's going on around her. "I'm more self-conscious about things I do and where I go and what time I go."
Many people here are unnerved by the way Ellis was ambushed as he headed home on May 25, 2013. He was hit with multiple shotgun blasts after he got out of a department pool car to pick up tree limbs on an exit ramp from Martha Layne Collins Blue Grass Parkway. Police suspect that the limbs were put there deliberately so he would stop.
The death of Ellis, 33, a married father of two sons, led to an outpouring of grief in the Nelson County seat. Hundreds of people attended the funeral, and even more lined the roads to the rural cemetery near Chaplin where he was buried.
A year later, the murder remains unsolved. A reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the Ellis case totals $218,000 — $185,000 deposited in Wilson & Muir Bank & Trust Co., and $33,000 ($1,000 for each year of Ellis' life) pledged by Cincinnati restaurateur Jeff Ruby. Despite the reward, no credible suspects have been identified, said Kentucky State Police Lt. Jeremy Thompson of the Elizabethtown post.
This puzzles and frustrates Buddy Gulden, a former Texas sheriff who runs The Mercantile Store in Bardstown with his wife, Jan McCormack. The store, which sells pottery, ponchos and cowboy hats, displays a "memorial wall" of photos devoted to Ellis.
"Most people, if there's a $50,000 reward, they'd be falling over each other to turn their buddy in," Gulden said. "But $200,000 and not a peep?"
Everyone has a theory about the motive. Before the start of a May 13 candlelight vigil to remember Ellis, Bardstown City Council member Tommy Reed shared his.
"I believe it was a hit," Reed said. "(Ellis) was putting a dent into somebody's drug trade, and they finally got tired of it and put a hit out on him. I think he was under surveillance so they would know his routine. They knew he would stop to pull that brush out of the road."
Such talk had been foreign to Bardstown, which has long portrayed itself as a template of Central Kentucky charms. Tourists flock there to see The Stephen Foster Story, an outdoor musical about the songwriter of My Old Kentucky Home; to learn about the area's bourbon distilleries; or to take an excursion on My Old Kentucky Dinner Train. In 2012, Bardstown was named "the most beautiful small town in America" by Rand McNally, the map and atlas company, and USA Today.
Then, the following year, Ellis was gunned down.
"We really lost our innocence," Bardstown police Capt. Tom Roby said. "In 2013, we truly lost our innocence."
In recent weeks, more bad news shook residents.
Kathy Nederland, 48, a special education teacher at Bardstown Elementary School, and her 16-year-old daughter, Samantha, were found dead in April in their home in rural Nelson County. That double homicide also remains unsolved, although state police say there is no connection to the Ellis killing.
Then, bad news befell the Abbey of Gethsemani, the oldest Trappist monastery in America, when an employee and his wife were indicted on charges that they diverted more than $1 million from the Catholic monks. The news surprised many in Nelson County, where more than half the residents are Catholic.
A planned attack
Ellis' death unnerved the community for its detailed planning and brutality. His service weapon was holstered, indicating that he hadn't seen what was coming. Investigators working to solve the murder say they think more than one person was involved.
"It certainly could have been a lone-gunman scenario, but logistically it would have been very difficult to carry out the plan," said Thompson, the state police lieutenant. "Based on some of the things we know about the scene, it appears to us that at least two people were involved."
Thompson would not discuss those details.
He said there is nothing in Ellis' background to indicate that he was the target.
"We feel with a high degree of certainty that a law-enforcement officer was the target, but we can't say it was Jason," Thompson said.
A number of other officers use that same parkway exit, including some who work for state police, some who work for the Nelson County sheriff's office, and another who works for the Bardstown police department, Thompson said.
It's true that Ellis had made some "high-profile" arrests prior to his killing, but they weren't any more notable than what "dozens of other officers had already done," Thompson said.
But Bardstown Police Chief Rick McCubbin said last week that he thinks Ellis was the intended target in the slaying.
"I think, personally, that it will all go back to something he came across in his job," McCubbin said.
In the months after the shooting, some people in Bardstown speculated that it was the work of a group called the Bardstown Money Gang, because Ellis had arrested three of its members. State police interviewed several alleged members of the group.
"Some of them like to think they're a gang; some say they're a group of young kids who like rap music," Thompson said. "Some of them have claimed responsibility for Jason's murder. ... One of them who claimed responsibility was not even on the streets when it happened," but was in jail.
Thompson said he talked to several youths who claimed on social media to be members of the group, "but when you talk to them to their face, they don't want to be associated with Bardstown Money Gang."
In short, police have not found a suspect in the group.
Thompson said he is as frustrated as anyone that the substantial reward has not resulted in more concrete tips.
"The logical explanation is: If you were complicit to the murder of a police officer, and you know the trigger man killed an armed police officer, and it's a capital offense, are you going to be real willing to talk, for any amount of money, if you don't live to collect it?
"Now," Thompson said, "our answer to that person would be, 'You help us put this person in jail, do you really think they're going to make bond and get out before trial?' They will be held without bail. There is no question in my mind."
State police expanded their appeal for help in tracking down Ellis' killer by posting a YouTube video in November. Thompson appeared in the video, which was filmed at the exit ramp where the ambush occurred.
"We received a lot of feedback from that," Thompson said.
Thompson also recorded a podcast with links on iTunes and the FBI website to get out information about the murder. The FBI had billboards put up as part of a separate effort to drum up new leads.
Nevertheless, investigators have had fewer tips to sift through in the past few months.
"To say the information is still as free-flowing as it once was would be inaccurate," Thompson said. "It hasn't stopped. We still have information coming in, but it's not as prevalent as it once was."
McCubbin and others said Amy Ellis, Jason's wife, has declined to do media interviews as the anniversary approached. In a statement she released May 13, the day her husband's name was added to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington D.C., Amy Ellis said: "I want to thank the community for the unending love, support and prayers that has been poured on our family throughout the past year.
"It's unbelievable that it has been a year. I can remember when I thought I couldn't make it through my next breath, let alone a year. We could not have made it this far without the tremendous help from God and the support of everyone around us.
"Please continue to remember us as we continue trying to put the pieces of our shattered lives together. Continue to pray for healing and justice."
Roby, the Bardstown police captain and the department's public affairs officer, called Amy Ellis "a very strong woman. Very strong in her faith, and I know her faith is what gets her through every day."
Roby also said he continues to receive inquiries about Figo, the German shepherd who was Ellis' K-9 partner.
After the shooting, Figo was retired so he could spend time with Amy Ellis and her two sons, Hunter and Parker.
"Last time I was around him, he's enjoying retirement and loving the family life," Roby said.
In the meantime, Bardstown Police Chief McCubbin said he has "all the faith in the world" that the case will be solved.
McCubbin said state police "are diligently working every day" to solve the crime. "I know this case is not in a box on a shelf."
Gulden, the co-owner of the The Mercantile Store, said some Bardstown residents are ready to put the shooting and its accompanying attention on the city behind them. But not him.
"I'll never let it go until they catch the people that did it," Gulden said. "And even when they catch them, as long as I'm alive, I'm not going to let the people forget Jason."
Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.