BARDSTOWN, Ken. – More than five years after a Kentucky mother of five vanished without a trace, and two weeks after human bones were found 4 miles from where she was last seen alive, FBI agents have taken the lead in the investigation into her disappearance.
The push forward in the disappearance of Crystal Marie Rogers on Thursday included more than 150 state and federal agents executing nine federal search warrants at various locations, FBI officials said in a statement. More than 50 interviews were being conducted in conjunction with the warrants.
“I have committed publicly and privately that delivering long-sought justice in Nelson County is the highest priority case of the United States Attorney’s Office,” said Russell Coleman, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Kentucky. “Today’s efforts by our stalwart FBI, (Internal Revenue Service) and (Kentucky State Police) partners is a major step in honoring that promise.”
The FBI operation comes on the heels of the July 23 discovery of remains in a washed-out creek bank along a tributary of the Beech Fork River, about four miles from the farm where Rogers was last seen alive, according to the Kentucky Standard. A landowner stumbled upon the remains, which were exposed by erosion of the soil.
As of Friday, the remains had not been identified.
See footage of the site where the remains were found, courtesy of PLG-TV.
The FBI, which has been working on the Rogers case for more than a year, has also launched a website, CrystalRogersTaskForce.com, to share information with the public on the case. A $25,000 reward has been offered for information leading to Rogers’ whereabouts.
Rogers, 35, of Bardstown, was reported missing by her mother July 5, 2015, two days after she was last seen or heard from, federal agents said Thursday. Bardstown is about 40 miles south of Louisville.
“The same day Crystal was reported missing, her car was found abandoned with a flat tire at Mile Marker 14 on the Bluegrass Parkway,” an FBI statement said. “Crystal’s keys, phone and purse were still inside her red Chevrolet Impala.
“Sadly, while most families were enjoying the Fourth of July celebrations over that weekend, Crystal’s family was instead left wondering as to her whereabouts.”
“My mom is a very special woman,” Rogers’ daughter, identified only by the initial K, wrote on the task force page. “The memory that will forever be in my heart is going to DQ and buying my momma lunch. We would always get the chicken strip basket with the toast and gravy to go with it.
“Since my mom’s been missing, life has been really hard. I always wonder what my life would be like if she and my papaw was still here.”
The family’s grief was compounded 16 months after the disappearance when Rogers’ father, Tommy Ballard, was gunned down on family property along the Bluegrass Parkway, not far from where his daughter’s abandoned car had been found. Ballard, 54, was preparing to go hunting with his 12-year-old grandson when he was killed under cover of darkness, according to the FBI.
Ballard had been a driving force behind the efforts to find his daughter, establishing Team Crystal, a group of Bardstown community members dedicated to finding Rogers and bringing her home. In posts on the group’s Facebook page, Ballard vowed to never stop searching for his daughter.
“We won’t stop until Crystal’s is home,” Ballard wrote in a Nov. 2, 2016, comment. “I’m not letting this go. I will go wherever I have to until this is solved. I will call whoever I can until we get what answer we need.
“I told Crystal’s kids I would find their mom, and I will spend every day on this until she is home with us.”
Seventeen days after writing that post, Ballard was dead of a single gunshot wound through the chest.
His family in August 2017 offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to his killer or killers. His brother, Mike Ballard, told WLKY the family believes the shooting is connected to Rogers’ disappearance.
“Maybe he was close in his search, whatever area he was looking in. Whoever is responsible for Crystal knew Tommy wasn’t going to give up,” Mike Ballard told the news station. “I think they walked the fence line to Tommy’s land. They knew where it was, and I think (they) crossed the fence 10 to 15 feet across in the wood line and they shot him when he got out of his truck. They were waiting on him.”
FBI officials have Ballard’s killing classified as being related to the disappearance of his daughter.
Vanished without a trace
The Standard reported in 2015 that Rogers went to a Walmart the afternoon of July 3, 2015, where she bought some food, a T-ball plate, a junior air rifle and two boys’ T-shirts. Her receipt, provided to the newspaper by her father, showed she paid for her purchases at 4:36 p.m.
Family members told investigators they saw her at the store with three of her children, including her 2-year-old son with her longtime boyfriend, 33-year-old Brooks Houck.
Rogers and Houck were later seen together at a farm belonging to his family, the Standard reported.
No one saw Rogers through the July Fourth holiday. Her parents reported her missing the afternoon of July 5.
That evening, her maroon Impala was found on the shoulder of the Bluegrass Parkway with the keys in the ignition. Along with her cellphone and purse, police found her son’s diaper bag inside the vehicle.
Houck was soon named a suspect in Rogers’ disappearance. His brother, Nick Houck, then a Bardstown police officer, also found himself on law enforcement officials’ radar.
The Standard reported that Nick Houck was fired Oct. 16, 2015, for interfering in the investigation into Rogers’ disappearance. According to authorities, the officer called his brother, Brooks Houck, on July 8 to warn him to “protect himself” as he was being interviewed by Nelson County detectives.
Nick Houck told his brother the investigators “might be trying to trip him up,” according to the order firing Houck. He also failed a polygraph test administered July 24 by the FBI, the Standard reported.
Ed Mattingly, then the sheriff of Nelson County, subsequently labeled Brooks Houck as the prime suspect in Rogers’ disappearance, though no charges were ever filed.
Brooks Houck was indicted in 2018 for an unrelated crime: four felony counts of theft for allegedly stealing more than 200 bundles of roofing shingles from a Bardstown Lowe’s home improvement store. He was acquitted of the charges last year, according to WDRB in Louisville.
The Louisville Courier Journal reported that at least three of the sites searched by the FBI on Thursday belong to Brooks Houck and his family. Houck could be seen standing near his garage Thursday, talking for more than an hour with federal agents as his home was searched.
WDRB reported last year following Brooks Houck’s theft trial that he owns 11 homes and 129 properties.
The news station reported that Nick Houck’s home was also searched Thursday, as was the 300-acre family farm belonging to their parents.
According to WDRB, federal agents appeared to have broken down the door to Brooks Houck’s residence. IRS agents could be seen confiscating filing cabinets and dozens of boxes, and FBI agents seized multiple guns from the house.
An FBI spokesperson told the Courier Journal on Thursday that a K-9 unit was also brought in, as was a dive team to search lakes and ponds on the Houck family farm. A detective told WDRB in 2016 that authorities believe Rogers was killed on that farm.
Rogers’ mother, Sherry Ballard, agreed.
“I mean, I felt that the whole time,” Sherry Ballard told the news station. “Whether they find something on the farm or they don’t, I still feel like that’s where it happened.”
All the sites searched Thursday and Friday, including the farm, have been the focus of multiple searches over the five years since Rogers vanished.
Special Agent in Charge Robert Brown, of the FBI’s Louisville field office, urged the public to come forward with information on Rogers’ disappearance.
“I ask that members of the community think back to July 3 and 4 of 2015,” Brown said. For those individuals who have information about this incident but who have not yet spoken to law enforcement for whatever reason, please contact us.”
“A hallmark of the FBI is we never give up. The FBI is committed to bringing those responsible to justice, but we are going to need the community’s assistance.”
A long-ago tragedy
Rogers’ disappearance and her father’s killing are not the first tragedies to hit the family.
In 1979, Rogers’ paternal aunt, Freda Sharene “Sherry” Ballard, 19, vanished from Bardstown less than two months before she was due to give birth to her first child. According to the Standard, the pregnant woman’s car was found submerged in the Ohio River in Clarksville, Indiana.
A large rock had been placed on the gas pedal, the newspaper reported.
The remains of Freda Ballard and her unborn child were found three years later on a farm in Nelson County, not far from where her niece’s abandoned vehicle would be found, and where her brother would be slain, more than three decades later.
The slain Ballard’s estranged husband, Edsel “Eddie” Barnes, was ultimately tried and convicted for her murder and is serving a life sentence at the Roederer Correctional Complex in La Grange, state records show. He was initially charged with a second count of murder for the unborn child but the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled in a separate case that a fetus could not be a murder victim.
The case, and the Ballard family’s testimony before lawmakers, later helped to pass a fetal homicide law in Kentucky, the Standard reported.
Anyone with information related to the disappearance of Crystal Rogers or the killing of Tommy Ballard is asked to call the FBI tip line at 1-800-CALL-FBI or visit crystalrogerstaskforce.com. Tipsters may also contact their local FBI office or the nearest American embassy or consulate.
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