Politics & Government

A dead widow, a powerful politician and an unsolved Kentucky mystery

Ann DAngelo walked slowly on the cold, matted grass in a ditch along a lonesome stretch of a Henry County road under a gray, December sky, pondering once again the death of a beautiful widow there many years ago.

Who was responsible for Verna Garr Taylor’s death on the night of Nov. 6, 1936? Did her fiancé — former Kentucky Lt. Gov. Henry Denhardt — angrily put a gun near her breast and put a .45-caliber bullet through her heart?

Did Denhardt, 61, a brigadier general, have an accomplice kill the 40-year-old woman, who ran a laundry business in LaGrange? Was the powerful politician upset about Taylor having another lover and concerned that she wanted to call off the wedding? Or was she despondent and ready to commit suicide?

Questions and more questions, but few answers even after 80 years.

“I have walked this highway many times thinking about these people and the tumultuous events that followed what happened here,” DAngelo said. “This story has haunted me for years. It grabs people.”

For the past seven years, DAngelo, an attorney in the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, has researched one of Kentucky’s most intriguing criminal cases.

Her work has produced a riveting book about the death of Verna Garr Taylor and its headline-grabbing consequences, which gripped the state and nation. Reporters from across the world covered Denhardt’s trial in New Castle, which resulted in a hung jury. And after Denhardt was murdered, they covered the trial of his accused killers in Shelbyville.

DAngelo’s first book, “Dark Highway,” is one of two out this year about the Taylor-Denhardt case.

Ian Punnett, a former radio host in St. Paul, Minn., who is working on a doctorate in crime reporting, published “A Black Night for the Bluegrass Belle” in November. He is a distant cousin of Taylor and contends that she was murdered to cover up a sexual assault.

DAngelo, a Louisville native who moved to Shelby County in 2004, said she first learned of the case in an article published in “Shelby Life,” a Shelby County magazine.

She recalled that article in 2009 after former state Rep. Steve Nunn of Glasgow shot and killed Amanda Ross, his former fiancée, in a downtown Lexington parking lot. He is serving a life sentence in prison without the possibility of parole.

“That prompted me to take a look at the Taylor-Denhardt case,” DAngelo said. “I got the magazine article, started checking out sources it mentioned and then others I found on the way.”

Her research took her to William E. Ellis, a professor of history at Eastern Kentucky University, who gave DAngelo access to his files on the case.

Ellis calls DAngleo a “tireless researcher.”

DAngelo got valuable information from many sources, including transcripts of the two trials associated with the case, newspaper articles about them, files from the Filson Historical Society in Louisville, and legal records of some of the lawyers involved.

Interviews were held, including some with various relatives of people in the book.

Mike Tracy, who operates Tracy’s Furniture Store in Shelbyville, is a grandson of Jeptha Tracy, the night patrolman who arrested Taylor’s three brothers on the evening of Sept. 20, 1937, when Denhardt was gunned down in front of the old Armstrong Hotel in downtown Shelbyville.

“I love Ann’s book,” Tracy said. “I couldn’t put it down.”

DAngelo said she was treated kindly by many people during her research, including the resident of the house in LaGrange where Taylor lived and retired Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice John Palmore of Frankfort, who attended the Garr brothers’ trial in Shelbyville with his law school class in 1937.

DAngelo’s research kept bringing her back to the part of Highway 146 in Henry County where Taylor’s body was found that cold November night after a day in Louisville with Denhardt.

Denhardt’s car had stalled on the road with a dead battery, and it was pushed down to a farm house, now dilapidated, where dirt-poor George and Nettie Baker lived.

Denhardt claimed that when he walked to the Baker house, Taylor disappeared and then moments later, he heard two gunshots.

Her body was found in a roadbed down from the house.

The mystery began.

On Nov. 6, 2015, 79 years after Taylor’s death, DAngelo and Louisville photographer Vivian Knox-Thompson went to the scene to shoot photos for the book.

“On several of the numerous photographs Vivian took that night, there is the outline of a tall, shadowy figure in the distance,” DAngelo said.

“Most chilling to me is that the location of the figure is on the side of the highway above the ditch where Verna’s body was found.”

One of those photos is the cover for “Dark Highway.”

Jack Brammer: 502-227-1198, @BGPolitics

“Dark Highway” is published by Butler Books of Louisville, Ky. It sells for $29.95. For more information, go to darkhighwaybook.com.