Crime

Key witness describes beating UK chef endured at hands of ‘best friend’

palcala@herald-leader.com

A packed courtroom listened intently Thursday as Timothy “Tiny” Ballard provided the first detailed account of how University of Kentucky chef Alex Johnson was choked and beaten in a car before his body was stuffed head first into a barrel.

The testimony came on the fourth day of Mark Taylor's trial in Fayette Circuit Court. Taylor, 31, is charged with kidnapping, murder and tampering with evidence in the Dec. 20, 2013, death of Johnson, 32.

Ballard acknowledged that he was present at the beating and death of Johnson, and he admitted that at one point, he struck Johnson with a broken night stick. But Ballard testified Johnson died at the hands of Taylor.

The defense argues that Ballard, 44, is the actual killer.

Public defender Jason Hart grilled Ballard on numerous inconsistencies in his statements to police. But Ballard insisted, “Everything I’ve said here is the truth.”

More than two hours of questioning by the prosecution and defense concluded with Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Lou Anna Red Corn asking Ballard, “Did you kill Alex Johnson?”

“No, I did not,” Ballard responded.

Ballard pleaded guilty in April to kidnapping and tampering with evidence. His testimony was required as part of his plea deal, in which he faces penalties of 20 years on the kidnapping and five years on the tampering charge. He won’t be sentenced until after Taylor’s trial.

Before the killing, Taylor and Johnson were best friends and business partners in marijuana; the two dealt in “pounds and pounds” of marijuana, Ballard testified.

On Dec. 20, 2013, Ballard said he drove Taylor’s Mercedes-Benz, with Taylor in the back seat, to Johnson’s apartment on Hanover Avenue. Ballard said Taylor had “talked about killing Mr. Johnson.” Taylor did not explain why he was upset with Johnson, Ballard said.

When Johnson got into the front passenger seat, Taylor reached from the back seat and began choking Johnson, eventually pulling him into the back seat, Ballard testified.

“There was a lot of ranting and raving and cussing,” Ballard said.

At one point, Taylor and Ballard switched places, with Taylor driving and Ballard in the back seat with Johnson, “who was ranting and raving and cussing at me,” Ballard said.

They drove to the lot of Spare Parts and Equipment at National and Richmond avenues. There, Taylor beat Johnson. Taylor used some sort of metal instrument to strike Johnson.

“I was sitting there watching him,” Ballard testified.

It was there that Johnson died.

In her opening statement on Monday, Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Andrea Williams said said the medical examiner found 25 “distinct and different” injuries to Johnson’s head, including “four holes punched into his skull.”

“I heard him take his last breath,” Ballard testified Thursday, then imitated a gurgling sound. “That was it.”

Ballard drove the Mercedes back to a garage Taylor rented on Quin-Shearer Court off Jefferson Street and pulled the car into the garage bay. There, Ballard said both he and Taylor threw up into a garbage can.

Then, Ballard said, “I proceeded to help Mr. Taylor put Mr. Johnson in the barrel.”

The only thing Taylor removed from the body was Johnson’s keys, Ballard said.

Taylor used two bungee cord straps to close the peeled-back top of the barrel. Ballard drove a borrowed pickup truck to Riptide, the bar on the Kentucky River where he and Taylor once worked. There he opened the truck's tailgate and the barrel rolled into the river. It wasn’t pulled from the river until late January 2014.

Sometime after taking the barrel to the river, Ballard said he and Taylor returned to Johnson’s apartment. Taylor entered Johnson’s apartment and took about $40,000, Ballard said.

They then drove to the nearby location where Johnson kept his marijuana, Ballard said. Taylor took two black garbage bags full of about 26 pounds of marijuana, Ballard said.

Ballard said he got about $18,000 of the money taken from Johnson’s apartment, but did not take any of the marijuana. Later that night, the he and Taylor went to Trust Lounge on Main Street.

Ballard, who said he is not a drinker, had a couple of drinks. “After what I’d just seen, I was very upset,” he said.

But Ballard said Taylor “started having a good time, started dancing around” in the bar.

Ballard was first contacted by police by telephone on Dec. 26. An officer asked if he knew Johnson. Ballard said he told police that he had met Johnson, but he didn’t say anything about the events of Dec. 20.

He was contacted by police a second and third time when police told Ballard everything investigators knew about the case, and he told them what he knew. He went with police to the Kentucky River and showed them where the barrel went into the water.

Under cross-examination by public defender Jason Hart, Ballard acknowledged that he began “bargaining” with police about a potential penalty for his involvement in Johnson’s kidnapping. Ballard said police told him that he would serve 15 years in prison.

Hart grilled Ballard about several inconsistencies in statements to police. For example, in one statement, Ballard didn’t tell police he was in the back seat with Johnson. Nor did he initially say anything about delivering the body to the river.

Ballard also acknowledged that he told police that he and Taylor went to the river, and that Taylor rolled the barrel into the river. Ballard eventually said that he alone drove to the river.

“Today is the first time that you said Mark took any money out of the apartment,” Hart said.

“That’s true,” Ballard said.

Hart also noted that during Ballard’s time at the Kentucky Correctional Psychiatric Center in LaGrange, he said he is a good liar and that he has a temper.

Also on Thursday, jurors heard testimony from a police officer and narcotics investigator from Pharr, Texas, where Taylor was arrested at a motel less than two miles from the Mexican border.

Taylor had more than $10,500 in cash, two handguns, three cellphones, and bags of marijuana, the narcotics investigator said.

The day’s testimony ended with Lexington firefighters describing how the barrel was recovered from the river on a late January day when the air temperature was in the single digits and the water temperature was 40 degrees or less.

There will be no testimony on Friday, so the trial is scheduled to resume at 8:45 a.m. Monday. The defense team has not said whether Taylor will testify.

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