This column by Steve Flairty first appeared in KyForward.com.
My usual amount of reading is a lot, but with staying healthy at home to avoid Covid-19, I’ve upped the load. I recently devoured a few non-fiction books about murder cases taking place in Kentucky, one written by Gary P. West and the other by Peter Brackney.
West’s book dealt with one that happened in 1975 near Elizabethtown (commonly called “E-town”). Brackney’s account was one occurring a hundred years ago in the Lexington area. I found each book riveting and, for me, fitting into the “can’t put it down variety.”
Both murder cases, of course, were sordid—examples of the very worst in human behavior; likewise in both cases, good people emerged amid tragedy and helpful lessons were learned.
West, a Bowling Green resident, is a prolific Kentucky author credited with fifteen published books and writer of many magazine articles. He recently released Murder on Youngers Creek Road (Acclaim Press, 2020). And rather than being “based on a true story,” Gary noted, “this is a true story”… (and) “residents who have lived in and around Elizabethtown, Kentucky, for any length of time still recall it.”
The murder of Peggy Rhodes, wife of Paul “Dusty” Rhodes, a prominent E-town car dealer, took place by means of a dynamite explosion on a cold winter night on January 13, 1975, and as the murder investigation developed, facts emerged that the blasting device was initially set on New Year’s Eve, 1974. It also became quite clear that the victim, a 57-year-old woman who was a vital part of community activities and well-respected, was likely not the target.
Three Kentucky locales were intricately connected to the case. Besides the crime taking place near E-town, a whole range of criminal activities involving car stealing, gambling, and bootlegging had been occurring south of there in Bowling Green. Jim Johnson, implicated in the murder, had been a sheriff and campaigned for the office of judge in Logan County, though lost. Tragically, Johnson later committed suicide after being investigated in the Rhodes case.
As for showing his interest in tackling this book, or any other, Gary is wont to say: “I only take on a project that I will enjoy writing about and I only write about and I only write about something I think people will enjoy reading.” He has a special tie to the Younger Creek book he wrote, as he knew two parties involved, one being the family of the murder-for-hire organizer and the other the family of the victim.
Writing about a murder case, however, presented Gary with a steep learning curve. He’d mostly written uplifting stories about noted Kentuckians and Kentucky places, and his work of that kind has always been well-received. This book took over two years to finish and wasn’t easy to do.
“In the beginning I wasn’t sure what my biggest challenges would be because I had never done anything like this,” he explained. “Quickly I knew there were key people I needed to talk to if they were still alive. Trial transcripts were very important, but I needed to talk to people… real people.”
One of those crucial people interviewed was ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) agent Bob Bridgewater. “He became the ‘John Wayne’ of the story,” Gary said. “He had first-hand knowledge and directed me to other agents who are still alive.” Another big help, Gary noted, was Steve Pitt, the assistant U.S. Attorney who prosecuted the case. Pitt is now general counsel for Kentucky State Attorney General Daniel Cameron.
“I chased rabbits for months and months trying to find people,” Gary said. “I found many of them, but a few would not return my call. I kept at it. Some finally did call back.”
I asked Gary about what of a positive nature might come in the aftermath of the criminality he wrote about, even though he has encountered some pushback. “I found that in spite of a corrupt and sometimes evil subculture, a community can overcome it,” he said. “That’s not to say that towns like Bowling Green, Elizabethtown and Russellville don’t have major issues… for sure they do. Drugs and even gangs exist. But thankfully, good outnumber bad. You don’t have to look only farther than Bardstown to see this.”
As I read the book, the image of Jim Johnson intrigued me. He appeared to be a solid citizen. He served honorably in the military, took his family to church, and gained respect from his Logan County community for the job he did as their sheriff. But after losing an election for county judge there, Johnson became part of a car business partnership in E-town that failed, and he became angry with Dusty Rhodes, the original owner. An investigation showed that Johnson might have taken out a contract to have Rhodes killed. As mentioned earlier, Johnson later killed himself.
How could something like this—such a dramatic change in life direction–happen to one who appeared to be a model citizen? I asked Gary for his opinion.
“Stress causes people to sometimes act out of character, and the financial stress of losing everything with the failed Ford dealership in E-town was more than Jim Johnson could bear,” he said. “Backed in a corner, he thought he had to kill Dusty Rhodes. When that failed, in his mind, he made the ultimate decision… suicide.”
I won’t spoil the reading of Murder on Youngers Creek Road by giving any more details, but author Gary West’s foray into a different subject matter such as this has been one done well. If you’d like to obtain a personalized, signed copy or get further information on the book, call Gary P. West at 270-846-0859 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Brackney’s book, The Murder of Geneva Hardman and Lexington’s Mob Riot of 1920 (The History Press, 2014), told of the Lexington community’s shock, sadness, and anger when ten-year-old Geneva Hardman was brutally murdered while walking to school in a rural area of the county on February 4, 1920. Tensions grew wildly, both because the victim was an innocent child and additionally, the murder suspect, Will Lockett, was black.
Brackney, an attorney/author from Nicholasville, has written a well-researched account of the murder and subsequent uprising of an angry crowd bent on lynching Lockett. The story is both chilling and informative of a pivotable time regarding America’s law system and race relations.
Called “The Second Battle of Lexington (after the first battle of the Revolutionary War)”, both local authorities and federal troops defended the county courthouse, and eventually martial law was declared. All told, there were casualties (including fatalities) and stirring national publicity, with unfounded rumors and conspiracy theories not uncommon.
The book provides a powerful wealth of black/white photos, measured commentary, and adds illuminating facts about a legion of individuals connected to the murder case and mob event taking place a hundred years ago, but the author writes so that the reader feels like it happened only yesterday.
And just like in Gary West’s account, in Geneva Hardman there were folks in the community who overcame evil with good actions. Peter talked about that occurrence.
“Two heroes really stand out in the Hardman-Lockett story,” he explained. “First there is Geneva’s older brother, Tupper Hardman. His statement on behalf of the Hardman family was printed in the local papers. In it, he called for the law to take its course uninterrupted by those in the commute who sought an immediate lynching of the accused.
The second hero who stood out was Governor Edwin P. Morrow. The progressive Republican was incredibly involved in the case. Of course, he sent troops to Lexington and authorized the presence of federal troops. But the governor also went to the state penitentiary where Lockett was being held before his trial, personally meeting with and calming down those who sought to hand Will Lockett.”
Unlike Peter’s first book, Lost Lexington, Kentucky, which described, in images and words, old buildings in Lexington, Geneva “tells a single story which required a continuity which was unnecessary in Lost Lexington,” he said. He also noted that the Geneva book “could be revised and expanded… (and) there may be more told about Will Lockett, his attorneys, and his trial. And as for Ms. Belle McCubbing, who was in her yard feeding her chickens and didn’t hear a child struggling on the fateful morning when Geneva was killed… I now have a photograph of her with her chickens.”
Peter, like Gary West, was inspired to write his book by a personal connection. The Brackney family attends South Elkhorn Christian Church, close by where the murder occurred. Geneva Hardman and her family also attended there and the sanctuary was the place of her funeral.
What’s next for Peter Brackney?
“There are so many interesting untold, or incompletely told, stories from our commonwealth’s history and a new history is always being written. As for my next project, a project co-authored with Foster Ockerman, Jr., entitled A History Lover’s Guide to Lexington and the Bluegrass Region will be released this fall. The next project hasn’t yet fallen into my lap… but I’m looking!”
Check out more of Peter’s backstories of Kentucky’s unique history on his website and blog The Kaintuckeean – Unique Kentucky History.
Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him email@example.com visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.”